Kamal Ben Hameda’s Under the Tripoli Sky – which has been nominated for various worldwide prizes – is Peirene Press’ third publication of 2014, and their fifteenth title in total. It is the final book in their ‘Coming of Age’ series, and presents ‘a fascinating portrait of a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change’. Under the Tripoli Sky has been translated from its original French by Adriana Hunter.
The novella takes place in Libya’s capital city during the 1960s, when it was ‘a sweltering, segregated society’. The extract which Hameda has chosen to open Under the Tripoli Sky with, from The Book of Flies, sets the tone of the piece immediately: ‘The natives of this region were savage, hairy, toothless barbarians whose rutting season never came to an end, so they mated constantly, like their neighbours the monkeys’. Hameda’s work is very dark in terms of its setting: ‘The land was surrounded by steep cliffs and impenetrable mountains… The ground seethed with giant black snakes which fed on ostriches and antelope’.
Under the Tripoli Sky is told from the first person perspective of Hadachinou, a lonely young boy living in Tripoli. From the first, his narrative voice is strong, as is the way in which he presents things: ‘I walked through the rooms filled with silence and a thousand motes of dust rising in sunbeams, spiralling steadily in apparent chaos towards a secret, absent centre’. The majority of the scenes which unfold are vividly imagined. There is a sense of gritty darkness from the beginning, when we realise, along with our protagonist, that Hadachinou’s family have been preparing for the circumcision of he and his brothers. His naivety as a young character shines through here; upon the act, he says, ‘only now, at last, do I gauge the extent of the threat and try to get away’.
The real strength in Under the Tripoli Sky comes with the way in which Hameda demonstrates how bleak the city – and, indeed, Libya as a whole – was for its female inhabitants. The rigid patriarchal society of the mid-twentieth century makes no bones about the way in which women are used only to keep the population going. The men have not yet learnt to respect them, and the women are made to feel inferior through their actions. Through Hadachinou, who watches those around him, Hameda shows the importance of women in Tripoli at the time; how much work they were involved in to prepare just a single meal, for example, and how they tended so lovingly to their families for no thanks whatsoever. Violence and fear are woven into Hadachinou’s life, and all of the women around him have something to be frightened about. His Aunt Hiba, for example, ‘didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband… He beat her whatever state he was in, drunk or first thing in the morning, and on any grounds’.
Whilst Under the Tripoli Sky is not the strongest novella on the Peirene list, it is both thought-provoking and powerful, and really does give a taste of Libyan life during the turbulent 1960s.