REVIEW: UNDER THE TRIPOLI SKY, BY KAMAL BEN HAMEDA, TRANSLATED BY ADRIANA HUNTER (2014)

For the majority of my existence, I have preferred the company of women to that of other men. I’m not going to speculate or philosophise about the reasons behind this, as it’s difficult not to fall into generalisations, and this is a book review blog, not an exercise in armchair self-psychologising. It’s just, this is my preference. For the majority of my existence, I have also been a voracious reader. So it was shocking to realise, halfway through reading Under the Tripoli Sky, that this was the first book I’d ever read (barring Roald Dahl’s The Witches) where the cast is entirely female, with the sole exception of the male protagonist and narrator. I felt like Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine.

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(Of course, being a cis straightish white guy, it’s not at all rare for me to see “people like me” in books and films and so on, but this felt different, and I savoured it.) (Also, I’m pretty sure Christian Bale says “That’s me, that!”, not “That’s me, Dad!”)

The sex ratio of Under the Tripoli Sky is all the more remarkable because this is a boy’s coming of age tale–a kind of narrative where male best friends, brothers, and father figures usually play a key role. Think Stand by Me, Moonlight, Superbad, City of God. And a kind of narrative where women and girls are very often confined to the part of love interest. Not so in Under the Tripoli Sky, where Hadachinou–a boy on the very cusp of adolescence–has no friends his age and no brothers, and his father is so devout he’ll shut himself in his rooms to pray whenever he’s home from work. Instead, Hadachinou learns about sex, relationships, religion, history, and identity from his mother, his mother’s domestic servant Siddena, his million aunties (white and Berber, single and married, housewives and sorceresses), and, in the novella’s strangest chapters, even a circus freak, a “face woman” named Narcissus.

Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 09.17.09Another key way way in which Under the Tripoli Sky diverges from most coming of age tales is that it’s relatively plotless. Most coming of age tales have a very clear, cozily predictable structure, and you can clearly track the protagonist’s progression on the road to adulthood. Here, instead, as in real life, Hadachinou’s path to adulthood meanders, and he sometimes seems to turn back on his steps, sometimes takes gigantic leap forwards, sometimes keeps going back to the same thing you’d think he’s already learned about, sometimes figures things out not as they happen, but later. I know some readers dislike plotlessness, but it’s worth pointing out that this is a very short book (just under 100 pages), that it contains loads of shorter stories with actual plots (spanning a wide range of genres, from mythology to gothic revenge dramas to tragic stories of social injustice), and that it’s just nice to hang out with all these interesting characters, and spend time in a world–1960s Tripoli, just before Gaddafi’s rise to power–that most readers will probably find unfamiliar, and which the author does a great job evoking.

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 08.43.31However, it would be dishonest of me not to bring up the one thing that made me uncomfortable about this book, which is the author’s attitude towards religion. Specifically, my takeaway is that the author views organised religion as little more than an instrument to oppress women (as opposed to a weirder, bloodier pagan cult that a few of the book’s women more or less secretly worship, as they reveal in some of the book’s best and most memorable passages). It is of course true that organised religion has often been used and continues to be used for this purpose, and it’s important to talk about it. But, in the wider historical context of the early twenty-first century, and within the context of a book that is otherwise rather nuanced, the author’s perspective struck me as jarringly reductive. Especially considering that the book is set in a predominantly Muslim society. There’s already so much Islam-bashing going around, that, though it is important to talk about the religious oppression of women–in Islamic as well as Christian as well as other societies–I think Under the Tripoli Sky could have done with a bit more nuance here. (However, I’ll admit it’s possible I’VE misinterpreted the book’s take on religion/Islam–if you’ve read the book and think I got it wrong, I’d be very interested in hearing your interpretation, so leave a comment!)

Other than that though–this is the third super-interesting book I’ve read in less than a month from Peirene Press, after The Empress and the Cake and The Mussel Feast. It seems they’re incapable of publishing something that isn’t both unusual and compelling. I recommend all three books, and I’m sure I’ll continue to recommend Peirene books in the near future!

Finally, I’d like to end on a request. If you know more good books set in Libya, could you recommend them in the comments? Libya was an Italian colony between 1911 and 1943, and we Italians barely get taught about it at school or even encounter much in the way of books or films that look even indirectly at the impact of Italian colonisation on the country (as this book does a few times). In fact, if you can recommend good books about or set in our other ex-colonies (particularly Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia), I’d be grateful. I’d like to learn more about the subject–I know we did horrific things there, but I’m sure there’s a lot that I don’t know as well. I should say I’ve already read Hisham Matar’s The Return (and his other book is already on my list), as well as Wu Ming 2 and Antar Mohamed Marincola’s Timira.

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