Blogger Justin Bomberowitz, like so many others, credits such social media platforms as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with contributing to the success of the people’s uprisings against oppressive governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya. That he doesn’t mention virtual worlds like Second Life as playing an active role in toppling dictators doesn’t surprise me. Perhaps someday virtual worlds will be sites of political activism. After all, the FBI recently mentioned Second Life (SL) as a potential haven for such criminal gang activity as recruiting and training members; but blogger Wagner James Au says that the FBI is wasting its time and our tax dollars and provides five reasons for why this is so. Two of these may help to explain why SL is not presently a suitable platform for organizing political protests: the majority of SL users are over 30; and, more to the point, SL “requires a high end desktop computer, a high end broadband connection, and hours and hours of learning time, to use with even moderate competence” (how well I know :^).
I don’t know if these reasons have any bearing on why I haven’t found a uniquely Libyan presence in SL (Palestine, for example, does have SL sites, as my last post shows); in any case, my SL and web searches for regions devoted to Libya failed. Nevertheless, quite a few pan-Arab SL regions list Libya as one country among others (e.g., Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia) whose people would find their sites attractive – to socialize, listen to music, dance, and/or shop; board games are always present. I briefly explored seven of these sites, lingered a good while at another, and found yet another that doesn’t list Libya but does have a connection to the novel that I’m about to discuss. All of the snapshots in this post are drawn from those I took during my nine visits.
My interest in a Libyan presence in SL comes from a splendid novel that a colleague and I recently used in our international studies learning community: In the Country of Men (shortlisted in 2006 for the prestigious Man Booker Prize), written by Hisham Matar, who grew up in Tripoli and Cairo before moving to London. Although the novel ends in Cairo, it’s mostly set in 1979 Tripoli. At this time Qaddafi’s regime has been in power for 10 years and has helped Libyans prosper, but political dissidents are not, to put it mildly, tolerated.
In the Country of Men is a fictional memoir: “In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child craving concern,” Suleiman, the narrator, tells us (166*). He is recalling his ninth summer, a time when his father and fellow dissidents suffered or were executed for conspiring against the military dictatorship. Because the narrator tells the story through the eyes of a remembered boy, we learn little about the dissidents’ activities and plans. [*Page numbers refer to the first paperback edition.]
Political activism is always in the novel’s background. But Matar’s focus is on the boy’s emotional turmoil, triggered by the secrecy surrounding his father Faraj’s absence from home and his mother Najwa’s attempts to overcome loneliness and fear in a bottle. Najwa calls the dissidents “foolish dreamers” and the student protests as “only clouds” that “gather then flit away.” Moosa, a family friend, responds, “It’s our obligation to call injustice by its name” (53). But Qaddafi’s “Antennae” are ever alert to oppositional activity. As Suleiman watches, they grab a neighbor, a university professor who writes and helps to distribute anti-regime leaflets; and shortly thereafter they aim their feelers at Faraj – in the process befriending Suleiman in order to gain more information.
Betrayal is a major theme but so is courage. The two come together in the overarching theme of almost every memoir (fictional or otherwise): the power of storytelling. Memoirists, it seems to me, have a need to relive and chronicle the past. Perhaps they write for self-therapy, self-justification, self-understanding, and/or self-forgiveness. Perhaps they write to provide a different, more intimate, less mediated view of an era. All of these seem to be Suleiman’s reasons, along with trying to reconcile, later in life, his feelings for his parents and his country.
The power of storytelling appears most radiantly in the novel’s recurring allusions to Scheherazade, the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. When Faraj is home Najwa is sober; but when he’s away she drinks her “medicine” and tells young Suleiman stories about the events that led to her “black day,” the day she was forced into marriage at 14, and she tells him in raw detail about that day itself. She also talks about Scheherazade, whom she considers a coward: Scheherazade, even after she’d finished her tales, chose to continue living with a brutish king rather than accept death; she chose to live so that her sons would not be motherless (15-17).
To the young Suleiman, Scheherazade was enormously brave: “It’s one thing not to fear death, another to sing under the sword” (67). He sees his mother as embodying Scheherazade’s bravery: Najwa chooses to live and protect her child and husband – even though doing so involves kowtowing to those who would kill Faraj. As for Faraj, Suleiman will never know if his father had “come to prefer death over slavery,” if he had decided to refuse “to live under the sword” (236). In Faraj’s case, what counts as betrayal and what counts as courage remain unanswered. Readers’ opinions will surely differ. Yet sometimes betrayal and courage are two sides of the same coin – when the betrayed people and ideals are sacrificed so that other people and ideals may live. One of Faraj’s books plays a key role in the plot: Democracy Now.