Over the last few years Peirene Press have provided us with one of the most stimulating and invigorating libraries of European fiction. For this year’s coming of age series they have already drifted beyond the Eastern edges of Europe with Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake; now, as the final title, Under the Tripoli Sky, suggests, they have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. Its author, Kamal Ben Hamida, is a native of Libya, though, like so many writers, has spent much of his life outside his homeland. Known mainly as a poet and musician, Under the Tripoli Sky is (as far as I know) his only novel.
The novel is narrated by a young boy, Hadachinou, who seeks his identity among the women he lives with and around. “You are just a way of seeing things,” he is told at one point, “So open the windows of your eyes,” and the novel is one of observation. Hadachinou is a spy in the women’s camp, absorbing his knowledge of life from their stories. The novel is prefaced by a tale of a golden age of matriarchal rule before contact with Europeans corrupts the men and their society. In retrospect this seems as much a myth of childhood as of history. Such story-telling is associated with women in the novel itself. It begins with his Aunt Fatima:
“That night she came to my bed to tell me her usual goodnight story.”
Later, referring to a female neighbour he visits, Fella, he describes:
“…that wonderful world of madness she conjured up when she got carried away telling her stories.”
Hadachinou, as a child, exists in the world of women, which, as is made clear from the start, is separate from then world of men. The novel opens with his circumcision, something that takes place among men, but even there he is aware of the other world:
“Lost in this indefinable chasm, I suddenly became aware of an explosion of women’s laughter from the kitchen…What the men were up to was clearly of no concern to them.”
Though Hadachinou is happy there, the women’s world is not one of unalloyed joy. Aunt Hiba, we are told, “backed away from people in shame”:
“She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband.”
Domestic violence is a recurring theme. Although finding freedom within their own company, women’s lives in society are circumscribed by men. Zaineb, a childhood friend of Hadachinou’s, is suddenly “not allowed out any more. She would soon be married to an important man.”
What Hameda does brilliantly is balance the joy that many of the women still find in their life, with the difficulties they also face. Yes, it is a coming of age story, as Hadachinou is educated by the many women he observes and talks too, not only relatives and neighbours, but prostitutes and, at one point, a bearded lady from a visiting freak show. But it is also a wonderful picture of society, of the various social classes and the different races, religions and nationalities. Neighbours and friends include an Italian and a Jew, and then there is the black servant he regards as a ‘sister’. Of course, it might be objected that this is a society without men (Women without Men would have been an appropriate alternative title), but that would be to ignore novel after novel which purports to represent society but where women are absent. That aspect, among many others, make this a timely portrait of a country that we may have never seen this way before.