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Libya: Don’t Look Away
On the north African coast where the Wadi Lebda meets the sea, just east of what is now called Tripoli, Libya, the Phoenicians built a trading post more than 3000 years ago. During the Roman Empire, and particularly during the rule of Septimus Severus, it blossomed into Leptis Magna, a magnificent city rivaling Carthage.
Sacked by Vandals in the 5th century, it was rebuilt and then demolished again. Over subsequent centuries, its baths and temples, its famous tile, its architectural marvels, and virtually all of its statuary was plundered.
Many of the massive marble pillars that stood into the 20th century like exposed ribs of the city’s ravaged skeleton were sawed away at the base and dragged to the nearby beach from where Italian soldiers ferried them to Italy. The French built Versailles with columns stolen from Leptis Magna. In the dramatic ruins that remain–
in what had once been a palatial hall–you can still find a curious series of 13 monumental Medusa heads that were carved into the spandrels of the arcaded portico.
In all these millennium of sacking, as if it were too much bad luck to risk, thieves have turned away from the face of the mythical woman who could freeze men into stone. In the rubble of another time, in a part of the world where women now wear the hijab, the head of the one woman whose countenance could not be endured for an instant, the Medusa, is the most visible.
Medusa Head, all photos by Forrest Gander
Khaled Mattawa was born in Libya but has lived in the United States most of his adult life. He stays in touch with the Libyan literary scene and is revered there. His newest book, Amorisco, is due next month from Ausable Press, and one of its long poems, “East of Carthage: An Idyll,” is set at another ruined Roman city along the Libyan coast, Sabratha.
Like many of Mattawa’s poems, it is concerned with border crossings, spiritual commerce, and the unstable emotional, political, and psychological products of intertwined cultures. This is the opening section:
EAST OF CARTHAGE: AN IDYLL
Look here, Marcus Aurelius, we’ve come to see
your temple, deluded the guards, crawled through a hole
in the fence. Why your descendent, my guide and friend
has opted for secrecy, I don’t know. But I do know
what to call the Africans, passport-less, yellow-eyed
who will ride the boat before me for Naples, they hope.
Here the sea curls its granite lip at them and flings a winter
storm like a cough, or the seadog drops them at Hannibal’s
shores, where they’ll stand stupefied like his elephants.
What dimension of time will they cross as the Hours loop
tight plastic ropes round their ankles and wrists?
What siren song will the trucks shipping them back
to Ouagadougou drone into their ears? I look at them
loitering, waiting for the second act of their darkness
to fall. I look at the sky shake her dicey fists.
One can be thankful, I suppose, for not being one of them,
and wrap the fabric of that thought around oneself
to keep the cold wind at bay. But what world is this
that makes our lives sufficient even as the horizon’s rope
is about to snap, while the sea and sky ache to become
a moment to peel itself like skin off fruit, and let us in
on its sweetness as we wait, smoking or fondling provisions,
listening to the engine’s invocational purr. In an hour
that will dawn and dusk at once, one that will stretch
into days strung like beads on the horizon’s throat,
they will ride their tormented ship as the dog star
begins to float on the water, so bright and still,
you’d want to scoop it out in the palm of your hand.
Ashur Etwebi in Ghadames
Ashur Atwebi is a doctor and poet who lives outside Tripoli, Libya. Widely read in both English and Arabic traditions, he is one of the key figures of contemporary Libyan poetry. Here are two of his recent poems which, as he wrote them, should be justified right (which will happen here only with a helping Harriet hand).
A situation 2
He likes to sit
as a respected master in the royal room
with his long hat and give orders.
The head of security, trying to tune himself to the royal room,
moves his head and slaps his thigh with his hand
so people can see him.
The Aud player wears a long dress.
She can open her legs in the royal room.
The Aud player strokes invisible strings
unaware that her daughter spit blood this morning,
that her husband stays awake reciting his rosary.
in the royal room.
Everything is permitted to the master
and to the head of security who moves his head
and slaps his thigh with his hand so people can see him.
In the royal room,
a dead girl & her husband suffocated with his wooden rosary.
The silver ring on the delicate finger
suggests what heavy henna
on the back of the hand doesn’t reveal.
The tattoo on the forehead,
points from a hidden corner
to a sleepy pink flower
in the palm of the hand.
It is not bothered by:
sparkling of silver,
by Berber carvings,
the narrowness of the stony window
or by the shy macula of light
on the young Berber girl’s body.
Are these birds or caravans
swimming through the air?
Neither the blueness nor those seated on beds in warm rooms will say.
Are these houses in a mirage or Bedouins
fleeing from ancient winds?
The sand and foxes alert for centuries will follow their trails.
Are these shadows of a city or a quavering flute?
A scene and visions emerge from its darkness.