Poet Khaled Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya but has been in the United States since he was 15.
Through the years, he maintained close contact with his homeland, especially the artists who opposed Libya’s longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Mattawa just returned from a visit to Tripoli and talks to Lisa Mullins about his hopes for a resurgence of the arts and artistic freedom in post-Gaddafi Libya.
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Lisa Mullins: One uprising the international community actively supported was in Libya, much has changed there since the toppling of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but the new Libya is still a work in progress. Libyan-born poet Khaled Mattawa is experiencing that first-hand. Mattawa is just back in the U.S. from Tripoli, he’s helping to organize an international poetry festival there for next month. Mattawa’s also helping to develop an independent arts scene in Libya, but he says that old ways there are still in place.
Khaled Mattawa: It’s a dependency that hasn’t ended. Some artists have been at this for 20/30/40 years, they receive salaries from the government, they perform when they’re called upon to do this, and they haven’t changed as this is the mindset they have been raised with. But many others are going off and doing different things. The songs that came out from the young people are all self-produced, without a penny from the government involved. That’s where the future is. I think the government should let these concerts happen.
Mullins: So what position did that leave you in then, as you try to kindle some regeneration of artistry in Libya?
Mattawa: Well I’ve tried to be very patient and very quiet and allow my wiser friends to speak.
Mullins: The voice of experience you have there. That’s very wise!
Mattawa: Yes to have wise friends that get things done. I’m working on the festival with a poet, and he has lived in Libya all his life and he knows how to be witty and how to get things done.
Mullins: So that poetry festival begins next month, what other culture is there right now in Libya?
Mattawa: The next step is for the artist to exercise the freedom he’d always wanted. What the artists have done post-revolution is to create paintings, and plays that support the revolution and show the artist to be really glad it happened. I find that to be quite boring. I think the next step would be for artists to begin to express things that go beyond the political moment and to express themselves and the issues that are at the core of their being, and the issues that are at the core of our culture – the Libyan culture, the Arab culture. The problems that led to Gaddafi leading us for 42 years have not gone away. To celebrate the revolution as an end to all these things is really a lie, because we didn’t get to be a population dominated by one man for so long. That’s not the only thing that we need done. The culture needs rehabilitation, it really needs to democratize in a deep way.
Mullins: When you go back to Libya do you feel any kind of resentment because you’ve been gone a long time?
Mattawa: No, in fact I feel a great appreciation for the people who have suffered through the regime and created the openings. They managed to have cultural activities that were not stolen or claimed by the regime. Those are the real heroes. I have nothing but the deepest gratitude and appreciation for what they’ve done. They are true heroes, those that managed to create a sphere for independence. Their voice – through culture not through politics – was the clean slate that they maintained for themselves. People knew that if you could speak about art and culture, you really do provide an open space for freedom. They did this year after year in Gaddafi’s time, they talk about poetry, they talk about the nation’s history, they provided an alternate vision of the country in subtle ways. As soon as people in Benghazi realised that the regime could actually fall, it was that imaginative space of possibility that these writers had created that people went to and I have nothing but gratitude and thanks.
Mullins: Poet Khaled Mattawa who just returned from the Libyan capital Tripoli – Thanks.
Mattawa: Thank you very much.
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