Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya, 2020. Ivor Prickett/The New York Times/Redux

Khaled Mattawa is the William Wilhartz Endowed Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, where he directs the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program and is the editor-in-chief of Michigan Quarterly Review. He was born in Benghazi, Libya in 1964 and immigrated to the United States in his teens.

He is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently, Fugitive Atlas (Graywolf Press, 2020), as well as a critical study, Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation (Syracuse University Press, 2014). Mattawa has also translated many volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry and coedited two anthologies of Arab American literature. Mattawa co-founded the Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture in Libya with the artist Reem Gibriel, his wife. The foundation continues to support young artists in Libya through grants, mentoring, exhibits and publication.

Mattawa’s poem “Now That We Have Tasted Hope” was first published in 2011, after it was broadcast on the BBC World Service in March of that year. At that time Khaled was in the United States, where he turned his living room into a one-man media center. The poem appears in his recent collection Fugitive Atlas. It is reprinted here with the poet’s permission. Atef Said, MERIP editorial committee member and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, interviewed Khaled Mattawa in September 2021.

 

Now That We Have Tasted Hope

Now that we have come out of hiding,
Why would we live again in the tombs we’d made out of our souls?

And the sundered bodies that we’ve reassembled
With prayers and consolations,
What would their torn parts be, other than flesh?

Now that we have tasted hope
And dressed each other’s wounds with the legends of our
oneness
Would we not prefer to close our mouths forever shut
On the wine that swilled inside them?

Having dreamed the same dream,
Having found the water behind a thousand mirages,
Why would we hide from the sun again
Or fear the night sky after we’ve reached the ends of
darkness,
Live in death again after all the life our dead have given us?

Listen to me Zow’ya, Beida, Ajdabya, Tobruk, Nalut,
Listen to me Derna, Musrata, Benghazi, Zintan,
Listen to me houses, alleys, courtyards, and streets that
throng my veins,
Some day soon, in your freed light, in the shade of your
proud trees,
Your excavated heroes will return to their thrones in your
martyrs’ squares,
Lovers will hold each other’s hands.

I need not look far to imagine the nerves dying,
Rejecting the life that blood sends them.
I need not look deep into my past to seek a thousand hopeless vistas.
But now that I have tasted hope
I have fallen into the embrace of my own rugged innocence.

How long were my ancient days?
I no longer care to count.
I no longer care to measure.
How bitter was the bread of bitterness?
I no longer care to recall.

Now that we have tasted hope, this hard-earned crust,
We would sooner die than seek any other taste to life,
Any other way of being human.

 

Atef Said: Khaled, what were your thoughts about the idea of “hope” when you wrote this poem in 2011? And how did it shape your experience of writing this poem? The notion of “tasting hope” is intriguing. Can you talk about why you chose this expression?

Khaled Mattawa: As a poet I deal with sensory details, and the movement of a lyric poem often starts with elemental human experiences and then reaches toward the philosophical and abstract. The days after the collapse of [Libyan leader Muammar al-] Qaddafi’s security apparatus in Benghazi [in February 2011] were unlike any time in my life, even though I was not there. I called a friend and he told me that he never slept so well before. He used the Arabic word for taste, dhawq—something like “I’ve never tasted such sweet sleep before.” Like in English, the Arabic word dhawq refers to the abstract sense of taste (as in someone who has good taste in the arts or clothes) just as it does to the physical act of tasting the quality of food. Taste then is one of the most elemental of the senses, it’s where survival and the ability of one to appreciate the joys of life intersect.

Before the revolution in Libya, people had personal hopes and accomplished certain personal achievements, which always felt narrow and limiting. With the revolution, our sense of hope grew bigger. It was hope for the country and region and where personal aspiration and a larger human yearning for freedom were conjoined. Furthermore, fulfilling certain individual hopes in Libya was always tinged with corruption. You could never really get anything done—from getting a driver’s license to an important governmental position—without engaging the greed, cruelty and deep cynicism of the regime. There was always the sense that what you’re getting is at the cost of someone else’s suffering. The revolution allowed us—and I think I can speak for most Libyans—to be earnest and hopeful about our collective society, which is not something we’d known before. A new taste to life.

The revolution allowed us—and I think I can speak for most Libyans—to be earnest and hopeful about our collective society, which is not something we’d known before. A new taste to life.

Atef: After the uprising you co-founded Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture in Libya with your partner, the artist Reem Gibriel. Its main goals are to promote culture and create cultural and artistic projects in Libya as well as to engage in cultural exchange within Libya and between Libya and its neighbors. This initiative has been especially important after many years of Qaddafi’s repression and totalitarianism, but I know it has also been confronted with challenges. Can you tell us more about the idea and its trajectory? What does this story tell you, and what lessons do you draw from it about Libya and politics in the aftermath of uprisings?

Khaled: We started Arete with an intuitive awareness of the need for transitional culture, an expansion of the notion of transitional justice. If you think of transitional justice as a process that aims to recognize the dignity of individuals, and to redress and acknowledge past violations to prevent them from happening again, transitional culture is the cultural—or maybe even the ideological component—that’s needed to gird a wounded nation’s belief in the values of recovery, justice and tolerance. For one thing, the whole modality of cultural production in Libya needed to be changed. This was always going to be difficult in a country where the state was and remains the only funder (controller and censor) of artistic endeavors. So, sorting out sources of funding, such as The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi and later the British Council and Prince Claus Fund, as well as local businesses and the Libyan Ministry of Culture, was very important to get us up and running and to keep us going.

Second, there was a huge gap and disconnect between Libya’s artistic scene and what was happening in the arts in the world, and even in the region. Established artists lagged behind because of this disconnection, and young potential artists had no models whatsoever. Cultural literacy and arts education were extremely poor and the young artists needed help. We wanted to help artists engage in the process of restoring human dignity after four decades of brutal dictatorship, to probe, express and analyze the trauma of prolonged injustice, while looking toward the future.

I truly believe that Libya’s failure—I mean the current leadership cohort—to promote transitional culture is part of the reason why we’ve been unable to start a process of transitional justice.
I truly believe that Libya’s failure—I mean the current leadership cohort—to promote transitional culture is part of the reason why we’ve been unable to start a process of transitional justice. I mention these things to convey the big concepts behind our work, which we tried to apply to our projects. To fill the gap and the disconnect, we ran a film club, put on several exhibits of international arts, invited international speakers and held workshops with visiting artists. We also trained cultural activists and provided work for many college students interested in the arts, who are now engaged in innovative projects such as starting their own arts organizations, establishing creative spaces and even businesses. When the fighting intensified in Tripoli and Benghazi, we were limited in our work, but managed to financially support organizations that were able to persist.

We received a big shock to our system when a huge online outcry rose against our book Shams ‘ala Nawafidh Mughlaga (an anthology of work by young Libya writers). Thousands of people became apoplectic because of a passage in a story that addressed a sexual encounter. The social media blowback was typical in that it targeted the women who were included in the anthology. My co-editor of the book, Laila Moghrabi, had to flee Libya with her family and has yet to return. There were death threats and much abusive language [hurled against us]. Some of the male writers had to lay low or also leave the country for a while to write in peace. We have not given up and the writers and artists are still working. We just launched a grants program that will support young artists (under 35) plus we’re supporting two novelists, a filmmaker and a writing workshop that intends to publish an anthology of short stories by young writers. We are planning a huge photographic exhibit and arts workshops for elementary school teachers.

Atef: What do you think of the poetics and the art of the Arab revolutions, especially poetry? How do you think about it in light of these bitter or uncertain outcomes of the Arab revolutions?

Khaled: I don’t really think of poetry when it comes to the Arab revolutions. Poetry may have contributed to the revolutions, but I’ve yet to see a lot of poetry inspired by them. The Arab romantic movement [the Nahda in the early twentieth century] was inspired by anti-Ottoman and anti-colonial struggles, and later the modern poetic movements of Sh‘ir magazine and the adab al-iltizam movement (which translates as “engaged literature”) evolved in the postcolonial era and as the cause of Palestine emerged. But there’s nothing as clearly connected, in terms of poetry or even novels, with the Arab Spring. These earlier political developments took place over decades. The fact that they were accompanied, instigated and sustained by literary movements signifies the depth of the important political and cultural changes that took place in the first two thirds of the twentieth century in our region. Novels and short stories were written to take stock of those changes and poetry itself was totally renewed, technically and thematically.

It was a revolution led by logistics and technology, video, photography and documentary film, and poetry tried to catch up. As far as novels are concerned, the arc of the story of revolution is still not apparent.
The Arab Spring revolutions erupted like mushrooms. Indeed, Arab societies were charged with tensions and frustrations, and there was poetry, mainly hidden, that expressed those frustrations, but an open revolutionary discourse in poetry did not emerge before or after the Arab Spring. It was a revolution led by logistics and technology, video, photography and documentary film, and poetry tried to catch up. As far as novels are concerned, the arc of the story of revolution is still not apparent. Recent novels have appeared where the hero ends up riding the sea to Europe to escape bankrupt economies, oppressive counterrevolutions and failed states. But that’s not the end of the Arab revolution, and so the story is not told yet. A poetry of frustration is arising now, however. The young writers we published in Shams ala Nawafidh Mughlaqa expressed their frustrations with Libyan society, how it missed an opportunity to establish freedom after removing Qaddafi and also of the hypocrisy and cruelty of Islamist movements that had gained a foothold in the region. The revolutions have heightened many young people’s political awareness of the complex and multitudinous forces swirling around them and denying their freedom of expression, mobility and livelihood. This struggle is happening every day and at the level of the senses, and that’s where poetry begins. Disappointed by the hope of revolution, I imagine the young poets still see a need for major transformations in their nations.

Atef: You are a well-known and distinguished Arab American poet, acknowledged both in the Arab world and in the United States. You are immersed in cultural and academic circles in both contexts. What is the difference between the two contexts in receiving and conceiving the uprisings and their troubled trajectory? Not only in terms of the issue of Orientalism, but any lessons you can share with us based on these cross-cultural and political differences.

Khaled: In the civil society sector, I’ve heard of Western funders critiquing activists in the Arab world, saying “You’ve failed us. We supported you and you were not able to win.” Or maybe they meant, you didn’t take over. In the academic settings, it’s subtle, but undeniable nonetheless—you made us hope, we believed in you, your countries are in civil war, even worse than before. And as you noted, there are some echoes of Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong in this attitude—a sense that there is something really off in Arab societies. Everyone seems to forget their history and the turmoil of the English, American, French and Russian revolutions, as if revolutions are a kind of technology that should solve everything like a refrigerator or a vaccine.

This misperception holds among some intellectuals in the Arab world. Revolutions should change things for the better, and because the Arab revolts have not done that then maybe they were not revolutions at all. Many believe they were Western conspiracies designed to dismantle the regions’ nation states. Those who propagate these narratives deny their people any sense of agency and ignore that those regimes were teetering from corruption.

Of course, many are trying to answer the questions of what happened and what comes next by looking at each country’s particular context—how the transformation of a deep police state like Egypt differs from a fragile national entity such as Libya where the regime had left no viable institutions and no tradition of non-violent political work. I think too that the neocolonial struggle against the globalist market economy continues. Each of these nations has suffered economically over the decades in comparison with their Western economic partners who have been much more prosperous. Wages are suppressed in our region—the labor market is flooded with internal and external migrants—and the cost of doing business with the West (I include the Gulf countries here) is disadvantageous. Also, these economic partners are rivals, and they have used these Arab Spring countries as battlefields for their proxy wars. Among common people in our region, the complexity of the game makes them feel helpless, while the young people simply wish to join the stronger, more open economies of the West.

In Western academia, the problems of the West represented by Brexit, Trump, Orban and Putin have superseded our concerns, and rightfully so, their counterrevolution could lead to greater conflict around the world than what’s happening in our region.

Atef: Speaking of the 2011 poem, and what remains of the taste of hope, how do you think of this poem now? Where is the hope now, in relation to despair and fear and in relation to changes in the Arab Spring?

Khaled: For the poem itself, some people read it during the pandemic and felt inspired and comforted by it. As a poet, you want your poem to speak to humanity as a whole, to touch a human nerve beyond the context that instigated it. So that’s very satisfying for me that the poem can do that.

As to the Arab Spring, one immediate fact is the collapse of political Islam—it’s still a viable political force in Tunisia and Libya, they’re political players now, but the whole idea that Islam is the solution is finished. The extent to which people can claim that religion ought to be involved in politics is thus reduced. The chokehold that the military has had on Egypt, and the failure of Khalifa Haftar who is Egypt’s acolyte in Libya, has also made people extremely uncomfortable about the role of the military in running the nation. If you think of Sudan and Algeria as part of the Arab Spring writ large, you still have both movements at play.

All these societies are keenly aware that a new social contract needs to be written. The young artists are more critical and daring, and their criticism lays the groundwork for what the new contract ought to be.
All these societies are keenly aware that a new social contract needs to be written. The young artists are more critical and daring, and their criticism lays the groundwork for what the new contract ought to be. They’re experimenting with new art forms and imagining other facets and spaces for creativity and freedom to articulate their critique. Similarly, movements from the margins, like the Egyptian Me Too and the anti-racism movement in Tunisia are seeking larger social change, and so the new social contract must go beyond the relationship between the ruler and the ruled and include the relationship between majorities and minorities, genders and the various racial groups. I’d also add that civil society as a sector, has become an important voice in society—I’m thinking of Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Sudan—where people feel a greater sense of ownership of their societies. While in this chapter of the Arab Spring the news is not particularly good, I think many people who had tasted hope remain inspired, more practical, playing the long game, but they also remain deeply invested in hope.

 

How to cite this article:

Khaled Mattawa, Atef Said "The Enduring Taste of Hope—A Poem and Interview with Khaled Mattawa," Middle East Report Online, November 17, 2021.
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