Under the Tripoli SkyKamal Ben Hameda
A fascinating portrait of a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change.
Tripoli in the 1960s. A sweltering, segregated society. Hadachinou is a lonely boy. His mother shares secrets with her best friend, Jamila, while his father prays at the mosque. Sneaking through the sun drenched streets of Tripoli, the boy listens to the whispered stories of the women. He turns into an invisible witness to their repressed desires as he becomes aware of his own.
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
‘This is a fascinating portrait of a closed society. On the surface this quiet vignette of a story could be read as gently nostalgic, but underneath the author reveals the seething tensions of a traditional city coming to terms with our modern world. The book gives us privileged access to a place where men and women live apart and have never learned to respect each other.’ Meike Ziervogel
Written by Kamal Ben Hameda.
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.
112pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Kamal Ben Hameda was born in Tripoli in 1954. In his early twenties he moved to France. He now lives in Holland where he works as a Jazz musician and writer. Kamal has published several collections of poetry. In 2012 La Compagnie des Tripolitaines (Under the Tripoli Sky) was nominated for a number of prizes, including Le Prix Ulysse and Le Prix du livre Lorientales.
Adriana Hunter has translated over 50 books from French, including works by Agnès Desarthe, Véronique Ovalde and Hervé Le Tellier. She has translated four titles for Peirene: Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, for which she won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize, Under The Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean and Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun. Adriana has been short-listed twice for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
‘[Under the Tripoli Sky] offers a vivid and rare glimpse into life in Tripoli during that narrow window of time between independence and the long Qaddafi years, and it ought to be commended for its lack of sentimentality about this much-mythologized chapter of modern Libya.’ Hisham Matar, Times Literary Supplement
‘Just as Hadachinou often does, the reader feels he is peeking through a half-drawn curtain on a secret feminine world in a patriarchal society… This is [Kamal Ben Hameda’s] first novel. It is excellent.’ David Mills, The Sunday Times
‘Gradually, in beautifully simple and restrained prose, his childish perspective reveals the yawning disparity between men and women and a society on the verge of embracing one of the cruellest dictators of the modern age.’ Lucy Popescu, Huffington Post
‘No two women’s tales are the same and each reveals valuable truths about the speaker, the era and the fragmented, male-dominated society… A short but shimmering read.’ Malcolm Forbes, The National
‘On the surface this is a book about the lives of women in 1960s Tripoli, and Hadachinou takes us through a colorful parade of them … but its more quiet subject is the idea of secret access and hidden spaces, both physical and those of a person’s inner world.’ Michelle Bailat-Jones
True natives of this region were savage, hairy, toothless barbarians whose rutting season never came to an end, so they mated constantly, like their neighbours the monkeys. They gave birth to many mutant monsters and left them to die, gorged on by the local fly population.
Homo sapiens from other continents called this country the Sea of Monsters, a place inhabited by cannibals, Cyclops, pygmies and hermaphrodites.
The land was surrounded by steep cliffs and impenetrable mountains. Animals, imprisoned in their solitude, roamed here alone or in herds. The ground seethed with giant black snakes which fed on ostriches and antelope. These snakes left nothing for our ancestors, who never bothered
to follow the reptile’s track, for it devoured everything.
In those days the barbarians hunted fierce wild beasts and gentle gazelles. Their tribes lived in caves and they buried their dead – or what was left of them after an onslaught by our nation of flies – under a tumulus of stones or a dolmen.
They admired birds, feared the sun and venerated snakes, which were constantly reborn before their very eyes. They depicted snakes with the sun disc above their heads and flanked by two feathers to represent sacred wings. They wore lion tails and monkey tails, and at night they decorated themselves with rams’ horns to assert their virility.
Their women were warriors and hunters by day, vaginas and wombs by night.
The priestess Maboula warned them that the sea was bad-tempered and unpredictable; she forbade them to go near it. She prophesied that a people who worshipped gold and gems would come to subjugate them if they ignored her instructions.
The men took care of the children and were heartily bored, so they ventured closer and closer to the coast.
And one day her vision became reality.
Sails appeared on the water’s curved horizon. The boats drew on to the beach and men from the north sprang ashore with gleaming weapons. They appropriated the land and set up camp, watched from afar by the clutch of savages with deep dark eyes. Every time the invaders set sail they left behind all sorts of delicacies and drinks, particularly wine and beer; and the savages tasted these liquors, suspiciously at first, but soon they were enslaved. They were prepared to do anything to experience such pleasures again, forgetting Maboula’s prophecy. And they made contact with the Phoenician sailors, who eventually set up drinks stalls all along the shore.
The barbarians accepted the most lowly tasks and became bearers and serfs in exchange for wine and silphium, the aromatic medicinal plant with magical powers to nourish the body, drive out disease, wash away weariness and soothe the soul. They no longer listened to any of Maboula’s warnings, and the invaders called upon their princess, Dido, to scratch out the priestess’s eyes to rob her of her prophetic visions once and for all. But before slicing off her head with her own nails, the defeated priestess put one final, terrifying curse on the laughing savages: ‘You will be damned until the end of time. Other men will come to humiliate and enslave you. You will only ever be slaves and the sons of criminals.’ Then she turned to Princess Dido and added, ‘You will end up like me: abandoned, a pitiful object of contempt.’
Dido had not considered the consequences of her act. The reckless drunken men took all the power for themselves, deaf to the pleas of their women, who by now were merely bellies into which they emptied their desires. When subjected to these same laws, Dido burned herself on a pyre to escape forced marriage.
Ever since, there has been an endless procession of death, destruction and invasion in the land, much to the delight of the Free Nation of the Flies.
—Extract from The Book of Flies, Anonymous
The day before.
Everyone already knew about it, except for me.
When I saw Aunt Fatima at the door I instinctively understood that a plan was being hatched.
That night she came to my bed to tell me her usual goodnight story:
Seven girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and
twirls and eats one of the girls.
Six girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and twirls
and eats one of the girls.
Five girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and
twirls and eats one of the girls.
Four girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and
twirls and eats one of the girls.
Three girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and
I always ended up falling into her arms, soothed and bewitched.
Aunt Fatima was the only person who told me the story of the twirling ghoul that keeps coming back to the house where the seven girls live. She was a widow and spent most of her time with her only child, Houda, whose every whim she tolerated. ‘Big fat Houda!’ the local children taunted. I too would tease the girl as I ran away from her through the long, narrow alleyways of the Medina while she tried to keep up with me under the scorching midday sun. I would hear her behind me, breathing heavily, dragging her feet, and sometimes she groaned and sometimes she wailed. Then I would stop and wait for her and want to make up by stealing a kiss. But she always ducked aside in horror, afraid she’d fall pregnant!
Aunt Fatima and Houda would visit for all sorts of family ceremonies. And every year they arrived with the first new moon, heralding the beginning of the fateful period of fasting.
‘Tomorrow there will be a celebration, your celebration!’ Aunt Fatima promised me as she chewed noisily on her acacia gum softened with wax. ‘Seven girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and twirls and eats one of the girls. Six girls inside a flute. The ghoul twirls and twirls…’
‘But, Aunt Fatima… are there really only seven of them?’
‘Go to sleep, little one, go to sleep!’
For Reading Groups
Get some reading group inspiration with our questions on Under the Tripoli Sky:
1 Can Under the Tripoli Sky be considered a book on Tripolitan women? What happens to those women who decide to live their lives in an unconventional way?
2 What elements of the coming-of-age genre do we find in this novel and in its main character?
3 Do Tripoli’s blue skies and suffocating heat play a part in the lives of the characters?
4 How is friendship portrayed in a tale mostly marked by loneliness?
5 Magic and storytelling are elements of childhood that can accompany us into adult life. The novel is interspersed with references to magic, tales and legends. Can this be considered a nostalgic goodbye to childhood or a reminder of what is important to carry with us into adulthood?
6 What is the role of food in the book and how does food relate to the prominent presence of women in the novel?
7 Is obsession the defining characteristic of Hadachinou’s relationship with his mother?
8 The Father is an unseen and mysterious figure, but what influence does he have on the lives of other characters?
9 Under the Tripoli Sky is set at the time just before Gaddafi came to power and Libyan society underwent a radical transformation. Did you feel that your being aware of these events affected your reading of the story?
10 Hadachinou is about to step into adulthood at the same time as his country is about to enter one of the darkest periods in its history. How do you think he will cope with the changes and the new Libya? What kind of man do you think he’ll become?
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
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