On an Award-Winning Novel & the Unstable Literary Scene in Libya – ARABLIT & ARABLIT QUARTERLY

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By Olivia Snaije

When the Libyan writer Mohammed Alnaas won the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) for his debut novel Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table (Meskliniai Publishers & Rashm, 2021) it was groundbreaking for several reasons, and not just because Alnaas was the youngest IPAF winner and first Libyan to receive the prize. As IPAF judge and novelist Iman Humaydan noted at the awards ceremony, the book was unique because of Alnaas’ approach to its theme: gender identity. The narrator is the beguiling and contradictory character Milad, who is considered a “weak” man because he enjoys domestic life and allows the women in his family, including his wife Zeinab, a certain freedom in a conservative environment.

Photo credit: Olivia Snaije.

The first full-length translation of Alnaas’ book to appear in a European language is the French edition, translated by Sarah Rolfo. (Sawad Hussain’s English translation will be published in 2025 by HarperCollins.)

Du pain sur la table de l’oncle Milad was published this May by the young Marseille-based house, Le Bruit du Monde with a cover designed by the Lebanese illustrator and cartoon artist Michèle Standjofski. It was the publisher’s first translation into French from Arabic. Co-founder Marie-Pierre Gracedieu said she’d heard about Alnaas’ work from the writer and researcher Mary Fitzgerald, whose work focuses on Libya.

Besides Alnaas’ lyrical and highly original story, it is also his depiction of life under Muammar Gaddafi—the author says the novel is situated in the period between 1969 and 2000—that fascinates. As Alnaas says, much has been written about Gaddafi, but not about the generations of Libyans who grew up under his dominance. Alnaas was only 20 years old when Gaddafi was killed in 2011, but he recalls military training in school, and the leader’s cult of personality, which included singing slogans and referring to him as Baba Muammar (Daddy Muammar).

In Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table, the Italian influence from Libya’s colonial past is a constant presence, as are references to people having “official” jobs within the government, when in fact they are not doing much of anything. Alnaas uses the koucha, or bakery, as a focal point to show changes in Libyan society under Gaddafi over the years, first with the Italian bread that is produced, then with foreign workers—mostly Tunisian, Algerian, or Egyptian, doing the manual work, while the owners—first Milad’s father, followed by his uncle, are at the till.

Finally, the starting point for Bread on Uncle Milad’s Table was a recent proverb which appeared, Alnaas says, when women began to get out more in society. That’s when the saying “a family with an uncle Milad” came to mean that the man in question wasn’t keeping tabs on the behavior of the women in his family. Luckily, Alnaas says, the proverb wasn’t officially inscribed anywhere, which left him the latitude to imagine what kind of personality such a Milad might have.

Alnaas spoke with ArabLit while he was on a book tour in France. His answers have been edited for clarity.

What was the inspiration for your exploration of “masculinity” and “femininity”?

Mohammed Alnaas: I was always fascinated by the Libyan proverb “A family whose uncle is Milad,” which has been circulated around Libyan society a lot in recent years. It’s a pejorative proverb aimed at women who are not following societal rules, either in their clothes, or in having too many male friends, or in anything a Libyan woman shouldn’t do— Libyan society has a lot of rules telling women what and what not to do. Some of these rules are saved in “proverbs” as a direct order, but this proverb is the only one that’s aimed at the man who is an “uncle” of those women, and the man here is specifically called “Milad.” I had questions about the identity of this “Milad” fellow, and thus began an exploration of the character and the novel’s topics.

What was the role of proverbs for you in this book and in your work in general?

MA: They are the inspiration for the novel and provide context for the topic at hand. The main proverb, as I said before, was the main inspiration for the novel; I found it needed context, a story, so thus the novel was created. The novel won’t be anything without them, because they are the flour that needed to be turned into bread.

Why did Milad have to be a baker—and I read that you needed to master the art of baking to help you to get started on the book?

MA: If I still can’t answer this question, it’s because I don’t know the answer. It just had to be a baker, maybe because Milad himself was the human “bread”—he was kneaded by society, and he resisted sometimes, but in the end, he was shaped. And yes, after I knew that Milad had to be a baker, I tried first writing the novel without having anything to do with baking, but I failed miserably twice; I started baking simple breads, however Milad needed more than just simple breads. I won’t say I mastered the art of baking, but I sure went a long way from not knowing anything about it to baking sourdough bread, Neapolitan pizzas, French baguettes, focaccia, Libyan breads, croissants, and pain au chocolat.

How present in daily life are the traces left behind by Italian colonialism? In your book, they appear to have left only positive traces.

MA: The novel was narrated by a simple man who doesn’t know a lot about the Italian Fascist colonial times, and the reader should know this. To mark a trace as positive, one should know the context first. If you say that making new kinds of bread is a positive trace, one should know whether Libyans ever needed that positive trace? I don’t think they did, and this applies to everything else, and I mean everything—the change that comes from colonialism and apartheid of other people is not a positive change. One should know that the Italian colonial times, especially the fascist period, was no picnic for Libyans. That being said, we’re living in a post-colonial society that forgot about these times. Now, I see Italian colonialism present in everything in Libya, even in the civil war and the troubles of the last few years. If you trace it back, you will find that the occupation of Libya by the Italians, and the apartheid of the Libyan people to replace them with settlers, is always the number one reason [for Libya’s troubles]. It’s not the only reason, but it is the first one. I used to believe that Gaddafi was the reason, but even Gaddafi was a byproduct of post-colonial Libya.

When Milad and his wife Zeinab spend time in Tunisia, it symbolizes freedom for them, a place where they can be themselves. Can you talk a little about this and the importance of Tunisia? Or would they have felt free in any other country as well?

MA: Tunisia doesn’t just symbolize freedom for Milad, Zeinab, and other Libyans, it was historically a safe haven for Libyans from all walks of life from the tyranny of the Ottoman rulers, Italian occupiers, and Gaddafi, and was the place where they got advanced religious learning, and the place where they still visit for medical purposes or just get out of the heaviness of life in Libya. It was, and still is, the place where most Libyans feel connected to. It’s rare to find a street in Tunisia that doesn’t have a Libyan connection, be it Libyan migrants or Tunisians of Libyan descent. Milad chose Tunisia because of its proximity, and because in the nineties it was the only country that was open to Libyan nationals after the international blockade on Libya, when it was a “rogue state.” Milad and Zeinab could have been free in Egypt, but it wouldn’t have been the same kind of freedom they experience in Tunisia.

Zeinab is a very strong character, do you see yourself in a future book putting yourself into a female character?

MA: Why not? I don’t think about characters as females and males, I only think about them as what they offer to me in terms of understanding and in terms of the story. For me, the story comes before anything else, and if I found the story interesting and if the story needed a female lead, I would put myself to the task.

Did you grow up, like Milad, surrounded by women?

MA: I grew up surrounded by both men and women. God blessed me indeed like Milad with four sisters, and he blessed me with a brother as well. I was raised by my older sister, because my mother had too much on her plate. In Libya and a lot of Arab countries, the oldest sister normally takes the job of the mother, especially if she is a lot older than her siblings; the oldest brother, too. That being said, my oldest sister Hana had a lot of influence on me as a child, so that she was practically my mother. Through her and my other sisters, I got to understand the reality of life for women in Libya. But unlike with Milad, my father and the rest of the male figures of the family also had an impact on me. And unlike Milad, I never was forced to do something, maybe because my father saw me as the “prodigy,” the child at the top of his class, so he let me be, and I became isolated from society and devoted to learning, and maybe that space helped me to just start thinking about society itself. I learned a lot about the power dynamics of Libyan society by just observing it from a distance.

Can you describe the literary scene in Libya today? How did Libyans react to your book and is there censorship? You left temporarily for Tunisia after its publication?

MA: Libya is an unstable state, it’s normal for unstable states to have unstable societies, that’s just the way things are. The literary scene in Libya is also unstable; however, this state has given birth to a lot of promising writers. It’s too early to judge the scene, since it is in a transitional phase, a transition from Gaddafi’s stronghold to a more liberated approach to literature.

My novel wasn’t legally censored, there is no “official” order to ban it, so technically it could be sold. However, due to the sensitivity of its topics and the way it was written, and also due to the factor of being it becoming a “famous” novel after winning the IPAF, some local militias forced bookstores not to sell it. I left the country before all the troubles started, because I knew if the novel was to win the IPAF, a backlash on social media would happen. But I returned safely to the country months after everything calmed down. It is, as I said, an unstable state that one has to maneuver. Censorship is still present, sometimes a state censorship and sometimes a societal one, and other times just certain groups practice censorship. Censorship could be about anything; however, I have books of short stories that I find much more worthy of censorship than the novel, and they are sold in book shops. But these books didn’t win awards.

What have reactions been in the rest of the Arab world?

MA: Same as Libya: some liked it, others didn’t, some found it offensive, others found it naïve. You know, the usual critique.

Will your book be translated into Italian?

MA: Inshallah. Or as my Italo-libico professor says: Se Dio vuole.

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris.

Read more:

Alnaas’ short story “The Cactus,” tr. Rana Asfour, appears in Stories from the Center of the World: New Middle Fiction.

Excerpts from the novel, tr. Rana Asfour, on The Markaz Review.

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