Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

Peirene Press specialise in high-quality fiction, mostly European – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. They curate their books by theme, and Under the Tripoli Sky (a novella by Libyan-born writer Kamal Ben Hameda, first published in French in 2011) is the third in their Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series. I’ve already reviewed the second book in this series, The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik, and the first (The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov) is in my tbr pile.

IMG_1737

Under the Tripoli Sky takes us back to the 1960s where we meet Hadachinou, a young Muslim boy living in Tripoli with his parents and two elder brothers. The novella takes the form a series of vignettes in which Hadachinou observes his mother, aunts and other women in the community as they go about their days cooking and taking care of their homes and families. Hadachinou’s mother often seems oblivious to the young boy’s presence when other women are around, thereby giving him ample opportunity to listen to their discussions and gain a sense of their lives. It soon becomes clear that many of the women suffer at the hands of their husbands and other men in the community. For instance, Hadachinou’s Aunt Hiba feels the need to hide her face and back away from people in shame, even her young nephew:

She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband, Uncle Saïd, who went through life with a big full belly, chain-smoking and raining down blows and instructions on the unfortunate woman. He beat her whatever state he was in, drunk of first thing in the morning, and on any grounds. Not enough salt in the couscous or, no, too much! She’d overdone the flavouring or, no, she hadn’t put in enough! (pg, 27)

And as Hadachinou’s characterful great-aunt Nafissa summarises, ‘the only thing men are interested in is destroying with one hand what they’ve created with the other.’

They swagger about in front of their wives and children, but when they get together in their bistros and their mosques they draw in their horns. They’re deceitful and servile when they don’t have any power, and depraved and offensive when they do.’ (pg. 35)

Hadachinou’s mother takes comfort from her friendship with her childhood friend, Jamila, and the novella contains some beautiful passages as the young boy watches the women discussing their secrets and hopes for the future:

I stepped forward cautiously and saw them through half-open curtains, in the muted light of the living room. Wrapped in a single peaceful moment, like a beautiful calm sky after whirlwinds and storms, wind and rain have cleared. Simply there together: my mother and her soul sister, her alter ego, Jamila. Two innocent, well-behaved girls who wanted nothing else than to spend time together uninterrupted, their bodies resting full length on a humble old carpet and their arms dancing about to articulate their words more fully. (pg. 51)

The women in the community come together over tea and pastries, and family life tends to revolve around the preparation and serving of a selection of tempting dishes. This is not a book to read when you’re feeling hungry as the evocative descriptions of food will have you heading for the kitchen:

Fella really loved honey sweets, particularly the ones flavoured with rose water. She often cooked them herself on an old stove in her tiny kitchenette, using a slow flame to simmer the caramel made of pure spring water, acacia honey, lavender and rose water. Then she generously offered it to everyone in the neighbourhood. (pg. 29-30)

But at the centre of many of the novella’s vignettes lies the tension between the men and women in the community, a relationship characterised by episodes of abuse and violence. We hear a number of distressing and brutal stories: a man who forces himself upon his wife; a woman who kills her violent husband; a woman who takes her own life in a terrifying manner in order to avoid an arranged marriage. And this tale of a woman who seeks medical help without first gaining the permission of her husband:

Do you know what one local man did to his wife when she went to hospital to see a doctor without his permission? She was having trouble breathing, poor thing, and was often terribly out of breath. Every time she complained about it to her husband, he brushed her aside with a “stop being such a pain! I’ve got better things to be doing…Go on, piss off, filthy thing!” And when he found out that she’d dared go to the doctor, he sliced off her nose and rejected her, saying, “Now you’ve got no nostrils you’ll be able to breathe perfectly well.” (pgs. 85-86)

During the novella, there is a sense that Hadachinou is going through a period of self-discovery, and when Siddena, a fifteen-year-old black girl comes to live with his family to help with the household chores, the young boy is attracted to this fascinating girl. While Under the Tripoli Sky is a coming-of-age story, there is a distinct maturity to Hadachinou’s voice which suggests he is looking back on his days as a young boy a number of years down the line.

Under the Tripoli Sky presents an interesting and sensitively-written insight into the different cultures in Tripoli in the 1960s (the city is inhabited by Muslims, Jews, Christians and the American military). The threat of violence and tension lingers, both within the homes of the families we meet and the city itself (there are references to Mussolini’s arrival in Tripoli many years before). Some sections of Under the Tripoli Sky may make for uncomfortable reading, but as is often the case with translated fiction, this novella offers us a window into another part of the world.

Grant at 1streading has also reviewed this book.

Under the Tripoli Sky (tr. by Adriana Hunter) is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

26 thoughts on “Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

  1. hastanton

    I have read this too ….it is a window into another world and society Altho I did feel it was a bit lacking in someways ….a series of vignettes of course but not much to bind it together really …..

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, it’s more like a series of snapshots into a culture than a narrative-driven piece. An interesting book, but I think I prefer the other Peirene titles I’ve read this year (especially The Mussel Feast).

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read this one yet, but I really liked The Dead Lake. I have the feeling that first book and this third one provide windows/insight into a different culture, while the second was more of an insight into the human psyche (not that those are mutually exclusive, of course).

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Ooh, I’m glad to hear you liked The Dead Lake as I’m looking forward to that one (even though I’m expecting it to be more than a little bleak). That’s a great point about the differences between this year’s Peirene novellas and I agree with you; The Blue Room really does focus on the human psyche.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think it does, Susan. Under the Tripoli Sky focuses on the human side, the interactions between family members and some of the relationships between different cultures. It’s an interesting set of vignettes.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think you’re right to pass on this one, Guy. It’s not for everyone, and I found the scenes of violence quite distressing. Also, it’s not a plot-driven novella; it feels more like a series of vignettes or snapshots of a society and culture.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, Peirene Press do publish a very interesting and diverse set of titles; they’re a bit like a literary equivalent of world/European cinema.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting to see Peirene branching out to North Africa. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of this one, Stu. I think you’ll like the young boy, Hadachinou; he’s a real people-watcher, an observer, and I think you’ll connect with his character.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    I like the fact that this is a sympathetic of women from the point of view of a young boy. That seems very different.

    I need to read more fiction written by authors from cultures other my own.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, some of the vignettes which illustrate the interaction between the young boy and women are very touching.

      If you’re interested in reading about the culture and society in Libya, then this would be a good introduction (and it’s a quick read).

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    Enjoyed your review (as usual). I thought the child perspective worked really well, though I did expect there to be more sign of Hadachinou growing up towards the end of the book.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. Yes, I would have liked more in the way of character development/progression throughout the novella. What did you think of Hadachinou’s voice? There were times (in the early stages) when I felt he sounded very mature, somewhat too mature, for a boy of his age. I assumed his character was seven or eight at the start, and around thirteen by the end, but I might be completely off the mark there. I wondered if the narrator was actually looking back from a position of maturity on his time as boy.

      Reply
      1. 1streading

        I think you’re right – there are times he refers across time to things that happen generally not particularly. When I moved from the first section to the second, the narrator seemed older, but after that I had less sense of him maturing.

        Reply
  5. Seamus Duggan

    It’s not so long since women in the ‘West’ were treated like this as a matter of course. I always think that through each culture we see our own from a different angle. We’re all the one species, after all, and not too far apart. Sounds like an interesting book, although i don’t feel compelled to go out and get it.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s a very good point, Seamus, as there is a sense of universality to this kind of abuse. Incidents such as those portrayed in this book could happen in many different cultures, our own included.

      Under the Tripoli Sky offers an interesting glimpse into another society, but I wouldn’t describe it as a ‘must-read’. Each vignette is quite short and just scratches the surface of events. A novel or a different structure might have offered more scope to delve into the motives and consequences of these incidents, but we don’t get much depth on these things here.

      Reply
  6. Bellezza

    I’m so upset by the literature I read with Muslim characters, themes, subjects. They are filled with violence and unjustice, in my opinion, and I can’t abide them anymore. Remember The Iraqi Christ? That about did me in forever! You are brave to read these, Jacqui, and I commend your willingness to continue in the ‘genre’.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up had it not been for the Peirene endorsement, but having enjoyed their other titles I was keen to give this one a go. Some scenes are very touching and beautifully written, but the violence is distressing and conveyed in an unflinching manner (which is unavoidable, I think). Not one for your list, Bellezza! And yes, it did remind me a little of The Iraqi Christ in parts.

      Reply
  7. Richard

    I just saw “Gone Girl” the movie for some reason not ever having been interested in the novel at all, and so I’m glad to see that Under the Tripoli Sky at least doesn’t seem to trivialize domestic violence like Gone Girl does. That being said, like Séamus, I don’t feel compelled to read this anytime soon either. I do appreciate the post, though, in particular because there aren’t many (any?) Libyan authors I’m familiar with unfortunately.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Richard. I can’t recall reading anything else by a Libyan author, and it’s one of the reasons why I was keen to give this novella a shot. Plus it came with the Peirene endorsement, always a hook for me. Under the Tripoli Sky certainly doesn’t trivialise violence, but as I mentioned to Seamus, I wouldn’t describe it as a ‘must-read’. The vignettes are quite brief, almost too slight in some instances, and I would have liked more exploration or depth on the reverberations from these incidents. A deeper focus on one single example of abuse could have been very powerful, but Under the Tripoli Sky isn’t that type of book. It’s more like a series of snapshots of a society and culture, which is enlightening to a certain extent, but lacking in the depth I mention.

      It’s interesting you mention Gone Girl as I, too, have never wanted to read the novel, but we’re going to see the film later this week (mainly as it’s Fincher). We’ll see!

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. Pingback: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s