Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

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Translated by Adriana Hunter

Reviewed by Bookgazing.

At the beginning of Under the Tripoli Sky, the book’s young narrator, Hadachinou, is subject to a bris; a ritual Jewish circumcision. The bris signals the beginning of Haduchinou’s interest in sex and bodies, and after it is over the narrative follows Hadachinou through his early exploration of sexuality. It’s an appropriate central theme for the final book in Peirene Press’ Coming of Age series.

Hadachinou is a curious young boy with a keen interest in exploring his world as well as his own body. With a distant father and few male friends, Hadachinou spends most of his time with his ‘aunts’; women that his mother socialises with. Kamal Ben Hameda’s conception of Tripoli is a strict world for women, and Hadachinou’s mother’s circle of friends mostly stay cloistered within the walls of their homes only opening up to talk at regular tea ceremonies. Hadachinou gives the reader glimpses inside of this world, showing both its claustrophobia and its delights. He tells the reader all about the female community, freely sharing secrets they keep close even from each other.

Even though the reader never sees events from their point of view and their voices are only reported by Hadachinou, these women are the stars of Under the Tripoli Sky. Early on in the novella, Ben Hameda uses Hadachinou’s memories of running errands for various aunts to illuminate their stories. Many of the women have problems with their husbands, ranging from lack of interest to active violence. As a consequence, they seek safety and companionship with the women of their community and have formed a tight society which operates nearly entirely in private:

‘The tea ceremony was the only part of the day when my mother and her friends could live their lives in real time and tell their own stories. At last they could talk about their dreams, longings and anxieties all in the same breath, and their bodies were at peace. I sometimes wondered how these people who were all so different were able to spend hours at a time talking, each talking about her own god, her own people and thoughts, free to be wildly outspoken but without provoking true conflict. It was because they had no power to preserve and no possessions to watch over.’

Hadachinou is fascinated by his mother, a lively woman at the heart of this female group. Much like other naïve child narrators in works of adult fiction, such as Bruno from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Hadachinou sees and relates many details that he doesn’t fully understand. His father is so involved in his religious studies that he has closed himself off to his wife, and Hadachinou observes his mother having a lesbian affair with her childhood friend Jamila. However, he fails to recognise that the way ‘their legs slide furtively towards each other’ has any sexual meaning. This lack of adult knowledge makes him an intriguingly obscure narrator who leaves the reader to piece together fragments in order to fully understand the lives of these women.

A determined interest in making sense of puzzles is essential for the reader of Under the Tripoli Sky, particularly if they are not well versed in Libyan history. The novella’s blurb states that the novella is set in ‘a pre-Gaddafi society’, but it is never specified exactly when the events of the story take place. Instead, readers unfamiliar with the history of Libya and Tripoli must make use of the contextual clues in the text and do a little detective work to understand when the story is situated.

As a reader who knows little about Tripoli’s history, I did some digging to try and gain a better understanding of the world Hadachinou inhabits. There is a significant Italian population in the city that Ben Hameda describes, and this suggests that the story takes place after 1912 as Italy controlled Tripoli until 1942. In 1943, during WWII, British allied forces captured the city. There is no mention of this British occupation in the novella, but Signora Fillomena, a Tripolitan of Italian descent, worries about being driven out of the country. This seems to indicate that the Italians have lost power by the time the novella begins. In 1945 Jews in Tripoli faced anti-semitic pogroms and, despite the presence of Jewish characters, there is no mention of these events which indicates that the pogroms have happened and may be quite far in the past. Finally, the blurb’s reference to ‘a pre-Gaddafi’ time means the narrative takes place before 1960, when Muammar Gaddafi staged a coup and occupied barracks in Tripoli and Benghazi. So, Under the Tripoli Sky seems to take place at some point between 1945 and 1960.

Now the reader roughly understands when the novel is situated, but what kind of city is Tripoli at this time? The Tripoli of Ben Hameda’s novella is a multi-cultural, multi-faith society. The city contains the kind of mixed community we are used to associating with the modern world, but which would have been relatively common throughout the ages. Three different religious cultures inhabit the city in Under the Tripoli Sky: Catholic, Muslim and Jewish. These cultures seem to mix together; Hadachinou undergoes a Jewish bris despite the fact that his father is a devout Muslim. Hadachinou attends the mosque, but he also accompanies his aunt Fella to the temple and sometimes goes to a Catholic church with Signora Fillomena.

Learning about Tripoli’s culture is fascinating, and the city is a distinctive presence in the novella, but it’s the women’s stories that make Under the Tripoli Sky a truly interesting work. Their lives are revealed in quick, sharply observed details released by the young narrator who gives us glimpses of all kinds of women including independent single women like his brave, brash and feminist great-aunt Nafissa and the sorceress Hadja Kimya. Hadachinou shows the reader how the women, who often feel powerless, never the less try to use what influence they do have to shape their lives. Whether they’re setting up small financial co-operatives, telling stories about castration, or just preserving the parts of their lives that make them happy many women in this novel try to keep themselves active and energetic to ward off the suffocating restrictions placed on them by society.

Peirene Press has translated several novellas which shine a light on the lives of women, including Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman and Beside the SeaUnder the Tripoli Sky ensures that Kamal Ben Hameda’s intriguing women are now also accessible to an English speaking audience.

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Kamal Ben Hameda, (trans Adriana Hunter), Under the Tripoli Sky (Peirene Press: London, 2014). ISBN 978-1-908670-16-8., 128pp, paperback with flaps.

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