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  • Charis Olszok (a1)


Mansur Bushnaf's al-ʿIlka (Chewing Gum; 2008) is the author's sole novel, born of his twelve-year imprisonment in a Libyan jail, and his reflection on the nation's subjection to international marginalization and dictatorial rule under Gaddafi. The novel is centered on a 19th-century nude which confounds all who encounter it, and which lies neglected in a corner of Tripoli's Red Palace Museum. Through this statue, and the novel's broader poetics of stasis and “chewing,” I explore how turāth in Bushnaf's work, and wider Libyan fiction, is depicted through its abject vulnerability and exposure to historical vicissitudes, reflecting the parallel exclusion of human lives from rights and agency. In al-ʿIlka, I examine how this is formulated into a defamiliarizing perspective on the postmodern, and on historical trauma and erasure, in which the possibility of narrative is a driving concern, rooted in existential reflection, as well as the real precarity of those who tell stories in Libya.



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Author's Note: I thank Ghassan Fergiani and Ghazi Gheblawi for their constant assistance and help in the research process, as well as for introducing me to Chewing Gum through their wider efforts in the publication of Libyan fiction in translation. I also thank the three reviewers of IJMES for their insightful suggestions as I developed this article.

1 Hameda, Kamal Ben, “Dans les sables Libyens,” Lignes 3 (2011): 48.

2 Ibid., 50.

3 For a detailed examination of these trends in Europe and North America, see Lowenthal, David, The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

4 For detailed treatments of these processes, see Colla, Eliot, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007); and Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

5 Baron, Beth, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1988), 6768.

6 Ouyang, Wen-chin, Politics of Nostalgia in the Arabic Novel: Nation-State, Modernity and Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 225.

7 Rabat, Nasser, “Identity, Modernity, and the Destruction of Heritage,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 49 (2017): 739–41.

8 Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Hurley, R. (New York: Vintage, 1978), 136; Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen, D. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press), 83.

9 Agamben, Homo Sacer, 9, 114.

10 For a detailed history of these camps, see Ahmida, Ali, Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya (London: Routledge, 2005). For a theorization of the camps as “bare life,” see also Atkinson, David, “Encountering Bare Life in Italian Libya and Colonial Amnesia in Agamben,” in Critical Connections: Agamben and Colonialism, ed. Svirsky, Marcelo and Bignall, Simone (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 155–77.

11 For a discussion of al-Qadhafi's pursuit of “statelessness” in Libya, see Vandewalle, Dirk, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

12 Kilpatrick, Hilary, “Literary Creativity and the Cultural Heritage: The aṭlāl in Modern Arabic Fiction,” in Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature, ed. Abdel-Malek, Kamal and Hallaq, Wael (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 2844.

13 Matar, Hisham, The Return (London: Penguin, 2017), 148.

14 Benjamin, Walter, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. Osborne, John (London: Verso, 1998), 166.

15 Pick, Anat, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 73.

16 Muhammad al-Asfar, “Mansur Bushnaf: ʿAshriyya al-ʿIlka al-Libiyya,” al- ʿArabi al-Jadid, 9 June 2015, accessed 10 September 2018, منصور-بوشناف-عشرية-العلكة-الليبي .

17 al-Kuni, Ibrahim, ʿUdus al-Sura: al-Juzʾ al-Awwal (Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿArabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 2012), 455.

18 Qanaw, Miftah, “ʿAwdat al-Qaysar,” in ʿAwdat al-Qaysar (Benghazi: Majlis Tanmiyat al-Ibdaʿ al-Thaqafi, 2004), 1724; Qanaw, “Caesar's Return,” trans. Chorin, Ethan, in Translating Libya: In Search of the Libyan Short Story, ed. Chorin, Ethan (London: Darf Publishers, 2015), 172–75.

19 Charlotte Higgins, “How Gaddafi Toppled a Roman Emperor,” The Guardian, 28 November 2011, accessed 10 September 2018,

20 Christopher Stephen and Caroline Alexander, “Libya's Naked Lady Offers Image of Defiance to Islamists,” Bloomberg, 13 February 2013, accessed 10 September 2018,

21 Qanaw, “Caesar's Return,” 175; Qanaw, “ʿAwdat al-Qaysar,” 23.

24 Santner, Eric, On Creaturely Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), xv. In another short story by Libyan author ʿUmar al-Kiddi, “The Wonderful Short Life of the Dog Ramadan,” the statues’ emigration may be paralleled to that of the eponymous dog, who is bought passage to Italy on an illegal crossing by his Dutch owner. In both stories, Libyans are largely absent, critiquing their marginalized state within the international community through the absurd juxtaposition of departing dog and statue: al-Kiddi, ʿUmar, “al-Hayat al-Qasira al-ʿAjiba li-l-Kalb Ramadan,” Majallat Nizwa 63 (2010): 219–23; al-Kiddi, The wonderful Short Life of the Dog Ramadan,” trans. Moger, Robin, Banipal 40 (2011): 4960.

25 al-Faqih, Ahmad Ibrahim, Nafaq Tudiʾhu Imraʾa Wahida (London: Riad El-Rayyes, 1991), 474–75.

26 ʿUmar al-Kiddi, “al-Ghazala wa-l-Hasnaʾ Tahruban min Tarabulus,” hunasotak, 11 May 2014, accessed 14 June 2016,

27 Mattawa, Khalid, “East of Carthage: An Idyll,” in Amorisco (Keene, N.Y.: Ausable Press, 2008), 4760.

28 The novel was originally published in Cairo as Sarab al-Layl (Night Mirage; Cairo: Libiyya li-l-Nashr, 2008). In 2014, it was translated by Mona Zaki, as Chewing Gum (London: Darf Publishers, 2014). Sarab al-Layl itself was banned by the al-Qadhafi regime following its first publication. Almost ten years later, it has still not been republished. Darf Publishers is preparing to do so, and I have used its pdf. For this reason, my page number references may not correspond to those of the eventual publication, which will be published under the title al-ʿIlka. I reference both the English translation and the original Arabic. On some occasions, I provide my own translations, referencing the Arabic manuscript.

29 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka (London: Darf Publishers, forthcoming), 63.

30 Bushnaf's first play, Tadakhul al-Hikayat ʿInda Ghiyab al-Rawi (The Entanglement of Narratorless Stories), was staged in Benghazi.ʿIndama Tahkum al-Jirdhan (When Rats Rule) was scheduled to be staged but banned by the security services shortly before its opening night. See al-Asfar, “Mansur Bushnaf: ʿAshriyya al-ʿIlka al-Libiyya.”

31 Al-Asfar, “Mansur Bushnaf: ʿAshriyya al-ʿIlka al-Libiyya.”

32 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 73.

33 Ibid; al-ʿIlka, 112.

34 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 67.

35 Ibid., 36.

36 al-Qaddus, Ihsan ʿAbd, Biʾr al-Hurman (Beirut: Dar al-Nashr al-Ḥadith, 1962).

37 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 36.

38 Ibid., 71.

39 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 23.

40 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 12.

41 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 34–35.

42 Ibid., 42.

43 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 8.

44 Ibid., 13.

45 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 5.

46 Ibid., 50.

47 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 50–51.

48 Ibid., 12.

49 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 6.

50 Bushnfa, al-ʿIlka, 39.

51 Ibid., 103.

52 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 7.

53 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 4.

56 Jameson, Fredric, “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), 154.

57 For a founding discussion of this aspect of postmodernism, see Lyotard, François, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Minuit, 1979).

58 Pflitsch, Andrea, “The End of Illusions: On Arab Postmodernism,” in Arabic Literature: Postmodern Perspectives, ed. Neuwith, Angelika, Pflitsch, Andreas, and Winkler, Barbara (London: Saqi, 2009), 29.

60 Ibid., 33.

61 Hisham Matar, “Tripoli Fruits,” review of La compagnie des Tripolitaines, by Kamal Ben Hameda, and Chewing Gum, by Mansur Bushnaf, Times Literary Supplement, 16 January 2015, accessed 20 June 2016,

62 Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257.

63 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 83.

64 Ibid., 25.

65 Ibid., 88.

66 Ibid., 55–56.

67 Foucault, Michel, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” trans. Miskowiec, Jay, Diacritics 16 (1986): 22.

68 Vandewalle, Dirk, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 21.

69 Ibid., 15.

70 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 72.

71 Ibid., 73.

72 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 18.

73 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 17.

74 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 79–80.

75 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 63.

76 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 18–19.

77 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 111.

78 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 125.

79 Bushnaf, al-ʿIlka, 116.

80 Bushnaf, Chewing Gum, 121.

81 Al-Asfar, “Mansur Bushnaf: ʿAshriyya al-ʿIlka al-Libiyya.”



  • Charis Olszok (a1)


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