Author’s statement – Why I had to write This Land belongs
After finishing my first novel, Chameleon in My Garden, I wanted to savour more of the place to which the story belonged. I had fought a campaign for my husband’s release from prison, but, having won the disfavour of the Libyan regime, I could not return to join him when he was freed. Libya itself was still a prison for him as for everyone.
Those who might have told me more about the history of this land which had so absorbed me had sadly passed away. I regretted being so preoccupied with my own challenges that I had not found time to ask them about their stories. I forgot about the importance of their memories.
Having spent thirty years writing ‘Chameleon’, and needing to return to writing, now on my laptop, I reflected on what could possibly follow my husband’s release. That story has yet to be concluded. It was interrupted by the Arab Spring with its searing elation and soon-to-be dismay. It is a story more suitably told by present and future Libyan generations. But writers cannot resist a story. Now that I knew that what came after ‘Chameleon’ could not have form until I had fathomed what had gone before, I turned to the possible memories. This became my second novel, This Land Belongs.
I started with the date of 1922, the year my female protagonist, Fathia, was to be born. There were few clues or intimations that I could latch onto. There was a grandfather much beloved and spoken of with pride. He was the Mufti of Derna imprisoned by the Italian colonial authorities some years later, whose photograph I had seen displayed in the now replaced British Museum Library. There was Derna, a place I had visited several times, a town that was blessed with water that flowed from a spring. It lay on the North African coast of the Mediterranean. And, of course, there was Benito Mussolini who was preparing to march on Rome, just as Fatma was ready to be born in Derna, delivered by a Sicilian midwife from the convent.
These fragments of a story were sufficient to engage me in a search for more. They took me further back in time to 1911 and the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912, precursor of WW1. The stage was set for a full cast of characters to emerge of their own logical accord. There was the history teacher vexed with a dilemma. Then there was the farmer and his valley farm in Shahhat in the Green Mountains, and my memory of a sweet dessert of walnuts and pomegranates. Also, there came the eager foreign journalists, investigators of an international incident surrounding the murder of an American, and witnesses to a brutal invasion, drinking coffee in the cafes and struggling with their representations of the truth. Along with the Sicilian midwife came her brother, injured in WW1 and keeper of Sicilian bees. Next a laicised priest with a camera, and Sicilian geographers with ambitions for adventure and fame.
I did not create a staged play of good and evil actors but found there were many Italian actors whose generosity and basic goodness redeemed the Italian spirit of the time. Movingly, Moslem converts, English, Jewish and Catholic, were prepared to throw their lot in with the heroic Senussi resistance.
Backbone to the Derna community was a collection of aunts, mothers and daughters who nurtured their families throughout thirty years of oppression and war of one kind or another. I paid tribute to them. In the process of getting to know them, they became part of my own real family. On the laptop page, as in life, these people were populating my imagination, and they stood shoulders above their notorious oppressors, those with such illustrious or intimidating names, such as Italo Balbo the Ras of Ferrara, Rodolfo Graziani the Butcher of Fezzan, and Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, Il Duce.
Encompassing all this humanity was the alluring landscape arena of Cyrenaica, almost mythical in its scope for allowing a story to unfold. The Green Mountains, the Ancient Greek site of Cyrene on the hill slopes overlooking a fertile plain up to the Crescent Bay of the blue Mediterranean.The massive desert hinterland, unknown and unmapped, was a mystery. The orchards of Derna, unforgettable for the overhanging abundance of fruit trees in bright sunny lanes, and the white domes of its mosques. There were oases with date-palm trees, oak, carob and juniper forests on the plateau, hillsides perfect for picnics on a carpet of wild flowers, horse treks in the mountains, the long ceremony of tea-making and sweet pastries, sumptuous weddings and glittering brides, births and tragic deaths. However, most alarmingly, there were the wastelands commandeered by the Italian colonialists for concentrations camps.
Along with the collision of these clashing realities came a sense of everything being super-charged with energy, light, and the human capacity for charity. But also, alarmingly, with the human capacity for vanity and its corollary of inhumanity.
Coming to the final chapters, I understood I had revealed to myself a beautiful landscape that had been purloined and oppressed by a colonial occupation for thirty years or more. It was a usurpation of power and agency that destroyed the natural continuity of life in the very land that was stolen. It had disrupted ancient trade patterns and normal communing between local and diverse communities. It had deprived a people of their own unique destiny. What a terrible fate it was, to be located at the north of one continent that faced the southern shore of another, and there to lie under an alien gaze that might be loaded with either a hateful antipathy or an envious desire.
So the final chapters give the floor to the actors’ and the poets’ voices. With new independence, a sense of belonging to the land and of the land belonging was rightfully returned, once fascism in Europe was defeated, after a phenomenal struggle in which so many lives were lost.
New research on the plight of Libyan Jews under Italian persecution was brought to my attention, and I realised there was an additional searing memory which I had not included in the first edition of This Land Belongs. There were natural links already embedded in the early part of the story, and so it was natural that a second addition was written to include extra chapters in final Part 10.
I see Libya as a living organism. It is also a carpet, a pathway, a journey within and across, a longing and an inconvenient convenience, still longed for, still enviously desired.