3 books on Libya

August 25, 2011

Although Libya and its longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi have inspired many books that sought to unravel the idiosyncracies of the country’s 1969 revolution, very few have managed to do so in a clear and plausible way. Undoubtedly, the difficulty was getting access to the country due to international sanctions and Libya’s desire to veil itself from foreign scrutiny. As the civil war apparently winds down, these three books — two focused on Libyan history and Gaddafi, one a novel — admirably capture the evolution of Libya under its strong-arm leader.

1. Libya: From Colony to Independence, by Ronald Bruce St. John (2008). Of all the books on Libyan history, Bruce St. John’s is easily the most comprehensive and approachable for a lay audience. Starting with the country’s early history, the narrative broadens considerably when it discusses the Italian colonial period, the Libya monarchy and the Gaddafi revolution, which is covered in sharp detail.While the book undoubtedly needs an update in light of recent events, it provides excellent background that puts the Libyan uprising in a broader historical context and highlights the peculiar political and economic system that emerged under Gaddafi.

2. In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar (2007). For anyone who has ever lived or worked in Libya for an extended period, Hisham Matar provides a palpable sense of recognition and immediacy in this evocative novel. He illustrates that under Gaddafi’s dictatorship, what was left unspoken was just as frightening as what was spoken. Told through the eyes of 9-year-old Suleiman, the novelconveys in powerful language the insidious impact of Gaddafi’s revolution on those who suffered under it.

3. Libyan Sandstorm: Complete Account of Qadhafi’s Revolution, by John Cooley(1982). Although now out of print, John Cooley’s account, written roughly a decade after the 1969 Libyan revolution, remains the most insightful in explaining the seemingly breathless events — as the title suggests — of that first decade. It delves into the background of the new Libyan leadership and the ideas that sustained the ideological fervor of those earlier years, ideas that ultimately transformed Gaddafi into the dictator we know today. With a discerning eye and an intimate knowledge of Libya, Cooley captured both the early enthusiasm of the revolution and its inevitable setbacks and conceits.

Dirk Vandewalle is the author of “A History of Modern Libya.”

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