For Mohamed Mesrati, writing about Libya’s revolution is a homecoming, a rejoining. Taken from Writing Revolution, Mesrati recalls his father reading him his favourite bedtime story, in Tripoli, during the 1990s.
The Elephant, O Ruler of Time! was my favourite story when I was a child. On Eid nights my father would tell of the king who owned a huge elephant that he let loose on his kingdom to frolic and play, razing the houses, destroying the markets and killing the people. The inhabitants of the kingdom agreed amongst themselves to go to the king and complain about the elephant’s reckless behaviour, then settled down to rehearse their complaint.
One of their number, a man called Zakariya, was to say: ‘The elephant, O ruler of time …’ and the throng behind him would passionately cry, ‘… has brought down our houses.’
‘The elephant, O ruler of time …’ Zakariya would say again, and the people would angrily declare, ‘… has laid waste our fields and spoiled our crops.’
‘The elephant, O ruler of time …’ Zakariya would say a third time and the people would exclaim in disgust, ‘… has wrecked our streets and ruined our children.’
The kingdom’s inhabitants rehearsed this complaint for many moons, growing ever more enthusiastic and excited with every day that passed. They cried out their lines, filled with anguish at the injustice they suffered, in a state of constant anticipation of the moment they would go to meet the king and present their case.
Then, one day, they set out.
When they reached the palace the people filed into the king’s presence, with Zakariya leading the way. ‘The elephant, O ruler of time!’ he cried.
The king asked them why they had come.
The people looked at one another then turned their eyes to Zakariya who swallowed in trepidation and said in a defeated voice, ‘The elephant, O ruler of time …’
From the people came nothing but an awful silence and palpable fear.
‘The elephant, O ruler of time …’ said Zakariya, his legs trembling.
The crowd remained silent, looking at each other and waiting for someone to state their case to the king.
Zakariya turned to the people, saw the fear in their eyes, and hissed at them, ‘The elephant, O ruler of time …’
Tired of waiting, the king bellowed at Zakariya and the mob to explain what they wanted with the elephant and why they kept repeating his name. Turning to face the king, Zakariya bowed his head and in a broken voice, declared, ‘The elephant, O ruler of time, is lonely. We have come to ask you to find him a mate to enrich his life and bear him children.’
The king gave a loud laugh and said to the assembled people, ‘It is for this that you have come to me? Very well, as you wish. Bring the elephant a mate of middle age that they may live together.’
And so it came to pass. The she-elephant bore her companion a multitude of little elephants that quickly grew, while the people went on with their rehearsals, crying, ‘The elephant, O ruler of time!’
With his rich radio voice and his theatrical gestures, my father, Bayou Mesrati, would tell us the tale of the elephant and when he was finished I would laugh, though something inside me told me that this was a tale to inspire sadness, not laughter. At the time, I was yet to hear of black comedy, but the melancholy behind my father’s smile was plain to see. I remember him covering me with the blanket and leaving me to sleep.
In those early years I’d grow dreamy and distracted whenever the story came to mind. It was a constant source of fascination, a perplexing riddle my mind was unable to grasp: a king, an elephant and fearful subjects. My father wasn’t around much for me to question him about it; he was always out in the oilfields. For three weeks he would be working in Brega and the oilfields, then after returning home to spend a week with the family he would leave us once again.
In those days my father had given up on culture and the theatre, his sole concern the work that put food on the table for his wife and three children. He was a Libyan, after all: a Libyan whose stage productions had earned him a record of opposition activism. His monthly income was meagre compared to the poorly qualified workers who came from East Asia, Europe and America. Though my father had graduated from university with honours and had an MA to his name with a diploma from a minor petroleum engineering institute he earned less than a British or Japanese labourer and he was frequently driven to take acting jobs on the radio or in short films shown on TV. This work, especially the shows broadcast during Ramadan, enabled him to give his children a joyful Eid and exercise the theatrical talents he had let wither after Gaddafi and his dictatorial regime deprived him of the freedom to nurture a creative, progressive spirit in Libyan theatre.
My father would often praise God for his petroleum qualification. If it weren’t for that qualification, he would assert, he would have been forced to spend a lifetime in theatre under a dictatorship that shaped the artist into a mouthpiece of the regime. This is what he left the theatre to avoid, leaving the stage to stay out of the limelight.
London, May 2011. ■
Translated from the Arabic by Roger Moger.
Mohamed Mesrati was born in 1990 in Tripoli, Libya. He is a writer and activist, and an extract from his novel-in-progress Mama Pizza appeared in Banipal No. 40.
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Top image courtesy of Ellen Munro.