By Karen Dabrowska
Libyans can be shaped by tragedy but should never be defined by it. That was the message from Libyan poet Farrah Fray, who spoke about her work at London’s P21 Gallery, which hosted an exhibition of contemporary Libyan art.
“When tragic events happen we should learn from them and extract happiness and hope. We shouldn’t stay in a place of sadness,” Fray said.
Between two cultures. Libyan poet Farrah Fray. (Samar Kadi)
In her presentation, “Weaving the Fabric of Fate,” she described how the killing of her father in the first days of the Libyan revolution in 2011 led her to write as a catharsis for the pain she felt.
Fray published a collection of 52 poems, “The Scent of My Skin: From Libya, London and every world I live in,” in 2017. It looks at the role of women, family relationships and love across Libya, London and the places the poet has experienced. The poems deal with identity, liberation, displacement and oppression.
“The poems in my book have the message that you can grow from your experience and change,” she said. “Other poems look at Libyan history and the way Libyans are acting. Their aim is to shine a light on Libya’s fragmented identity. The country is falling apart and the poems are a distress signal.”
One of the poems in the anthology, “Libya in Blue,” is a juxtaposition of history and memory and an attempt to link history with what is happening in Libya at present. It makes references to colonialists, Qaddafi and the current era.
“The poem tries to jump in and out of the eras to make a point about how far we have come as Libyans, the terrible things that are happening now and how history repeats itself,” Fray said.
“Libyan identity is going through a crisis. We borrow from so many different cultures. We don’t listen to our own songs; we listen to Western songs. We need to be proud of the things that make us Libyan.
Libya is blue because it is the same as before. It is almost as if we have learned nothing. We are reaching out to different cultures but we need to look at our past, our experiences and our own memories.”
The poem “June and July” describes sunburn and how women feel when they were being hit on by men. “It is like being hit by the heat of the sun,” Fray said.
Fray was born and raised in London. When she was 13 her family returned to Libya where she lived from 2007 until the revolution. She described how her father took suitcases full of books from London.
“I wanted to read. I wanted to know about other people. Being in Libya it was very easy to feel that you were missing out on a lot. Reading books took me somewhere else. I got to know what it felt like being the princes of a dynasty,” Fray said.
“I thought there are people around the world who do not know what it is like being a girl in Libya in 2007, 2008 or 2009. They do not know what it was like to hear the adhan.
“When it rained it would not pat on the windows because our ceilings are flat and the landscape turned to grey. These were the things I really wanted to capture in my poetry. They are the things I still think about when I go back to Libya even if there is widespread destruction.
There are so many beautiful things and I try to make stories out of them. I try to build a narrative into all my poems.”
Fray said she realised how powerful a narrative can be when she was in the fourth grade. “The narrative of the books was Libya is so great, we have all these amazing things,” she said, “but when you see how this narrative conflicts with what you see in the real world there is discord.”
Fray discussed the challenges of living in the diaspora. “It is very easy for people to say who are you to have these feelings towards Libya when you were born and raised in the UK. I am seen as someone who does not have any authority to talk about Libya. It takes away my legitimacy when people contest the memories I have and who I think I am,” she said.
Fray said she remembers learning about Shakespeare and Western writers when she was in the International School in Tripoli. She is adamant that, if she returns to Libya to teach, she will introduce Libyan and Arab writers into the curriculum.
“We need to start claiming the best parts of our culture and heritage,” she said.
Karen Dabrowska is an Arab Weekly contributor in London.