Libyan-American poet drops caution, speaks out

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

NEW YORK (Reuters) – For Americans looking to understand Libya, scene of a bloody revolt and the latest U.S. military campaign, the writer and poet Khaled Mattawa has become an unlikely guide.

The Libyan-American, who left his homeland in 1979 but has been a frequent visitor in the last decade, has emerged as one of a handful of Libyan-born U.S. intellectuals who has discussed publicly the wrenching events.

Mattawa, who has many family members in Libya and is speaking out about the rule of Muammar Gaddafi after years of restraint, has been in demand for media interviews as Americans seek insight into the uprising that began in February.

“I have no doubt that Qaddafi must go,” Mattawa said, adding that the high-profile defections of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa and Ali Abdussalm Treki, Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, revealed growing cracks in Gaddafi’s control.

“Gaddafi’s unabashed brutality is undermining any legitimacy the regime had,” he said, urging Western governments to recognize the rebels’ Transitional National Council, and prevent Gaddafi’s troops from regaining areas they had already lost to rebel forces.

Mattawa, a soft-spoken University of Michigan professor who studied economics and political science before turning to writing, has frequent telephone calls to friends and relatives in Libya as battles rage around key cities and villages.

He shares what he learns through postings on Facebook and Twitter every few hours, and a poem he composed about the revolution, broadcast on the BBC from London, has for many of his readers become an anthem for the uprising against Gaddafi:

“Now that we have tasted hope,

Now that we have lived on this hard-earned crust,

We would sooner die than seek any other taste to life,

any other way of being human.”


Mattawa, who describes Gaddafi as a “prison warden” who will not tolerate dissent, came to the United States in his mid-teens shortly after the government publicly hanged several dissidents in his hometown Benghazi, where the current revolt began.

“Even the boy and girl scouts were governmental organizations that had to show loyalty to the regime,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

Although he has often criticized past U.S. military operations, Mattawa welcomed the Western-led intervention in Libya, saying it averted thousands of deaths when Gaddafi initially sought to crush the revolt.

“Had Gaddafi been allowed to retake Benghazi, thousands would have been killed by his forces right away. And thousands more would have been killed or captured in his avowed campaign to cleanse Libya house by house,” he said.

Three of his cousins are missing in Tripoli, and government forces broke into the house of another relative last month, stealing jewelry and money and raping an Indonesian woman who worked for the family, he said.

Mattawa “embodies the spirit of the Arab American artist/activist,” said Holly Arida, who coordinates a regular conference on Arab-American arts and literature called DIWAN.

She praised Mattawa’s “heartfelt concern for his Libyan homeland and the thirst for accurate knowledge in America.”


Fearing reprisals against relatives in Libya, Mattawa initially used an alias Facebook identity when the uprising began in February. He resumed using his own name a few days later, inspired by the courage of friends back home.

Now he yearning to return and join the lawyers, professors, and business people who are among those leading the revolt.

“I want to go back as soon as the circumstances of our family allow it,” said Mattawa, who lives in Michigan with his wife, Reem Gibriel, a Libyan artist, and their young daughter.

Elliott Colla, who heads Georgetown University’s Arabic and Islamic studies department, said a dearth of English-speaking experts on Libya had fueled demand for voices like Mattawa’s.

“There are only three or four people in the United States who are scholars of Libya and who publish in English,” he said.

During nearly 32 years in the United States, Mattawa has published four volumes of his poetry, co-edited two anthologies of Arab-American writing, and translated many contemporary Arab poets into English, including Syrian poet Adonis.

“He’s one of the few exiles who have a foot in both worlds,” Colla said, noting that Mattawa’s work translating Arab poets had kept him attuned to events in the Arab world.

(Editing by David Storey)

Libyan-American poet drops caution, speaks out