Book Review: Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

Under the Tripoli SkyA fascinating portrait of a pre-Gaddafi society on the verge of change.

1960s Tripoli. A sweltering, segregated society. Hadachinou is a lonely boy. His mother shares secrets with her best friend Jamila while his father prays at the mosque. Sneaking through the sun-drenched streets of Tripoli, he listens to the whispered stories of the women. He turns into an invisible witness to their repressed desires while becoming aware of his own.

Received from Peirene Press publishers, after taking part in one of their twitter competitions, this is one of the books from their “coming of age” collection.  Originally published in French, this has been translated into English for Peirene who have published it in their imprint.

The book is structured into short chapters, with sections often being under a page long (which oddly, made me take longer to read this book than I normally would for a book at 100 pages). Very little actually happens and it is Hadachinou telling us about the relationships he has with the people around him and the things he hears.

Whilst Hadachinou’s father spends much of his time at the mosque (he is barely mentioned in the book),  Hadachinou spends most of his time either on his own or in the company of women, where he picks up on their lives otherwise hidden from their men.  In a pre-Gaddafi time, there is a certain freedom being displayed by the women, considering the enclosed environment they find themselves in.

There’s the Jewish Fella, who loves honey sweets, and who is the mother of  Touna (conceived through a relationship with a married, black, American Soldier who promptly moved back to the US) and who flouts convention by being a single mother.  There is Aunt Hiba who is married to the violent Uncle Said, and Aunt Zohra who is married to the  tight fisted Uncle Abdou. Meanwhile Hadachinou’s mother spends much of her time with her friend Jamilia, with whom she has a more than sisterly relationship with. Hadachinou sees this but doesn’t seem to understand the significance of what’s going on, simply being jealous of being ignored as soon as the two women are together.

I have a mixed relationship with books translated into English. For every Winemaker Detective story I enjoy, there’s probably something along the lines of The Antiquarian that I struggle with. Thankfully this book lies squarely in the former camp and certainly a publisher I look forward to reading other books they’ve brought out

Additional resources for this novel

Ben Hamida has previously lived in Libya and France, but now lives in the Netherlands. Many of the reviews to be found are not in English, so I have chosen not to include links to them (my French is appalling!)

UAE’s The National‘s review

Peirene Press’ page for the novel

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