Alessandro Spina - 'The Confines of the Shadow' are among the most significant achievements of 20th century fiction and stand unchallenged as the only multi-generational epic about the European experience in North Africa


Alessandro Spina, The Confines of the Shadow, Trns. by André Naffis-Sahely, Darf Publishers, 2015.
Volume 2 will appear in the Fall of 2016, with Volume 3 to follow in 2017.


"Civilisation," muses the fretful wife of an Italian governor in early-1920s Libya, means no more than "the rubble on which others will build another edifice once they've reconquered their freedom".
Even if they did not take place mostly in Benghazi, these tales of an Arab land under European rule would still have a salutary relevance today. Whatever happens in the Westernised city, "a graceful little fable fenced off from the outside world", in the desert hinterland, tribal traditions that "nobody could uproot" hold firm. Cameron, Sarkozy and their allies could have profitably read these stories of colonial hubris and nemesis in Libya before they ousted Gaddafi.
"Alessandro Spina" was the pen-name of Basili Shafik Khouzam, a Syrian Christian born in Italian-occupied Benghazi in 1927. After study in Italy, he managed the family textile factory in Libya until Gaddafi's revolution drove him into exile in Lombardy. During and after his business career, he wrote novels and stories that drew on the Italian invasion of 1911 and its bloody aftermath to reflect on the forced encounter between cultures.
Heroically, André Naffis-Sahely has now begun to translate Spina's vast narrative patchwork of Italy's Libyan adventure. This first instalment of three gathers works written after 1964: two short novels, The Young Maronite and The Marriage of Omar, and a story: "The Nocturnal Visitor".
Don't expect from Spina polished late-imperial romance of the sort that fans of the twilight-of-the-Raj school, from Paul Scott to Vikram Seth, know and love. True, he does create Forsterian figures, anguished doubters torn between two worlds: Hassan, or Captain Martello, whose "identity crisis" drives him to vanish amid the ruins of ancient Cyrene. Repeatedly, the Italian officer class discovers that "the other's truth imperils our own".
But these stories also experiment with alternatives to realism. So The Young Maronite begins with a lurid variant of an Arabian Nights tale, as the child bride of mighty but lonely Hajji Semereth falls for a servant boy. Interrupting this retro yarn, the Italians often converse in stilted comedy-of-ideas dialogue – somewhere between Shaw and Pirandello. Meanwhile, Spina's favourite metaphor depicts colonial life as an opera: part-Verdi, part-Rossini, part-Mozart, played out as melodrama on a "little golden stage" of deluded privilege.
Even though Naffis-Sahely tracks these shifts of register with skill, you feel that Spina may be finding his feet as a narrator. The Marriage of Omar achieves a more fluent style, as it explores the dialectical intimacy of ruler and ruled. "Oppression is an injustice," reflects governor Alonzo, "and injustice is the fatal link that binds us." - Boyd Tonkin


In the opening of Alessandro Spina’s novel The Nocturnal Visitor (1979), night is falling on Sheikh Hassan’s home in a valley in eastern Libya so small that it fits “in the hollow of a hand.” The sheikh is ready to embark upon his reading, a nightly voyage he takes with his books as “enigmatic traveling companions.” But his reveries are troubled: A crime has been committed in his home. What follows is a series of doubles and double-crosses, in which guilt shifts with each new revelation—a plot that could have sprung from one of Sheikh Hassan’s treasured books. A boy in his household, accused of trying to sleep with his sister, is exiled from the valley. In town, he finds another boy who bears a striking resemblance to him and lures him back home to be punished in his place. In doing so, he unearths their secret, shared parentage, and commits an even worse crime. Most of the characters in The Nocturnal Visitor discover that their identity—as son, sibling, father—is not what it seemed. Just as the narrative reaches its tragic climax, it abandons the personal and fantastic and enters modern Libyan history. It’s 1927, the beloved valley is occupied by advancing Italian forces, and the sheikh must slip away in the night, an exile joining the resistance.
The Nocturnal Visitor has many characteristics of Spina’s fiction: the inspiration drawn from Arabic culture (in this case partly from the great medieval itinerant scholar Ibn Khaldun, repeatedly quoted by the sheikh); the view of literature as a voyage of discovery, and of historical change as irredeemably violent; the possibility of parallel identities. With this last characteristic especially, Spina was borrowing from his own life, for he had several identities of his own. He was born Basili Shafik Khouzam in Benghazi in 1927, the son of a Syrian Maronite who relocated to Libya to find his fortune just as the Italians wrestled the province from the Ottoman Empire. At age 12, he was sent from the Italian colony in Libya to Milan for his education, where he conceived a passion for theater, opera, and literature. He returned to Benghazi to run the family textile business in 1953. He lived independently (he married once, but it didn’t work out), and his job provided him with a good livelihood and ample opportunity to observe Libyan society. In 1954, he penned his first story, set in Libya’s eastern province of Cyrenaica. He would write of nothing else but Libya for the next 40 years, even after he had to leave the country in 1979 and retire to a villa in Lombardy. It would be an understatement to say that Spina, who died in 2013, took his time with his fiction. Spina belonged to a set of privileged, wandering, mercantile minorities whose identities could not be reduced to nationalities, and who have been all but swept out of the Middle East by xenophobia, conflict, and ethnic cleansing. Spina aspired to cosmopolitanism but inverted its usual polarities: He liked to shock his Italian friends by telling them that he had “un-provincialized” himself by moving from Milan to Benghazi. His influences and references range from Proust to The Thousand and One Nights to the fifth-century Greek philosopher and bishop Synesius of Cyrene. But for all his cosmopolitanism, Spina was not interested in universalism. What he valued, above all, was being unique. He was a Catholic moved by the daily presence of the divine in traditional Muslim society; a successful industrialist who viewed modernization with skepticism and melancholy; a critic of colonialism who was also dismissive of superficial tiers-mondisme; and a scathing critic of the silence of all Italian political factions regarding the country’s colonial crimes. The nom de plume he adopted—spina means “thorn”—suited him perfectly: The Italian he wrote in is exquisite but prickly. His sentences are thickets, dense and erudite, demanding to be reread. But his sharp, poetic images lodge instantly in one’s memory. “The cold hand of that old man an unbreakable dam” is how he describes the severe and orthodox teacher who curbs the young Sheikh Hassan’s flowing curiosity in The Nocturnal Visitor. Spina abhorred shortcuts and banality—journalists, whom he viewed as purveyors of the commonplace, were his bêtes noires. And he didn’t think of difference as something to be dismissed or overcome. “Nothing is more fruitful and more vital than the irreconcilable,” he wrote. Spina can be counted among a small group of expatriate writers who are hard to classify: Home is a place they have made for themselves at the intersection of East and West. One thinks of Paul Bowles in Morocco, or of Albert Cossery, who was born in Cairo of a Francophone Orthodox Levantine family in 1913, moved to Paris at 17, and then spent the next half-century writing wonderful satirical novels in French that are not only set in Egypt but are also deeply Egyptian in their cynicism and humor. There is also the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, whose Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) is a deceptively lighthearted gem written in English and featuring a penniless upper-­class layabout bumbling around Nasser’s Cairo. These writers have never found a place in the Arabic literary canon, not only because of linguistic barriers, but also because they have little respect for nationalist orthodoxies. And they haven’t always found the audience they deserve in the West.
* * * Spina’s opus is the colonial epic The Confines of the Shadow, a cycle of 11 novels and short-story collections that offers a deep and singular account of the great historical fractures that preceded the establishment of Moammar El-Gadhafi’s ­Jamahiriya in 1977. A first installment, In Lands Overseas, containing three novels—The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar, and The Nocturnal Visitor—set during the Italian conquest and early occupation from 1911 to ’27, is now available from Darf in a translation by the poet André Naffis-Sahely. Two further installments focus on the brief golden age of the Italian colony, in the 1930s, and on the period of independence leading up to Gadhafi’s bloodless coup against King Idris in 1969. The Confines is a reminder, among many other things, of the radical transformations that Arab countries experienced in the 20th century—and that have continued to the present day, since Libya after Gadhafi’s fall has become a terrible new place. In his lifetime, Spina saw more than one world end. When he realized that the establishment, development, and collapse of Italy’s Libyan colony were to be the focus of his life’s work, he began reading everything he could find on the subject. This research informs his first novel, The Young Maronite (1973), in particular. In it, we are treated to jaw-dropping quotations from Italian officials following the 1911 invasion (these have been removed from Darf’s translation—“a fairly daring choice,” writes Naffis-Sahely, intended to keep the flow of Spina’s prose unimpeded). In February 1912, Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti told the Italian Parliament, to applause: 
“I wish with all my heart that the world may have only colonial wars, because colonial war means the civilization of populations that would otherwise go on in barbarism.” It is estimated that the concentration camps set up in 1931 to finally vanquish the rebellion in Cyrenaica killed between 40,000 and 70,000 residents of that region. Supporters of the war celebrated their homeland’s new quarta sponda (fourth shore), while the opposition mocked the conquest of a scatolone di sabbia (big box of sand). Italian newspapers described the invasion in the excitable language of rape: “We have all throbbed with resurgent pride, following with the eye of the soul our generals and admirals as they subject land and sea to their crude wishes.” Libyan resistance erupted and would last another two decades. The Italians responded with bloody, indiscriminate reprisals. The Young Maronite approaches the question of colonialism from all angles, as it were: historical, allegorical, psychological, and satirical. It weaves together an Oriental tale of a powerful merchant and his unfaithful child bride; the stylized conversations of Italian officers; and the story of a young Maronite immigrant with a business to run, an irresponsible brother, a loyal servant, and a tiresome uncle. Spina’s first aspiration was to be a playwright, and the theater is one of his principal metaphors for the colony—a stage across the sea on which Italians act out their fantasies. This vision seems to presage the work of Edward Said, with its emphasis on the rhetorical and representational violence that provides the intellectual underpinning of colonialism. But Spina is less interested in the way that the arts and scholarship can serve political power and more in the way that individuals react when another culture, distinct and self-sufficient, poses a challenge to their identity. He perfectly captures the twisted logic of colonialism past and present, which to justify itself first insists on a fundamental difference between “us” and “them,” and then insists on annihilating that difference. But Spina was a product of the Italian colony—­he owed it his education and his inspiration, what he called his destino—so he was interested in more than just condemning it. He reserves his greatest contempt for those foreigners who have no interest in Libya, who either don’t seem to notice it (such as the professor who arrives in Africa “like he had moved from one floor to another”) or who want to destroy it (such as the official who speaks optimistically of the day when Libyan society—a building from which “we remove a stone every day”—will collapse). Spina saves his sympathy for those who wish to force their way into Libyan culture, even as they know their wish to be foolish and culpable. More than once, he compares the distance between natives and colonizers to that between audience and actors. Captain Martello (his name, meaning “hammer,” suits him well) is seemingly driven mad by his unreasonable desire to be granted a role within local society. A fellow officer later says of him: “But what estranged him from us? Encountering a world governed by different laws, the legitimacy of such a society, the irredeemable sin of our attempt to destroy it? It’s as if he’d stumbled into an opera house for the first time in his life and was confronted with a reality that followed its own rules: Instead of sitting back and enjoying the show, he suffered an identity crisis and could no longer draw any comfort from being a spectator.”
In The Young Maronite, the deranged Martello arranges to have his local antagonist arrested. But even as the man awaits execution, Martello cannot get him to answer his questions. Instead of playing the leading role in his dream scene, the colonizer is stuck in a monologue. Although all-powerful, he remains unacknowledged. The two characters have only one thing in common: “They were acting on a strongly inclined stage,” Spina writes, slipping toward “the well of the death.”
* * * Spina’s prose itself is theatrical. He can set the stage quickly, whether writing about Arab countries where “the police [are] as observant as a mother” or a spacious office with that “patina of neglect that in Africa ends up vengefully reaching all pretentious surroundings.” His stories have great beginnings and endings, the curtain snapping open and shut upon dramatic scenes; his characters make memorable entrances. Here’s one: “Thin, nimble, nearly eighty, moneyed, troubled by multiple cravings, not even death dared bar his way.” Of a shortsighted secondary character, Spina writes: “His myopia forced him to narrow his eyes and the mind ended up making the same movement; he always feared something was being hidden from him.” Spina’s descriptions are sharp and elliptical, but his dialogue can belabor the point. Most everyone—merchants, Italian officers, married couples going to bed—is improbably cerebral, eloquent, and self-conscious, sharing a tendency to tell a story and then dissect its meaning at length. But the originality of Spina’s vision, the strength of his voice, compensates for the occasional longueur. It’s hard not to admire a writer who sets a tribute to a Mozart opera in the house of an Italian vice governor in 1920s Benghazi, and then gives that story a tragic ending in which it is the ancient local customs—the apparent opposite of high European culture—that offer meaning and succor. This is what takes place in The Marriage of Omar (1973), set in the divided Libya of 1920. The Italian governor is ruling from Benghazi, and Sidi Idris al-Senussi, the head of the Senussi dynasty and Sufi order and future Libyan king, is governing from Ajdabiya. Exhausted by World War I, Italy is prepared to grant Libya a degree of independence. The young Omar, a servant in the vice governor’s house, is preoccupied with remarrying a wife he has repudiated; he is torn between his friendship with Antonino, the vice governor’s young nephew, and the authority of his sulky, charismatic cousin, Sharafeddin, who rejects the foreigners’ presence. The vice governor supports Italy’s more conciliatory approach, but his wife questions this supposedly benign plan, warning him there is something “demonic” in the attempt to convince Libyans that “it’s in their best interests to stick with us,” that “trading their freedom for economic, medical and educational advantages is a good deal for them.” The young Antonino, charming and free to cross most of the colonial society’s thresholds, is of course doomed, as is the brief attempt to find a more equitable, peaceful way forward. When he dies suddenly, the bereaved masters are consoled by the household staff. The Libyans’ condolences—­formulas full of ancient authority, resignation, and resilience—light the way in a house fallen into darkness. The epilogue takes place in Milan in 1931. Mussolini has been in power for close to a decade, and has violently crushed the Libyan uprising. The vice governor is walking home from a dinner party of liberal anti-Fascists, where he was the only one present who seemed to be aware that two days earlier, the 74-year-old leader of the Libyan resistance, Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar, had been hanged. “The Count was astonished,” Spina writes, “that his anti-Fascist friends hadn’t mentioned that murder during their noble, scholarly, and passionate discussions.” For his part, Spina argued that Italian fascism was born in the colonies and committed its worst crimes there. He couldn’t forgive the Italian left for its silence on colonialism, for drawing no parallels even as it told the story of its own persecution under fascism and celebrated its own resistance. To Libyans, one character points out, there is no difference between the Italian right and left; they both have the same guilty past—and the same blank memories. It’s a lacuna that continues more or less to the present day, even as the Italian political class and media fret over the migrants and terrorists who might be headed for their shores from Libya’s unguarded waters.
It’s tempting to ascribe Spina’s lack of an Italian audience to the country’s Libyan blind spot. Spina isn’t just unknown to English readers; he’s virtually unheard of in Italy as well. His books are hard to find, although he won a major literary award in 2007. Alberto Moravia told Spina that no one in Italy would read a book like his, and he was more or less right. The long middle section of The Confines is composed of several collections of short stories set in the years just before World War II. For hundreds of pages, time stands still. The war looms, but in the meantime the narrator lingers along the Corso, gossips in the cafés, walks under the oleanders of the public gardens, picnics at the ruins of ancient Greek colonies, and takes refuge during the afternoons from the blinding, blistering Libyan sun. This is a small world, and its main stage is the Officers’ Club, where the productions are always teetering between melodrama and farce, and the audience is intent on pretending that the curtain isn’t about to fall. Spina’s own reluctance to close this chapter suggests his mixed feelings toward this period, the era into which he was born. And then with a jolt it all slips into gear again, and history is in motion, running not just fast but almost off the rails. The Psychological Comedy (1992) chronicles the Italian evacuation; Entry Into Babylon (1976) is a story of the shifts in power, generational conflicts, and new politics that follow the end of colonialism. Now it is the Libyans’ turn to travel to Italy, register their own impressions, and make their own arguments, as Ezzedine, the Libyan protagonist, does on a trip to Milan in the late 1940s. His visit produces some disconcerting exchanges:        
“Mr. Ezzedine is also a lawyer,” Nina interrupted her. “Is that so? Where did you study, in Benghazi itself?” “I studied at home,” said Ezzedine. “During colonization we weren’t allowed to attend universities.” The old lady looked at him with surprise, as if she had heard a far-off thud. “Oh bella! But weren’t we in Libya to promote civilization!”
Critical as he was of colonialism, Spina was also skeptical of the revolutions, coups, and nationalist regimes that marked its end in the Middle East. In his collection of essays, Intellectual Hospitality (2012), he writes: “The miseries of the colonial era (sordidness, uncivil condescension, criminal crumbling of others’ civilizations…) have been replaced, among European professors in need of active participation, by an aggressive, blackmailing wishful thinking about subversion: revolution as cure-all, just as once for every ill we prescribed bloodletting.” Spina’s sympathies lie with the old, elegant, complacent world that is under attack. In the excellent Cairo Nights (1986), a wealthy Coptic Egyptian family nervously and defiantly waits to hear if its business has been nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Egyptian leader is presented as uncouth, greedy, and disingenuous, his nationalist tirades another simplistic kind of theater. Spina thought post-independence regimes were a continuation of colonialism more than a corrective to it, because they often accelerated the process of modernization that foreign invasion had set in motion. Although there are huge differences in style and references, one finds similar preoccupations in the work of the great Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni, whose oeuvre charts the disintegration of the country’s nomadic, tribal, and mythic culture under the impact of foreign intrusions and then of oil wealth. One of Spina’s characters argues, speaking of post-colonial Libya: “The country is losing its life center, the sacred world of the fathers. Having adopted the ideologies, the structures and the techniques of others, it’s wearing itself out in a sterile antagonism with the outside world.” Spina wasn’t too sentimental about this lost world or the fathers who ruled it. He always includes two sides to the conversations he stages, and he himself pointed out that while, as a writer, he eulogized traditional Libyan society, as an industrialist running a large factory in Benghazi (the first to employ women), he hastened its demise. Yet he disliked the new world that was coming into being—one both ever-changing and composed of interchangeable parts. He was always looking back, not so much out of nostalgia as contrariness.
* * * All the characters in Spina’s final, remarkable novel, The Shore of the Lesser Life (1997), are in motion, slip-­sliding between relationships, countries, identities, and jobs. It’s the 1960s, and the bronze statues of the wolf of Rome and the lion of San Marco that once adorned a pair of columns along the sea in Tripoli have been dumped in a wild field at the edge of the zoo. Everyone listens to Nasser’s speeches on the radio, while the soon-to-be-deposed King Idris rules from secluded palaces far from the capital. Oil has been discovered, and the promise of extraordinary wealth has made the future hazy with possibilities. Young men have ideas, fathers grow uneasy, and foreigners think that if they just show up, they can cash in. Everyone is on the hustle, trying and generally failing to make the most of their chances. Gerard Conti, the author’s alter ego, is a young Frenchman who dreams of entering “all the houses of the city like a guest before whom there’s no need to change one’s voice, to defend or sell cheap one’s symbols.” He quits the foreign service on a whim, takes a job with a charismatic Libyan businessman, and, to the consternation of his relatives and friends, hands himself over to the daily adventure of living in Libya. Genuine travel abroad must involve a loss of time and opportunities, Spina suggests, an alienation from the understanding of others back home. In the bitter, scrambling, pathetic Pierre Dexais, Spina paints a darkly funny and surprisingly moving portrait of fallen colonial elites. Pierre is a would-be businessman and amateur spy, and his indignation and nostalgia are entirely self-interested. He is outraged at the “weakness” of Europe’s strategy toward its former colonies, which he equates to his own ongoing loss of status. The representatives of Western powers have become shopkeepers, “ready to swallow any humiliation to make a few more bucks,” whereas Dexais dreams of witnessing European cannons firing on an African port once more, “and with two shots knock down a tower or sink an anchored ship.” After one of his many ill-advised get-rich-quick ventures is exposed, Dexais is dressed down by Sua Eccellenza, a Libyan minister who has modeled himself after the former colonizers. The minister first appears as a comic figure, a man whose greatest pleasure is hearing his title spoken when he stays at fashionable Roman hotels, an “insatiable spectator of himself.” But it troubles him that his sons, possessing privileges and an education he never had, seem to understand nothing of his past, of the “misery, colonial humiliation and collaboration.” His estrangement from them saps his optimism and his worldly ambition. By the end of the book, circumstances have reduced him to being Salem, a bereft father.
He and many other characters are players in yet another decidedly petty, always human scramble for Africa—even as another great upheaval approaches. Its most likely survivors will be the book’s cynical and philosophical underlings. There’s a laughing chauffeur who can predict the future, as well as an “usher who had seen rise, fall, rise again and disappear so many figures that he had acquired the science of a puppet-master, the culture of a historian and the skepticism of an undertaker.” That could be Alessandro Spina. - Ursula Lindsey


Confines of the Shadow is the first of three volumes written by Alessandro Spina and translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely. The London-based Darf Publishers has produced nonfiction works in English about Libya, the Arab World and the Middle East. Recently it started publishing translations of world literature as well. Confines of the Shadow links these two concentrations in one multi-volume project. Spina is at once a Libyan, an Arab, and an Italian. He spent much of his career writing his family’s history, through which he explored a uniquely tangled web of relations with the Mediterranean world.

Born Basili Shafik Khouzam, he was the son of a Maronite Lebanese merchant who immigrated to Benghazi at the time of the Italian occupation. And he had a life-long fascination with Libya and Italy’s entwined histories since the end of the nineteenth century. Like many insider-outsider families of the post-Ottoman world (Bares in Egypt, Memmi in North Africa, among countless – anonymous – others), Spina’s family did not fare well in the purgative atmosphere of Arab nationalism, and one imagines their descendants would struggle mightily in the even more astringent world proposed by radical Islamicists. Spina spent the years of World War II in Italy but otherwise lived in Libya until he saw the writing on the wall by the Qaddafi regime and moved to Italy permanently in 1980. His work is an extended meditation on the inter-connectedness of his two homes.
Confines of the Shadow contains three novels: The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar, and Nocturnal Visitor. It is distinct from other multi-volume novels/romans a clef in that they are part of a mammoth omnibus in the tradition of accounts of fading empires. His work calls to mind Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, and Canneti. What distinguishes it from these authors’ is his multivocality, his experimentalism, and the shifting perspectives between characters and narrators.
Confines of the Shadow is a house of many mansions. It has sections that are fable-like, others that are more suggestive of a bildungsroman. It is a novel of manners, a drawing room or domestic comedy. It is tragic, and it is polemical.
The book begins with an encounter between two exiles: Émile, the Maronite merchant newly arrived in Benghazi; and Hajj Semereth, who we will learn is from Istanbul but has been exiled to this distant Ottoman city for some kind of “political” crime. Almost immediately this line of narrative is disrupted by the introduction of Italian military officers, one of whom is searching for a villa to buy. This leads to an extended discussion, seemingly out of place in the terms of a real estate transaction, about whether Italy has embarked upon her belated “missione civilizzatrice,” or whether going to “war in Africa is like turning an entire continent into a bordello and offering her up to our young men, so they may vent the entire spectrum of their human, heroic, sadistic and aesthetic emotions.”
The rest of the volume follows a similar trajectory. New characters are introduced, dramas about life under occupation unfold. Encounters between occupiers and Libyans filled with misunderstanding and failed understanding are described.
Spina adopts a wide range of narrative styles as he seeks to present the various voices and viewpoints in his tale. The book is replete with long sections that are lyrical and poetic as well as passages of dialogue that are stilted and speechifying. Other experiments include establishing a theatrical atmosphere complete with stage direction and clearly marked dialogue. At times the novel reverts into flights of fancy that seem to wander along some of the heavily treaded pathways of Orientalism regarding eastern exoticism, the vicissitudes of honor and shame.
The novel is filled with paired encounters that continually repeat through the various episodes. First is Hajj Semereth’s thwarted love for his youngest wife Zulfa. Pining away for Zulfa, Semereth is betrayed when a harem intrigue leads to her seduction by his protégé, the European orphan Fernandino. The lovers are dispatched in an honor killing while Semereth, who had hoped to remain above the politics of the Italian occupation, is thrust into the wilderness first as a fugitive and then as a rebel leader against the Italians.
This pairing repeats itself in the story of Omar, Sobeida, Alonzo and Rosina several episodes later. Omar, who has repudiated his wife Sobeida nevertheless pines for her. Count Alonzo, the Italian Governor of Benghazi, remains ever hopeful and ever unrequited in his efforts to understand and domesticate Libya. Rosina, Alonzo’s wife feels alienated from Libya and besieged by the Arab servants in her home. She also misses her husband’s love and tries to replace it by mothering their nephew. The nephew dies in an accident (perhaps he’s murdered), Count Alonzo’s efforts to seduce Benghazi meet with failure, Rosina is left in mourning, and Omar and Sobeida – both of whom remain ciphers – are reunited, but forced to leave the Governor’s service.
These various melodramas occur frequently in the linked stories of the novel and they serve an important purpose: to remind readers of the immense, perhaps insurmountable challenges in creating real and durable relationships between occupier and occupied. Whenever Italians and Libyans come together in the novel as antagonists or as friends, disaster ensues. Any attempts at accommodation are thwarted by misunderstanding, intrigue, or sabotage.
Of the three, sabotage seem to hold the greatest drama: the death of Count Alonzo’s nephew Antonino, or the loss of Captain Martello. Both of these men seem to ignore the palpable distrust and even hatred of the Libyans, both seek to penetrate what they perceive to be the mysteries of the country and in different ways they are lost, violently. But I would argue that it is in the quieter failures that the real tragedy of occupation does its work. In those moments, between Count Alonzo and Omar, between Emile and Hajj Semereth’s former servant Abdelkarim, the gulf or chasm between those who dominate and the dominated emerges in its saddest form, that is: the impossibility of connection on a more modest, human and humane scale.
***
One difficulty of reviewing translated literature is the challenge of accurately critiquing the translation. In the introduction Naffis-Sahely wrote that Spina died only a year or two before the project of bringing his work into English commenced. This robbed Naffis-Sahely of the opportunity to engage with Spina over difficulties in the text. Nonetheless it seems to me that much praise should flow to Naffis-Sahely, a noted translator into English of Arabic and French as well as Italian. If my sense that the stilted sections of Spina’s work are the product of his experiments in writing the translator may have been sorely tempted to smooth them out. No doubt that temptation was raised again in those long speeches about colonialism that occur during a breakup between Émile’s brother Armand and Olghina, the wife of an Italian doctor. Here she is complaining about Armand’s weakness of character and his inability to achieve his dream.
“In the initial fire of our rapport, being certain we belonged to a different world, we kicked this little colonial town aside. We imitated a Parisian couple, or repeated the encounter between the White Lady and the Oriental Prince: we dabbled in provincial pastimes. We disdained bourgeois values.”
This takes place in one of the sections of the book that Spina sets up like a play. The importance, to me, of these scenes of dialogue, which are more prevalent in the early part of the book, is the role they play in transforming the ideological challenges posed by conquest and resistance, and the ontological gaps that supposedly separate us from them and vice versa. As a representation of a lover’s quarrel, however, they are more challenging to absorb. Nonetheless Naffis-Sahely does not surrender his faith in Spina’s narrative and presents these stiff passages as fluidly as he does the most lyrical prose.
***
Publicity for the book has not been immune to the antinomies between the “west” and Islam or the Arab world. All of this belongs in the kinds of parenthetical quotes that imply that the world is far more complex than these kinds of dichotomies suggest. Nonetheless the simple shorthands for mammoth and conceptual processes such as colonialism, empire, resistance, and Islam, among others, find their way into discussions of the book that anticipated its publication.
Despite the small critiques I have leveled above, I would argue that this is a very important publishing project and it is disheartening to see its limited reception. Much of the pre-publication writing about the book can be traced to Andre Naffis-Sahely, who has revised the book’s introduction in a number of print and online publications to draw attention to the work. It is from Naffis-Sahely’s writings that the outlines of Spina’s life have been introduced to English speaking and reading audiences. Nonetheless “our” politics cannot help but be introduced into Naffis-Sahely’s reading of Spina’s life and Libya’s recent history.
Here is a good example drawn from his essay in Banipal (UK) Magazine of Modern Arabic Literature. In discussing the increasing challenges to free expression in Qaddafi’s Libya Naffis-Sahely writes this: “The years following Gaddafi’s coup had seen the despot de-foreignize Libya, a process he began in 1970 with the expulsion of thousands of Jewish and Italian colonists.” Of course there were no “Italian colonists” in the Libya of 1970s, only expatriates. The linkages of Jews to colonists only reinforces the mistaken and pernicious view that North African Jewish communities were not indigenous to the region and were instead a foreign element to be scraped away by the secular Arab nationalist dictators of the mid-twentieth century. Finally the Christian community is elided completely by lumping it in with the Italians ignoring Spina’s own liminality in the Libya of his time.
Spina’s book comes with many of the apparatuses of a publishing phenomena: he is a prize-winning novelist with a compelling back story and a Ferrante-like aversion to publicity. The book has also benefited from the promotional efforts of its translator who has written essays about Spina in the American weekly magazine The Nation and on the website “Africa is a Country”. There is also the compelling story of the funding of the translation, realized in part through a Kickstarter campaign. In effect Confines of the Shadow is being positioned as a book for our times, both part of the sharing economy and part of the larger, more serious and deadly conversation about the way the “west” or the “north”, since stumbling into Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, has been thrashing around.
***
In my “day job” I research the recovery of physically injured military servicemembers who have been hurt in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. I used to ask them what their impressions were of the countries they were deployed to. It shouldn’t surprise people to know that often these countries left poor impressions in the minds of these young servicemembers, but what I have been struck by is that many of them believe that the societies in which they served either had no history or existed in a suspended past. Books, such as the ones that Spina has written, offer a valuable contribution to correcting that misimpression. Confines of the Shadow does not present all of Benghazi’s history, but pushes the timeline back one hundred years, and shows readers that many of the conflicts that we imagine are new today have roots in earlier ones. Beyond this these works help us in places like the United States to understand that the choices we allow our governments to make in our names and on our behalves have consequences that we can foresee, and perhaps forestall, if only we have the wisdom to trust our memories and our narratives. - Seth Messinger


Benghazi,sometime in 1979. Muammar Qaddafi begins tightening his grip on Libyan society: on the one hand, redistributing land and expropriating slum lords—largely benefitting average Libyans—while on the other, executing dissidents and creating a brutal police state. He also starts to target “foreign” entrepreneurs, among them a certain Basili Khuzam. In his early fifties, Khuzam spends most of his days running his father's textile factory, which is situated next to a fonduk in the heart of Benghazi. The business employs roughly a hundred people and is one of the city's few successful local industries. Looking out of his ground floor office window, Khuzam must have mused how radically his country had changed over the past fifty years. Born in 1927, Khuzam had witnessed Benghazi transform from a sleepy Ottoman backwater into one of the jewels of the Italian colonial project, replete with Art Deco cinemas and shopping arcades, then an independent monarchy, and finally the Libyan Arab Republic, ruled by the charismatic chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Muammar Qaddafi. The metamorphoses had left a mark on Benghazi's topography. The very street Khuzam lived on, for instance, had been known as Shara el Garbi—“Street of the West”—during the Turkish era, then had been renamed Corso Sicilia by the Italians, who had demolished eight fonduks to make way for their modern whitewashed apartment blocks, and had finally been re-baptized Shara Omar Mukhtar in the 1950s in honor of the resistance hero.
One evening, Aftim Saba, a young protégé of Khuzam's, pays him a visit to inform him that leaflets naming his family and business as alien interests are being distributed around town. People have started to vanish. It's time to leave. In a sense, Gaddafi's revolutionaries weren't wrong: the People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was everything Khuzam was not: socialist, nationalist, and Sunni Muslim. Khuzam, however, was a Syrian Maronite who spoke French, Italian, English, and Arabic. Khuzam's father, a self-made man who'd left his native Syria as a penniless teenager, had been close to the Italian regime during the colonial era and he'd had his son educated in Italy. A plaque outside the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Benghazi, one of the largest churches in North Africa, listed Khuzam senior as one of the donors who'd helped finance its construction between 1929 and 1939.
Not long after Saba's warning, Khuzam left Libya and relocated first to Paris and then to Italy, where, unbeknownst to anyone outside a very intimate circle in Benghazi, he had been building an impressive literary reputation since the late 1950s under the pseudonym “Alessandro Spina.” Encouraged and published by Alberto Moravia in Nuovi Argomenti, Khuzam had published his first novel, Tempo e Corruzione (“Time and Decay”), in 1962, which mostly eulogized his student days in Milan, as well as a translation of The City of Brass (Scheiwiller, 1963), a tale excerpted from the One Thousand and One Nights. Khuzam had worked steadily on these projects ever since he'd left Milan at twenty seven and returned to Benghazi to take over the family business in 1954. It had been an occasionally trying experience. He had little time off from the factory and the country he'd returned to lacked a literary culture. A diary entry from 1958 reads: “Books and newspapers censored by government: unable to receive Le Monde and Les Temps Modernes.” Despite these obstacles and others, Khuzam was secretly busy on a project close to his heart, although hardly anyone in Benghazi knew what he was up to.
To most, “il Dottore,” or “the Doctor,” as he was known, was just a factory manager: well read, but generally unassuming and intensely private. Yet Khuzam had been spending most of his free time working on a grand opus that would consume fifty years of his life: I confini dell'ombra (The Confines of the Shadow), a sequence of eleven novels and short story collections chronicling Libya's turbulent history, from the fall of Ottoman rule in 1912 to the discovery of the country's vast oil and gas reserves in the 1960s. Khuzam had sent the first two installments of this epic to small but prestigious presses run by admirers in Italy and had published The Young Maronite in 1971 and Omar’s Wedding in 1973. As a testament to the climate of repression at the time, while Khuzam had also written the third installment, The Nocturnal Visitor, as early as 1972, he decided to shelve it until 1979 since the book's protagonist was heavily based on Omar Mukhtar and might have therefore aroused the ire of Qaddafi's censors.
In 2013, just a week after Khuzam's death, I signed a contract with Darf Books to translate the entirety of The Confines of the Shadow, which runs to a daunting 1,300 pages. I decided to split the epic into three volumes, following the plan Khuzam used when the Italian publisher Morcelliana resurrected all eleven volumes—published by almost as many different imprints over the course of thirty years—and re-issued them in an omnibus edition, which won the Premio Bagutta in 2006, establishing Khuzam (or rather “Spina”) as a literary giant. Khuzam had structured The Confines of the Shadow according to three distinct periods: The Colonial Conquest (1912-1927), The Colonial Era (1927-1947) and Independence (1947-1964). Thus I decided that the English edition should follow this scheme, and I spent much of 2014 translating Volume 1 of the epic, which groups together the aforementioned The Young Maronite, Omar's Wedding and The Nocturnal Visitor, with volumes 2 and 3 to follow in 2016 and 2017.
Translating Khuzam in the immediate wake of his death has meant that my research has been limited to his published work—especially his Work Diary, which his Italian publisher issued in 2010 and which collects all the entries in Khuzam's journals related to the novels of the “Cyrenaican saga” as he called his epic before he settled on a final title—as well as a few chance encounters, including most recently with Aftim Saba, a retired physician who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. Aside from building a profile of this fairly mysterious writer through his diaries and novels, finding the right tone was perhaps my most important task when it came to the actual translation. I began by looking into Khuzam's genealogy of influences: he adored Balzac and Stendhal and thought of Svevo and Conrad as kindred spirits. Since Khuzam was a gifted essayist, I was also helped along by his penultimate collection of essays, L'ospitalità intellettuale (Intellectual Hospitality) (Morcelliana, 2012)—a title inspired by Louis Massignon's statement that “one shouldn't annex the other, but rather become his guest”—which treats the reader to wonderfully eclectic pieces on Synesius of Cyrene, Al-Ghazali, Fontaine, Flaubert, and Mann, among many others. In a way, Khuzam's choice of subjects told me everything I needed to know: a taste for the classical, but not for the arch, a passion for the other, but not for the exotic, a penchant for fables, but not for overt sentimentality, etc. Above all, however, I learned that Khuzam had spent a great deal of his time re-reading Proust, in particular Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained).
As such, while some of the English turns I employed flow from the rhythm of Khuzam's highly-wrought Italian, I also attempted to let Scott Moncrieff's Remembrance of Things Past leave its mark on my translation. In a way, Proust and Scott Moncrieff were perfectly matched. As Jean Findlay argued in the pages of The Guardian: both were “cultivated, literary, closet homosexual[s] who had witnessed and appreciated the high point of the fin-de-siecle civilisation that fell headlong into war.” Similarly, it eventually dawned on me—although strangely enough this occurred long after I'd put Volume 1 to bed—that Khuzam and I also had a great deal in common: we're both equally at home in European and Middle Eastern traditions, chose to write in the languages we were educated in rather than the ones we were raised in, and we both adopted a staunchly cosmopolitan outlook in defiance of more jingoistic times. Perhaps I'm making too much of these so-called similarities. Maybe translators simply start to look like their authors in the way dogs come to resemble their owners, or, better yet, maybe the similarities were there all along and it simply took a book to bridge them. I'm open to interpretations. - André Naffis-Sahely


...For a while I toyed with the idea of translating Cities of Salt again, but decided my Arabic wasn’t good enough, and I quickly gave up the idea that I’d ever chance across a work of a similar magnitude that appealed to my sensibilities like Munif’s work had. I was wrong. Two years ago, a long night of research on a completely different topic led me to a name I’d never heard of before: Alessandro Spina, the pseudonym used by the Italo-Libyan writer Basili Khuzam. Khuzam had published widely over the course of 50 years, but all his books had gone out of print and now changed hands for hundreds of dollars each. However, a small publishing house outside of Brescia in Northern Italy had re-published Spina’s slim novels, collecting them in a 1,300 page omnibus edition entitled I confini dell’ombra/The Confines of the Shadow. When issued in 2006, the book was awarded the Bagutta Prize, Italy’s highest literary laurel. Overnight, and despite the odds, The Confines of the Shadow had become a part of literary history.
I was in between projects at the time and I took the next couple of months off and sat down with the book. It didn’t take me long to be hooked, in fact it happened when I read the incredibly—and deceptively—short preamble to Khuzam’s mammoth work:
This sequence of novels and short stories takes as its subject the Italian experience in Cyrenaica. The Young Maronite discusses the 1911 war prompted by Giolitti, Omar’s Wedding narrates the ensuing truce and the attempt by the two peoples to strike a compromise before the rise of Fascism. The Nocturnal Visitor chronicles the end of the 20-year Libyan resistance; Officers’ Tales focuses on the triumph of colonialism—albeit this having been achieved when the end of Italian hegemony already loomed in sight and the Second World War appeared inevitable—and The Psychological Comedy, which ends with Italy’s retreat from Libya and the fleeing of settlers. Entry Into Babylon concentrates on Libyan independence in 1951, Cairo Nights illustrates the early years of the Senussi Monarchy and the looming spectre of Pan-Arab nationalism, while The Shore of the Lesser Life examines the profound social and political changes that occurred when large oil and gas deposits were discovered in the mid 1960s. Each text can be read independently or as part of the sequence. Either mode of reading will produce different—but equally legitimate—impressions.
Never have a couple of hundred words betrayed such sheer ambition. Khuzam kept true to his preamble, and over the course of reading and re-reading those 1,300 pages, I realized that he’d not only accomplished exactly what he’d set out to do, but also ultimately created the repository of a world which had long since died, opening a window onto Libyan history from 1911, when modernity stormed the Libyan coasts in all its brutality—Libya was the first country in history to suffer an aerial bombardment—all the way to the 1960s, when its oil deposits were exploited and the ground was laid for Muammar Gaddafi’s coup. In order to better guide his readers, Khuzam split the 11 novels and short story collections of his epic into three distinct periods: The Colonial Conquest (1912-1927), The Colonial Era (1927-1947) and Independence (1947-1964).
Khuzam’s stories and novels are lush tapestries of history, fiction and autobiography featuring a cosmopolitan array of characters: Italian officers, Senussi rebels, Ottoman bureaucrats, chirpy grande dames, Maltese fishermen, aristocrats, servants and slaves. Against all odds, Spina also managed to describe each caste and culture with the same finesse, empathy and intimacy. Indeed, as one reviewer of Volume 1 of the English translation pointed out: “Spina can be counted among a small group of expatriate writers who are hard to classify: Home is a place they have made for themselves at the intersection of East and West. One thinks of Paul Bowles in Morocco, or of Albert Cossery.”
Unfortunately, I never got to meet Khuzam. I had drafted a letter expressing my admiration and intent to translate him, and had even started looking at flights, but he died in July 2013, just a week after I signed a contract with Darf Books in London to translate the entirety of The Confines of the Shadow. At first I thought this would seriously compromise the project. After all, unlike the French or the British, the Italians have never even begun to grapple with the horrors of their colonial legacy—and it is a horrible one considering they once lorded over Libya, Eritrea and Somalia—thus, almost nothing had been written about Spina and the Italian public in general seemed to have no stomach for anything related to their former fiefs. However, thanks to a few clues scattered amidst his books and diaries, I was able to piece together several facts about his life.
Born in 1927, to a Syrian Maronite family in Benghazi who had made their fortune in the textile trade, Khuzam had been educated in the finest schools and was fluent in four languages. When World War II broke out, his father dispatched the teenage Khuzam to Milan, where he would spend the next ten years, until his father recalled him to Benghazi to manage the family factory. Khuzam spent the next 20 years devoting his evenings to writing, but was eventually forced to leave Libya in 1979, when Gaddafi began seizing all “foreign-owned assets,” although it was quite likely that Khuzam’s family was targeted due to their faith. After a brief sojourn in Paris, Khuzam bought himself a 17th-century villa not far from Milan and led a fairly secluded life there until his death a couple of years ago.
Aside from appearing in English, The Confines of the Shadow is also being translated into French and there are plans for an Arabic edition. Translation improves a book’s chances of survival. In a way, it must. What one culture proves indifferent to, might find a better reception in another. After all, Khuzam and Spina didn’t fare well in Italian. Half way through his diary, I came across an entry he’d made in the early 1980s, when he ran into a friend at the opening of an opera in Milan. Introducing him to his wife, the poet jokingly said: “Darling, this is Alessandro Spina, who is trying to make Italians feel guilty about their colonial crimes, all to no avail of course.” - André Naffis-Sahely


Disclosure: I was send a copy of ‘The Confines of the Shadow’ for review purposes, but the opinions in this post are my own and unbiased.
‘The Confines of the Shadow’* by Alessandro Spina is a collection of novels and short stories. They follow the transformation of Benghazi from a sleepy backwater in the 1910s to the second capital of an oil-rich kingdom in the 1950s. This is the first of a three volume translation of the novels by Andre Naffis-Sahely. It is a piece of literature very much unlike any other that I’ve read so far in 2015. Having just finished reading the book, I feel that it warrants a bit more explanation than I normally put into my book reviews.
Alessandro Spina is the nom de plume of Basili Shafik Khouzam, who was born into a family of Syrian Maronites in Benghazi in 1927. ‘The Confines of the Shadow’ is set in Libya, starting in 1912 at the time of the Italian invasion of the country. It is the only multi-generational account of this period of history, and was awarded the Bagutta prize (Italy’s highest literary prize).
This first volume includes ‘The Young Maronite’, ‘The Marriage of Omar’ and ‘The Nocturnal Visitor’. It covers the period up until 1927, when Italy and the Libyan rebels were engaged in a brutal war. The later novels in the collection cover the period through the rise of Italian Fascism and the Second World War, up to Libya’s independence in the 1950s. This is a period of history and a culture that I don’t know much about. While that meant that I came to the book without any pre-conceived opinions, I also didn’t have much understanding of the setting.
Spina’s work is full of encounters between pairs of people: husbands and wives, masters and servants, occupiers and Libyans. However these pairings occur, they almost inevitably seem to lead to melodrama and tragedy. The setting for these novels allows Spina to call on a wide range of characters. These include Italian officers, Ottoman functionaries, a 12 year old child bride and her teenage lover. The contrast between these characters and the interaction between the different cultures make for very interesting reading.
I’ve always found it difficult to critique a translated novel because obviously you are reading the translator’s words rather than those of the author himself. Andre Naffis-Sahely has previously translated works by Zola and Balzac, and has also had his own poetry published. In the introduction to ‘The Confines of the Shadow’, he explains that Spina died shortly before work began on this translation. This means that he could not be consulted on some of the more difficult passages in the book. But given the beautifully lyrical way that some of the passages in this book read, I think it is safe to say that Spina’s work is in safe hands.
I know that ‘The Confines of the Shadow’ is a beautifully written book, and the historical background and cultural setting is incredibly interesting. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it’s a book that will benefit greatly from a second reading, and that I’ll appreciate it more when I do so.
I’m sure that I’ll be returning to ‘The Confines of the Shadow’ in the future, but it’s not a book that I love, yet. - Sally Akins   


Interview with Andre Naffis-Sahely at ArabLit


Alessandro Spina was the nom de plume of Basili Shafik Khouzam. Born into a family of Syrian Maronites in Benghazi in 1927, Khouzam was educated in Italian schools and attended university in Milan. Returning to Libya in 1954 to help manage his father's textile factory, Khouzam remained in the country until 1979, when the factory was nationalized by Gaddafi, at which point he retired to his country estate in Franciacorta, where he died in 2013. The Confines of the Shadow (Morcelliana) was awarded the Bagutta Prize, Italy's highest literary accolade, in 2007. Andre Naffis-Sahely's poetry was featured in The Best British Poetry 2014 and the Oxford Poets Anthology 2013. His translations include The Physiology of the Employee by Honore de Balzac (Wakefield Press, 2014), Money by Emile Zola (Penguin Classics, 2015) and The Selected Poems of Abdellatif Laabi (Carcanet Press, 2015).

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