October 26, 2011 When Muammar Gaddafi’s forces took over Libya, Khaled Mattawa was thirteen. Now the acclaimed poet and translator (and a graduate of the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga) considers the death of the dictator:
After 42 Years
Five years old when the dictator took over in a coup —
curfew shut our city down
Bloodless coup, they said —
The many who thought this could be good.
The dictator, a young man, a shy recluse assumed the helm, bent in piety,
the dead sun of megalomania hidden in his eyes.
Could not go to the store to buy bread or newspaper,
could not leave home, visit friends,
the radio thundering hatred, retching blood-curdling song —
Signs that went unread
Factories built and filched, houses stolen, newspapers shut down,
decades of people killed, 42 years.
But that’s all over now —
How can you say over when it took 42 years —
I was five when the dictator took my brother away
Over now, 42 years, must look ahead.
His face half blood-covered, half smirking
Like Batman’s Joker,
hands raised, fingers pressed together upward
Saying wait, calm down, wait
Wait 42 years — five years old when my father was killed
standing in front of a hotel.
the country like a helpless teenage girl
forced into marriage hoping her groom will be kind.
In between there was blankness
that burned like a million of suns into our eyes,
Death like air, everywhere.
What was it like to be held by his men?
Fingers pulled out, testicles fried,
To be hung from a clothesline rope , the dictator’s mistress pulling at my legs?
How many killed by his men over the decades,
The cracked skulls, the mass graves, the uncounted dead?
What and who taught you O sons of my country to be so fearless cruel?
Him, they say, for 42 years, 42 years of him.
Who taught you to be reckless heroic?
The no-life we had to live, under him, the lives we were asked to live as dead.
Alive we want him alive, many kept shouting.
So that they could give him tastes of his own medicine?
And many others disbelieving they’d caught him.
Their shrill Allahu Akbars exclamations of astonishment —
What have I done O Lord to deserve the honor of capturing the rat?
Exclamations of disbelief —
The nightmare — GAME OVER — the night-game of breaking into houses, arresting sons; the day game of civility — we’ll bring him in a few hours —
we’ll bring him back in 42 years —
Could it be so easy — GAME OVER — the capturing of a 69-year-old rat?
A clown in a rat-colored outfit, a wild mop of hair, a wig
Holding a golden pistol like a child playing hero, high-heeled boots.
Is that what our history amounted to?
Because somewhere there were suns that would never light.
Somewhere, there were holes in the air that was full of death.
We managed to hold our breath and live our lives.
Could it be so simple O Lord to end an epoch? —
killing kidnapping murder massacre slit throats vaginal tests for women he wished to sex vaginal rapes anal rapes of dissidents he wished to humiliate — humiliation denigration outsourced whippings money changed on oil tankers boiling water poured on the entreating heads of maids hot iron pressed on servant flesh slit throats broken ribs feet whipped until swelled like cantaloupes bodies left hanging in public squares —
I was five when my brother disappeared,
I was thirteen, I was twenty, I was seventy six, I was never
allowed to reach birth.
What will be our aftermath?
One minute and all of that history is found hiding
like a rat, history like a rat,
hiding in a sewer drain.
History too hot to hold —
the magic was in seeing it come to end —
the pain too dark to bear, too light, too cold,
the astonishment unbearable, would kill you if it lasted too long.
He died of his wounds.
No, no, they just shot him dead.
Perhaps he was a magnet and he drew evil out of men’s chests,
his hands, his hands saying wait, wait
reached into their lungs and wound and knotted their raw souls,
a magnet now siphoning cruelty to itself.
No, no, they just shot him dead.
But I heard he died of his wounds.
Too much for a young man who could not stop being a killer,
a young man who did what millions wished to do.
To tear him to bits, my mother’s friend once said,
to tear him to bits, six millions hearts had prayed —
O God grant me the sight of him dead!
One bullet, or two, some say three,
despite the pleading fingers tainted with their own blood.
Surprised as if he’d never seen or heard of blood,
Surprised that he too would bleed if cut.
One bullet, two, or three and it’s done with, our history, our epoch.
The book of misery read
The rabid beast captured, kicked about and shot in the head.
O Lord is that our history tossed into a freezer like a lump of rotting flesh?
O Lord how little our lives must be, when so much can be buried lost, dumped in a
hole, forgotten dust!
somewhere, an earthly sun is shining on us, with us, again.
There is air in the air again.
What will our aftermath be then?
We wash our hands,
put on spotless clothes.
There is no “after” until we pray for all the dead.
Listen to Mattawa read “After 42 Years” here. Click here for more about Mattawa’s activism on behalf of the Libyan revolution, and here to read Mattawa’s poem about the resistance. For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16’s News & Notes page, here.