Risky business: Bookselling in Libya

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”The dangers of selling “the wrong” kind of book in Libya are many and varied and yet one chain of bookshops is still open for business. Charlotte Bailey speaks to a bookseller in Tripoli”][vc_column_text]

A street in Tripoli. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr

A street in Tripoli. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr


“One of my brothers is still active with the bookshop. The other two, they are kind of scared. They don’t go much anymore,” said Ghassan Fergiani, managing director of the London-based Darf Publishers.

His brothers run Dar Fergiani, a bookselling and publishing business in the Libyan capital Tripoli. The bookshops have remained open despite the brutal civil war that started in 2011, killing thousands and splintering the country into three governments and a vast number of militia groups.

“They got tired of it, the fear,” he continued.

Dar Fergiani is a family firm and what Fergiani calls his legacy. His father, Mohammed Fergiani, started out with three bookshops in Tripoli in 1952 and, a few years later, opened a publishing house. In Libya’s post-independence period, he enjoyed relative freedom to publish and sell the books.

“There was some censorship, but not much,” said Fergiani.

But in 1969 Muammar Gaddafi seized power and four years later launched what he called a cultural revolution, with the aim of removing all traces of imported ideologies and all signs of foreign influence. Books the authorities considered problematic were burned. A few years later Gaddafi published his Green Book, which outlined his governing principles. The chapter on the media banned private ownership of publishing companies.

“In the late 1970s, they confiscated all his shops, all his stock, all his staff, everything,” Fergiani said.

Arrests and assassinations then forced Mohammed Fergiani to London. “My father feared for his life,” Fergiani explained. Not knowing when, or if, he would be able to return, he founded Darf Publishers in the UK.

But after Gaddafi implemented a series of more internationally friendly policies in the 1990s, Mohammed Fergiani decided to go back. He repurchased the stock the government had seized and began cautiously selling books again. “He had to be very careful,” said Fergiani.

A key demand of the protesters who overthrew Gaddafi in the 2011 revolution was freedom of expression. And, in the immediate aftermath, there was more space for different voices. Citizen journalism became more common and there was a proliferation of television, radio and print publications.

“Everybody was excited. We started selling books critical of Gaddafi. We published a book about democracy.”

[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”custom” align=”right” custom_color=”#dd3333″][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”2/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”We started selling books critical of Gaddafi. We published a book about democracy” google_fonts=”font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text]

The different types of books available, from niche non-fiction to international bestsellers, and a renewed interest in Libya more generally, led to a spike in demand at the stores. People flocked to the three smart, airy shops with their white stone floors and large windows in the Italian-era streets that lead off from Martyrs’ Square in the north and Hay Al Andalus further west.

The initial excitement did not last long. This area, where once the well-heeled frequented cafes and did their shopping, has become the site of violent clashes. This violence alone has put people off visiting the bookshops.

Today, the legal environment in Libya remains poor for booksellers and publishers. While a constitutional declaration passed in August 2011 provides limited protection for freedom of opinion, communications and the media, it does not fully reflect international standards for freedom of expression and does not abolish censorship. Under Law 5, passed in 2014, any statements that could harm or prejudice the 2011 revolution or insult the executive, judiciary or legislature, are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The deteriorating political and security situation has created a chaotic and dangerous media environment. Foreign journalists hardly ever visit.

The Tripoli-based internationally-backed Government of National Accord operates a censorship board, which Fergiani said has a haphazard approach that makes it difficult to predict what will be allowed. After success with Chewing Gum, the debut novel of the Libyan author Mansour Bushnaf with Darf Publishers in London, Fergiani tried to publish it in Arabic with Dar Fergiani in Tripoli. “We submitted it to the censorship board, but they rejected it,” Fergiani said. The board gave no reason for its decision.

Speaking to Index from Benghazi in Libya, Nada Elfeituri, founder of the grassroots group Young Writers of Benghazi, said: “It’s frustrating when I can’t find a popular book written by a Libyan inside my own country. Libya doesn’t have many books, libraries or publishing houses.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”custom” align=”right” custom_color=”#dd3333″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Forces loyal to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar were accused of burning 6,000 books” google_fonts=”font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

“There were several initiatives to introduce a wider variety of books, even ones that might be considered taboo, but again that became restricted as different government groups controlled the books that entered the country,” she said.

In January, for example, forces loyal to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar were accused of burning 6,000 books in the east of the country. These books included works of philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche. In a video of the book seizure posted online, an officer said the books promoted violence, sorcery, eroticism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, there is a constant threat from militia groups. Numbers suggest there are up to 2,000 militia groups, all with different ideas about what should and shouldn’t be published.

“Sometimes somebody tells them this is a bad book for one reason. Another time, a different militia takes your book out for a different reason,” said Fergiani, who explained that recently a militant came into one of the shops and demanded that they rearrange the show window to give priority to religious books. Three people who work at Dar Fergiani bookshops have also been arrested in Tripoli on different occasions and were only released after a complex set of negotiations.

“That is the pressure that in Libya we live under. It doesn’t have to be a government or a dictator. It can be anybody.

“You start fearing for your life. You start saying – OK I don’t want to do this. What am I in it for?”

These problems are compounded by the exceptionally difficult economic environment in Libya. The World Bank said in 2016 that the economy was on the verge of collapse. The currency has crashed, making Dar Fergiani books expensive. There are regular city-wide power cuts, an intermittent water supply and very little internet.

Despite this, Dar Fergiani has remained open six days a week throughout the war and Fergiani continues to travel to Tripoli frequently for work.

“Just don’t ask us why we do it,” said Fergiani.

When pushed on the answer to that question he added: “As a publisher and a bookseller you want to promote certain books. You want people to be exposed to different ideas.

“But it’s hard.”


Charlotte Bailey is a freelance journalist writing for newspapers including The Guardian. She used to live in Beirut, Lebanon where she worked for the Daily Star 

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80561″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306422014535686″][vc_custom_heading text=”Enemies of the people” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F0306422014535686|||”][vc_column_text]June 2014

Writer Matthias Biskupek took part in demonstrations in East Germany as the Berlin Wall came down. He looks back at the attempts to censor books and theatre.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”92001″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/030642208701600510″][vc_custom_heading text=”The media under Gadaffi” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F030642208701600510|||”][vc_column_text]May 1987

An interview with Fadel Al-Messaoudi, who believes the media has been directly controlled by the government since the cultural revolution of 1973.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”94326″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064228108533267″][vc_custom_heading text=”Censorship and Col Gadaffi” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1080%2F03064228108533267|||”][vc_column_text]October 1981

Libyan journalist exiled in Spain, F. el-Manssoury, reports on soldiers’ accounts of censorship in Libya from first-hand knowledge of the early President Gaddafi’s regime.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Free to air” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:%20https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2F2017%2F09%2Ffree-to-air%2F|||”][vc_column_text]Through a range of in-depth reporting, interviews and illustrations, the autumn 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores how radio has been reborn and is innovating ways to deliver news in war zones, developing countries and online

With: Ismail Einashe, Peter Bazalgette, Wana Udobang[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”95458″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2017/09/free-to-air/”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fsubscribe%2F|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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Libya’s revolution “will not stop until we have freedom”

Jamal al-Hajji was convicted of defamation on 31 December 2013. (© Amnesty International)

Jamal al-Hajji was convicted of defamation on 31 December 2013. (© Amnesty International)

After 42 years of political oppression in Libya, it was hoped that the apparatus of Gaddafi’s regime would be dismantled after he was swept from power. Vestiges of the despot’s suffocating grip on free speech still remain, and are still being used to suppress political expression.

Jamal al-Hajji, a writer and commentator from Tripoli, faces jail and a large fine after comments he made in a television interview in February 2013 sparked a defamation case by government figures. During an interview on al-Wataniya, a Libyan television channel, al-Hajji accused the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Abulaziz and five other politicians and public figures of conspiring against Libya and the “17 February Revolution”.

Four of them lodged a complaint against al-Hajji, resulting in a court sentencing him to eight months in prison and a 400,000 Libyan dinar fine (around £200,000). His case is being supported by Amnesty International, who say relics from Gaddafi’s punitive legal system are being used to obstruct free speech.

“No one should be sent to prison for expressing their views. Free expression is one of the rights Libyans took to the streets to reclaim during the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Gaddafi,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, in a statement issued on Amnesty’s website.

The charity’s Libya researcher, Magdalena Mughrabi, told Index on Censorship: “The Penal Code which is currently in use is the same as under al-Gaddafi.  The Libyan authorities  should immediately amend or repeal all laws and articles of the Penal Code which impose arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression.”

Al-Hajji, now aged 58, was arrested a number of times by the Gaddafi regime — the first time in 2007 for organizing  a peaceful gathering to commemorate the deaths of 12 protesters at a 2005 demonstration in Tripoli.

He spent a year in jail without charge, and was then sentenced, by the State Security Court, to twelve years imprisonment. Luckily, he was released a year later and submitted a formal complaint to the authorities, criticising the justice system, maltreatment of prisoners, and the torture and arbitrary detention of Libyan citizens.

The authorities summoned him for questioning over the document and threw him in prison for a further four months.

In 2011, he was arrested once more by police officers, who accused him of hitting a man in his car. At the time he was advocating online for peaceful protests mirroring those which had been happening in Tunisia, Egypt and other states across the Middle East.

And now, even with a new transitional regime in place, al-Hajji has found himself in prison again.

When asked if he thought the revolution had been successful, al-Hajji told Index on Censorship: “It is still going on and will continue, it will not stop until we have freedom. The military are not ready to lead this country so we will fight to remove them until we get a proper, working democracy.”

“I wouldn’t call this a new regime, these people aren’t responsible enough to run a country and in any case, many are from the old Gaddafi regime. They don’t want the laws changed because they know any new laws could be used against them.”

The law used to convict al-Hajj was Article 439 of the Libyan Penal Code, which carries a punishment of up to two years in prison as well as a fine. Several other articles of this Code prescribe prison terms for activities that would commonly be understood as freedom of expression and freedom of association. In cases where someone criticises public officials or state institutions, the recommended punishment can be the death penalty.

The same laws were used in September 2013 to charge Moad al-Hnesh, a Libyan engineer aged 34, who had campaigned against Western intervention into Libya in 2011. While living in the UK, he participated in a Stop the War Coalition demonstration outside the House of Commons in London, during which he was photographed holding a photo of a purported victim of a NATO bombing.

Following his return to Libya, he was arrested on 3rd April 2012 by a militia from Zawiya, after a group of Libyan students who had met him at Coventry University lodged a complaint against him with the Zawiya Military Council. He now faces a life sentence for criticising Libya while abroad, or a reduced sentence of fifteen years for “publically insulting the Libyan people.”

Amara Abdalla al-Khattabi, a journalist aged 67, was arrested in December 2012, a month after his newspaper had published the names of 84 allegedly corrupt judges. He was charged with “insulting constitutional or popular authorities” and also faces up to 15 years in prison. Article 195 of the Penal code was frequently used in the al-Gaddafi era to repress freedom of expression.

Al-Hajji is currently on bail and has an appeal hearing scheduled for 13th February.

This article was posted on 27 January 2014 at indexoncensorship.org