To chew on gum is a mindless activity that doesn’t usually bring profound personal or philosophic insight. It is a nervous habit that distracts from engaging with one’s immediate – and usually social – environment. In fact, to chew on gum is rude in lots of ways, if say you make extra-loud the irritating mastication sounds or immaturely pop the elastic in your mouth that will terribly offend everyone.

“The gum forced its philosophy onto every aspect of life.” (Chewing Gum)

And so it is in this Libyan novel by Mansour Bushnaf set circa 1980s where all of a sudden the chewing of gum – and the obsession with acquiring it – becomes the only act not punished for expressing political resistance, individual defiance and even of sexual pleasure and desire. It acquires farcical proportions as a de rigueur unconscious escape to avoid the gruesome backdrop of a repressed societal environment where eerily, surreally and frustratingly nothing is quite as it should be.

Bushnaf cleverly wraps up the allegorical tale in a doomed love triangle between a young anti-hero Mukhtar, his father and an anti-heroine Fatma. Whilst the jilted Mukhtar is fixated in his obsessive amour for Fatma and becomes tragically immobilised for ten years in a park – waiting for her to return – she and the father, as well as the other characters in the book, move forwards in time but in negative, foreboding and tragic action.

The once innocent, pretty and petite Fatma abandons her lover, family and university studies to become a prostitute – oddly to advance her social status – whilst the father Omar Effendi, a retired Royal Police Officer, gets unknowingly involved with her in his penchant for easy girls. This then sets the scene for Bushnaf to address the reader in a direct style akin to that of the ‘Existential’ genre of European literature inspired by the works of Jean Paul Sartre, Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Herman Hess and Milan Kundera.

“Fatma doesn’t really enjoy being with men. What she really loved were those moments of highly charged, expansive chewing… Gum is the only thing that allowed her to feel her femininity.” (Chewing Gum)

Bushnaf utilises some real existing props and locations in central Tripoli – the park near the Dakheliyyah Arches, the Red Palace Museum and a 19th Century female stone statue – to reflect and ponder on the different historical stages Libya and its people have been through; from Ottoman rule to Italian Occupation, a British Mandate towards an Independent Monarchy, to the 1969 Revolutionary Coup and the eventual descent into Gaddafi’s terror state circa 1980s.

As Mukhtar is left bizarrely stuck in the rain for a decade in the park standing motionless, he becomes the focus of curious analysis and his predicament a cause for popular debate in newspapers, journals and television. Led by several professors and students of economics, philosophy, archaeology, as well as by a theatre director, a painter and a journalist, they each offer up theories and creative proposals to help but none manage to realise the genius ideas.

The park itself deteriorates over the years and becomes the centre for idle men, drug addicts, drunks, dealers and prostitutes, crowded by ghosts and dead souls from times past. With litter strewn everywhere, an ‘Environmental Committee’ is formed to address its filthy state with all of the academic heads involved. But, in the end, the only ideas implemented are those of the undercover security guards.

It dawns on the reader that the characters in the book – who ought to represent a society’s academic, cultural, intellectual and artistic potential – are in fact impotent men and women because of a hidden but ever-present intelligence apparatus and a sinister government that follows every human coordinate and derails any attempts at progress. Nobody is able to exercise the rhetorically promised – but not really existing – civil freedoms and liberties.

“The Professor of Philosophy was attracted to blooming roses but felt disdain for the crowds queuing up for gum in the candy section. This was when he saw Rahma, a blooming rose from a beautiful past that had been nurtured under the right temperature and climate. He knew the roses were not real. In his philosophical optimism, however, they represented a way of creating beauty out of ugliness, of having flowers bloom from oil.” (Chewing Gum)

Bushnaf knows only too well what happens when you defy an oppressive regime or try to criticise it in writing. He paid the price with ten years of imprisonment for penning a satirical play titled ‘When the Rats Govern’ in the 1970s. And, in this novel, there is this mysterious reference to every ten years being markers to develop and advance the plot.

I highly recommend ‘Chewing Gum’ as a truly valuable, wonderful and a surprise Libyan contribution to the ‘Existential’ school of literature, as Bushnaf bravely considers what happens when there is no room for self-determination to even just validate the usual choices of being human.

He takes us on an intense journey straight into the heart of the Libyan psyche as it suffered through the worst of Gaddafi’s rule whose aim then was to stifle the creative spirit of the Libyan people. So, quite ironically, it had to be a dark tale indeed to make light of what was then endured and by giving us a new appreciation for chewing gum and its many unusual flavours.

‘Chewing Gum’ is published by DARF Publishers, 2014.

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Note: This article was first published circa September 2014