From Benghazi to Ann Arbor

My lips came with a caravan of slaves
That belonged to the Grand Sanussi.
In Al-Jaghbub he freed them.
They still live in the poor section of Benghazi
Near the hospital where I was born.
They never meant to settle
In Tokara those Greeks
Whose eyebrows I wear
--then they smelled the wild sage
And declared my country their birthplace.
The Knights of St. John invaded Tripoli.
The residents of the city
Sought help from Istanbul. In 1531
The Turks brought along my nose.
My hair stretches back
To a concubine of Septimus Severus.
She made his breakfast,
Bore four of his sons.
Uqba took my city
In the name of God.
We sit by his grave
And I sing to you:
Sweet lashes, arrow-sharp,
Is that my face I see
Reflected in your eyes?

Khaled Mattawa, History of my Face
From Ismalia Eclipse, 1995

Khaled Mattawa addressed several students, faculty and guests in the Forfa Auditorium on September 29, discussing his new book of poetry, Tocqueville. The event was sponsored by HFCC's Arab Cultural Studies Program. Mattawa, an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, was this year's winner of the $25,000 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, following in the footsteps of prominent authors and poets E. E. Cummings, Erza Pound, Robert Frost, and many others since the beginning of the Fellowship in 1946.

Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya in 1964, leaving as a teenager due to the hostile environment at that time. He left the country in the late 70s, emigrating to the United States, where he continues to reside. He earned two master’s degrees, in Arts and Fine Arts, at Indiana University. He would go on to teach Creative Writing at the school for a short time, as well as at California State before coming to U of M.

Much of his poetry, both early and current work, is based off of his experiences here and in Libya, as well as the translated works of other Arab writers. Many of the topics that were covered in the poems he presented included water, or the scarcity of it in the Middle East, and being an Arab immigrant treated as a foreigner in one's home country. His poem Tocqueville covered the injustices and treatment of oppressed people, including the maligning of “liberal” anti-government authors and leaders' desire for a “peaceful slavery,” the idea of oppression without dissent. The name of the poem is based off of the studies of French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who looked at social conditions in post-revolution France and the United States.

Along with the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, Mattawa has also won a Guggenheim Fellowship, Princeton University's Alfred Hodder Fellowship, as well as other awards. He is also the author of three other books of poetry, his first being Ismailia Eclipse in 1995, followed by Zodiac of Echoes in 2003 and Amorisco in 2008.