Hisham Matar’s first novel had huge political resonance in Libya, but both that and his recent second work are personal, human tales at heart, he tells Sophie McBain
‘I DIDN’T SIT down and think, “I want to write a political book that would inspire, that would expose the nature of life under the Gaddafi regime.” That wasn’t my intention at all. In fact, if I could have, I would have avoided it, because it created a great deal of anxiety for me and for lots of people I know,’ Hisham Matar insists.
It is a surprising admission, because his first novel, In the Country of Men, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, did precisely that. At a time when Muammar Gaddafi had successfully painted himself as the ultimate nuclear-bad-guy-turned-good, when Saif al Islam Gaddafi was studiously learning the language of democracy (or possibly paying others to do it for him) at LSE, and when regime strongmen were putting away their army uniforms and donning their best business suits, Matar penned a quietly haunting portrait of the Tripoli of his childhood in the late Seventies: a city of chain-smoking mokhabarat (secret police) and power-hungry telltale neighbours, where schoolchildren watched public hangings on TV, fathers disappeared and returned unrecognisable and teenage brides drowned their dashed hopes with illegal grappa.
In the Country of Men was one of the few books I brought with me when I first arrived in Tripoli in late 2008 and moved into Girgaresh, the same well-heeled suburb described in the novel. My first disorienting days in the city were filtered through Matar’s deliberate, measured prose.
While a lot had changed since the Seventies, an equal amount hadn’t. The secret police still lurked outside houses in shiny new cars and cheap leather jackets, exuding tobacco smoke and violence. Phones were tapped, houses bugged. Sometimes people went missing, more often they lived with a constant, niggling anxiety. And Girgaresh was still known for the ‘butchers that don’t sell meat’ and ‘bakers with no bread’ where Libyans found guilty solace in bocha (date alcohol), for expats the key ingredient for the bojito, the Tripoli party tipple of choice.
I felt a jolt of panic when a Libyan friend of mine spotted In the Country of Men, but he surprised me by grabbing it off the shelf and asking to borrow it. I never saw the book again: it was passed from friend to friend, as they pored over pages describing a chapter in Libyan history of which their parents never dared speak.
An unmistakable flicker of pride flashes briefly across Matar’s features as I recount this anecdote to him, but again he is quick to downplay his political motivations. ‘I never expected it to have such resonance in Libya, but it pleased me a great deal. It was hugely rewarding to hear that people recognised their Libya, their Tripoli, or their time in it,’ he says, and then he adds, ‘but that wasn’t my motive.’
The publication of Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, coincided with the Libyan uprising and cast Matar in a new light as a, if not the, Libyan novelist, a role that he views with ambivalence.
‘It was interesting to see how in the early days, when In the Country of Men came out, I was an Anglo-Arab or British Libyan writer,’ he says. ‘Reviewers were trying to find this way to sum up this mischievous biography [Matar describes himself as born in New York, to Libyan parents, and has lived in London since 1986]. But interestingly, after the Libyan uprising everyone calls me “the Libyan novelist, who lives in London”. I observe it. It amuses me, I find it interesting how people feel this desire to place me.’
Anatomy of a Disappearance, like Matar’s first work, touches on a theme that is at once deeply personal and politically timely. As the title suggests, the novel dissects and examines how a son copes with the disappearance of his politically active father. Although Matar says the work is not strictly autobiographical, it reflects his ‘obsessions as a writer’, and echoes his own experience: his father, anti-Gaddafi dissident Jaballa Matar, was abducted in Cairo in 1990. His family has not seen him since.
Many Libyans are familiar with this form of grief, a loss that is accompanied by questions that may never be resolved and is entwined with anger, not only against a regime, but also against the countless personal, petty betrayals that often accompany a political arrest in a police state.
Photographs by Diana Matar
WITH THE MILITARY campaign against Muammar Gaddafi finally won, the next challenge for the war-worn country will be reconciliation. In the past six months, Libyans have all but shattered Gaddafi’s government machine, but will the psychological legacy of over 40 years of paranoid, ruthless dictatorship prove more lasting, I wondered.
‘I think the possibility for healing arises from whether the people that have perpetrated the crime are willing to express remorse, to articulate what they have done in a way that seems authentic and sincere and not just going through the motions,’ Matar muses. ‘If that is the case, then the burden falls on the so-called victim to be capable of forgiving. Revenge might quench the flames in the short term, but in the long term there’s more sorrow.’
It is a lesson that Matar was forced to learn the hard way. He spent his twenties, after his father’s abduction, ‘suffering under this feeling of hatred and anger’, until, while launching a high-profile ‘Free Matar’ campaign, he confronted himself with a tricky question: ‘What would my reaction be if I encountered the person that tortured my father?
‘And the answer came immediately. And I don’t know what I’d do, but I know what I’d like to be able to do. And that ability doesn’t just arise from my own heart, but from my situation, so there were circumstances that would make this possible. And that was that if the person showed remorse, I’d like to be able to embrace him. How wonderful it would be if our country could allow these people back from that brutal end of savagery and destruction, but that can’t happen without these really open, sincere confessions.’
It is an answer that is typical of Matar: he prefers setting the terms of debate to reaching definite conclusions. The success of his novels depends on this same quality, a refusal to tie up loose ends. It can be no coincidence that the narrators in his books are children, who report their experiences without trying to shoehorn them into broader ideological frameworks. While the father in both novels is aloof and distant, engaged in mysterious political activities and the politics of big ideas, the son’s worldview is inseparable from the everyday trials and triumphs of family life.
MATAR’S ABSENT FATHER is forever present in his son’s work, and Jaballa Matar, who was himself ‘passionate about literature and poetry’, always encouraged Hisham’s writing. But I suddenly find myself thinking of the final chapter in Anatomy of a Disappearance, when the narrator, now a grown man, returns home and opens up his father’s long untouched wardrobe. ‘I found myself taking out one of Father’s suits,’ Matar writes. ‘I buried my face in the jacket. I put it on, but it held my shoulders and chest too tightly. I felt constricted by it.’ Not for Matar the black-and-white world of politics; the dissident’s son has found his independent voice in literature.
Writers, Matar reminds me, are also often considered subversive by authoritarian governments. ‘Dictatorships have traditionally seen literature as a threat, because it does the exact opposite. It doesn’t project one story. In a way, a dictatorship is like fiction. A dictator is a novelist in a way, but it’s a really terrible kind of novel: there’s just one line, one story, no conflicting empathies, just one empathy. It makes sense that they burn books, they imprison the writers, as has happened in Libya.’
It is an interesting comparison, and also an informative one: it explains Matar’s reluctance to write self-consciously political novels, and could also offer a deeper insight into the Middle East today.
As positions become entrenched, and politics risks polarising in post-revolutionary Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and across the region as a whole, could it be that what the Arab world needs is not the politics of grand ideals and over-arching narratives, but nuanced, human stories? Few people read in the Middle East, and especially in Libya, Matar argues — the abysmal education system has not helped — but more important now than shouted slogans, propagandistic broadcasts and sniper-like soundbites could be the softer, subtler voices of young Arab writers.
Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear’s