Reading an outstanding work of fiction about a country in turmoil adds many more layers to it. I just finished reading Libyan author Hisham Matar’s debut novel In the Country of Men as we watched more bombing of Libyan targets by allied forces and continuous unfolding of a tragedy in this North African country. Jasmine Revolution might sound very romantic in newspaper headline but hidden behind that are stories of brutal autocratic regimes and innumerable human tragedies, which have hardly travelled to the outside world.
As you read through the book, it is difficult to accept that it is a debut novel – he tells a touching story in such a simple yet elegant prose. The story of a blazing hot summer in Tripoli in 1979 is seen through the 9 year old boy Suleiman and narrated by his older self. In between playing with his neighbourhood friends and discovering the joy of eating Mulberries, Suleiman discovers a world of grown ups, where things do not exactly add up. He is sure he has seen his father in the centre of the city, when he is supposed to be abroad. His father and his friends and colleagues are political dissidents, who aspire to throw the Qadafi regime out. His father’s political activities take a toll on his mother. Whenever Suleiman’s father is away, his mother gets into chain smoking and drinking. And not only that, in her depression, she blurts out her story to the 9 year old boy – as a 14 year old girl how she was hastily married off by her family, including her well educated brothers. Her crime – she was sharing coffee with a boy of same age in an Italian café. As her dreams came crushing under a very different authoritarian rule, young and beautiful Najwa worries about her husband and finds her world in her boy even though in her drunken narrative her husband is described as the punisher chosen by her family and her son as the one, whose arrival “sealed her faith”.
Soon there is a crackdown. Nameless men of Secret Service appear on Suleiman’s locality – Mulberry Street. Father of his best friend and next door neighbour Kareem is picked up, tortured and seen confessing under duress on national television. Soon he is hanged in a stadium in full public view and the execution is broadcast live on television. But he refuses to divulge the name of Fayaz – Suleiman’s father. Suleiman’s father goes missing and his associates are also in grave danger. In Mulberry Street, a shadow falls even on the games innocent children play. Instead of standing with Kareem, Suleiman ends up spilling his secret and losing his best friend. Suleiman’s father comes back but pays a price heavier than death. And soon Suleiman is sent away to Egypt for good. The story is told by a 24 year old Suleinman, working as a pharmacist in Cairo as he waits for his mother to arrive after his father passes away.
Hisham Matar was born in New York in 1970. His father was a Libyan diplomat but after they returned to Tripoli his father was persecuted for his political views, forcing the family to flee to Egypt. Hisham grew up in Egypt and is settled in London for many years now. The book however by no means is an autobiography. There is often a very thin line between real life and fiction. Hisham Matar is a very crafty writer, whose narration is powerful yet restrained. His description of even an execution is wonderfully nuanced. On the other hand when he describes Suleiman’s world of vivid imagination he paints pictures with his effortless words.
The best part of the book is perhaps the portrayal of Suleiman’s relationship with his mother Najwa. As the unbearable heat outside crushes their world inside, Suleiman runs to her arms in distress and joy, hoping everything would be all right in mother’s embrace. At the same time Suleiman worries about his mother, protects her and promises to unite her with that 14 year old boy in that Italian café, who perhaps would bring freedom to her. Hisham brings a rare poignancy in this relationship, which perhaps assumes more significance in the grim backdrop.
The real strength of this novel is how Hisham brings the human tragedy in Qadafi’s Libya alive even though he never talks about history or events as a news report. To a large extent the story is political in nature, yet the way it is told, adds a different dimension to the political tragedy and elevates it to a human one. He writes with great deal of maturity and sensitivity and invests a lot of true emotion in his main characters – Suleiman and Najwa.
In 1990, Hisham’s father Jaballa was kidnapped by Egyptian Secret Service and handed over to Libyan authorities. He remains untraceable till date. After many years Hisham’s family received two letters from his father informing them that he has been held captive in an infamous prison in Tripoli. Later on Hisham also received confirmation that his father was at least alive till 2002 – that simply meant to his family that he survived a massacre of political prisoners in 1996, when more than 1200 dissidents were killed in captivity. As the news of Libyan protests broke out a few months back, Hisham’s flat in London was converted into a make shift newsroom to channelize information flow. This coincided with the publication of his second novel Anatomy of a Disappearance in March this year. Hisham has however clarified that the book is not autobiographical in nature. Undoubtedly Hisham is a gifted writer and his ability to rise above his personal tragedy and write wonderful works of fiction is astonishing.
Western world for many decades ostracized Qadafi regime in Libya. In recent years, Western powers sought to reverse that and attempted to build bridges with Qadafi – resulting in among other things, dubious release of Lockerbie bombers in Britain and Berlusconi’s grand reception of Qadafi in Italy. As battle broke out on the streets of Tripoli and Bengazi - and Qadafi, as usual, did not hesitate to unleash his terror machine on innocent protesters - Western powers suddenly discovered a new morality and decided to launch aerial attacks against Qadafi’s forces. As news of more massacres come in from Mishrata and battle degenerates into a more painful stalemate on the roads of Bengazi, we feel like asking Kareem how he is coping with the tragedy – for the outside world, Hisham Matar has provided a human face to the tragedy called Libya.