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Alive or dead?

September 11, 2016


In the very first chapter of his memoir, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between Hisham Matar writes:

“We know that my father was in Abu Salim [prison] at least from March 1990 to April 1996, when he was moved from his cell and taken to another secret wing in the same prison, moved to another prison, or executed.”

Matar’s father a leading opponent of the Qaddafi regime, was kidnapped from his flat in Cairo “by the Egyptian secret police and handed over to Qaddafi”. The Abu Salim prison to which he was consigned in Tripoli was known as “the Last Stop, where the regime sent those it wanted to forget.”

From this terrifying place, he was able to have three letters smuggled out to his family. The first arrived after three years. In one of them, he wrote “The cruelty of the place far exceeds all that we have read of the fortress prison of the Bastille”. There are clear parallels with the Bastille and the storming of Abu Salim, following the collapse of the Qaddafi regime: in a windowless cell they found a blind old man, who had not felt the sun for years and had no memory left, but in his hand he held a photograph of Matar’s father Jaballa Matar. The Matar family never does discover the link between the two, but it becomes one of many incidents in this haunting and devastating tale, which gives the family hope that Jaballa Matar might be alive: the fact that this provides to be a chimera, adds to the poignancy of the tale, as does the unanswered questions: what happened to him? If he died, how did he die? Was he one of the 1,270 prisoners executed in the prison courtyard in 1996?

A son’s quest for his missing father in Libya under the Qaddafi regime

Matar writes:

My ambitions when it came to my father were ordinary. Like the famous son in The Odyssey — like most sons I suspect — I wished “that at least I had some happy man/as father, growing old in his own house.” Unlike Telemachus I continue after 25 years, to endure my father’s “unknown death and silence.”

Throughout the book, Matar refers to literary texts to illuminate his emotions ranging from Dante, Kafka, Shakespeareto David Maalouf. He also writes of his compulsive need to return to certain paintings. The two he describes in great detail are Titian’s ‘Martyrdom of St. Lawrence’ and Manet’s unfinished ‘The Execution of Maximilien’, Both give insight into his grief and his need to reach out to his father and understand his suffering and his fate. Matar also draws on his training as an architect and draughtsman to describe the structure and construction of the Abu Salim prison: it transpires that his uncles and his cousin were also incarcerated there for over 20 years, following his father’s arrest, although for years they thought he was still safely in Egypt. Unlike him, they lived to see freedom. All this while Matar, with the help of human rights organisations in London, lobbied actively against human rights abuses in Libya.

Throughout, the book moves from the present to the past, from the personal to the historical, as Matar, his wife Diana and his mother, make their return journey to Libya, after years of exile. He tells of the Italian occupation of Libya and of his grandfather, Hamed Matar who fought against the Italian colonials alongside the legendary freedom fighter Omar al-Mukhtar. He describes the accession of King Idris in 1951 and the fact that his father, an army officer, was not entirely dismayed by his King’s overthrow by Qaddafi and welcomed a new republican era, only to find himself stripped of his rank, thrown into prison and then sent off to New York as a minor diplomat — a “carrot-and-stick” policy typical of that regime. But within three years, he resigned from his job, returned to Libya and embarked on his critique of Qaddafi’s dictatorship. There are harrowing des­criptions of Qaddafi’s consolidation of power over the years and the horrific abuses, including killings and imprisonments that accompanied it and increased in the 1980s. As Matar says, “You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination. When Qaddafi took my father he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell father was in.”

“Never returning to Libya, I realised, meant never allowing myself to think about it again, which would only lead to another form of resistance, and I was done with resistance. I left my building at daybreak. I was glad for New York’s indifference. I had always regarded Manhattan the way an orphan might think of the mother who had laid him on the doorstep of a mosque; it meant nothing to me, but also everything. It represented, in moments of desperation, the possibility of finally cheating myself out of exile. My feet were heavy. I noticed how old I had become, but also the boyishness that persisted, as if part of me had stopped developing the moment we left Libya. I was like David Maalouf’s imaging of Ovid in his banishment — infantilised by exile. I headed towards my office at the college. I wanted to immerse myself in work. I tried to think about the lecture I was going to deliver that afternoon, on Kafka’s The Trial. ” — Excerpt from the book

Matar was 19 when his father was kidnapped from Cairo. Often he reconstructs his father’s life, his ideas and his struggle against the regime, through memories of his conversations with him. He also tells of his father’s elegant lifestyle and the dinners and special foods that were a part of their daily life-in-exile in Cairo, as were his father’s love of books and of Arabic poetry. Matar’s discovery of two short stories his father wrote at 18 provides new insights into his father’s early life and ideas. He tells of his father’s role as a family man, of the confidence he had in his two sons and his insistence that they should be well-educated and learn to stand on their own feet thereafter — words of advice that they would remember, after he was kidnapped — by which time most of his funds had been used up in the movement he had been organising and funding. Matar also tells of his mother’s courage and employs conversations with relatives and his visit to Benghazi and nearby Ajdabiya, his father’s hometown, to celebrate his father’s life.

This is a truly spellbinding book, a tale which has resonances far beyond Libya or Egypt: it describes both the nature of absolute power and those who exercise it, and also tells of the strength of the human spirit which has survived and shaped the history of mankind.

Matar is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Country of Men whichreceived the Oondatje Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Asian American prize, and was shortlisted for several more including the Man Booker Prize. He followed it up with The Anatomy of a Disappearance. Both deal with the terror unleashed on Libya, his homeland, by the Qaddafi regime.

The reviewer is a writer and a critic.

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between
By Hisham Matar
Viking Penguin, London
ISBN: 978-06709233325

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 11th, 2016