LAHORE: Writer Hashim Matar, in conversation with Pakistani-British author Kamila Shamsie on LLF2021’s All-Virtual session, discussed Libya and the Middle East.

Hashim spoke at length about the time he wrote his debut novel, In the Country of Men, when Qaddafi was still in power. He was about to turn 20 that time, and his father had gone missing. The book underlines the worst of the dictatorship he experienced and says writing helped him deal with it.

“Did you have any sense of worry, of words and danger, in a repressive regime?” Shamsie asked him to which he instantly replied, “Very much.”

“Even though the fear can be childlike and innate, I did not even have the adult solution for it. I just told myself, no one will read it,” he said. “Something interesting happens, when you work at something, even if it’s about something different … not necessarily about a regime — I wasn’t necessarily writing about something dangerous, but there were moments that were very difficult — I don’t know if it was the writing of the book, or what I was going through, or whether the book was involving me more deeply than I wanted; It’s a hard thing to describe.

But then there is a writer that you have recognised in yourself that is finding its way out. And it couldn’t have come out without passing through all that fire.”

He said that it was both dangerous, but also exhilarating because the hunter in you could smell the excitement — or whatever it is that is the opposite of impotence. Because your father is missing and no one acknowledges that.

“Apart from everything there is a particular indignity in growing up under a dictatorship that is very difficult to describe. You can’t speak about it in big political gestures; it gets to you in the quiet hours — what is banned, what is not allowed, how many people are imprisoned…that’s not enough for you to even get close to what its actually like. You could be totally unscathed, but it gets to your dignity in some way — something in you is broken by it. To try to feel that is tricky because it feels you are being drowned by history and events.

“But writing is running in the opposite direction and that’s what I find interesting about it. It’s all about emergence. Do you then treat whatever emerges, in a domineering gesture? Or do your allow it to come out and resonate?

“There is a kind of national psychosis and so we tended to covered up things, as a nation. You try not to write about it. You don’t want to write a novel which is just a list of things. That was the most difficult thing. But eventually any book is an act of transgression and it is bound to overstep. Then there comes a moment, when you start to then become a servant to the book. Then you let it assert itself,” he said.

In international law, the family of the disappeared person is being tortured, said Shamsie.

“It goes further,” said Hashim. “Even the person who has disappeared the person is tortured. It’s very complex. For me, art clouded the event of my father going missing; the event of his disappearance coincided with a great unease that I found in the museum, and I wanted to leave. But art mesmerised me.”

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2021

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