My Friends
By Hisham Matar
Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9780812994841
416pp.

Renowned British Libyan author Hisham Matar, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir The Return, has recently unveiled his latest literary offering, titled My Friends.

Building on the success of his acclaimed works such as The Return and A Month in Siena, Matar’s new novel is a deeply empathetic and enlightening exploration. Set in London, it unravels the interconnected stories of three Libyans, delving into profoundly unthinkable themes of exile, the sacrifices made for freedom, and the essential value of human connections.

The story begins in 2016, when Khaled bids farewell to his longtime friend and exiled writer, Hosam Zowa, at King’s Cross Station in London. Hosam is returning to Paris, where they initially met and shared experiences over two decades ago. Following Hosam’s departure, Khaled embarks on a lengthy walk from the station to his rented apartment in Shepherd’s Bush, which he has called home for three decades. During this contemplative journey, he immerses himself in the history that led him from Libya to London many years earlier.

In Benghazi, during his youth, Khaled reminisces about his experience of an unusual narrative one evening, while listening to BBC radio. It involves a man being eaten alive by a cat, bit by bit, until the man resists with a solid “no”.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Hisham Matar’s latest offering is more than just a novel — it is a fine blend of historical fiction, cultural introspection and political commentary

This captivates him, especially because of its mysterious author, Hosam Zowa. Intrigued by these words, Khaled, then 18, decides to embark on a transformative journey that leads him away from his hometown, ultimately guiding him to pursue an intellectual life at the University of Edinburgh, to pursue literature, where he encounters another young Libyan man named Mustafa.

Wrapping his head around a society vastly different from the one he knew in Libya, Khaled undergoes a reflective transformation. In time, Mustafa persuades Khaled to participate in a demonstration in London outside the Libyan embassy protesting against Gaddafi’s dictatorship in 1984.

Here, both the boys witness a tragic exchange between the police and the protestors, during which they also sustain gunshot wounds, whereas a 25-year-old British police officer loses his life, and 10 other protesters sustain injuries.

However, their survival leaves them in a state of inertia, preventing them from resuming their education. The fear of being identified as radicals against Gaddafi’s regime by fellow Libyan spies keeps them from returning to school.

Simultaneously, the risk of being wanted for their alleged crimes deters them from going back to their homeland. In an instant, Khaled and Mustafa become injured exiles, unable to leave England or return to their birthplace. Communicating with parents back home would also endanger their safety due to monitored phone lines.

A serendipitous meeting with Hosam Zowa, the author of the impactful short story, occurs in a hotel. This encounter sparks the deepest friendship of Khaled’s life, providing him with sustenance. However, as the Arab Spring unfolds, the friendship compels him to grapple with complex conflicts between revolution and safety, family and exile. Khaled is forced to define his sense of self against those closest to him.

Some stories immediately captivate your attention, while others weave their way into your thoughts gradually, refusing to relinquish their hold even when you’re engaged in the mundanities of life.

Hisham Matar
Hisham Matar

With global geopolitics always on the mind these days, as bombs and gunshots have become an everyday reality, this particular book falls into the latter category — an enticing read that beckons one back repeatedly.

It holds the duality of the reader wanting to devour it eagerly but also savour it gradually, to fully appreciate the rich experience it offers. As I read this book intermittently, the need to go back to reading it became real because I wanted to progress through the story as well as relish the intricacies and nuances that make the entire experience truly memorable.

Of course, this is not just a novel; it is a fine blend of historical fiction, cultural introspection and political commentary, delving into the impact of exile, transforming one into a vessel of fragile yearning.

Matar skillfully intertwines reflections on the concept of home, finding peace around oneself, and forging a new life in the aftermath of a tragedy. The title subtly refers to counsel from Khaled’s historian/school principal father as he departs home — a piece of wisdom that emphasises the importance of a few meaningful friendships and purposeful work to construct a fulfilling life.

Simultaneously, it serves as a cautionary reminder not to be ensnared by ‘their world’, urging Khaled to firmly grasp his own reality and preserve a robust sense of self.

As the Arab Spring unfolds and political tensions intensify in Libya, the narrative unfolds a pivotal moment where Khaled’s two friends take a different path from him. Opting to return to their homeland, they actively participate in the revolutionary movements shaping the region’s political landscape.

This choice not only marks a significant turning point in their lives but also underscores the profound impact the Arab Spring has had on shaping current geopolitics in the broader Middle East, as individuals grapple with complex decisions influenced by the revolutionary spirit sweeping through the region.

Years later, with Israel-Palestine, US-Iraq, Saudi Arabia-Iran and others, the Middle East continues to navigate a landscape of unrest, reflecting the enduring and intricate challenges that persist in the region’s geopolitical dynamics.

The reviewer is a content lead at an agency.

She can be reached at sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 3rd, 2024

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