What are the effects of disappearance, long imprisonment and brutal dictatorship on people, individuals and their families, their communities, their countries? And how is it to live in exile, from a country you loved and from the knowledge of what happened to your father? Hisham Matar has campaigned for more information about the brutal years of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and specifically for in information about what happened to his father. And when relations with Libya were normalised by the Blair government he campaigned for the human rights of political prisoners. And finally, when Gaddafi was toppled, in that brief period of hope for Libya, he returned to his home country. This is his account of these events.
What is known
Jaballa Matar was a leading dissident who opposed Gaddafi and like many others took his family into exile to continue the struggle from abroad. But he was kidnapped in Cairo and delivered to the Libyan regime. He emerged in a notorious prison in Libya. Jaballa Matar was kept separately but other prisoners heard him recite poetry during the dark nights of captivity. His fate is ultimately unknown, although it seems likely that he was murdered in a massacre in the Abu Salim prison in 1994. His family received some letters but when these ceased, and when reports of sightings dried up the family was unable to discover confirmation of his fate. It is believed that at least 1270 men were killed in the prison massacre. An account by a witness is included in the book.
Documentary evidence is scant. And witnesses have also disappeared or may be unreliable. Researching his grandfather’s activities brought him to the absence of an archive of the period of Italian occupation and to the same frustrations he experienced in his search for the truth about his father.
I was back in that familiar place, a place of shadows where the only way to engage with what happened is through the imagination, an activity that serves only to excite the past, multiplying the possibilities, like a house with endless rooms, inescapable and haunted. (161)
What it means
This is a beautifully written memoir. In part it provides Jaballa with a legacy. He was an opponent of Gaddafi, and for that it is likely that he paid with his life. But he was also a father, husband, brother, cousin, uncle and son, a patron of many as well as an inspiration to young men. They also pay the price.
Those in exile also suffer.
Guilt is the exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure. (105)
And family relationships are damaged.
We tiptoed around each other, trying our best to avoid confronting the ways in which political reality manages to infiltrate intimacies, corrupting them with unuttered longings and accusations. (110)
Family relationships are central to this account, and although Hisham Matar’s family are strong and supportive, they’re also stretched by long periods of separation, and by conflicting family loyalties and beliefs. When fathers have been in prison for more than 20 years their sons have grown into young men, strangers.
The history of the family becomes more and more significant as tiny fragments of information are gathered to add to the incomplete picture. We learn of the heroic stances of other members of the family: the grandfather who resisted the colonisation and destruction of the Italians; the young fighter Izzo a cousin who killed in the last battles of the revolution to unseat Gaddafi. His story was relayed on Facebook. Or the cousin, a judge, who leads a strike to demand judicial independence in the new Libya. And Hisham Matar’s own campaign to find the truth about his father.
Hisham Matar is also a novelist. I heard him talk about his novel In the Country of Men and was profoundly impressed by the way he spoke about his novel and its relationship to his own situation. This was at Ways with Words in the summer of 2012 and I was struck by the sparse attendance at his talk, which was so good, in contrast to the Radio 4 celebrity event that attracted a much larger crowd to the main hall at Dartington.
What struck me was his use and control of language.
There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.
This is the opening sentence of Anatomy of a Disappearance, which he told us came to him after a couple of years being blocked and allowed him to write. Here is another example of his control, describing how people used their houses differently since Gaddafi took power:
Light is no longer welcome in the houses. It is shut out, like other things that come from outdoors: dust, heat and bad news. (51)
There is control too in the account of Hisham Matar’s many conversations with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the dictator. The grotesque nature of his promises, sympathy and bargaining in these transactions is evident. But there is no rancour in the text. We can be happy that Saif is currently in prison and Hisham Matar is free to write.
And this is the description of Libya in 2012, in that brief period of hope called the Arab Spring. Hisham Matar is writing about Benghazi.
I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories yet so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other. (140)
I read this with the avidity of a novel reader. Reading is important to understand the varieties of damage caused by oppression and violation of human rights. In his fiction as well as in this memoir Hisham Matar brings us face to face with our responsibilities to resist.
The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between by Hisham Matar (2016) Penguin 280pp
The Return attracted several prizes including 2017 Pulitzer Prize for biography and memoir, Pen American Award, Slightly Fixed best first biography award and reaching the shortlist of several more prestigious awards.
Fiction by Hisham Matar
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (2006) Viking Penguin
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006.
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar (2011) Viking Penguin
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