Nominated for a Booker Prize in 2006, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men is mainly told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, Suleiman. For the most part, what Suleiman sees in this story, no child should have to witness.
Suleiman is living a more than comfortable life in Tripoli in Libya when the novel opens. His father is a very successful businessman. Suleiman’s mother and father love him, each in his or her own way. The culture in which Suleiman lives is very traditional and extremely conservative. It is a culture than gives advantages to men, so Suleiman's future looks good. But circumstances are on the verge of change.
Libya is in the midst of a revolution. Moammar Qaddafi, a ruthless dictator, has come to power. Intellectuals, such as Suleiman’s neighbor, Ustath Rashid, are viewed as traitors who must be exterminated. The same goes for Suleiman’s father, who is quickly becoming an underground rebel who believes in democracy. Much of the tension of this novel is based on the slow revelation of Suleiman’s father’s fate. Questions circle around him. Is Suleiman’s father really a rebel? Will he be caught? Where does he really go when he says he is on business trips? When Suleiman’s father finally disappears, the questions change: Where have the authorities taken him? And will he survive?
These questions about Suleiman’s father are much more present throughout the novel than the man himself. It is Suleiman’s mother and her relationship with her son that holds the personal side of this story together. Having been raised in a traditional Muslim family, Suleiman’s mother, Najwa, was forced to marry Suleiman’s father, Faraj, when she was only fourteen. Over the years, Najwa has learned to love Faraj, but she has not learned to develop a strong identity for herself. When Faraj is not at home for extended periods of time, Najwa gets drunk, and Suleiman feels he has to cure his mother’s illness or, at the least, comfort her.
Within these parameters, young Suleiman attempts to define his world. It is not a healthy environment, and Suleiman develops distorted images to guide him through his life with his parents, his life with his peers, and later, when he is sent out of the country, his life for himself.
In the Country of Men begins in Tripoli, Libya, in the neighborhood of its young narrator, Sulieman. Suleiman speaks of his parents. His father is a well-to-do businessman who is often not at home because he must travel “abroad” to do his work. Readers are not privy to what Suleiman’s father does for a living, but it is obvious that the family has many luxuries. Sometimes his father comes home with gifts, sometimes with strange objects, such as a truckload of cattle. Suleiman’s mother, who was forced to marry at the age of fourteen, is not very self-confident and quells her fears by drinking when Suleiman’s father is away. Suleiman refers to his mother’s drinking problem as her “sickness.” He feels it is his responsibility to take care of her. He notices that his mother only gets sick when his father is gone, but he does not understand his mother’s true problems. Suleiman believes that the alcohol she purchases is in fact her medicine.
One day out in the city, Suleiman sees his father who is supposed to be on a business trip. He does not understand why his father has not come home if he is still in the city. His father does not see Suleiman, so the boy’s questions go unanswered. This scene, which occurs quite early in the story, suggests the sense of secrecy that surrounds his father, which will be further developed as the story goes on.
Also early in novel, Suleiman talks about his friend Kareem who lives next door and about Kareem’s father, Ustath Rashid, an intellectual man who demonstrates a special and loving relationship toward Suleiman. Rashid takes time to explain things to Suleiman, unlike Suleiman’s own father, who hardly ever talks to his son. One day, a carload of men, members of the Revolutionary Party, appear outside Rashid’s house. Rashid is quickly and rudely ushered away. Suleiman is not aware of what is going on. He only notes the sudden sadness in his friend Kareem, who appears to not want to take part in any of the young neighborhood boys’ activities.
Members of the Revolutionary Party also appear at Suleiman’s house one night. Moosa, an Egyptian friend of the family, is present for this encounter. After the men search the house and leave, Moosa and Suleiman’s mother gather papers and books and burn them in the backyard. Suleiman is confused as to why they are burning his father’s favorite books. He notices that they drop one of the books and Suleiman grabs it and hides it under his pillow.
When Suleiman’s mother gets drunk, she likes to tell her son stories about her past. She tells him how she was forced to marry. Her cousin Khadija betrayed her, telling her parents that he had seen her holding hands with a young boy in a public café. This was an act of defiance in the Muslim culture. Suleiman’s mother was forced to marry as soon as the family found a suitor, in order to prevent rumors that she was a “loose”...
(The entire section is 1197 words.)