In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar’s first novel, was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the 2006 Guardian First Book Award in Great Britain. Though showing some of the typical faults of first novels, it is an impressive debut. Of Libyan background, Matar is an accomplished writer in English, which might be his first language. (He was born in New York City but grew up in Tripoli and Cairo.) He is also proficient in using the recursive narrative technique of postmodern novels, but what stands out most in the novel is its insider perspective on living in a totalitarian Muslim country. Matar is one of a number of writers with Muslim roots who write eloquently in English about this and similar themes, who provide valuable insight into the conflicted Muslim world, and who are reminders of the humane values existing within that world.
On the other hand, Matar’s depiction of Libya under the rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi is a reminder of some of the worst tendencies in the Muslim world. Qaddafi, a well-educated and wily leader, seems to have been carried away by his desire to inherit the mantle of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) as leader of the pan-Arabic cause. (Later Qaddafi, always the opportunist, took up the pan-African cause.) From a peasant background, Qaddafi earned a law degree in Libya and received advanced military training in England. Colonel Qaddafi used that training on September 1, 1969, to lead a coup against the Libyan royal family and establish the Libyan Arab Republic. Domestically, he tried to create a socialistic Islamic regime essentially in his own image. Internationally, true to his idea of pan-Arabism and with oil money, he supported other revolutions, funded terrorist operations, and even hired hit men to eliminate his critics abroad. Always a darling of the Third World, he supposedly mellowed and reformed in the early 2000’s, possibly to improve his image in the West and to avoid the fate of fellow dictator and self-appointed heir of the pan-Arabic cause Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
In this novel, as in earlier articles and op-ed pieces, the author does not let Qaddafi and his regime off the hook. In the Country of Men is based, to some extent, on Matar’s own experiences with the regime. Like his young protagonist, Suleiman “Slooma” el-Dewani, Matar fled Libya for political reasons at the age of nine, accompanied by his mother and older brother. His father, a wealthy businessman under a political cloud (though earlier he had served in Libya’s U.N. delegation), was not able to escape Libya until a year later. Only when the family was reunited in Cairo did the father begin his political dissent against the Libyan regime. In 1990, the Egyptian secret police arrested the father and another exiled Libyan dissident and turned them over to the Libyans, who imprisoned and tortured them. The father smuggled a few letters out of the Tripoli prison to his family but has not been heard from since 1995. (Details of the family’s ordeal have appeared in various writings by Matar, most notably an article in the July 16, 2006, Independent titled “I Just Want to Know What Happened to My Father.”)
In Matar’s novel, these circumstances are changed considerably, mostly for simplification purposes and purposes of characterization. The young protagonist, Suleiman, is an only child, which intensifies the relationship between him and his twenty-four-year-old mother, Najwa, who is an alcoholic and carries a grudge for being married off at fourteen. She had Suleiman when she was fifteen and has spoiled him since. The mother and son’s close bonds have ample opportunity to intensify because of the father’s long absences from Tripoli on business trips abroad. One time, when the father, Faraj, is supposedly traveling, Suleiman sees him in town on Martyrs’ Square, where he enters a building and hangs out a red towel from the top floor. This sighting is the boy’s first hint of his father’s dangerous political activity. Faraj is part of a large group of intellectuals and students distributing leaflets critical of the Qaddafi regime. The next-door neighbor, Ustath Rashid, an art history professor, also belongs to the group.
Criticism of the government is accepted, even expected, in a democracy, but in Qaddafi’s Libya it is treason. Everyone in the neighborhood fully understands this, so they hastily gather and destroy the distributed leaflets, sometimes burning them and flushing the ashes. The...