There is a scene in Hisham Matar’s novel of life in Muammar Ghaddafi’s Libya that illustrates the paranoia and fear that are characteristic of life in all police states. Nine-year-old Suleiman has accompanied his mother to request the assistance of a neighbor who is a member of Libya’s secret police, the Mokhabarat. This neighbor, Jafer, and his wife Um Masoud, greet Suleiman and his mother, Najwa, or “Mama,” with a thin veneer of contempt and condescension. They may be neighbors, but in Ghaddafi’s Libya, a visit from or to a member of the Mokhabarat is anything but cordial for the average citizen. And Najwa is anything but “average” in the context of Matar’s story. She is the wife of an Faraj, or “Baba,” Suleiman’s father and a suspected enemy of the state. Faraj has been arrested, and Najwa goes to the regime’s local representatives for help. The scene in Jafer’s home is filled with tension. Um Masoud’s introduction of Najwa to Jafer is chilling:
“Najwa has come especially to talk to you, Jafer,” Um Masoud said in an unnecessarily loud voice, a smile lurking on her face. “She is our dear neighbor. The Prophet taught us to love our neighbors.”
Suleiman’s description of his mother’s painfully difficult visit to a member of the regime’s intelligence service on behalf of Faraj is emblematic of the sense of betrayal that permeates life under dictatorships. Nobody knows who to trust. Close friends could be spying on you for the government; your home and telephone calls are probably monitored for signs of disloyalty. Recalling that visit to Jafer’s home, Suleiman reflects on the atmosphere prevalent in his country:
“That visit has remained with me ever since. Whenever I am faced with someone who holds the strings to my fate – an immigration officer, a professor – I can feel the distant reverberations from that day, my inauguration into the dark art of submission.”
Suleiman’s innocence and immersion in this world of unending suspicion and betrayal reaches its culmination when the young boy is manipulated into betraying his own father, from whom he has endured a distant and dispassionate relationship. Pressed by the voice on the other end of the phone for information on the location of the conspirators against the regime, Suleiman cooperates and informs on his father’s assistant, Nasser, and on his father:
“Look, Suleiman, this is how this works. You will tell me where Nasser lives, and I will write it down. OK?” I felt my head nod, then, as if he could see me, he said, “OK.”
After a short silence, he said, “Speak, boy.”
“You know where Martyr’s Square is?”
“Yes,” he said so softly it astonished me.
“He lives in one of the buildings there.” Then, in a lame attempt at retreating, I said, “I think, but I am not sure.”
Suleiman’s betrayal of his father and the others left an indelible scar on the young man’s psyche. That is was just one more betrayal in a novel rife with such acts of treachery makes Matar’s depiction of life in his native Libya (although, Matar was actually born in the U.S., later moving with his family back to Libya) especially mundane. That Matar’s own father was suspected of disloyalty to Gaddafi’s regime, forcing the family to flee to Egypt, where the character Suleiman similarly fled and lived out his days, lends In the Country of Men a particular poignancy and relevance that further illuminates the depth of Suleiman’s emotional wounds.