In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

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How is Suleiman poised to become a man in In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar?

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Hello! You asked how Suleiman is poised to become a man in Hisham Matar's In The Country Of Men.

Suleiman (the protagonist) is also narrator: he speaks in the voice of his nine year old self. Interestingly, the author, Hisham Matar, left Libya with his mother and brother when he was nine years old. In the novel, Suleiman has led a very comfortable life, but that is soon to change. He starts to see what happens to men who displease the ruling powers, his own mother unburdens herself to him as if he is her rightful confidant, and he witnesses the execution (on television) of Ustath Rashid, a neighbor. At times, we find the voice of the twenty-four year old Suleiman intermingled with the confused voice of the nine year old Suleiman. This is as it should be: we get the sense that the experiences of the nine year old will forever taint the perspectives of the adult.

At only nine, Suleiman is catapulted into the sinister and horrific world of interrogations, beatings and hangings in Gaddafi's Libya-his childhood has been taken from him and he is poised on the brink of adulthood without the benefit of time, preparation or maturity. His mother only reveals her own private torments to him when she is drunk; otherwise, she answers none of his questions, especially those pertaining to his father. She tells him about being forced into marriage at the tender age of fourteen because she is caught holding hands with a boy. She tells him how her own father came to the wedding swearing that 'blood will be spilled one way or another.' She tells him explicitly that when he grows up, he will save her. He is thrust into an adult world of secrecy, guilt, terror and subterfuge without guidance and without comfort.

In time, he realizes that his own father is a revolutionary, who extols the principles of freedom of speech and democracy, and that is why his mother drinks so much when his father is away. At nine years old, he comes to understand that his family is in mortal danger and that he must be strong for his mother. It is an unbelievably adult burden to thrust on a young child. When Moosa (a family friend) and his mother burn his father's books, Suleiman doesn't know why they are doing so. He saves a book of his father's named 'Democracy Now.' Ironically, the adults think he must be doing it in support of his father, but in truth, Suleiman doesn't understand what democracy is; his childish reasoning is that if he were to save at least one book, then his father would not be so angry when he finds out that his entire collection of books has been burned. It is this book that Suleiman turns over to one of the men who took his father away, in the mistaken belief that it will save his father.

The final and wrenching destruction of Suleiman's innocence occurs when his father eventually comes home. Without meaning to, he witnesses the effects of the torture his father has had to endure while 'away.' When he peers into the bedroom window, he sees

... a naked man on the bed, his back criss-crossed in dark, glistening lines, some oozing blood. Suddenly he turned toward me. His horrible face threw me back. I fell beneath the glue tree. His eyes were closed, full of air or water or blood, like split rotten tomatoes, and his lower lip was as fat and purple as a baby eggplant...

So, Suleiman is poised on the precipice of manhood through initiation into the terrors of a totalitarian regime. Thanks for the question!

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