In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

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In the world of Suleiman’s childhood, is there a place for innocence?

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There is very little room for innocence in the Tripoli of Suleiman's childhood. An innocent child is unaware of the problems of his parents and his world, but Suleiman is subjected to these problems at an earlier age. He sleeps beside his mother's bed after she drinks too much, while "wondering, if, like one of those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again" (page 1). He has to take care of her as if he were the adult and she were the child. His father does not have to care for her in this way, as she only drinks when he's not home. Over time, she tells Suleiman the story of how she was forced to marry at a young age. Suleiman feels responsible for taking care of his mother, and he "wanted to run to her, to hold her hand, to latch onto her dress, as she shopped and dealt with the world, a world full of men, and the greed of men" (page 4). He feels protective of her, sensing that she cannot always take care of herself in a world ruled by men.

In addition, Suleiman is faced with the seeming duplicity of his father and of the state. At the beginning of the book, he sees his father in Tripoli after his father has told him that he would be out of town. His father's eyes are covered with sunglasses, which Suleiman finds "terrible" because "they keep those who wear them at a distance" (page 5). His father does not tell him about his political activities, though his father is attempting to work against the current state. Suleiman and his mother are followed by people from the government who are watching them, so he is fearful even when conducting routine chores. Eventually, members of the opposing party will continue to harass Suleiman's father and friends, making Suleiman's life one of anxiety and instability.

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Not exactly, and this offers a great deal of insight into the message of the novel. Suleiman lives in Qaddafi-era Syria, a society with a great deal of injustice and inequality. He is forced to deal with these negative aspects of life at a very young age because of the actions of his parents.

Suleiman's father is an anti-Qaddafi rebel, which is quite a noble lifestyle. However, the ramifications of this lifestyle are such that Qaddafi's secret police are constantly insinuating themselves into Suleiman's life through surveillance and threats. 

Suleiman's mother cannot handle this way of life, and loses herself in alcohol. If either of Suleiman's parents had tried, they might have been able to keep some of the negative aspects of Syrian society, and indeed humanity, from the boy. Unfortunately, they were focused on their own lives.

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