Hisham Matar was born in New York City in 1970, while his father was employed at the United Nations. But Matar did not stay in the United States for long. When he was three years old, his family moved back to Tripoli, Libya, his family’s homeland. This is where he spent much of his youth. When Matar was nine, the Qaddafi Revolutionary Party accused his father of being a reactionary, and the family had to flee to Cairo, Egypt. Matar remained there for the rest of his youth.
When it was time for college, Matar was sent to London, where he received a degree in architecture. In 1990, Matar’s father was kidnapped in Cairo and was never seen again. This development marked Matar’s life, influencing his writing and his political activity in human rights issues. In 1996, Matar’s family received two letters from the father, stating that he was being kept prisoner in Libya. There has been no further correspondence.
Although Matar claims that his first novel, In the Country of Men, is not a completely autobiographical work, his life and his story share common themes and circumstances.
He has written several moving essays about his father’s disappearance and its affect on his life. Although his first novel is infiltrated by the politics of Muammar Qaddafi’s revolution, in an interview for the British website the Guardian, Matar says, “I’m not really interested in politics, but politics was part of the canvas. I had to say something about it, otherwise all the different forces that are shaping these characters would be abstract.”
Matar’s interest in writing began with poetry. However, as he grew older, his poems began to take on the shape of scenes of a story. At the same time, Matar’s interest in architecture started to fade. He eventually quit his job and focused on his writing. His wife helped to support his meager earnings from part-time jobs so he could complete his manuscript. When he received notice that a publisher had accepted his novel, it was just in the nick of time. He was already deep in debt and about to go deeper as he could not pay the rent.
Matar continues to live in London with his wife. He has never returned to his homeland.