Nominated for a Booker Prize in 2006, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men is mainly told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, Suleiman. For the most part, what Suleiman sees in this story, no child should have to witness.
Suleiman is living a more than comfortable life in Tripoli in Libya when the novel opens. His father is a very successful businessman. Suleiman’s mother and father love him, each in his or her own way. The culture in which Suleiman lives is very traditional and extremely conservative. It is a culture than gives advantages to men, so Suleiman's future looks good. But circumstances are on the verge of change.
Libya is in the midst of a revolution. Moammar Qaddafi, a ruthless dictator, has come to power. Intellectuals, such as Suleiman’s neighbor, Ustath Rashid, are viewed as traitors who must be exterminated. The same goes for Suleiman’s father, who is quickly becoming an underground rebel who believes in democracy. Much of the tension of this novel is based on the slow revelation of Suleiman’s father’s fate. Questions circle around him. Is Suleiman’s father really a rebel? Will he be caught? Where does he really go when he says he is on business trips? When Suleiman’s father finally disappears, the questions change: Where have the authorities taken him? And will he survive?
These questions about Suleiman’s father are much more present throughout the novel than the man himself. It is Suleiman’s mother and her relationship with her son that holds the personal side of this story together. Having been raised in a traditional Muslim family, Suleiman’s mother, Najwa, was forced to marry Suleiman’s father, Faraj, when she was only fourteen. Over the years, Najwa has learned to love Faraj, but she has not learned to develop a strong identity for herself. When Faraj is not at home for extended periods of time, Najwa gets drunk, and Suleiman feels he has to cure his mother’s illness or, at the least, comfort her.
Within these parameters, young Suleiman attempts to define his world. It is not a healthy environment, and Suleiman develops distorted images to guide him through his life with his parents, his life with his peers, and later, when he is sent out of the country, his life for himself.