In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

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In the Country of Men Summary

In the Country of Men is a novel by Hisham Matar in which nine-year-old Suleiman grows up in Libya during Moammar Qaddafi's regime.

  • Suleiman's life is peaceful and happy, but that changes when dictator Moammar Qaddafi takes control of the country.

  • Suleiman's father joins the rebellion against Qaddafi and is frequently absent.

  • With Suleiman's father largely absent, Suleiman's mother starts drinking heavily.

  • Suleiman's father's friend Rashid is executed as a rebel, and it is implied that Suleiman's father betrayed Rashid.
  • Suleiman's father returns home badly injured, and Suleiman is sent to Egypt so that he will not be forced to join Qaddafi's army.

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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.

Extended Summary

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In the Country of Men begins in Tripoli, Libya, in the neighborhood of its young narrator, Sulieman. Suleiman speaks of his parents. His father is a well-to-do businessman who is often not at home because he must travel “abroad” to do his work. Readers are not privy to what Suleiman’s father does for a living, but it is obvious that the family has many luxuries. Sometimes his father comes home with gifts, sometimes with strange objects, such as a truckload of cattle. Suleiman’s mother, who was forced to marry at the age of fourteen, is not very self-confident and quells her fears by drinking when Suleiman’s father is away. Suleiman refers to his mother’s drinking problem as her “sickness.” He feels it is his responsibility to take care of her. He notices that his mother only gets sick when his father is gone, but he does not understand his mother’s true problems. Suleiman believes that the alcohol she purchases is in fact her medicine.

One day out in the city, Suleiman sees his father who is supposed to be on a business trip. He does not understand why his father has not come home if he is still in the city. His father does not see Suleiman, so...

(This entire section contains 1197 words.)

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the boy’s questions go unanswered. This scene, which occurs quite early in the story, suggests the sense of secrecy that surrounds his father, which will be further developed as the story goes on.

Also early in novel, Suleiman talks about his friend Kareem who lives next door and about Kareem’s father, Ustath Rashid, an intellectual man who demonstrates a special and loving relationship toward Suleiman. Rashid takes time to explain things to Suleiman, unlike Suleiman’s own father, who hardly ever talks to his son. One day, a carload of men, members of the Revolutionary Party, appear outside Rashid’s house. Rashid is quickly and rudely ushered away. Suleiman is not aware of what is going on. He only notes the sudden sadness in his friend Kareem, who appears to not want to take part in any of the young neighborhood boys’ activities.

Members of the Revolutionary Party also appear at Suleiman’s house one night. Moosa, an Egyptian friend of the family, is present for this encounter. After the men search the house and leave, Moosa and Suleiman’s mother gather papers and books and burn them in the backyard. Suleiman is confused as to why they are burning his father’s favorite books. He notices that they drop one of the books and Suleiman grabs it and hides it under his pillow.

When Suleiman’s mother gets drunk, she likes to tell her son stories about her past. She tells him how she was forced to marry. Her cousin Khadija betrayed her, telling her parents that he had seen her holding hands with a young boy in a public café. This was an act of defiance in the Muslim culture. Suleiman’s mother was forced to marry as soon as the family found a suitor, in order to prevent rumors that she was a “loose” woman. Suleiman’s mother was not in love with his father. She often tells Suleiman that when he grows up, he will save her. This puts extra pressure on Suleiman to take care of his mother. In the mornings after a drinking spree, Suleiman’s mother often takes him for long rides in the car and then buys him treats. She begs him to never reveal the stories she has told him. If he does, her life would be in his hands. This sometimes makes Suleiman feel like he will burst, because he has to keep such big secrets.

Moosa, Suleiman’s father’s closest friend, often comes to the house. Moosa works with Suleiman’s father in the underground movement against Qaddafi and the Revolutionary Party. Suleiman’s father is an undefined leader of the underground movement and creates pamphlets about democracy. Local college students secretly spread the pamphlets throughout Tripoli’s neighborhoods. Suleiman often wishes that Moosa was his father. Moosa is more playful and open. Moosa is also more frequently at the house than Suleiman’s father.

Even though Suleiman does not understand the politics that are developing around him, he does take note of how his neighbors make a big demonstration of publicly destroying his father’s pamphlets, quickly picking them up and tearing them into pieces. Suleiman’s mother takes hers into the house and burns it. When Suleiman asks what the pamphlets are all about, Suleiman’s mother dismisses his questions. This is typical of Suleiman’s relationship with his mother. She never reveals anything she knows about the adult world, except for the stories she tells him when she is drunk. Suleiman, with his father’s absence and silence and his mother’s falsehoods and dismissal, is left to interpret life on his own.

One day, Suleiman cannot sleep. He gets up and turns on the television. There he sees Kareem’s father, Ustath Rashid. Rashid is sitting in front of a panel of men. His expression is grim. Suleiman hears one of the men calling out names, asking if these other people were involved in the underground movement. When the man mentions Suleiman’s father, Rashid tells them, “No.” Suleiman does not fully understand what it is going on, but he senses it has something to do with Rashid being loyal to his father.

Later, after Suleiman’s father disappears, Suleiman feels irritated and confused about what is going on. He goes outside and sees his neighborhood friends. In his anger he acts out and tells a group of boys things Kareem has told Suleiman in secret—personal things such as his feelings toward certain neighborhood girls. The concept of betrayal is played out through Suleiman’s actions. Although Suleiman knows he has done harm, he does not know how to explain his feelings.

When Suleiman watches television later with his mother and Moosa, he sees Rashid again. This time, Rashid is condemned to death. He is hung while the cameras are still rolling. He dies even though he has not betrayed his friends.

Afterward, Suleiman’s mother visits her neighbors across the street. Ustath Jafer is a high-ranking officer in the Revolutionary Party. She pleads for her husband’s life. A day or so later, Suleiman, believing he can save his father, turns over the book he has hidden under his pillow to one of the men who took his father away. The man, Sharief, tells Suleiman that it is not necessary. Though Suleiman does not understand, Sharief insinuates that his father has betrayed Rashid, having given up information about the underground movement and will soon be released. It is also insinuated that this betrayal is what led to Rashid’s hanging.

Suleiman’s father returns one night. He is so beaten up, Suleiman does not recognize him. In time, his father recovers. Suleiman is eventually sent away to Egypt so he will not have to fight in Qaddafi’s army. While visiting Egypt several years later, Suleiman’s father is again kidnapped and taken away.