In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

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Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

Most of Matar’s In the Country of Men is set in Libya, a country located on the northeast coast of Africa between Tunisia and Algeria on the west, Egypt on the east, and Sudan, Chad, and Niger to the south. To the north is the Mediterranean Sea. These are important landmarks, as many of these points are discussed in the novel. The chief of state is Muammar Qaddafi (sometimes spelled Gadhafi), who has been a dictator in Libya since 1969. Tripoli is the capital of Libya, a city of over 2 million people today. The dinar is Libya’s monetary unit, an item also mentioned in this story. Sunni Islam is the religion of the majority of the Libyan population. The largest portion of the population is made up of Berbers and Arab, while about three percent of the people are from Italy, Greece, Pakistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, India, and Tunisia. Moosa and his father Judge Yaseen (to whom Suleiman is later sent) are Egyptians living in Tripoli until the very end of the novel.

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Throughout its history, both the Greek and Roman empires controlled parts of Libya. The statue of Septimius Severus is mentioned in the beginning of the novel. This Roman emperor (146-211) was born in present-day Libya. At one time, Tripoli was also the home base for Barbary pirates, who raided ships as they passed by the Mediterranean coast. Italy took over control of Tripoli in 1911 and despite battles with local residents eventually brought together various groups, uniting the people, thus creating the colony of Libya in 1934. The United Nations declared Libya an independent country in 1951. Oil was discovered there seven years later, which gave a much-needed boost to the country’s economy.

On September 1, 1969, a young revolutionary figure, twenty-seven-year-old Qaddafi, deposed the reigning king Idris I (as well as his designated successor Sayyid Hasan ar-Rida al-Mahdi as-Sanussi) in a bloodless coup and created a pro-Arabic Muslim regime.

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Suleiman and his family live in Tripoli throughout most of the novel. Muslim rule in this city is apparent when Suleiman’s mother is reluctant to be seen outside of her home by herself and is definitely not supposed to be buying any alcohol, which is forbidden in Islamic countries. There is mention of Islamic leaders and spiritual advisors as well as citizens being called to daily prayers from loudspeakers in the town’s minarets. The heat and the dryness of Tripoli are also mentioned, especially through the incident in which Suleiman suffers a heat stroke after spending the afternoon in the backyard eating mulberries.

Besides the landscape of the city, a major component of the setting is the persistent intrusion of the politics and practices of Qaddafi’s regime, which attempts to obliterate any suspicion of dissent. Telephones are permanently tapped, with a third party’s anonymous voice often interrupting telephone conversations between the two callers. The dictator’s thugs also patrol the streets, monitoring suspicious activities and often pushing their way into the characters’ homes to search for evidence of disloyalty. Because of this influence of terror and suspicion, neighbors spy on one another or else keep all personal actions, which might be construed as political betrayal, hidden behind closed curtains and doors.

Only at the end of the novel does the setting switch to neighboring Egypt, a country that represents a false sense of freedom and escape from the brutal dictatorship in Libya. Suleiman is sent to Egypt so he will not be forced to join Qaddafi’s army. When Suleiman’s parents appear in Egypt, the family believes themselves to be safe. However, Egypt partially and secretly supports the Libyan government. Egyptian officials kidnap Suleiman’s father and turn him over to Qaddafi’s men.

In the Country of Men

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1844

In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar’s first novel, was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the 2006 Guardian First Book Award in Great Britain. Though showing some of the typical faults of first novels, it is an impressive debut. Of Libyan background, Matar is an accomplished writer in English, which might be his first language. (He was born in New York City but grew up in Tripoli and Cairo.) He is also proficient in using the recursive narrative technique of postmodern novels, but what stands out most in the novel is its insider perspective on living in a totalitarian Muslim country. Matar is one of a number of writers with Muslim roots who write eloquently in English about this and similar themes, who provide valuable insight into the conflicted Muslim world, and who are reminders of the humane values existing within that world.

On the other hand, Matar’s depiction of Libya under the rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi is a reminder of some of the worst tendencies in the Muslim world. Qaddafi, a well-educated and wily leader, seems to have been carried away by his desire to inherit the mantle of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) as leader of the pan-Arabic cause. (Later Qaddafi, always the opportunist, took up the pan-African cause.) From a peasant background, Qaddafi earned a law degree in Libya and received advanced military training in England. Colonel Qaddafi used that training on September 1, 1969, to lead a coup against the Libyan royal family and establish the Libyan Arab Republic. Domestically, he tried to create a socialistic Islamic regime essentially in his own image. Internationally, true to his idea of pan-Arabism and with oil money, he supported other revolutions, funded terrorist operations, and even hired hit men to eliminate his critics abroad. Always a darling of the Third World, he supposedly mellowed and reformed in the early 2000’s, possibly to improve his image in the West and to avoid the fate of fellow dictator and self-appointed heir of the pan-Arabic cause Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

In this novel, as in earlier articles and op-ed pieces, the author does not let Qaddafi and his regime off the hook. In the Country of Men is based, to some extent, on Matar’s own experiences with the regime. Like his young protagonist, Suleiman “Slooma” el-Dewani, Matar fled Libya for political reasons at the age of nine, accompanied by his mother and older brother. His father, a wealthy businessman under a political cloud (though earlier he had served in Libya’s U.N. delegation), was not able to escape Libya until a year later. Only when the family was reunited in Cairo did the father begin his political dissent against the Libyan regime. In 1990, the Egyptian secret police arrested the father and another exiled Libyan dissident and turned them over to the Libyans, who imprisoned and tortured them. The father smuggled a few letters out of the Tripoli prison to his family but has not been heard from since 1995. (Details of the family’s ordeal have appeared in various writings by Matar, most notably an article in the July 16, 2006, Independent titled “I Just Want to Know What Happened to My Father.”)

In Matar’s novel, these circumstances are changed considerably, mostly for simplification purposes and purposes of characterization. The young protagonist, Suleiman, is an only child, which intensifies the relationship between him and his twenty-four-year-old mother, Najwa, who is an alcoholic and carries a grudge for being married off at fourteen. She had Suleiman when she was fifteen and has spoiled him since. The mother and son’s close bonds have ample opportunity to intensify because of the father’s long absences from Tripoli on business trips abroad. One time, when the father, Faraj, is supposedly traveling, Suleiman sees him in town on Martyrs’ Square, where he enters a building and hangs out a red towel from the top floor. This sighting is the boy’s first hint of his father’s dangerous political activity. Faraj is part of a large group of intellectuals and students distributing leaflets critical of the Qaddafi regime. The next-door neighbor, Ustath Rashid, an art history professor, also belongs to the group.

Criticism of the government is accepted, even expected, in a democracy, but in Qaddafi’s Libya it is treason. Everyone in the neighborhood fully understands this, so they hastily gather and destroy the distributed leaflets, sometimes burning them and flushing the ashes. The volatile missives offer Suleiman and his playmates an opportunity for mischief: They tie stones to the incriminating leaflets and hurl them over people’s walls. Um Masoud, a neighbor and wife of an official in the Mokhabarat (secret police), comes forth and announces the official line: The people distributing the leaflets are “traitors” and are extremely upsetting to her husband, Ustath Jafer, who is “able to put people behind the sun.”

As the close-knit, interactive neighborhood suggests, it is hard to keep a secret in Libya. In 1979, Libya’s total population was around three million. Although Tripoli numbered almost one million, a rural or small-town mentality prevails: Everybody seems to know everybody else and sometimes everybody else’s business. This mentality has its value, which has been almost lost in the urban West: Kinship and friendship ties are strong, reflecting centuries of tribal loyalties (for example, the honorific titles Um and Bu mean “mother of” and “father of,” respectively, the oldest son). Unfortunately, this close community is joined with the latest technology in Qaddafi’s Libya. The phones are regularly tapped, and the secret police even interfere in conversations. Interrogations, trials, and executions of so-called traitors (the trial and execution staged as one continuous event in a crowded sports arena) are televised nationally.

Mokhabarat men start tailing family cars and showing up in the neighborhood. The first person arrested is Ustath Rashid, who is dragged from his home and assaulted in the street in front of his family and neighbors. He is next seen days later, looking the worse for wear, being interrogated on television, where he confirms a list of coconspirators but denies that Faraj el-Dewani is one of them. Ustath, looking still more beaten down, eventually is tried and hanged before a screaming sports arena crowda horrific event witnessed on television by Suleiman, his mother, family friend Moosa, and the nation.

Meanwhile, the Mokhabarat have been rounding up others on the list, including a large number of university students. Suleiman’s father hides, and the Mokhabarat pay a rude visit to their home, intending to search it. Luckily, Moosa is there, and he shrewdly charms them by serving them tea and snacks, ensnaring them in the rules of hospitality. They leave without searching the home, allowing Najwa and Moosa to burn Faraj’s incriminating papers and books, except for one titled Democracy Now that Suleiman squirrels away. Despite these efforts, Faraj is taken away, as well as his clerk Nasser. Najwa throws herself on the mercy of their neighbor, Ustath Jafer, to intervene. Eventually, Moosa is able to collect Faraj and bring him home, but he is beaten almost beyond recognition. Moosa, an Egyptian, is deported, along with his Egyptian father, Judge Yaseen. Their return to Egypt provides a safe haven where Suleiman can be sent. He grows up and settles, exiled from family, home, and country.

Suleiman’s point of view and characterization are somewhat inconsistent. The above events are narrated as Suleiman saw them at age nine, with gaps in information, such as how his father was caught, tortured, and released, but Suleiman is telling about them fifteen years later, after he had time to learn more. Conversely, little events and full conversations from fifteen years earlier are remembered with astonishing detail. This inconsistency is reflected in the style, which ranges from simple sentences to those extending half a page.

Inconsistency in young Suleiman’s character can perhaps be explained by his family situation. Overall, he is depicted as a smart, sensitive, loving child who watches out for his mother when she is “ill” (that is, drunk) and keeps her alcoholism a secret. Despite his oedipal feelings, he loves his father. Yet the naïveté with which he gives up information to the Mokhabarateven trying to deliver the book Democracy Now to the secret policemight be his father’s undoing. Surely a nine-year-old knows his father’s persecutors or at least knows to keep his mouth shut. Also disturbing are young Suleiman’s taunting of his best friend, Kareem Rashid, after Kareem’s father is arrested; his rock-throwing that injures his next best friend, Adnan, whose medical problem could cause fatal bleeding; and his attacks on the old beggar, Bahloul. Young Suleiman’s mixed-up behavior mirrors his mother’s alcoholismor the Mokhabarat’s cruelty.

Matar explores “the dark art of submission,” which finds “a shameful pleasure in submitting to authority,” through some relationships in the novel, most notably the brief relationship between young Suleiman and the Mokhabarat squad leader Sharief. Sharief’s physical description and behavior suggest a depraved, snakelike character, like Satan in the biblical Garden of Eden. Sharief seems to exercise a venomous fascination over the young Suleiman. The symbolic effect of Sharief is matched by that of the pathetic beggar Bahloul, who suggests the opposite pole of submission. Young Suleiman reacts powerfully to such symbolic overtones, like the rank smell that the Mokhabarat leaves behind or his beautiful mother’s sharp, alcoholic breath.

The novel also explores the dark art of submission through a secondary theme, the status of women. Women’s status as chattel is exemplified by Najwa’s marriage. When, at fourteen, she is seen sitting across from a boy in the Coffee Houseand even touching hands with him!the “High Council” (her father and brothers) convenes and decides to hurriedly marry her off before word gets around that she is “damaged goods.” Najwa feels that they ruined her life, even though she is a dutiful wife and eventually comes to love her husband, particularly after she almost loses him to the Mokhabarat. Still, one cannot help noticing the parallels between marriage and dictatorship in the novel: In his home, each man in In the Country of Men is a little Qaddafi.

One may conclude that much of the abuse depicted in the novel relates to the Islamic religion, which models the authoritarian family and state. Islam is an Arabic word meaning “submission.” In the Country of Men is interlaced with the Islamic teachings promoting submission, teachings that can create a fertile setting for the rise of dictators big and small. How hard the prototype or pattern is to break is exemplified by Najwa’s brother Khaled, a poet who lives in America and has an American wife. While visiting, Khaled is the one who sees Najwa in the Coffee House and leads the High Council to arrange her marriage. It is fair to say that his American wife does not see things in the same way. One can only hope that with more time, understanding, and thoughtful interpretation, this pattern can be modified.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 170

Adams, Lorraine. 2007. The dissident’s son. New York Times Book Review, March 4, p. 8. Extremely flattering review.

Birdthistle, William. 2007. Review of In the Country of Men. Wall Street Journal, March 16, p. W-6. Brief but positive review.

Charles, Ron. 2007. A Libyan childhood. Washington Post, February 4, p. BW07. Charles praises Matar’s subject matter and writing style.

Donovan, Deborah. 2006. Review of In the Country of Men. Booklist 103 (7): 22. Short description of the novel.

Emry, Ellen. 2007. Libyan child’s gritty world isn’t kid’s stuff. Seattle Times, February 4, p. K-8. This critic was impressed with Matar’s novel.

Keates, Jonathan. 2007. Love in the land of Gaddafi. The Spectator (London), September 9.

Levy, Michele. 2007. Review of In the Country of Men. World Literature Today 81 (6): 62–63. Insightful review and summary of Matar’s novel.

Van Der Vlies, Andrew. 2005. To be a man. Times Literary Supplement (London), August 4, p. 21. A favorable review is provided.

Zipp, Yvonne. 2007. A land where boys must be men. Christian Science Monitor, February 6, p. 13. This reviewer finds Matar’s novel to be stunning and poetic.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

Booklist 103, no. 7 (December 1, 2006): 22.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 21 (November 1, 2006): 1095-1096.

Library Journal 131, no. 19 (November 15, 2006): 58.

The Nation 284, no. 8 (February 26, 2007): 30-33.

New Statesman 135 (July 31, 2006): 58.

The New York Times 156 (February 15, 2007): E10.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (March 4, 2007): 8.

Newsweek 148, no. 11 (September 11, 2006): 61.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 43 (October 30, 2006): 34-35.

The Wall Street Journal 249, no. 62 (March 16, 2007): W6.

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