Review: In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar

That visit has remained with me ever since. Whenever I am faced with someone who holds the strings of my fate – an immigration officer, a professor – I can feel the distant reverberations from that day, my inauguration into the dark art of submission. Perhaps this is why I often find a shameful pleasure in submitting to authority. … And this is also why, when I finally think I have gained the pleasure of authority, a sense of self-loathing rises to clasp me by the throat. I have always been able to imagine being unjustifiably hated.  (p. 159)

When his father disappears one day in 1979, nine-year-old Suleiman’s life is forever changed.  Just a short time before, the same thing happened to his best friend Kareem’s father. Instead of spending long happy summer days playing with neighborhood boys, Suleiman tries to make sense of his world.  He acts out his emotions and uncertainty, turning on Kareem instead of offering support.

Under the Qaddafi regime, Libya had become a place where dissent was dangerous.  Counter-revolutionaries were rounded up for interrogation; some never returned. Suleiman’s mother Najwa tells him Baba is on a business trip, and consoles herself with “medicine” (alcohol, obtained illegally).  She has her own demons, having been forced by her family to marry when she was just 14. To protect Baba from investigators, Najwa and a family friend Moosa burn his books and papers. But Suleiman nearly gets caught in the web when a strange man begins asking him questions about Baba and his associates.  In one of the more horrifying scenes Suleiman, Najwa, and Moosa watch a public execution on television.  At the end, the TV broadcast returned to images of flowers and nationalistic music.  And life went on.

Suleiman grew into a man, but one with emotional scars that would never heal.  Hisham Matar writes convincingly, and from direct experience: his own father disappeared many years ago, and to this day Matar doesn’t know what happened to him.  When he describes the televised execution’s impact on Suleiman, you know he’s also talking about himself:

Something was absent in the stadium, something that could no longer be relied on. Apart from making me lose trust in the assumption that “good things happen to good people,” the televised execution … would leave another, more lasting impression on me, one that has survived well into my manhood, a kind of quiet panic, as if at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet. … I had no illusions that I or Baba or Mama were immune from being burned by the madness that overtook the National Basketball Stadium. (p. 198)

This book started slowly and quietly, but the tension steadily grew.  I was drawn into the family’s story, and felt quite emotional reading about how the events of 1979 affected Suleiman for the rest of his life.  This is a very powerful book deserving of its 2006 Booker Prize nomination.