Towards the end of a three-minute clip on Libya, recently aired by the BBC, an elderly woman is interviewed about the situation in her town. She starts to voice her frustration, but then abruptly changes tack, saying everything is okay before quickly driving off in her car. Therein, is a small but telling reminder of the tension among ordinary Libyans, even as they dare to hopethat things might change for the better in their country.
Award winning author Hisham Matar, a Libyan himself, is all too familiar with what’s going on in Libya – the fear and caution of people who know that their every move is being watched by government informants. His book, In the Country of Men (published in 2007) reminds us that Libyans have had to put up with this situation for nearly half a century. Matar, who currently lives in London, paints a vivid picture of life in Muammar Quadaffi’s Libya and the steep price paid by those who have dared to stand against that country’s regime in the past.
The story, told through the eyes of nine year old Suleiman, centers on the young boy’s life growing up in Libya. His mother, forced at the age of 14 to marry a man against her wishes, tries to be a dutiful wife (to the man who was her punishment) and doting mother (to the boy who sealed her fate). Still scarred emotionally by her own lost childhood, she does her best to shield her son from what is happening. Meanwhile, his father, Bu Faraj Suleiman is hardly ever at home, ostensibly frequently traveling on business.
Only when the young Suleiman bumps into his father while on a shopping trip to the city, does it begin to dawn on the boy that there is more to his father’s absences. Things, however, quickly take a turn for the worse. First, Ustath Rashid, one of his father’s friends vanishes. Then Suleiman and his mother find themselves increasingly trailed by shadowy figures. And, later, when the same men come to their home looking for his father, Suleiman cannot stop wondering who’s next.
“So they were the same men who had followed us yesterday from Martyrs’ Square.The same ones who beat Ustath Rashid and made his vanish. ‘Vanished like a grain of salt in water’ was how Auntie Salma put it, when running between police stations and Revolutionary Committee offices, she returned slapping one hand over the other and murmuring,…Who have they come to take this time, I wondered: Mama, Moosa, me?
Speaking up against the Quadaffi regime carries a heavy price, isolation by relatives being one of them as Suleiman tells us.
“My grandparents’ house was in Benghazi, where the family is from, twelve hours’ drive away, where my uncles, Auntie Nora and my countless cousins also lived. I always thought that it was because of the distance they never visited, but I later discovered that it was my father’s political involvement that scared them away. People were sometimes arrested just by association.”
Bu Suleiman’s close friend, Ustath Rashid, pays the ultimate price – one that Bu Suleiman, himself, only survives through the intervention of one of his neighbors who happens to work for the government. For the young Suleiman, all this is hard to take, as he reflects later on.
“Apart from making me lose trust in the assumption that ‘good things happen to good people,’, the televised execution of Ustath Rashid 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. After Ustath Rashid’s death, I had no illusions that I or Baba or Mama were immune from being burned by the madness that overtook the National Basketball Stadium.”
In the end, as the situation in Libya worsens, Suleiman’s parents arrange for their son to leave Libya in the hope that he, at least, can find a better life. But as Suleiman discovers, even living outside his home country does not put him beyond the reach of “The Leader”.
In the Country of Men is a powerful book, made even more engaging by the voice and emotions of the child narrator, who is both endearing and exasperating, as he tries to influence outcomes in a world of men- a world that he hardly understands. As I read the book, I could not help but feel for the people living in Libya.
The book, which was Matar’s first novel, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. It won six international literary awards and has been translated into twenty-eight languages.
Matar’s latest book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, will come out in August 2011 and can now be pre-ordered from Amazon.