The news from Libya this month is increasingly grim.  It turns out it is extremely difficult merely to protect civilians.  There is no magic shield that identifies civilians and encapsulates them away from the ravages of tyrants.  Instead, certain civilians have to be chosen, and their fighters along with them, and the battle joined –perhaps righteous, perhaps not; perhaps the sane vs the maniacs, perhaps not; perhaps merely our more tractable new acquaintances vs our intractable old ones.

The news for civilians in Libya from earlier years was not much better. The years 1977-79, following the publication of Colonel Ghadaffi’s idiosyncratic Green Book and consolidation of his “People’s Authority,” idea of national organization, along with the invasion of neighboring Chad, were particularly ugly, especially if the adults in the family had not fallen in line with the Guide, The Savior of the Nation, Brother Leader Muammar el Qaddafi.

“Just then the chaotic cheering merged into a chant, even the camerman and the one beside him joined in:  “El-Fateh, the revolution of the masses!  El-Fateh, the republic!”  Chaotic shouting reigned again before another chant emerged: “With our blood!  With our soul!  We’ll defend our Guide!

…The crowd’s chanting and cheering was so loud, so hysterical and constant, that it fused into a continuous hum, like the hum of a giant vacuum cleaner.  When the people calmed down the camera …zoomed in and we could see that the handcuffed man sitting on the floor of the National Basketball Stadium was Ustath Rasheed.  His forehead shone with sweat.  His mustache too was moist, tears slivered his cheeks.  He didn’t cry honorably, he cried like a baby… The crowd was jumping now, jumping and howling, Hang the traitor!  Hang the traitor!”

So it’s a wonder that a lyrical and moving short novel could be written about these events but one has been.  In the Country of Men is Hisham Matar’s debut novel.  Within a week of his agent submitting it British publishers were in a bidding war.  It was short listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2006. It will lodge in your heart.

This is not a political novel of the ins and outs of adults in a mortal combat with a dictator, or a fictionalized history of factions or great arenas of time and place.  It is a memory of six months or so of a nine year old boy in the large family house on the shores of the Mediterranean, loved by his mother, comfortable with his friends, exploratory and curious about the adult world.  Moosa, and ex-pat Egyptian and his father’s best friend is often at the house.  His mother, for all her love, is strange, from the opening pages.  She always gets “sick” when his father is away on business;  Suleiman feels totally responsible for her:

“I couldn’t leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette.    Baba never knew, since she only got sick when he was away on business..

And no wonder he feels this.  The bond between the two is almost too warm for western eyes; they lie in bed and snuggle on many mornings.  She says to him:

“We are two halves of the same soul, two open pages of the same book…”

As he describes later, as the narrator:

…her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I could then explain only as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by another person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.

And so the tension of what what is wrong with the mother, where the father might be going, what will happen to Suleiman is gradually, and lyrically tightened.  We begin to feel the sharp edges of life in a dictatorship cutting deeper  page by page.

Stopping at the next traffic light, she whispered a prayer to herself.  A car stopped so close beside us I could have touched the driver’s cheek.  Four men dressed in dark safari suits sat looking at us. …then I remembered.  I remembered so suddenly I felt my heart jump.  They were the same Revolutionary Committee men who had come a week before and taken Ustath Rashid.

Mama looked ahead, her back a few centimeters away from the backrest, her fists tight around the steering wheel.  She released on hand, brought it to my knee and sternly whispered, “Face forward.”

When the traffic light turned green, the car beside us didn’t move.  Everyone knows you mustn’t overtake a Revolutionary Committee car, and if you have to, then you must do it discreetly, without showing any pleasure in it.

 

Yet, Suleiman’s world is still that of a nine year old.  He has friends he goes to the beach with, hopping across the hot sand.  He takes a field trip with his class and Ustath Rashid, the teacher and father of a friend, in charge — Ustath Rashid, who will be snatched by the Mokhabarat, interrogated before the television cameras and hung at an enormous public assembly.  He climbs a ladder and gorges himself on mulberries, food brought to earth, he thinks,  by the angels to give man a taste of heaven. He observes a neighborhood woman “Whose buttocks were the size of giant watermelons.”  He has his first crush on a neighbor girl, but already knows she is not young enough to become his wife as wives have to be young and fertile enough to being old men plenty of children.  He listens as his mother tells him about her own marriage to a man she didn’t know, his father, and how she had tried to take some “magic pills” to escape, and how her own father had appeared at the wedding with a pistol, swearing “Blood will be spilled one way or another.”

So we have the nine year old trying to make sense of the world, and we along with him.  The final terror comes as we discover that Baba has not gone missing because of other women but because of his participation in opposition circles — symbolized by a book Democracy Now, which Suleiman hides under his own bed, and ultimately turns over, in an unknowing act of betrayal, to a police agent watching the house.  After  he disappears his wife pathetically brings a cake next door to beg at the house of a Mokhabarat officer “who can put people behind the sun,” as he often boasts.  The phone echoes from the police tap on it.  A white car is parked outside the house, watching everything.  Moosa and Suleiman’s mother rush around the house gathering and burning all his father’s treasured books, and papers. Agents come into the house and are served tea, while surveying the newly installed portrait of the Brother Leader.

Eventually Baba is returned.  He doesn’t want his son to see him but Suleiman manages to peer in the bedroom window.

[I] “saw a naked man on the bed, his back criss-crossed in dark, glistening lines, some oozing blood. Suddenly he turned toward me. His horrible face threw me back. I fell beneath the glue tree. His eyes were closed, full of air or water or blood, like split rotten tomatoes, and his lower lip was as fat and purple as a baby eggplant.”

Suleiman is rushed out of the country to continue his life in Cairo under the watchful eye of Moosa’s own, stern father.

The language and imagery Matar employs is often surprising, in the best of ways.  “The spot on my elbow, which these days is hard and coiled like the skin around an elephant’s eyes…,” or “my heart raced like a mouse trapped in a wheel.”  The frequent use of Islamic invocations, or cultural adages,  particularly from the mother, bring us into a culture not so familiar to us.  “How many times I have told him, walk close to the wall, feed your family, stay at home,” or “May God have mercy on their souls and compensate their families, but they were not standing [up] for me.”

The sense of being a nine year old is always real — though it is clear that Suleiman is not what we would call “street smart.”  He has been protected.  He doesn’t know what other nine-year olds might know, nor is he  suspicious enough.  His actions are sometimes a discredit to him.  But we believe he is nine, even as we know that the “I” of the narrator is older.

It’s not hard to guess that Matar has drawn much of this from his own experiences.   In an extended 2006 article in the Independent, U.K. he fills us in on much, including his father’s abduction and continuing absence from his life:

In Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, during the bloody chaos of the late 1970s, the authorities, charged with “revolutionary” fervour, added my father’s name to a list of those wanted for interrogation. He was abroad at the time, and his friends sent him a message not to return. My mother, my brother Ziad and myself were still in Libya. During this time, Libya was preparing for its unjust war in neighbouring Chad. In a desperate attempt to boost numbers and in accordance with Gaddafi’s vision to “militarise the masses”, the army had effectively reduced the age for military service to 14 by making military training part of the national curriculum. Ziad was 13. Through messages delivered by hand, Mother and Father decided that the whole family had to leave. And so my mother began to plan our escape. I was eight years old and it would take her a year to get us out.

Fiction and reality woven in the finest way, this is an excellent book.  Not one to be missed, whether you are adding to a Middle-East reading shelf or not. In The Country of Men will stay with you long after you read it.

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