By Duncan White
In March 2012, with Gaddafi dead and Libya transformed by the Arab Spring, the novelist Hisham Matar returned to the country he had left at the age of eight to try to find out what had happened to his father.
In 1990, Jaballa Matar, a leading dissident, had been taken from his Cairo flat by Egyptian secret service agents, handcuffed, blindfolded and bundled into a car. A deal had been cut with the Gaddafi regime and Jaballa was handed over to Libyan agents at Cairo airport. He was flown by private jet to Tripoli, where he was locked away in Abu Salim, a prison known as the “Last Stop”.
Hisham Matar in Libya, 2012 Credit: Diana Matar
Matar was a 19-year-old student in London at the time his father disappeared. The family only learnt that he had been taken to Libya when Jaballa managed to smuggle out three letters and a cassette tape during the first years of his incarceration. After 1996, though, communication ceased. In retrospect this was an ominous sign, as years later it emerged that in June of that year 1,270 Abu Salim inmates were massacred in the prison courtyard. Yet just when Matar began to give up hope that his father was alive, another prisoner claimed to have seen Jaballa in 2002. When the Gaddafi regime fell in 2011, the opportunity arose to return to Libya and seek the truth about his father’s fate.
The Return is his account of that trip and it is a truly remarkable book. From the raw materials of his anger, his suffering, and his grief, Matar has built a testament to his father, his family and his country. It begins with Matar, his wife, Diana, an American-born photographer, and his mother waiting at Cairo airport for the flight to Benghazi. He is beset by last-minute misgivings. “Returning after all these years was a bad idea, I suddenly thought. My family had left in 1979, 33 years earlier. This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was then. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill I had worked so hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love.”
Matar boards the plane and when he steps out on to a runway fringed with spring wildflowers in bloom, “the familiar scents in the air were like a blanket you were not aware you needed, but now that it has been placed on your shoulders you are grateful”. This is the condition in which Matar finds himself, oscillating between resistance and surrender to the land he used to call home. He is suspicious of “the drunkenness of return” and worries what sobriety will bring, but drinks it all in none the less.
Jaballa Matar in Benghazi in 1957, when he was 18, an 18-year-old student at the Teachers’ College of Cyrenaica
The restiveness of Matar’s mind is reflected in the digressive structure of the book, which sweeps between cities and decades often within each chapter, blending national history with family anecdotes, memories with documents. The reader is forced to construct the linear narrative of events from this apparent disorder and it is only as the book unfolds that you realise this disorder has itself been contrived and the fragments and stories are part of a coherent whole that culminates in the thrilling tension of the final act.
It is a book with a profound faith in the consolations of storytelling. Matar meets the uncles and cousins who had been sent to Abu Salim for conspiring with his father, listening to them tell of life inside the jail and the fleeting contact they had with Jaballa. From mobile phone footage he reconstructs the last days of a cousin who fought in the revolution; from family lore he tells the story of his grandfather who fought against the Italians in the first decades of the 20th century.
In one of the most important passages of the book, Matar reluctantly agrees to give a reading at Benghazi library. As people are taking their seats, an old man hands him a bound volume of a student magazine from the Fifties. In it are short stories written by Jaballa when he was an undergraduate. Matar knew his father loved poetry, but had no idea that his father had written prose. He reads the stories to the assembled crowd.
One of his father’s stories is about a boy who suffers a series of tragedies, but ends with his being resolved to “work and survive”. The phrase is exactly the one Matar would hear in his head “with the hard force of a warning bell” at his darkest moments in the preceding decades. “I heard it when I stood at the edge of the Pont d’Arcole, a bridge in Paris, staring into the water. And I hear it still today.”
Libyan novelist Hisham Matar Credit: Clara Molden
Amid the frustration of his search for his father, the stories represent “a profound discovery”. “They were,” he writes, “a gift sent back through time, opening a window on to the landscape of the young man who was to become my father.” From the silence of the past voices and stories emerge and, in recuperating them, Matar engages in an act of resistance.
Gaddafi, like all tyrants, feared writers because their narratives competed with his own (Matar himself was told he had a “red light” over his head by a member of the Libyan secret service). In 1977, he organised a literary festival and arrested all those who attended. It is telling that when the regime finally fell, more than 150 newspapers were published in Benghazi alone. The Return is an act of defiant remembering, an artistic rejection of the official lies and elisions of the Gaddafi regime. In his pursuit of justice, Matar sets his deliberate and elegant sentences against the senselessness of the totalitarian.
Essential to Matar’s work is that those sentences are written in English. While Arabic was his first language, he was born in New York City (where his father worked for the Libyan Mission to the United Nations) and after fleeing Libya he attended British and American schools in Cairo before going to boarding school in England. He attended Goldsmiths College and has been based in London since.
English is his second language, then, but one with which he has lived and worked for most of his life. He says writing in English affords him a certain distance, helping him to be “restrained”, even when writing about the most traumatic subjects.
“Like a poisoned river”: Hisham Matar in Libya Credit: Diana Matar
There is much with which Matar is seeking to come to terms. His father knew the risks his activities carried – he was plotting a coup within Libya and was helping fund a training camp in Chad – and in pursuing them he spent much of the $6 million fortune he had amassed importing Western goods after leaving Libya. After he was taken, the family had to fend for themselves.
In both Matar’s novels – the second is titled Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011) – the father of the protagonist is a dissident who disappears, yet this is Matar’s own experience heavily refracted through fiction. In writing The Return, he forces himself to imagine what his father went through, to tame the rage he feels coursing through him “like a poisoned river”.
The one thing he cannot do is visit Abu Salim prison. There are many gripping twists and turns in this book, but no definitive resolution. Matar still does not know what happened to his father, but the evidence strongly suggests that he was murdered during the massacre at the prison in 1996. Documentary proof has been destroyed and the search for witnesses proved fruitless. There is not even the hope of finding Jaballa’s remains: the bodies of the victims were initially buried in mass graves, but were later exhumed, ground up and poured into the sea.
Yet for Matar there is a strange kind of consolation in believing he was killed that day. “I have always preferred to think of him dying with others,” he writes. “He would have been good with others. His instinct to comfort and support those around him would have kept him busy. If I strain hard enough, I can hear him tell them, ‘Boys, stand straight. With hardship comes ease. With hardship comes ease.’ Those other options of him dying alone – those terrify me.”
The story of the pursuit of his father turns out to be a way of telling the story of Libya itself. The grinding cycles of hope and despair are writ large in the history of the country. When Gaddafi staged his coup in 1969, Jaballa was imprisoned for a few months, along with other high-ranking military officers, but he remained hopeful the new regime would build a modern society to replace the insular monarchy that had succeeded brutal Italian colonialism. Gaddafi’s cruelty did profound damage to Libya’s self-esteem, but the revolution in February 2011, the year before Matar returned to the country, offered a new generation hope.
This is the tragic irony of The Return. All the plans for a new stable Libya, the modest ambitions of the ordinary Libyans he meets, sit in the shadow of what author and reader know is coming. “I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories, yet also so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other.
The entire country was poised on a knife-edge. In less than two years, the streets of downtown Benghazi, around the hotel where I lay staring into the ceiling, would become a battleground. The buildings, now occupied with families and their secrets, would stand as ghostly skeletons, charred and empty.”
The situation is again bleak. Warring militias and the theocratic mercenaries of Isil are battling for control. Those Libyan newspapers that flourished in the spring of 2012 are gone and the targeted assassination of foreign journalists means few risk reporting on what is happening. Once again Libya’s story is at risk of going untold.