It is a Libyan-flavoured revolution, a mixture of spice and salt and light that smells like the blessings that come from the lanterns of saints. I find this lovely sentence, haunting in its sensual eloquence, scribbled down in my commonplace book, the first small footprint left there by Hisham Matar. I was acutely conscious as I read his new memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, that I hadn’t read either of his novels (an omission I am quickly mending); but I am also interested to find a series of glancing engagements with him, often starting in the columns of the TLS, which have left words copied, or cuttings pasted, into the little black notebooks that have served me for years as nets in which succulent fish are landed.
A year or two ago I published an essay on Libyan education. Not easy at all, the sources being very thin, the statistics very suspect, but as I researched, I came across a striking piece by Matar in which he described the founding of the University of Benghazi, and Qaddafi’s brutality there, culminating in the hanging of two students in the cathedral grounds in 1977. Scribbled down, once again and gratefully quoted. It recurs in this book, and coming across it is like meeting a familiar landmark. So too is a reference to Alessandro Spina (the pseudonymous Libyan novelist Basili Shafik Khouzam) and a quotation from him – but when I search for it in my notebook, I find not one but two chilling sentences which made enough of an impression to record, when I happened on them in a TLS review by Matar. The first recurs here, and is the words of an Italian describing colonised Libya, and Italy’s offering her up to our young men, so that they may vent the entire spectrum of their human, heroic, sadistic and aesthetic emotions. The second was, if anything, an even more sobering description of colonial ethics:
As an army officer at a high-society party in Milan puts it: ‘As soon as one reaches the other coast, one is ordered to do the exact opposite [to that] prescribed by God’s commandments.’ Italy will turn Libya, another Italian officer says, into a bordello.
I have learned more of real importance about Libya and its tortured history through this one short book than through anything else I have read about it. Filtered carefully through the muslin of his own and his family’s experience, the country becomes the background, symbol and heart of the painful but inspiring story of Matar’s life, a pure, deep red liquid in the glass, in which the light glitters softly and casts an eloquent pool of red luminescence upon the table.
The book is about exile and the love of a father, and it is extraordinary. Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, was a passionate Libyan, a leading anti-Qaddafi activist, a tireless organizer and financier of armed resistance to the dictator, who was kidnapped by Egyptian police in Cairo in 1990 and secretly ‘rendered,’ in a word that had yet to become familiar, to Libya. There he was imprisoned and tortured, before – perhaps – dying in the infamous Abu Salim prison massacre of June 1996.
Matar’s book is a beautifully interleaved reflection on the loss of country and father, in which the boundaries between the two are porous and sometimes indistinct, a synecdoche of poignant truth. The search, both in the world and the heart for a firm connection with these two lost foci of love and meaning is moving and beautifully written. The book has as it spine a long, segmented return to Libya after the revolution, a series of painfully raw meetings with family members he hadn’t seen for many years, and others he never knew. It is a journey of unexpected discoveries. Inveigled into a literary event that he didn’t much want to attend at a flyblown library, he is given a bound volume containing student magazines in which his father had published two short stories as a young man, of which he had never spoken; and he is told publicly a story of his mother’s heroism that was equally new to him. Relatives, alive and dead, throng his imagination.
The return itself, and the life of which it is a focus, form a serial unpeeling of history, national and personal. It is made the more poignant by the fact that it has for counterpoint the ignoble engagements of Britain, his adopted country, with the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, a sordid relationship which one British official describes to him as ‘leveraged engagement,’ while another glosses that phrase as meaning all ‘carrots and nearly no sticks.’ He watched Blair sup with Qaddafi using all too short a spoon – the infamous, if apocryphal, Desert Kiss – all bonhomie and hot air, while much of his Matar family rotted in Libyan gaols. He tells of all the punctuation marks in Anglo-Libyan relations – the murder of PC Fletcher in St James’s Square, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi’s insinuation into London society, his phoney PhD and his popularity as man-about-town with his carefully manicured air of being a modernist, a reformer. The revolution itself, and the discovery in Tripoli of documentary evidence that British security services had traded in Libyan exiles, rendered them to Tripoli and even informed their interrogations. All this punctuates the story giving it a horribly specific gravity.
But the core of the book is the exile from fatherland and father, and the way that double absence shapes Matar’s life. “Guilt is the exile’s eternal companion,” he writes, and there is much guilt in the complicated relationship with both that dominates so much of his life. The endless search for news of Jaballa, of confirmation of his death or survival, runs through it, and necessitates much repugnant supping with the devil on Matar’s part, in the shape of Seif Qaddafi and his myrmidons, who play endless games of deception and raised hopes, making small concessions but never the crucial one, knowledge of Jaballa’s fate. Seif, trivial, slick, vain and heartless, plays games punctuated with blackmail, emoticons and creepy wooing, constantly shifting the walnut shells one of which might – but doesn’t – contain a dried pea. Exile is physical, emotional. His mother’s anxieties for him
… were not only about the dangers my search for my father was exposing me to, or indeed what it might lead me to uncover, but about something else far more specific, concerning the daily restlessness such a search demands, the way it reverberates through your body and days and everything you do.
The question of Jaballa’s death is the lodestar. Matar knows very well that his father is almost certainly dead, but without the finality of fact cannot accept or digest it. There is a wonderfully poignant moment in a garden in Kenya, when an eagle flies overhead just as a branch falls from a tree, landing on the table between Matar and his brother Ziad, smashing Matar’s mobile telephone.
I wondered if the eagle above was our father. Perhaps this was why it sent a branch precisely onto my bloody phone. I didn’t tell Ziad this because I didn’t want him think that I believed Father was dead … The truth was, at that moment I didn’t believe Father to be dead. But the truth was also that I didn’t believe him to be alive either.
The return to Libya, and the book, end with a long-dreaded visit to Abu Salim prison, and the assembly of the clues, real and false, that have shaped his posthumous relationship with his father. For the relationship is as true, and supple, as fraught with love, fear and care, as any living relationship. As Matar puts it,
Disbelief is the right instinct, for how can the dead really be dead? I think this is because absence has never seemed empty or passive, but rather a busy place, vocal and insistent.
The last spoor in my commonplace book is only a week or two old – and is what sent me off to buy The Return – a long piece in the Guardian which I wrongly assumed to have come from the book, concentrating on the vagaries of education and language. Matar describes beautifully his acquisition of English, which he began with at school in Cairo, and continued in England where “English was now everywhere and the same muscles that made me excel in Arabic began working in this new tongue.” The tensions that his life and his writing have embodied, though, are painfully symbolized by his father’s reaction when he wrote home in English: “I received no reply. Then a large envelope arrived. It contained my previous three or four letters with a note, written on the back of one of my envelopes: ‘If you wish to write me, write in Arabic.”
This wonderful book is of course a defiance of, as well as a homage to, his father: a long, filial and passionate letter to Jaballa Matar, it was written in English. But that is the contradiction thate exiles must resolve,
Ending up with a language other than the one I was born in is neither, as in an opera finale, redemption nor a falling off. The truth is elsewhere. I am a Libyan who writes in English. I write in language my father did not wish me to write to him in … [but] even in the years when I struggled with this question of writing in a language that was not my own, or a language that had once not been my own, a language in other words that I had to make mine, I never worried about it when I wrote.
That is a small miracle, and we are the beneficiaries. It is the spice and the salt of exile.