‘Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that’s why many feel it must be anxiously guarded’.
― Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men
Some years ago, I read Matar’s memoir following the kidnapping and disappearance of his father, a prominent opposition Libyan figure, from Cairo where the family lived in exile. I finally managed to read In the Country of Men – a novel following a similar narrative of lost and injustice. However, in the fictionalised version, events take place in Libya and the protagonist is 9-year old Suleiman. Both books make for uncomfortable reading as we know ‘forced disappearance’ (such a ridiculous term) is a reality in many countries.
The detail with which Matar describes the execution scene is most disturbing. The morbid fascination and despair as the protagonist watches, from the security of his home, as someone he knew and cared for, loss of control over his physiological state as fear consumes him. The lack of dignity in these last moments as insanity sweeps over the frenzied crowd as they chant with abandon as death approaches. This crystal clear scene haunts me in a way I hadn’t expected, and I often find myself wishing I hadn’t read it.
One is forced to question the role the British government (under Blair). Hell-bent on normalising relations with Libya at a time when dissidents were being rounded up, tortured and murdered. Although the book doesn’t get too political, it’s important to note that British and American intelligence agencies played a crucial role in silencing opponents of Gaddafi (by providing intelligence that lead to their kidnappings and arrests). The role of money (lest we forget the LSE scandal involving Saif al-Islam Gaddafi….) in encouraging those in power to turn a blind eye to abuse and, in some cases, in facilitating human rights violations. Same old, same old.
But the memoir was incomplete to me. It was too measured. Too reflective. Here, in In the Country of Men, that urgency, anger and fear I expected was expressed by this sweet fictional boy, and finally I could see Hisham himself. Sometimes we need distance from our traumas and time to reflect upon what we truly experienced and felt. Despite being written 10 years apart, these books belong together.