Writing into history
LIBYA:Hisham Matar’s life and books are bound up in the story of Libya under Muammar Gadafy, and if and when the dictator is dislodged, Matar intends to return to Libya and find out what happened to his father, who disappeared 11 years ago, and played a major role in the Libyan opposition, writes Foreign Correspondent MARY FITZGERALD
THERE IS A STORY Libyan novelist Hisham Matar often tells of the regime that forced his family into exile and later spirited his father away. It dates back to the early years of Col Muammar Gadafy’s experiment in tyranny, a time of fear and purges, a time when dissidents were hanged in public as the mercurial young army officer sought to remake Libya in his own image.
It is the story of a literary festival organised, with great fanfare, by the regime. Invitations were issued to many of the country’s writers – but it was a trap. Those who attended found themselves rounded up and imprisoned. The regime did not stop there. Soldiers armed with a list of books deemed inappropriate raided Libya’s bookshops. Anything that might be seen as a challenge to Gadafy’s idiosyncratic orthodoxy was gathered up and burned.
“One of the reasons why Gadafy’s dictatorship has managed to remain in power for so long is not just because it has shown itself to be able to exact a great deal of violence, both psychological and physical, on its people, but because it has been very successful at imposing a narrative, a story,” says Matar.
That narrative has unravelled since mid-February, when protests inspired by those that toppled autocrats in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt tipped into an armed revolt against a ruler under whom Libyans have chafed for 42 years. In the early days, when there were no foreign journalists in Libya to report on Gadafy’s efforts to brutally snuff out what were initially peaceful demonstrations, Matar set up a makeshift newsroom in his London flat. “We knew a lot of people inside Libya, a lot of very different sorts of people, that we could call and get accounts from,” he says, sitting in a Dublin hotel, his lapel displaying a pin in the colours of Libya’s pre-Gadafy national flag. “It was about getting information out. There was a real sense of urgency.”
The uprising happened to coincide with the publication of Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, which meant the 41-year-old author was very much in demand as a commentator on Libya, past and present, as the world scrambled to make sense of what was happening in a country few outsiders knew much of.
Matar’s life is intimately bound up in the story of Libya under Gadafy. Born a year after Gadafy came to power following a military coup, Matar spent his early childhood in New York where his father, Jaballa, an army officer turned diplomat, was part of Libya’s mission to the UN. Jaballa later became disillusioned with the regime and, in 1979, took his family to live in exile in Cairo, from where he played a prominent role in the Libyan opposition.
Eleven years later, Jaballa disappeared. The family learned from smuggled correspondence that he had been abducted by Egyptian intelligence and handed over to the Libyan authorities. Jaballa Matar’s last known location was Abu Salim, the notorious Tripoli jail into which thousands of dissidents have vanished. In a 1995 letter, he wrote: “The cruelty of this place far exceeds all of what we know of the fortress prison of Bastille. The cruelty is in everything, but we remain stronger than their tactics of oppression.”
The following year, more than 1,200 inmates were gunned down in a matter of hours after they protested over horrendous conditions. The Matar family has not been able to definitively establish whether Jaballa was among those who perished.
“I don’t know if he is still alive,” says Matar. “The honest answer is that I would be very surprised if he is alive. It would be more likely than not that they killed him, just because of what they have done with other people like that.”
The date of the Abu Salim massacre and the possibility of his father having been among those killed haunts Matar. “I keep thinking back to what I was doing on that date, because we only found out about it in 2001. On some level, you can’t but wonder why you didn’t feel something that day. A friend of mine, on the day his mother died, suddenly felt her presence and started crying – only later he got a call to say she was dead. I have always thought I carried my father in mind, so why did I not feel something? This is the problem of not knowing for sure.”
Matar’s own story of loss invariably prompts the question of how much it informs his writing. Both Anatomy of a Disappearance and In the Country of Men, his debut novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hinge on the disappearance of a father, and the impact on those left behind.
“I am certainly writing these two novels about subjects that have affected me very deeply, and I feel that through my experience, I have a particular understanding of them, but I am interested in the universal affects of these experiences,” he says. “What I am interested in is this very peculiar condition when you lose somebody in a way that isn’t conclusive, in that you don’t know what has happened to them. It seemed to me that not only is that unusual, it is very interesting because it has links to so many other fairly familiar states of loss.”
Neither does he regard his writing and the themes it explores as cathartic. “Making something of loss is on some level satisfying. Not in the sense that I feel I have come to terms with this, and I have closure, which I have always regarded as very silly. I am not interested in closure – I am interested in knowledge and understanding things. But on some level, it feels like an act of resistance in a way. To me, writing is like singing in the most inappropriate place, singing as beautifully as you can on a bus or in a bank, where people least expect it, and trying to get them to want to listen.”
Throughout the ongoing tumult in his home country, Matar has used Twitter to post thoughts and links to newspaper articles. In between lines from Richard III, there is one tweet which reads: “Writers are useless in a revolution, especially when they are in exile.”
He has penned several columns on events in Libya, many of which draw on personal experience. “There is a tendency to over-exaggerate and over-romanticise the place of a writer in a revolution,” he says. “That bothers me. I think it’s inappropriate. It is hugely satisfying, however, if I manage to articulate something that is felt by a lot of other people who perhaps didn’t think about expressing it in that particular way. It is the opposite of loneliness. The sense that, if when articulated, all these things we have suffered – the certain existential conundrums to do with being a Libyan, and in exile, these private feelings of shame – resonate with other people, then we all feel less alone.”
Efforts to dislodge Gadafy are taking longer than expected, even with the intervention of Nato-led air strikes. Matar admits he grapples with the question of whether what has transpired amounts to civil war. “One of the first things [the regime] did after the uprising began was to present narratives – this idea of civil war and partition, and tribes. They put forward this notion this was already an intrinsically fractured country, and you must not mess around with it too much.
“To me, the trouble with the term civil war is that it suggests that there are two reasonably equal sides that are divided on civil grounds, and that is not what I am seeing. What I am seeing is that those who remain with Gadafy are a very small minority within the Libyan context. Could you call 20,000 people fighting against six million people a civil war? I don’t think so.”
If and when Gadafy falls, Matar plans to return to the country he left as a teenager, to see relatives and also to try to find out what happened to his father.
“I would like to visit, but I don’t know what will happen when I do. I might feel that I want to stay longer, which corresponds with my sense of place in general. If you were to ask me if I had decided where I would remain for the rest of my days, I would say I don’t know,” he says. “The thing about exile is, there are a lot of assumptions about the return that I think ignore the fact that, when you have spent as long as I have away, your identity has changed, and so – interestingly in these times – my engagement with Libya has deepened, but also my engagement with London deepened. I realised how Libyan I am, but also I realised how much of a Londoner I am too.”
He acknowledges the Libya he will return to will be very different to the one he left at the age of 15. “The Libya I remember is real to me but I’m sure it bears very little resemblance to Libya now . . . It is perfectly true and perfectly untrue, both at the same time.”
Our interview stretches into a conversation that lasts a whole evening. We swap stories of Libya, mine from a five-week reporting assignment at the beginning of the uprising; Matar’s from childhood memories and the strange distance of exile. I tell him I found the last copy of In the Country of Men in my favourite Cairo bookshop after I left Libya. Reading it on the flight home brought tears to my eyes. His capturing of the brutalities, large and small, of the Gadafy regime chimed with so many of the stories I had heard during my time there.
We talk of Libya’s future, and discuss how a society all but atomised under Gadafy’s rule might cope when it emerges, blinking, into the light after four decades of dictatorship. “I am a little anxious, but I remain optimistic, because while the new Libya is going through a very painful birth, I think it has shown signs of being genuinely interested in the kinds of debates I am hopeful for, debates to do with civil society, accountability, protecting people’s rights, and their ability to speak their minds.
“For a lot of Libyans, what has been very satisfying is seeing so many Libyans speaking and articulating their thoughts after all these years. There’s almost a sudden swagger, a confidence that has come about. Libyans are thinking that suddenly we are not that bad actually. We’re not even not that bad – we’re better.”
Anatomy of a Disappearance, which Hisham Matar recently discussed with Conor O’Clery in a public interview at the West Cork Literary Festival, is published by Penguin, £16.99