In the Country of Men is the debut novel of a Libyan novelist Hisham Matar published in 2006 and short-listed for the year’s Man Booker Prize. Matar tells a painful yet powerful story of a 9 years old boy, Suleiman, set apart for fifteen years from his parents, Faraj and Najwa, by the repressive regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Beautifully woven together, it is a tale replete with grief, fear, separation, love, humor, and joy. Matar also brilliantly captures the shades and textures of a Libyan family’s social life generally and specifically in the wake of the September Revolution (1969) of Qaddafi aka the Guide. The setting of the story is mainly the Libyan capital Tripoli, also called Gorgi Populi when Libya was an Italian colony. Matar is a powerful storyteller and his command over language is brilliant.
Suleiman, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the novel, looks back at his 9 years old self trying to make sense of the events – private, familial, and public (political) – in the last summer in Tripoli before he was sent off to Cairo in 1979 by his parents due to troubled times at home caused by the Revolution. Apparently, Faraj is a businessman as he goes on long business trips and does not come home for many days. But one day, Suleiman sees him at the Martyr’s Square. Revealed later in the story, Martyr’s Square is the place where his father, a political dissident, and his comrade are headquartered to run a pro-democracy student movement, and where they used to print leaflets against the extremes of the Guide’s Revolution.
Actually Faraj, his comrade Ustath Rashid, and a group of young student revolutionaries are secretly working against the Guide and his Revolutionary Committees. They hoped to inspire young men to open their eyes to new possibilities. The mokhabarat (secret services), which Matar calls “Antennae”, find out that some ‘traitors’ are printing leaflets against the regime. They take Ustath Rashid away, never to return back. Suleiman and his Mama are extremely grieved along with Rashid’s wife auntie Salma and his son Kareem who is Suleiman’s best friend. He cannot stand to see the sadness and hollowness on Kareem’s face. Mama tells him, “It just is not good for you to be so close to all of his sadness. Grief loves the hollow; all it wants is to hear its own echo” fearing lest Faraj be held by the mokhabarat. Suleiman watches Ustath Rashid under investigation on TV and eventually his televised execution in a stadium.
Matar also unveils a number of tactics that the intelligence state of Gaddafi used to terrify and control the Libyan populace. The Guide’s political terror is extreme and his regime’s tyranny monstrous and uncontrolled. For instance, the Revolutionary Committee men follow Suleiman and his Mama wherever they go or live, tap telephone calls, and call at Suleiman’s house to talk to him or Mama to find out if his father is around. Sometimes, people are arrested just by association. The intrusiveness and horror of the Guide’s totalitarian regime are so intense that they even force children on inadvertent acts of betrayal against their parents.
Matar’s style of writing and language are intense in describing the moments of horror. He shockingly exclaims why people have “respect for the sight of blood” and how hanging someone generates “madness of the crowd.” Matar also reveals that in Libya “walls have ears”, that informing on the fellow citizens is “Libya’s national sport”. At one point in the story, in order to deceive mokhabarat and to prove Faraj’s ‘innocence’, the family puts a picture of Colonel Qaddafi on the wall in their house. Matar recalls that the “absolute and sudden authority of the Guide seemed instantly acceptable.”
The mokhabarat eventually take Faraj away. After a long time, he is freed with the help of their neighbor, Ustath Jaffer, who holds an important position in the government. Najwa finds Faraj in a very poor and frightening condition after he is brought home. She does not allow Suleiman to see him. Suleiman is angry and tries to sneak in. He senses that the room smells like a dead dog. The intrigued Suleiman recalls the stench of death. Finally, he finds that the “naked monster with bruises and horrible face” was his Baba, Faraj. He looks into his Baba’s eyes to feel him but in vain.
“Nationalism is as thin as a thread”, Suleiman says in Cairo, as he adjusts too soon to Egypt forgetting Libya. But he does not meet his parents for fifteen years due to the repressive decrees of the regime. The Guide issues brutal decrees: “Stray dogs” have to return and spend the same amount of time in prison that they spent outside the country; those who didn’t return would be hunted down, and their parents would not be given visas to visit them. Baba dies and Suleiman does not get a chance to see him. After hearing the news of the death of Baba at 24 in Cairo to which he adapted too soon, Suleiman says, “I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss.” Mama reunites with him in Cairo fifteen years later.
Najwa’s own past and the horrors of the regime deeply affect her life. Faraj’s lingering absence from her life makes her dependent on alcohol, stuff in a dark bottle which Suleiman thinks is her medicine, and on Suleiman who she unleashes heavy loads of secrets and confusions upon. For a 9 years old, that is too much to put up with.
The title of the novel “In the Country of Men” hints at the conservative patriarchal nature of Libyan society and appears as a recurring theme in the story. Suleiman’s father has great expectations of him based in his manhood, and quite often admonishes him about taking care of the family in his absence. Suleiman’s mother as a teenager was once closed in a room for holding hands with a boy in a coffee shop. She, after all this time, feels angry at her father and brothers, especially at her brother Khalid the poet whose poems made the family feel ashamed because of being against the social norms. She calls all men the “High Council”, and says that all of them are the same.
As a matter of fact in real life, Matar’s father Jaballah, a career diplomat, also disappeared, allegedly kidnapped by the Libyan regime, from the family home in Cairo in March 1990 while Matar was at school in England. Matar and his family settled in Cairo after they were forced to leave Libya in 1979 by the Libyan regime. Matar does not know the whereabouts of his father to this day. Dead or alive? No one knows.