In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

Love in Libya's time of tyranny
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The Independent Culture

In 2003 the UN lifted sanctions on Libya, and western capital flowed in, hungry for the country's oil and gas reserves. Since then, leading European politicians, including Tony Blair, have shaken hands and signed agreements with Colonel Gaddafi. Politicians argue the pragmatic need to do deals with dictators. "People should not forget the past, they should move beyond it," Blair said of his visit to Tripoli.

It is this platitude that Hisham Matar, a Libyan exile, confronts in his debut novel, which chooses to remember the brutality of Libya under Gaddafi. "The country of men" is inhabited by torturers and their victims. The former, guardians of the 1969 revolution, are bent on closing down anything pleasurable and free. The latter are Libya's intelligentsia, people like the boy narrator's father, Baba, and his best friend Ustath. Baba is an urbane and widely travelled businessman, an avid reader who tries his hand at translating foreign texts into Arabic. He is jailed and tortured by Gaddafi's men for inciting a student revolt. When he is let out his mind is damaged (in prison, under torture, he betrayed his friends) and his body a bloody pulp. His friend and fellow conspirator is less fortunate - his show trial, humiliation and hanging at the basketball stadium is televised live. Ustath, before he wet his trousers at the scaffold, was an art historian, a bridge between the ancient world (he is an expert on Leptis Magna, the Roman site where he takes his students) and modern Arab life.

In killing Ustath, Gaddafi is severing links with the outside world, and with Libya's history - so as to re-write it. Books are burned, pictures replaced in the home by images of Gaddafi. The tragi-comic incident of a young man running across Martyr's Square with a typewriter, chased by a group of revolutionary guards, tells of the peril and predicament of the Libyan artist.

The political world of male violence is paralleled in the domestic sphere, where women are the property of men. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between the nine-year-old Suleiman and his mother. Theirs is a desperately tender and fragile relationship, Suleiman having to guard his mother against her alcoholism and the designs of revolutionary guards. The mother's biography is interwoven with allusions to the plight of Scheherazade at the hands of King Shahryar, the ancient Persian tale casting light on modern Arab life.

This time there is no severing of links between past and present; nothing has changed. Suleiman's mother, as a child, was beaten for talking to the neighbour's son. Aged 14, she is locked away for drinking coffee with the boy and forcibly married to a stranger after a decision made by nine male members of her family, a "High Council" as merciless as any of Gaddafi's revolutionary committees.

Suleiman dreams of rescuing his mother and restoring her to romance. He yearns to grow up, to become a man, not for "the things normally associated with manhood" but "to change the past, to rescue that girl from her black day". Of course he fails. He is sent away to the security of Egypt. Years of forced separation from his mother mean he has forgotten what she looks like.

And yet he will not surrender. He struggles to remember the playful innocence of his youth, the beauty and the love shared with his mother, those intimacies easily crushed by dictators but which survive in memory. What emerges from this moving and graceful novel is the insistence that memories of love will survive the country of men.

David Dabydeen's novels include 'A Harlot's Progress' (Vintage)

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