Hisham Matar: 'I just want to know what happened to my father'

Hisham Matar's family lived in a beautiful house in Tripoli, with servants, a fleet of cars and a glittering social life. Then came Colonel Gaddafi's bloody Libyan revolution. In this moving account, the author recalls a childhood marked by escape attempts, British exile, and the unexplained disappearance of his beloved father
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The Independent Online

I wish at least I had some happy man

as father, growing old in his own house -

but unknown death and silence are the fate

of him... Homer, The Odyssey

In Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, during the bloody chaos of the late 1970s, the authorities, charged with "revolutionary" fervour, added my father's name to a list of those wanted for interrogation. He was abroad at the time, and his friends sent him a message not to return. My mother, my brother Ziad and myself were still in Libya. During this time, Libya was preparing for its unjust war in neighbouring Chad. In a desperate attempt to boost numbers and in accordance with Gaddafi's vision to "militarise the masses", the army had effectively reduced the age for military service to 14 by making military training part of the national curriculum. Ziad was 13. Through messages delivered by hand, Mother and Father decided that the whole family had to leave. And so my mother began to plan our escape. I was eight years old and it would take her a year to get us out.

Since Colonel Gaddafi's bloodless coup in 1969, the leader had, in the space of nine years, changed the colours of the national flag twice, redesigned the national currency in order to trick people into handing over their cash, and exhausted the goodwill of the public that had originally welcomed this new republican era. The new regime now penetrated every sphere of civic life: it implanted "Revolutionary Committees" in every institution and organisation, subjugated the press and dismantled one of the most progressive and independent university student unions in the post-colonial Arab world: executing its leaders in public squares and imprisoning hundreds of its members. Society was chased deeper indoors, until the only place Libyans could exist unmonitored was inside their homes.

But even that final private domain was invaded by regularly broadcast interrogations of those the regime deemed "anti- revolutionary" or "traitors" on national television. From our sitting rooms, we watched men stiff with fear under a camera's harsh lights, answering questions delivered by faceless voices hot with impatience.

Then the army was ordered to pay a visit to every bookshop and library in Tripoli, armed with a long list of titles to be confiscated. Thousands of books were set on fire in one of the public squares. All that remained on the shelves of the startled booksellers' shops were "educational" or "revolutionary" books. And so began a process familiar among dictatorships everywhere: the rewriting of history, the redefining of the present and a singular vision of the future.

Families such as mine - educated, wealthy and internationalist - were seen as "bourgeois", "backward", "halting the (omega) march". This is why Father's name was listed. And now men, with no more authority than the revolutionary green bandanas they wound round their heads, began to turn up at our door. They walked up through the rose garden, banged on the front door and demanded the keys to one of the cars, because it was immoral for one household to own more than one automobile, they said. We had four. I remember how their veins throbbed in their necks as they shouted. On one occasion, Mother unhooked the medallion from the key ring - a Quranic phrase set in silver - the next time, her hands shook too much and she threw the bunch of keys at them. Unaccustomed to the clutch, the men would drive the hiccuping car away in the dust.

The authorities were still trying to track my father down and they thought the best way of capturing him was to wait for his inevitable return to his family in Tripoli. And so they denied us permission to travel. My mother's only chance of escape was to convince them that she and Father were no longer married, that the man they wanted had already started another family in Europe and had no intention of returning. She told us about her plan and, for a whole year, we kept up the pretence.

Part of me wondered if indeed Father hadn't started another life elsewhere. I imagined one day meeting a half-sibling with yellow hair and blue eyes: a European in whose face I would see something of Father and, therefore, of myself. I pictured my father and his new family in Switzerland. We had spent several summers there, staying at Montreux, visiting the snow-capped Alps and driving to Lake Como, and I remember how the sight of young lovers on park benches around Lake Geneva - lips glued together in a blistering silence - had set my cheeks on fire and tightened my shoulders as I walked quickly ahead, pretending not to notice.

To a North African boy, Switzerland was the most exotic place on earth: its crisp air, the definite precision of the white and yellow drawings on the tarmac, the romantic rain, the childlike terraced farms descending the mountains, clean cows as if painted by a shy hand that could not bring itself to acknowledge shit, the oddly absent people (the streets in Switzerland had always seemed empty by comparison to our streets). So it amused me then to imagine a second me living there with my father and his new Swiss wife who was, apart from the blonde hair, exactly like my mother.

I later learnt from Mother that, at times, she weakened and could no longer resist the temptation to call him, to hear his voice, perhaps even to reassure herself that the myth she had constructed had not, during one unobserved hour when the world was night, been wickedly transformed into fact. Against her better judgement she would pick up the telephone and dial his number, and listen with restless longing to the indifferent precision of a Swiss dial tone. But his steely determination to remain true to her did not allow him to yield and so he would coldly reply, "Never call here again," and hang up.

One afternoon, Mother asked us to pack. "We are going for a few weeks to the beach while decorators work on the house," she said. "Take only what is precious." My parents often rented a chalet by the beach for the weekend, but we had never been asked to pack "what is precious" before. When I asked her what she meant, she said, "Things you love the most."

I packed the bottle of cologne that Father had recently bought me. Although only eight, it seemed proof that he had started to think of me as a man. I packed my "7-up" radio. It had FM, AM and three MW channels. I had never seen anything like it. It looked like a tin can but was strong enough to catch several Italian channels as well as the BBC World Service and Cairo's Sout al-Arab. Ziad packed his medals - he had just, at the age of 13, won gold in the backstroke, silver in the butterfly and bronze in the crawl in the under-16 national swimming championship, and set a Libyan record for the 100 meters backstroke that, I have been recently informed, remains to be bettered.

On the way to the airport, Ziad cried; I couldn't understand why he wasn't as excited as I was at the prospect of boarding a plane.

The immigration officials didn't buy Mother's story. I remember how still and heavy her silence was -- her dread was palpable - as we drove back to the life we had just abandoned. Not even Ziad looked happy.

A few days later, she woke up with renewed hope. She asked us to repack. When we were all in the car - the last one remaining - she ran back, unlocked the front door and disappeared inside. Then we saw her struggle under the weight of the television set. She dumped it in the boot and went back for the video player. At the airport, she went to the same man who had turned us back and held the car keys in front of his face. "Outside you'll find a brand-new BMW, with a television and a video player. Let us through." The man took the key and said, "Wait here." After a long wait, he sent one of his colleagues to tell Mother: "Your husband is listed, you will not be able to leave the country until he returns." Mother asked to see the man who now had our car keys, but was told he had left for the day. We took a taxi home.

Gaddafi is unique among dictators in that he has few constant beliefs. A position which has afforded him an extraordinary instinct for survival. And so, in 1979, months after Father's name had appeared on a wanted list, exiled entrepreneurs such as my father, who had only recently been regarded as protagonists of evil economic practices, were suddenly promised amnesty. Unable to continue living away from us, Father decided to take the risk and flew back to Tripoli. He wasn't arrested, but his passport was confiscated. The four of us were finally reunited.

The year that he had spent abroad taught Father that living without one's country is a kind of daily death, that exile is, in essence, an endless mourning. However, despite my father's return, my mother was still convinced we had to get out. Only a few weeks after his return, she began planning our trip. Her hunger for life, her love for the light, her determination to have us live free and in full command of our will, prevailed and inspired in Ziad and I an openness to the world that is today a testimony to the soundness of her judgement. I shall live eternally indebted to the calm determination with which she steered our ship out of Gaddafi's Libya.

Driving us to the airport, Father was silent. We were leaving Libya without him. He must have known how long it would be before he would be able to catch up with us.

The man who had accepted Mother's bribe two months before walked briskly away when he saw us approach. He vanished through a door that had the word PRIVATE printed on it. Now that Father was back, the other immigration officer at Tripoli International Airport allowed us to board the plane to Nairobi, where my mother's brother lived.

Kenya was the perfect antidote. A lush paradise where the earth is red and leaves are as wide as bed sheets. It was also a place where you could get the latest Michael Jackson records, which seemed to me then a matter of the utmost importance. My uncle made our escape seem like a holiday.

But as it became increasingly clear that our father would not be joining us in the near future, Mother realised she had to find us a home and a school. Again through hand-delivered messages, Father sent us the details of a business associate in Egypt who owed him a large sum of money.

Cairo was the obvious choice. Not only was it a vibrant Arab capital, but my family had friends there. However, my father's business associate could only pay us back slowly, so we lived in a spartan apartment in the capital that hardened our longing for the beautiful house we had left in Tripoli.

The schools we could afford had over 70 pupils per classroom. Ziad and I were bullied for being foreigners. In response, he began to surround himself with other exiled Libyan boys his age, while I embarked on perfecting my Egyptian accent, until it was impossible to tell me apart from a Caireen. Now it is Ziad who lives in Cairo and has the Caireen accent while I, 20 years into my second exile in London, speak Arabic with an unmistakably Libyan tongue.

The only luxury Mother made sure we could afford was swimming lessons for Ziad. She had heard of a brilliant coach and sent Ziad and I to him. Ziad seemed oddly nervous and didn't say a word when the coach asked him to change and do 100m in the crawl. Only when he entered the water did he seem confident. The coach timed him. He asked him how old he was, but when Ziad spoke, the man interrupted him. "Where are you from?" he asked. "Libya," Ziad said, his shoulders bobbing in and out of the water. "You should have said so from the start," the man snapped, waving at Ziad to get out of the pool. "What's in it for me to train a foreigner?"

Ziad never swam competitively again.

A year after arriving in Cairo, when I was 10 and Ziad 14, the three of us hung decorations and sat at the dining room table writing, in round, fat letters on coloured card, WELCOME HOME DEAREST FATHER; WE MISSED YOU; WE LOVE YOU. We cut out hearts and flowers and butterflies and stuck them on the front door of our apartment. We spent the whole day cleaning the rooms. Father had finally managed to escape and was on his way.

When we arrived at the airport to meet him, the place was packed. Whole families were there to greet returning relatives. I remember pushing my way through the forest of legs, nervous that I would not recognise my father. I was the first to see him. In the 12 months or so we had been apart, his hair had turned grey and his face seemed much older. He had on a dark suit and a black leather coat that ran dramatically down to his ankles. He was followed by two porters pushing huge dark trunks. On his way from Libya, Father had gone straight to Rome, had withdrawn money from his bank account and had bought all the props for a new life: china, bed linens, duvets, pillows. He bought the best he could find, wanting to make this new life as hopeful as possible.

Only after we were united with Father and learnt that our house had been robbed by Tripoli's "Head of Internal Security" did I realise that we were not going back to Libya. My longing for all of the things that I had left behind became savage. Shortly before our departure, I had finally managed to fix an old problem with the left pedal of my bicycle. One of the sons of the Head of Internal Security is riding it now, I imagined, totally oblivious of the need to soften the pressure on the weak pedal. I thought of the grapes on the vines that covered the rear of our garden and how I used to pick them with my brother and (omega) mother and cousins. We would pile the grapes in wooden bowls and take them round to our neighbours. I now pictured the grapes rotting on the vine. I missed my cousins and the girl I had just fallen hopelessly in love with. I had piled up stones beneath her bathroom window and got to see her naked under the shower. Libya was a constant ache and I tormented my family by pleading they take me back.

In Cairo, Father began his political work in earnest: writing against the Libyan regime and mobilising the various factions of the exiled Libyan resistance to unite in order to overthrow the regime. It was a path we had all tried to dissuade him from.

He and my mother, having been very sociable in the early years of exile, lived quieter lives now, taking long morning walks, reading in the silent afternoons, meals with just the two of them. Ziad and I left Cairo to go to university in London. Then, one day, everything changed. My mother was setting the table when one of the servants came into the dining room and said that a man downstairs wanted to speak with Father. Father went to the front door and never returned.

For the first two years, the Egyptian secret service assured us that they had him in Cairo, and that his imminent release could only be assured by our silence: "If you make a fuss we can not guarantee anything." We believed them, and continued to make the daily trip to their headquarters - a collection of square villas under the shade of eucalyptus trees in one of Cairo's residential quarters. We often saw a car arrive at the compound with nervous-looking men sitting in the back seat. We waited in rooms with other families. My mother would always sit between Ziad and me, as if without us surrounding her, doubt would creep in. Every day, we were told the same thing, by the same overweight man sitting behind a heavy desk, his mighty weight sunk deep in a reclining armchair, the obligatory prayer rug advertised on the backrest. "He's well. You must be patient. It's for his own good. He crossed the line, went too far. Libya is our neighbour."

We were kept in this state of uncertainty for three years until one morning a letter, written in Father's careful handwriting, and smuggled from within the notorious political prison of Abu Sleem in Tripoli, was delivered to our home in the trembling hands of a young friend of Father's who had carried it across the border. When he entered our house he went over to the music system and turned up the volume. He embraced Mother and whispered in her ear. There was something white in his hand. I thought it was tissue paper. He pushed it into her palm, but then couldn't let go. They were both crying.

The single sheet of paper was folded several times. It gave an uncompromisingly detailed account of what had happened to him since he had disappeared. Father had been taken from his home in Cairo by Egyptian secret service officers and delivered to the Libyan secret service. Izzat Youssef al-Maqrif, another Libyan dissident who was living then in Cairo, had been taken on the same day. Both men were bundled into a car. Yellowing newspapers had been papered across the windows. After a while the road surface became smooth and he began to hear a humming sound that grew louder as the car picked up speed. The car stopped and when the passenger door was flung open Father saw that he was under the giant belly of an aeroplane. Three hours later he was in Tripoli.

Years later, I met a man who had worked on the runways of Tripoli's airport. He had seen the two men disembark. They had both been handcuffed and blindfolded, and my father - he described his thick grey hair, his clothes - was saying over and over again, "God is my advocate and guardian."

To this day, every knock on the door could be my father. But the only way in which he visits unannounced is in dreams. I dream of him frequently. He sometimes comes as a young man; other times, wounded by his prison torturers. Most recently, his visit was so vivid, I am yet to recover from it. He was an old man, the age he should be now, and had the reticence of someone accustomed to solitude. He had acquired new habits, new manners of speech: attaching the phrase "you see?" at the end of every other sentence. His character has been coloured by his companions, I thought jealously in my dream. He spoke briefly, courteously, the way a fellow train passenger might do to pass away the time. When I placed my hand on his shoulder, he fell silent. I woke up and made several fruitless attempts to re-enter the dream.

At times, I feel that I too am imprisoned with him. For 16 years now, my father has received no trial, nor has his family been allowed to know his whereabouts. I have not received a letter from him in 11 years. Instead, I have been caught between two terrible choices: if I speak out, I might risk his safety, and, if I am silent, am I an accomplice to the crime his captives have committed against him?

In March 2006, a group of Libyan dissidents staged an international online conference to mark the 16th anniversary of the abductions of my father and Izzat al-Maqrif. Ziad, Mother and I were suspicious. Over the years, many factions have wanted to claim my father to serve their ends. Still, we agreed to take part, the three of us sitting round Mother's computer, hurriedly attempting to download the necessary software to take part in the conference.

The conference was oral and 350 people from around the world participated. There was a moderator and a few key speakers, who either knew Father or knew of him. Then the floor, as it were, was opened for comment. A quiet voice came through. At first, I wasn't certain whether the speaker's voice was hoarse or whether he was whispering deliberately. He said that he had never met "Mr Jaballa Matar", but he wanted everyone to know that "his sacrifice has not been forgotten." Then his voice became almost inaudible as he whispered: "Pardon me for this short message, but I am speaking from the inside, at an internet café, so goodbye."

Ziad decided he had to speak. His hand shook as he began to write down what he might say. Mother brought out the letters. His eyes fell on one of the most powerful passages of Father's first letter. Ziad spoke of the individual's right to live in freedom and with dignity and then read the passage in which Father apologised to us for what we must have gone through but that, if he had it all to do again, he would not change a thing.

With that first letter - the first of only two - dated 1992 and received in 1993, Father had also managed to smuggle a tape recording of himself. It was the first time in three years, since he had been abducted, and the last that we heard his voice. I keep a copy in my desk drawer, but avoid listening to it. Occasionally, I weaken and play it. All in all, I have only managed to hear it through five times in the last 13 years.

"At times, a whole year would pass by without seeing the sun or being let out of this cell," was one of the things he whispered. Two years after his first experience of a prison cell, the conditions of his incarceration improved. He described the new prison cell which he shared with Izzat al-Maqrif: "It is 6m by 6m. In one corner, there is a WC. The rest is empty. This, of course, has been designed for six to eight persons, even though they place in it many more than that, up to 18 people. But because they do not want anyone to know of us or mix with us we therefore enjoy living here alone and this, of course, is a great luxury many envy us for. This is a concrete box with a metal door through which no air seems to pass, and three windows which are at a height of 3.5m. As for the furniture, it is Louis XVI," he says with an ironic smile audible in his voice (this was also a private pun because he had always preferred modern Italian furniture), "old torn mattresses infested with insects and locally made blankets of the worst kind. And the world here is empty."

In 1996, a massacre took place in the prison of Abu Sleem. Between sunset of the 28 July 1996 and dawn the following day, the Libyan authorities shot more than 1,300 political prisoners. News of the massacre would not filter out of Libya until 2002. My father's last letter was sent from Libya in 1995.

I have fantasised about justice but never revenge - I have never dreamed of behaving towards Gaddafi in the way he has behaved towards so many Libyans. Dictators such as Gaddafi can steal property, imprison, torture and kill, but they should never be allowed to dispossess us of our humanity. The only true battle going on here is the battle to sustain oneself within history's assault.

How does one remain free from becoming a symbol or a victim? How do we remain whole and free from hate, yet truthful to our memory?

Life attempts to teach us about loss: that one can still find peace in the finality of death. And yet, my loss gives no peace. My father is not incarcerated, yet he is not free; he is not dead, yet he is not alive either. My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete.

I was always told to expect to lose my father. Many Libyan political dissidents have been assassinated or kidnapped. But now I know that I had no comprehension of the danger he was in. If I had, I would have held on to him with all I could, or tried harder to persuade him not to engage in political dissent, perhaps. Regret is the cruellest companion for those of us who are left behind.

I did try to persuade him to leave his political work, because I loved my father more than I loved my country; or, to put it another way, I had learned by then to live without my country, but not without my father.

When Father was taken, the world did feel empty. For the first couple of years, our ship was lost, then we recovered our bearings and learnt that the speed by which one resumes living is no indication of the depth of one's grief.

Father left three individuals. Now we are nine: both my brother and I are married, and Ziad now has four children. He and my sister-in-law named their first son Jaballa, after Father. Once, when Jaballa was three, he and I were alone in the car waiting for the others to come. From within the silence he asked, "Uncle, where is Granddad?" I am still unable to answer that question.

What I want is to know what happened to my father. If he is alive, I wish to speak with him and see him. If he has broken the law, he ought to be tried and given a chance to defend himself. And if he is dead, then I want to know how, where and when it happened. I want a date, a detailed account and the location of his body.

'In the Country of Men', by Hisham Matar is published by Viking, priced £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99 including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897