By Robert F. Worth
In the early summer of 2003, a few months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I arrived at the door of a pockmarked building in Baghdad where many of the military and intelligence files of Saddam Hussein’s government were stored.
The street was full of dust, and Iraqis of all ages were streaming in and out, some of them clutching folders. A group of men was standing near the door in authoritative poses, and older women were yelling at them, pleading for information. I was new to the country, and a little baffled at first that these scraps of yellowing paper had provoked so much passion and excitement.
It did not take me long to figure out why.
For all the Iraqis publicly executed under Saddam, countless more had disappeared into his archipelago of dungeons. Their families had submitted to a familiar pattern: years of soul-sapping hope and dread, with regime officials cynically demanding money in exchange for information about the
disappeared that they never supplied. Some of these people told me they would have given almost anything for the peace of mind conveyed by a genuine death certificate.
This is the emotional terrain of Hisham Matar, a Libyan British writer whose career has revolved around the drama of forced disappearance under dictatorship.
His two novels, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), are both disguised memoirs based on the 1990 abduction of his father, the Libyan dissident Jaballa Matar, by Egyptian intelligence agents in Cairo.
The Egyptians turned the elder Matar over to the security services of Libya’s vicious ruler, Muammar al-Qaddafi; he then entered the ranks of the disappeared.
His family never knew where he was being held; by the mid-1990s, they were no longer certain if he was even alive.
Capturing Jaballa Matar was a significant feat for the Libyan regime: he had been a leading figure in the opposition, using the considerable wealth he’d built as a businessman to organize a network inside and outside the country that aimed to overthrow Qaddafi.
In 1979, his family had left Libya for Egypt with him, and soon afterward, his sons had been sent to the even safer remove of European boarding schools.
Matar’s novels evoke and reference these events; in The Return, Matar fully lifts the veil, providing a mesmerizing, harrowing account of his return to Libya in 2012 and his long effort to grapple with his father’s fate and legacy.
“I envy the finality of funerals,” Matar writes early on in the book. “I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”
Matar has put together an artfully structured book that takes on larger themes and is ultimately more satisfying than either of his novels.
The author’s journey forces him to reassess himself and his origins and weaves together multiple characters and histories: an uncle who survived 21 years in a Libyan prison; the heroism of his young cousins during the civil war that began in 2011 after the overthrow of Qaddafi; and the larger, tragic arc of Libyan history, from the Italian conquest a century ago to the murderous chaos of the present.
Many fathers and sons are present here, including Qaddafi’s slick and self-deluded son Saif al-Qaddafi, who in 2010 approached Matar in London with dubious promises of information and friendship.
In some places, The Return resembles an elegy; in others, a detective story. It is also a meditation on art, mourning, and the human costs of dictatorship, which Libyans are still paying.
Although Matar’s narrative does not extend past 2012, it sheds more light than any other book I have read on the multiple tragedies that have brought Libya to its present shattered state.
YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN
Matar was reluctant to return to Libya after the revolt against Qaddafi began in February 2011. He was living in London at the time, awaiting the publication of his second novel; he had gone to college there and had become a British citizen.
He had also spent years on a public campaign to pressure Qaddafi’s government for information about his father, and suddenly the prospect of actually encountering him—dead or alive—seemed shockingly real.
I was in Libya during the 2011 revolt, reporting for The New York Times Magazine; I remember speaking to Matar once or twice on the phone from Benghazi and wondering why he was still in London. The reason, as he makes clear in the first pages of the book, is that his life had become premised, in a sense, on not returning.
The journey home “could rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people that I love.”
Exile had become part of his identity, and he was afraid to trade the frozen images he had lived with for 33 years for up-to-date realities.
He is also an emotionally vulnerable man who feared that if he visited the prison where his father was most likely murdered, he might be “forever undone.” But the temptation to solve the mystery of his father’s fate proved too strong.
Matar is in fact undone by his visit, although not only in the ways he expected. Walking through Benghazi, he begins to feel unmoored from the exile’s anger that has sustained him for so long: “I could see the walls, so old I had never noticed them before, that stood between me and everyone I have ever known, every book and painting and symphony and work of art that had ever mattered to me, suddenly seeming impermanent. The freedom frightened me.”
He finds himself constantly revisiting his past, and the book shuttles accordingly from the present tense of the return journey to various earlier chapters of his life.
In this way, The Return recalls Matar’s first novel, which projected a sensitive child’s consciousness onto a paternalistic culture that is suffused with violence. In The Return, Matar revisits this terrain, conjuring memories of his childhood soccer games and his first glimpse of a sheep being slaughtered. These memories are rendered with an extraordinary eye for detail and shaped by a heightened awareness of the gulf between child and adult perception:
The animal kicked furiously, snorting for air, which entered its nostrils and escaped through the open neck. The blood poured out black and thick like date syrup. Small translucent bubbles grew and burst around its mouth. I snapped my fingers, I clapped my hands beside its wide-open eye. When it did not respond, I began to cry. . . . Moments later, I sat around the table with the others and ate liver and kidneys sautéed with chili, onion, garlic, parsley and coriander, and agreed that the dish did taste better than at any other time because the meat was, as one of the adults had said, “unbelievably fresh.”
Much of Matar’s return journey involves rediscovering his relatives, whose bravery provides a striking counterpoint to Matar’s inwardness. His uncle Mahmoud and other relatives were released from prison just as the 2011 protests began, after 21 years of confinement and torture. (They had been members of Matar’s father’s dissident group.)
Mahmoud, it turns out, was sustained for years in prison by an obsession that is almost a mirror image of Matar’s: he followed news of Matar’s writings in radio broadcasts and press clippings, in the rare moments when he had access to them.
Another relative, Mahmoud’s irrepressible son Izzo, plays a major role in Matar’s poignant retelling of the 2011 uprising. Izzo fought with remarkable bravery on several fronts until he was shot and killed by a sniper during the liberation of Tripoli in late August, six months into the conflict.
Izzo’s brother Hamed kept fighting, despite his parents’ pleas, and later traveled to Syria to join a rebel group there in the fight against the Assad regime.
Matar yells at Hamed over the phone, exhorting him to come home, to no avail. Only after Hamed is wounded and removed from the Syrian battlefield does he agree to return to Libya.
Matar’s family drama coincides, in many respects, with the brief modern history of Libya. His paternal grandfather was born around 1880, when the country was “a vast and nearly empty landscape,” as Matar writes, nominally under Ottoman rule.
After the Italians invaded in 1911, jockeying for a better position in the European race for colonial territory and hoping to gain a “fourth shore,” a fierce native resistance arose, guided by the Senussi, a mystical religious order. Its leader was Omar al-Mukhtar, a legendary guerrilla who remains Libya’s great national hero.
Matar’s grandfather fought in the first phase of the resistance, from 1911 until 1919. He lived a long life, and Matar knew him well as a boy. He recalls his grandfather unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a “small rosette just beneath the collarbone” where an Italian soldier’s bullet had wounded him. Matar’s grandfather probably would have died had he not fled to Egypt and avoided the bloodiest phase of the Italian war, after Mussolini took charge in 1922.
Airplanes bombed and gassed villages, and tens of thousands of Libyans were marched to concentration camps, where torture and starvation were common. Official Italian records show that the population of eastern Libya dropped from 225,000 to 142,000 during this period, Matar writes.
Matar’s own father remains a central (although spectral) figure in the book, and the grandeur and mystery of the elder Matar continue to expand during his son’s return journey. “I am the son of an unusual man, perhaps even a great man,” Matar writes.
Many boys are inclined to think this way about their fathers—and if a father disappears, the temptation only grows. But Matar’s father was clearly a person of immense charisma long before his disappearance.
During the 1980s, capturing the elder Matar became a top priority for the Libyan regime, which sent hit men abroad to find him. He gave his children pseudonyms to use when talking about him in public. At one point, during a trip to Europe, Matar chastised his father for being so paranoid. But shortly afterward, they passed two men on the street speaking Libyan Arabic. “So what does this Jaballa Matar look like anyway?” one said to the other.
Later, Matar’s brother, Ziad, narrowly escaped a careful of would-be kidnappers who chased him all the way to his boarding school in a Swiss mountain village. When the family urged Jaballa to withdraw from politics, they encountered an austere patriotism: “Don’t put yourselves in competition with Libya,” he told them. “You will always lose.”
On his return to Libya in 2012, Matar meets men who knew his father in prison, and revered him. He hears about how his father took an enormous risk by smuggling out a letter authorizing a loan to the family of a fellow prisoner.
When prison officials found out, he refused to name his accomplices and was tortured horribly for three days. One man shows Matar his father’s youthful fiction, published in a student journal, some of it relating to the desert war for independence against the Italians.
Another former prisoner who knew Matar’s father and admired him immensely clutches Matar’s hand and gazes into his eyes, unable to express his emotions except by repeating the same phrase again and again: “Are you well? Your health? Your family?”
These encounters are interspersed with Matar’s reports on the disgraceful efforts of the Libyan regime to placate him in the years prior to the 2011 revolt. The messenger was Qaddafi’s son Saif, who arranged to meet Matar at a London hotel in 2010. The British government was mending fences with Qaddafi at the time, and Saif seemed confident that he could buy Matar off and elide all the horrors of the previous decades.
Saif claimed that he knew what had happened to Matar’s father, but he refused to tell him, saying that he first had to reach some shadowy accommodation with the Egyptian security services and Qaddafi’s henchmen.
At one point during their correspondence, Saif texted Matar a quote attributed to the Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan: “Most important, don’t do anything you don’t want.” Matar texted back a quote from Gandhi; Saif responded with a smiley-face emoji.
In the end, Matar’s quest to touch his father’s bones is thwarted. “For a quarter of a century now, hope has been seeping out of me,” he concludes. “Now I can say, I am almost free of it.”
He must accept the overwhelming likelihood that his father was murdered at the Abu Salim prison in 1996, during a massacre in which the Libyan authorities murdered 1,270 men. Their remains were scattered at sea or buried in a mass grave.
Fittingly, it was this atrocity that helped give rise to the 2011 uprising, which was sparked in part by a demonstration in Benghazi in support of a lawyer for the victims of the Abu Salim killings.
FAREWELL TO THE BIG MAN?
Matar’s narrative ends in mid-2012, during his brief stay in Libya. At that point, Libyans were still recovering from Qaddafi’s overthrow and death in the wake of a NATO-led military intervention. The country had not yet begun its disintegration into militia-run fiefdoms, and Matar chooses not to narrate that catastrophe.
In a book so layered with tragedies, perhaps it would have been too much to add another one. Instead, Matar frames his return home as a brief moment of clarity, almost an idyll, when “anything seemed possible, and nearly every individual I met spoke of his optimism and foreboding in the same breath.” Those days are long gone. One can only hope that someday Libya’s national story will again be amenable to a narrator as sensitive, honest, and forgiving as Matar.
For the time being, Libya has become a tale so furious that it seems to resist all efforts at translation.
The outlines are familiar: two rival governments, each with foreign backers; a jihadist insurgency, now largely broken; and a fragmentation of authority among rival gangs. Is this the harvest of a misconceived NATO intervention? Is it the inevitable result of Qaddafi’s deliberate destruction of Libyan institutions? No one can be sure.
Matar has said little about Libya’s descent into chaos, perhaps wisely. One of the few hopeful notes I have heard from revolutionaries in the Middle East is the idea that the Arab revolts of 2010–11 were part of a broader shift away from paternalism. The younger generation, some say, is slowly turning away from the traditional Arab reverence for a “big man” in politics, culture, and religion.
They hope that this reorientation of social life will eventually erode the pillars of autocracy and the ills that came along with it.
The potential for such an outcome provides little comfort in the present moment. But taking a long-term perspective may be the best way to view the Arab world’s current mayhem.
It also gives added meaning to Matar’s preoccupation with a legendary father figure, the man whose terrible shadow is so difficult to escape. “I am no different,” Matar writes of his filial obsession. “I live, as we all live, in the aftermath.”