Owen Richardson

London-based writer Hisham Matar grew up in Cairo, where his family had gone to live once his father’s opposition to the Gaddafi regime had made him unwelcome in Libya. In 1990 Matar’s father was kidnapped by Gaddafi’s thugs and imprisoned in Tripoli; for a while his family had letters from him, then the letters stopped.

As told in The Return, an account of Matar’s attempts to find out what became of him, Jaballa Matar was one of the 1200 or more men massacred – the true figure is unclear – at Abu Salim prison in 1996.

Hisham Matar’s characters find themselves at the centre of historic, headline-making events.

Matar’s previous novels In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance fictionalise this subject of the imprisoned or vanished father. His third novel is a work of fluent, vivid story-telling and great perceptiveness about some of the central contemporary themes: displacement and resistance, the word and the deed.

In London, on April 17, 1984, two Libyan students, Khaled and Mustafa, attend a demonstration against Gaddafi’s regime outside the Libyan Embassy, which ends with gunmen in an upper window opening fire onto the crowd. A policewoman is killed; Khaled and Mustafa are among those wounded.

This bloody real-life incident is the motivating scene of My Friends: neither of the young men can go back home again; within a few minutes study abroad turns to exile.

Khaled and Mustafa are granted asylum and set about making lives for themselves, Khaled as a schoolteacher, Mustafa as a real estate agent. Khaled’s relationship with his family back in Libya becomes snarled up with lies and evasions: he doesn’t tell them he was shot, and finds one excuse after another not to return home in the holidays. And in London he must be wary at all times.

Even before the shootings in St James’s Square, at university, Khaled has learned to distinguish between the Libyans who are there to study, “the readers”, and those, “the writers”, who are there to report back to the Libyan authorities on their fellow students.

Now his wariness extends to discussing what happened to him even with non-Libyan friends; in a neat metaphor for all the concealment and dissembling, a trip to the beach requires excuses for not taking off his t-shirt. The scars must remain hidden.

“Friends are the new family,” is a throwaway 21st-century line; Matar recasts the idea as less a matter of preference than hard necessity, and the necessity can bring constriction, another form of exile: “If friendship is, as it often seems, a place to inhabit,” Khaled says of his relationship with Mustafa, “ours became small and not terribly hospitable.” (With its rudeness and dinginess, the actual place they inhabit, London, can often seem inhospitable as well. Matar’s descriptions come in a long line of outsider’s views, from Rimbaud to Coetzee.)

But besides Mustafa there is Rana, a Lebanese architecture student whose family’s flat in London is Khaled’s first place of refuge. Her membership of the Arab diaspora gives her commonality with Khaled, yet her situation is utterly different from his.

Later, when she summons Khaled to Paris, where she is being treated for brain cancer, he has a chance encounter with Hosam, a writer whose work has been talismanic for Khaled and Mustafa since their youth: another foundational early scene in the book is Khaled and his family listening to one of Hosam’s stories, an allegory of oppression and resistance, read aloud on the BBC Arabic World Service.

My Friends is studded with unforced references to the classics, English and Arab; literature is Khaled’s way of making sense of the world, a crystallisation of it, as in Hosam’s story, but also a refuge, even an escape. It can also be a wielder of disappointments: there is a mordant scene in which Khaled and Mustafa go to see V.S. Naipaul read, “the great man … wearing a hat that did not fit him” and going on about the evils of Islam.

For Hosam, the now blocked, silenced writer, London stops being a place for literary pilgrimage, for trips to Virginia Woolf’s house, becoming instead a site of assassinations and bombings that he obsessively chronicles in his notebooks, from the Indian nationalist Madan Lal Dhingra, who killed Sir Curzon Wyllie in 1909, to the 1980 murder, at Gaddafi’s command, of Mohammed Mustafa Ramadan, the (also real life) journalist whose voice Khaled hears reading Hosam’s story.

Hosam is moving from contemplation to action, and as the novel progresses it becomes a story of those who act, and those who stand by; those for whom the new life in exile has become solid enough that the return no longer seems so pressing, and those who are still haunted by the prospect of remaking the homeland.

When the Arab Spring arrives, the choice is unignorable, and hesitancy doesn’t dilute but reinforces a sense of the inexorability of decision; once more Matar’s characters find themselves at the centre of historic, headline-making events.


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