Book Review: The Return

“Nabokov and Conrad [were right]…They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved…But Pasternak and Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed…What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?” – Hisham Matar, The Return

Libyan expats and exiles often talk about the pain and difficulty of leaving Libya, of being unable to return or see relatives. For them, being deprived of the country for the past few decades has been a bitter loss. However, these recollections are often met with incredulity and disbelief by Libyans in the country, who would give anything for the chance to live in the United States or Britain, or for a brief respite from the overbearing omnipresence of family and social expectations. It’s this chasm between two different kinds of struggle that is difficult to bridge, and a prime source of tension between the two groups.

Hisham Matar is one of the very few Libyans who is trapped in between; stuck in a chasm that is neither here nor there. Raised in Libya and exiled by Gadhafi, his father was kidnapped, detained, and most likely killed by the regime, and Matar has spent much of his life consumed by the search for answers. I was introduced to Matar through his first novel, In The Country of Men. This book, and the one that followed (Anatomy of a Disappearance), were both coming-of-age tales of a young boy who has to come to terms with his father’s disappearance. In The Return, fiction is replaced by the real life account of Matar’s search for his father.

For much of his readership, Matar’s book is a unique glimpse into the life of a person and nation haunted by a dictatorship. But for myself, and for most Libyans, the book is more personal. Every recollection of some small detail in Libya, past or present, evokes a feeling of kinship with the author, as though he is speaking directly to us and acknowledging our shared experiences. This is why my reading of the book has been more critical.

Scattered throughout the book are glimpses of his father’s life, who fought constantly against the regime. Under Gadhafi, these tales of resistance might have once sparked romantic admiration in Libyans who were equally appalled at his rule. But being on the other end of a revolution that failed to transition into a state, it makes one wonder whether the “dissidents” against Gadhafi knew what they were doing. Many fought with the goal of overthrowing him, but very few – if any at all – understood what it took to turn Libya into a democratic nation. Reading about his father’s training and army-building in Chad only brings forward feelings of disapproval now; these dissidents are no longer viewed as heroes but as reckless, irresponsible anarchists.

The same goes for Matar’s account of the revolution and immediate aftermath. The hope and nationalism and potential he wrote about in such beautiful prose is gone in Libya, replaced instead with horror at the movement we had once supported, which is now dismantling the country. One point I really took issue with was the judgement he cast on Libyans. “The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: people would come to long for the days of Qaddafi.”

Is that really the most unimaginable thing though? Are the public acts of beheading something we ever imagined happening in Libya? The devaluation of the dinar to the point where Libyans are going hungry, something we could imagine? No matter how much you hated him, to deny that life under his rule could possibly be anything worse than a failing country where hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been forced out of their homes and cities is to convey a supreme ignorance of the current situation.

There was another instance of this judgement that irked me. Matar talks about the “unfinished state of modern Libyan architecture”, blaming it on the nation’s “lack of self-regard”, unaware that many Libyans – who save their modest income for decades to build their houses – oftentimes run out of money when it comes to “finishing” the house. It is a harsh observation, which is a running theme in the book. The only time he seems to praise Libyans is when he discusses their role in the revolution. Of course, as Libyans, we are often harsh towards each other, although we disapprove when it’s done publicly.

All in all, the Libya that Matar writes about is one that is long gone. He dwells on the past excessively, and romanticizes a revolution that has brought about one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history. While the book is called ‘The Return’, Hisham Matar is not returning to the country he knew but rather to a new Libya, one that he is seeing for the first time.

Again, my reading of the book was critical, because I feel such a personal connection to the things Matar writes about. For me, it’s not the account of a heartbreaking story from a third world country. It’s a history that I too have lived, a reality I’m currently burdened under.

But I ultimately recognize that this is his story. As much as I want to be involved, to say, “No, this is how things happened,” it’s not my account, it’s not my history. And its his personal narrative is what makes the book so fascinating. From his life as a child in Tripoli, to the impermanence he carries around while growing up, and that particular feeling of being stuck in time, Hisham Matar has lived an extraordinary life, one that he describes in what is undoubtedly a masterful form of writing.

The most fascinating part of the book, for myself, were the encounters and correspondences with Seif Al-Islam. It’s difficult to imagine Seif sitting in a London hotel, having a chat with a dissident’s son, or texting and using emojis. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine Seif anywhere that isn’t in front of a camera, speaking platitudes or threatening destruction. However, Matar’s description of the tyrant’s son aligns with the general impression that I’ve seen; a visible, almost strained, attempt to appear professional while trying to suppress the inherited madness of his father. But Gadhafi junior represented something else to Libyans in the country that was not seen by exiles; an opportunity for change, to finally throw off the Jamaheria and start to become a developing country. Inside Libya, we’re only now realizing how the country was changing before 2011. A friend of mine told me, “If we had waited three years, the revolution wouldn’t have happened, because the people would no longer feel a need to revolt.” I’m not sure how true this statement is, since it was more a revolution of anger than one of demands, but it highlights the noticeable difference between the false ideals of Al-Fateh to the new vision of Gadhafi junior.

Overall, this book is an emotional rollercoaster, and reading it as a Libyan definitely coloured my experience. But I still highly recommend it to anyone trying to better understand the situation in Libya, or to anyone really who really enjoys good prose. I was incredibly thrilled to hear that it had won a Pulitzer prize, and I hope this will motivate more Libyan writers to pick up a pen and share their own narratives. God knows we have such fantastic stories to tell.

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If Famous Books Were Set In Libya

This post is a fun exercise in reinterpreting Western literature through Libyan eyes, the result of a crazy Ramadan morning on Twitter.

Hajer and Deeja (also known as @leftyuser and @_khadeja) , my fellow bookworms-in-arms and all-around amazing Libyan ladies, started a whirlwind conversation (no doubt brought on by fasting and lack of sleep) on rewriting our favorite books with a Libyan setting. The results were so hilarious I felt compelled to share them here. (CAUTION: Spoiler Alert if you haven’t read these yet)

1. A Tale of Two Cities: The story of Benghazi and Tripoli, and the hardships the people of these two cities face during the revolution.

2. Pride and Prejudice: Elissa and Jannah, two keen, witty Libyan sisters, must deal with their mother’s incessant badgering to get married to rich man, in a society where marriage determines a woman’s worth.

3. The Great Gatsby: A shady young member of the “thuwar” (revolutionaries), who was once poor, mysteriously becomes very wealthy after enlisting to fight in the revolution. He uses the money to try and get back his girl.

4. Alice in Wonderland: A young American girl finds herself in Libya, a strange country inhabited by the most bizarre creatures who, in turn, find her to be very foreign.

5. Crime and Punishment: A troubled former Libyan student kills an old woman and her sister, because in his mind, he is better than everyone else.

6. Animal Farm: The pigs (GNC members) try to cement their power after the revolution, by training dogs (militias) to intimidate and scare the people (farm animals) to keep them in check. All Libyans are equal, but some Libyans are more equal than others.

7. Harry Potter 5: Dolores Gheryani is brought into the country to “properly educate” the people, but instead forces rules, ruins education and tries to punish the citizen that don’t obey him. It’s no wonder his close friend is Lucius Sweihli.

8. The Arcana Chronicles: A post-apocalyptic Libya with unspeakable terrors and corruption, and an evil militia that kidnaps and tortures wherever they go. People must go to great lengths for basic survival and fight for an uncertain future.

9. The Handmaid’s Tale: After a terrorist attack that leads to the establishment of ISIS in Libya (an extremist military government), an ultra-conservative society forms where women are stripped of all their basic rights and are closely controlled.

10. The Fault in Our Stars: A sick nation falls in love with a captivating revolution that sweeps them off their feet. But the revolution couldn’t live for very long, creating a tragic romance. Aptly renamed to The Fault in Our Revolution.

11. Holes: A camp in the desert of Southern Libya is a place where delinquent young Libyans must go and dig holes to improve their character. But what they don’t realize is that they’re digging to find Gadhafi’s lost treasure.

12. The Trial: A young man is accused of an unknown crime, and is dragged through the bureaucratic hell of Libya’s confusing and corrupt judicial system, only to be needlessly killed without even knowing what his crime was.

13. A Suitable Boy: A long tale of a Libyan mother trying to find the perfect husband for her daughter with the right social status, within the jumbled world of Libya’s tribes, as the daughter tries to establish her independence and role in the New Libya.

14. Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde: Dr.Jamal is an intelligent doctor and upright citizen. But unbeknownst to his family friends, at night he transforms into an Ansar Shariah member and wreaks havoc on the city. He leads a double life that eventually shatters his sanity.

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As you can tell, the common theme of books chosen is rather bleak, which is sadly a reflection of our reality now. However, they are all amazing books to read (I wonder if Libya’s history would ever make a great book?), and give some insight if you want a tiny glimpse of Libya. But don’t forget this Mark Twain quote:

‘Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.’

The 10 Strangest Moments of the Libyan Revolution

During the revolution I was a volunteer columnist for the Intifathat AlAhrar (Uprising of the Free) newspaper, which was published by the Tawasul organization. Most of my articles revolved around the state of the on-going revolution at the time and the changes in society.

But as I was rummaging through some old files to clear up disk space, I stumbled on this draft of an article that never got published. It brought back some memories and so I decided to publish it here. 

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Every uprising has its memorable moments, whether it was the lone man roaming the deserted streets of Tunis telling his people not to be afraid, to the confrontation between Egyptian protesters and Mubarak’s camel & horse thugs, or the tearing down of Pearl Square in Manama.

But when your revolution is against a man who wears flowing silk and velvet robes to UN meetings and surrounds himself with female ‘virgin’ bodyguards, prepare yourself for some very odd situations. In no particular order, the more memorable events of Libya’s uprising are:

#10. Yellow Hats – During the beginning of the revolution, widely circulated rumors about African mercenaries abounded. These were Gadhafi’s “riot police”, so to speak, except instead of water hoses and shields, they shot you in the heart. And they got paid $2,000 a day to do it.

But it didn’t stop there. People were reporting sightings of large groups of ‘yellow hat men”. These were men armed with clubs, wearing yellow construction hats, presumably to help them identify each other.

Of course, being Gadhafi supports, it never occurred to them that it would also help the angry mob to identify them as well. Needless to say, they weren’t around for long.

#9. Gadhafi’s First Speech – Protests have never gone unpunished in Libya before. But when the Gadhafi regime was faced with a situation that had gotten too out-of-hand, their solution was to confront the people, in the form of Seif Al-Islam Gadhafi’s televised address.

When dealing with angry protesters, the last thing you want to do is call them rats, accuse them of being stoned and threaten to burn the country. Unfortunately, no one shared these gems of wisdom to the Gadhafis, and the result was an even angrier mob.

In a hilarious display of poor judgment, it was then announced that there would be an address by none another than Brother Leader himself. The state T.V. channels broadcast that Muammer Gadhafi would shortly be giving a speech to the people. Would he also rave like a lunatic? Shout threats and vow to destroy the country?

It didn’t broadcast until 1 am, and if you blinked you would have missed it. It was a 15-second commentary on the rain, and how he wasn’t in Venezuela. There was also an umbrella.

Of course he made it up to us later with an hour-long threat-filled tirade about hallucination drugs and how the West wanted to colonize us.

#8. Secret Abortion Clinic – You’ve probably heard the phrase “only in Libya”. A combination of circumstances has made this country the setting for some very unlikely events.

After the freeing of Tripoli, a lot of secrets came out. Mass graves, underground tunnels. And an abortion clinic. Under the UNIVERSITY.

An entire suite was found under Tripoli university, including a bedroom, Jacuzzi, and a fully equipped, state-of-the-art female clinic. Why under the University though?

It is believed that Gadhafi posted people there to look for attractive young females, whom he could seduce (read: rape), without going to the trouble of kidnapping them from their home. Apparently he wasn’t a fan of contraceptives, which is where we think the clinic comes in.

#7. Condi Rice Photo Album – A good many odd things were found in Gadhafi  & Son’s numerous houses, including  a tortured maid, golden weaponry and a maze of tunnels. But one of the most peculiar items discovered was a photo album dedicated solely to pictures of Condoleezza Rice. Yes, the former American Secretary of State.

Apparently Gadhafi had a crush on Ms. Rice, even composing a song for her called Black Flower in the White House. Which is bizarre considering that he refused to shake her hand on her last visit. Was Gadhafi just a shy schoolboy? Or a borderline obsessive maniac? (Hint: it’s the latter)

#6. Magic Man – Revolutions bring out the best and worst people to the limelight. We saw the emergence numerous activists, leaders who embodied the best of the Libyan people.

And then there were people like Yousif Shakeer, a talk-show host and purported ‘political analyst’ who began his appearance on Libyan state television as a guest speaker and was eventually given his own show. Now, I could compile a list exclusively for the weirdest Yousif Shakir moments, but for now I’ll just mention one of the most well-known; when he called upon jinn to help Gadhafi.

Rosary swinging in hand, Shakir quivered with concentration as he held what is probably the first ever live television jinn-summoning. But either the jinn were anti-Gahdafi or Shakir needed more lessons in black magic, because they did not come to the deposed dictator’s aid.

#5. The Spluttering Spokesperson – One of the qualifications for any job with the Gadhafi regime is the ability to lie unabashedly in the face of a mountain of evidence, even at the cost of your own personal image. You must dismiss reason and logic, and focus solely on denying whatever allegations are being made.

This was the task assigned to Moussa Ibrahim, mouth piece of the regime itself. No matter what the media outlet was, Ibrahim would assert, with unwavering confidence and no trace of irony, that there was nothing going on in Libya and all the problems were caused by outside forces.

When Tripoli was finally breached and Bab Al-Azizya was crashing around their ears, Ibrahim emerged in a presser to state that Tripoli was under their control and they were prepared to defend it, while simultaneously asking for a ceasefire.

But possibly the biggest mishap occurred on an interview he did with BBC, when he claimed that “not even God” could stop the  Libyan people “if they wanted their dictator” (which you can watch here, scroll to minute 14:40). Way to echo the sentiments of a religious nation, Mr. Ibrahim.

#4. Gadhafi’s Last Stand – No tyrant lives forever, and Gadhafi was no exception to the rule. However, it’s how the tyrant ends which really matters in history. Some, like Hafiz Al-Assad, pass away unremarkably, while others face a violent ending.

In Gadhafi’s case, it was the latter, with a twist of poetic justice. After a NATO attack on his conveys left the ex-leader between a rock and a hard place, he was found in a hole by the same people he called rats. Horrific endings are not uncommon for despots, but how many of them were found with a solid gold gun?

Apparently Gadhafi liked to defend himself in style. This is not the first weapon owned by Gadhafi that was valuable enough to feed the entire Libyan population for at least a year. Among his stockpile were another gold rifle and a diamond-encrusted pistol. And he never even got to use them. Just goes to show you that when buying weapons for self-defense (or murdering your people), reliability always trumps ostentatious glitziness.

#3. Bab Al-Aziziya’s Nightly Raves – Everything Gadhafi did was in gaudy, tasteless style, including the “spontaneous” organized protests that took place in his compound. These took the form of nightly festivities with authentic Libyan wedding bands to boot (East Libyan of course, to show that half of the country that he didn’t hold any grudges).

Every night on Libya’s state tv channel we were treated to an exuberant party of Gadhafi supporters dancing and chanting their support for the Green Man. Flags of supportive countries (which dwindled every night) were waved violently at the cameras, as if to say, “Who needs you France? We have Algeria!”

But one of the highlights of those celebrations was an honest-to-goodness wedding. Yes, that’s right, a bride and groom, bedecked in “imperialist” wedding gown and tux, sat perched atop a chaise longue on stage while the revelers convulsed in dance below. It’s unclear what the message was (Gadhafi supports marriages? Married people support Gadhafi?) but we can say with certainty that it is the most unique wedding we’ve ever seen.

#2. Abdul-Jalil’s Liberation Speech – Few occasions are as momentous in a country’s history as the day it is liberated. The longer and crueler the dictatorship, the bigger the event.

Libya’s liberation declaration on October 23rd was one such day. The 42 years of oppression ending with the death of the tyrant left even the most inarticulate citizen eloquently proclaiming their joy.

And no man had greater opportunity to voice what Libyans were feeling than interim PM Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was scheduled to give the “official” declaration in Benghazi’s Keesh square. Standing on the podium with the eyes of the country on him, Abdul Jalil declared that Libya was free….and that men can marry 4 wives.

In his effort to emphasis that Libya will become an Islamic country, and unaware that timing is everything, Abdul Jalil nullified a Gadhafi-era law prohibiting multiple marriages during his speech. Because nothing says “dawn of a new era” quite like polygamy.

#1. ???

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As you can see, I never actually finished the list. I don’t know if it was due to my inability to find more events to write about (10 point lists are hard, okay?) or if I was demotivated to complete it after the newspaper was discontinued. It’s funny how much of this stuff I forgot, or how sardonic I could be (oh, to be 20 again).

It also brought back memories of a time when we believed wholeheartedly that the country was headed towards nothing but success. Abdul-Jalil’s speech now seems like an ominous foreshadowing, rather than just a goofy comment from an incompetent politician.

There are very little events in Libya today that could provide material for a lighthearted article, which is why I shared this one. So share your experience with me. What is the strangest moment you remember from the Libyan revolution that deserves the number 1 spot?

A Civil Exercise in Futility

Today is the fourth day in which I am stuck at home, staring blankly at the surface of my laptop screen and trying to articulate the frustration I have with the so-called “civil disobedience” strike in Benghazi.

Several rumors in the past weeks that claimed a strike was going to happen were dismissed as fabrications, until a group of people forcefully locked the gates of the university this Sunday.

What kind of civil disobedience, I hear you ask, uses brute force? One may reminisce on the days of Gadhafi, when institutes would be locked up and people forced to participate during whatever lunatic holiday he wanted to celebrate.

History seems to be repeating itself. Several schools found notes taped to their front gates in the morning, threatening them if they opened. Armed men went around forcing stores to close. A school’s chemistry lab was bombed (while the purpose was never publicly declared, one can assume it was for defying the disobedience).

What’s shocking is not just the acts themselves, but those in support of this farce. Otherwise intelligent and rational people are calling this strike necessary, and calling on others to follow. Many of the sheep jumped onto the bandwagon without any idea as to the goals of the disobedience.

What are the goals of this civil disobedience?

To make the GNC stop and pay attention to our crippled, bleeding city? We put our lives on hold last time and got nothing for our troubles except a few empty promises. What makes now so different?

Is it to intimidate or stop the terrorists?

At least 4 people have been assassinated so far, and a months old child is in critical condition.

WHAT IS THE POINT?

A civil disobedience strike is a collective message from a unified group of people who have the power to affect their government by halting all functions in the city.

We are not unified, we have neither power nor a government, and our city doesn’t function. Not only that, but it only appears to be enforced during business hours, as the cafes, stores and restaurants operate during the evening. If one were to analyze this objectively, one would conclude that the strike is being supported/enforced by those who don’t want to go to school or work. And that is who the most vocal proponents seem to be.

And yet, if you challenge these lazy, dim-witted brutes, you are labelled insensitive and unpatriotic. “The only way you would care about the situation in Benghazi is if a relative of yours was killed!”

No, neanderthal. One does not need to show solidarity and compassion with a cause by supporting such futile and illogical course of action.

Instead of stopping the meager level of work and education that happens in the city, which if halted, hurts only ourselves, I support renewing our work and doubling our efforts. An encouraging page on Facebook calls for the citizens to work one extra hour for Libya. If we truly care about the situation, why can’t we put in the energy to really make a difference?

I can already hear the naysayers braying, “What about the assassinations and bombings?!”

I can’t tell you how to stop them, but I can tell you that stopping children from going to school and threatening shop keepers with a gun won’t help. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and using the tactics of the terrorists will never make you a hero.

There’s really nothing left to say. The situation in Benghazi is very bad, the government is either indifferent or an active element in the demise of the city. The citizens are frustrated, and this civil disobedience was the last resort for many.

February 20, A Sunday

More fighting, a rising death toll. Funeral processions are being fired at. At the cemetery, an entire family was buried, killed after mercenaries fire on their car. People talk of going to Al-Abiar, a district just outside of Benghazi, where it is reported that there are weapons.

Videos from the Eastern area are being played on the news channel. We watch people smash the monument to the Green Book in Derna, and protesters gathering in Baytha chanting for the fall of the regime, proof that the Eastern area is almost free. Benghazi is the last stronghold. Everyone keeps repeating it like a soothing mantra; if Benghazi falls, he loses the East.

There is a noticeable decrease in the fighting outside of the Fatheel barrack. Snipers have been positioned all around the area, and anyone who nears the area is fired on. And yet there is no sign that anyone will give up; on the contrary, the more the death toll increases, more people go into the streets.

We call our aunt, who lives near the Al-Jala hospital. She says that there is a major crisis there, no space in the hospital for the living or dead, decreasing medical supplies, and a lack of doctors and nurses. Despite the situation there is an atmosphere of unity, strength and defiance in the face of all this violence. Everyone is contributing blankets (because of the cold), donating blood, average citizens are assisting at the hospital.

We have passed the point of no return. If we don’t win, he will destroy Benghazi.

We find out later what happened that day at the Katiba, an act of heroic bravery that will forever be remembered by the people of Benghazi.

Mahdi Muhammed Ziu, a 49-year-old citizen of Benghazi, drove straight into the Katiba entrance. The soldiers automatically opened fire on him, but what they didn’t know was that he loaded his car with gas canisters and gun powder. It exploded, creating a hole in the entrance and causing the mercenaries to flee. It was the chance the protesters needed to take control.

Meanwhile, Libyan State television announces that Seif Al-Islam will shortly be addressing the country. He doesn’t appear until 2 in the morning. I can’t tell you what we expected him to say. Previous presidents like Housni Mubarak and Ben Ali have promised to improve the country and have acknowledged the protesters demands as legitimate.

But, Seif Al-Islam is Muammer’s son, which means he spent an hour calling the protesters drunken gang members who are high on hallucinogen pills. He then inexplicably goes on to say that if the issue is not resolved Libya will be divided, that there will be no more oil or gas, and the country will be plunged into civil war.

There was a time when these threats might have held some credibility. But now, after hundreds dead and mercenaries in the streets, the people have had enough. At the courthouse, they set up a projector aimed at the wall so the people demonstrating there could watch what was happening. Their response to Seif was to throw shoes and other objects at the projection as he spoke.