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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Libya’s Lost Literature

In the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the job of the firemen is to burn books. Because in a totalitarian society, nothing is more dangerous than a conscious citizen:

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door…Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”

Another aspect of books is the spread of words and therefore thoughts and ideas. In George Orwell’s 1984, Newspeak was the method employed to combat this threat to the autocracy:

“…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. “

Oppressive dictators think alike, and Libya’s former tyrant was no different. In order to keep a leash on the minds of the people, Gadhafi abolished Libya’s previous culture, replacing it instead with an engineered image of him as saviour of the country (and indeed, of Africa in general). It wouldn’t do to have other heroes, which is why the shrine of Omar Mukhtar in Benghazi was demolished. Nor it would be prudent to read anything other than what Gadhafi says or approves of, which led to systematic control and censorship of speech.

An old photo of a historic street in Benghazi, with the Omar Mukhtar shrine visible at the end.

An old photo of a historic street in Benghazi, with the Omar Mukhtar shrine visible at the end.

Many writers were imprisoned, tortured and/or killed. Libraries and cultural centers were shut down, turned instead into “mathabat” , meeting halls for Gadhafi’s thugs. Publishing companies were shut down, replaced by state owned ones. His “green book” was taught as gospel in schools and university. What few newspapers, radio stations and television channels existed were all controlled by the regime. Writing in Libya was a dangerous profession.

So it’s no surprise that when the revolution happened, a tidal wave of words, both written and spoken, washed over the country. The opinions and beliefs that everyone had secretly held were finally uttered, hindered no more by the regimes’ wall of silence. In Benghazi alone over 100 magazines and newspapers were founded, because everyone had something to say. Books were published about the regime, channels and radio stations were established.

This wave of words has ebbed since then. Most people now use Facebook to express themselves, but this isn’t without its consequences. Rumors and fear-mongering are a prominent feature on social media and Libyan press agencies. We’re still learning the privileges and repercussions that freedom of speech gives us.

The Benghazi Bookshop on Jamal St., downtown Benghazi.

The Benghazi Bookshop on Jamal St., downtown Benghazi.

The literature situation is still rather dismal. In Benghazi there’s only a handful of bookstores, with limited selections available. Tripoli is better in this regard, but only slightly. Many have said that Libya is not a nation that likes reading, but there is evidence that indicates the contrary.

A used-book fair was held in both Tripoli and Benghazi, with an unexpected turnout. From this article on the fair:

One visitor, clutching a novel and a volume of poetry, said that there were so many people at the fair, it was quite overwhelming. “I had the impression that Libyans are not readers,” she said, “so I am very surprised.”

But with limited resources it will still be difficult to encourage the newer generations to read. This is partially the reason why I started The Young Writers of Benghazi. Encouraging aspiring writers and producing literature on a local level will give us the chance to showcase the literary talents in Libya, tackle issues that directly pertain to our culture and society (as opposed to importing books), and will give Libyan literature a chance to flourish. So far the support we’ve gotten and the talent we’ve seen among Benghazi’s students have been incredible.

My first exposure to Libyan literature came when I read “In The Country of Men” by Hisham Matar. It’s a captivating book about the life of a boy with a dissident father, growing up in Gadhafi’s Libya. I had read it before the revolution, and seeing the same emotions about the tyranny that I felt written down before me was a new experience. I knew that most Libyans felt the same way, but were too afraid to voice it.

Further research into Libya’s literature revealed a side of our culture I was unaware of. There were writers and poets, both young and old, who had received recognition outside the country. Sadeq Neihoum, Ibrahim Al-Koni and Hisham Matar are just a few of those with incredible writing that we are largely unaware of.

Famous Libyan Writers

Famous Libyan Writers, from left to right, top to bottom: Al-Sadeg Al-Neihoum, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Khalifa Al-Fakhri, Khalifa Al-Tellisi, Wahbi Al-Bouri, Ahmed Al-Faqih and Sa’eed Sifow

Supporting local writers, poets and journalists will strengthen our culture. It’s imperative for Libyans to turn to books and other forms of the written word to fortify their own thoughts and protect their newly gained freedom of speech. Just as the absence of books and knowledge strengthens a dictatorship, their propagation will strengthen our democracy.