A Syrian-American writer finds her voice, with help from Libya’s most famous novelist.
I had two New Year’s resolutions in 2011: to read Leo Tolstoy’sAnna Karenina and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Anna was completed by Jan. 25 — just when our lives turned into a 24-hour TV marathon tuned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square as the world watched a dictator fall in 18 short days. We Syrians knew our country was not Egypt or Tunisia, but when even Libya ignited on Feb. 15, we collectively held our breath with hope. The weeks passed, the uprisings around the Arab world grew larger and more determined, and the seven volumes of Proust slowly collected dust on my nightstand.
Another writer entered my life instead.
I had never heard of Hisham Matar before February 2011. But after reading one of his early op-eds about the Libyan revolution, I immediately downloaded In the Country of Men, his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel about a 9-year-old boy in Tripoli whose father is abducted by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s secret police. I finished it in two days. Matar portrayed a Libya that at once cradles the novel’s young protagonist, Suleiman, and disillusions him. It was an intimate introduction to a country I knew virtually nothing about, except that its eccentric dictator with his crazy outfits was definitely worse than our own strongman, Bashar al-Assad. I was taken by the fact that such a courageous book, originally published in Britain and now widely translated, had been released back in 2006, when Qaddafi’s oppressive regime and police network were still strong.
Matar’s personal essays often revolve around an all-too-similar subject: the real-life abduction of his father, Jaballa, a high-ranking Libyan opposition figure who was seized from their family’s home in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Qaddafi’s notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. “My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete,” Matar wrote in one essay, published just after In the Country of Men. “What I want is to know what happened to my father.” But Matar’s demands remained unanswered: He lost contact with his father in 1996 and never found out what happened to him, even after returning to Libya 16 years later in the months following the revolution that toppled Qaddafi.
In that revolution, Matar found new cause for speaking out. On Feb. 15, 2011, during the very first protest in Libya, citizens demonstrating in Benghazi’s streets held up posters of Jaballa Matar and other political prisoners, demanding their release, Matar was told. Over the next few days, demonstrators were shot and killed as they chanted for their rights. “I appeal to Colonel Gaddafi and his security forces,” Matar wrote in the Guardian three days later, “for the sake of the mothers, for the sake of those who died, for the sake of Libya, please don’t shoot and torture your people.” As the revolution progressed, Matar set up a makeshift media office in his London apartment and worked around the clock connecting activists to journalists. When his sources confirmed that regime troops were massing outside Benghazi, preparing to raid the city and potentially kill thousands of Libyans, Matar was one of the voices that called for the international community to help prevent a massacre — “to assist the uprising and limit the soaring loss of innocent life,” as he wrote in the New York Times
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