The Books Interview: Hisham Matar

Your father, Jaballa Matar, was abducted in 1990 and taken into detention in Libya. When did you last see him?
He was abducted in March of that year. I last saw him the previous Christmas, when I went home to Cairo for a break.

You have recently had word that he may still be alive. Does this news come as a relief, a source of hope, or merely as a new kind of torment?
It comes as both torment and hope. I think the problem with this situation is the inconclusive sense of grief. You don't know one way or the other. And that's much more difficult, on some level, than hearing the worst. So what has happened between 2001, which is when we first began to get wind of a massacre that had taken place in the Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli, and now is that the parameters have shifted somewhat. Hope endures, but so does the vagueness of the situation.

What kind of information have you had?
I was contacted two years ago by a former prisoner who said he had seen my father at the high-security prison in Tripoli in 2002, after which this prisoner was moved to another facility. And he said that my father was frail but fine. I didn't relay this information immediately to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty until I'd been able to get more information. I did some amateur journalism. Eventually, after 18 months, I felt this was more likely true than not. The information that he gave to me and to other people stacks up. So, we're not 100 per cent certain that he's alive - more like 70 or 80 per cent certain.

You've spoken several times to former inmates of Abu Salim Prison. What have they told you about conditions there?
Abu Salim, in the early 1990s, was a bad place, but then it got worse after the riots that led to the massacre in 1996. The cells were about six metres by six metres, and some of them were occupied by about 25 people at a time. But my father, in one of his letters, told us that he was kept in isolation with one other prisoner, Izzat al-Maqrif, who disappeared from Egypt in the same way. We know from the letter, and from other sightings, that they were always kept together. They were taken in similar circumstances and assurances were given to the Egyptian government that they would not be seen, so they were kept in isolation.

What were the circumstances of the massacre?
Because of the bad conditions I've described, some prisoners captured a prison guard and killed him, and then took control of a wing of the prison. That's when other forces were sent in and the revolt was quashed. Much later, I heard from someone in the government that the original order was to destroy the whole prison, to bomb it. Gaddafi apparently got so angry after the revolt that he said the prison must be bombed. But Abu Salim is in the centre of Tripoli, and bombing it would have been a ridiculous move.

Together with English PEN, you have written to David Miliband urging the Foreign Office to intervene in your father's case. What do you hope the upshot will be?
I am hoping that they will use their new relationship with the Libyan regime, not only to establish the fate of my father, but also to demand significant improvements in Libya's human rights record.

What was your reaction to the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi?
It's very hard to sum up how I feel about it. I'm not hot with conviction about his guilt, and whenever I see someone released, I think of my father. So, on some level, I thought of the day my father would come back to us.

And your next novel is about a man haunted by the absence of his father.
Like all novelists, I'm interested in the filters between reality and the imagination. There's something very bizarre about having a father who has disappeared. It's very hard to articulate.The reason that we all think we know what it means to lose someone to death is that it's such a familiar thing. But this is so unfamiliar and unexpected. I sometimes wonder if I would have become a writer if what happened to my father hadn't happened.

“In the Country of Men" by Hisham Matar is published by Penguin (£7.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war