“Even as a young child, I could never imagine my father bowing, and even then I wanted to protect him,” Hisham Matar writes, in his memoir The Return. This says a lot about the land he comes from: Libya. There are countries where fathers have to bury their murdered sons, or where sons try desperately to keep their fathers safe. Then there are countries that separate fathers from their sons.
The Return follows the footsteps of the Libyan-British author as he travels to his fatherland after years in exile. It is 2012. He is accompanied by his wife, the photographer Diana Matar, and his mother. Coincidentally, it is the 22nd anniversary of his father’s captivity. Jaballa Matar, a successful businessman, diplomat and lifelong critic of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, was kidnapped by Libyan security troops in 1979. He was taken to Abu Salim Prison – notorious for its torture techniques and human rights violations. At the time of the abduction, Hisham Matar was 19 years old.
Matar wants to learn what has happened to his father: a question as simple as it is complicated – even dangerous. In the words of Telemachus in the Odyssey, “I wish at least I had some happy man as father, growing old in his own house – but unknown death and silence are the fate of him . . .” In looking for his father, Matar says, he is also looking for other things: memory, belonging, childhood, justice, roots . . .
It is these “other things” that make this book unforgettable. Matar’s observations of the “new Libya” are those of an insider/outsider. He is not a part of this culture – not any longer – but nor is he detached from it, even when he tries to be. Like every exile, he carries his fatherland in his conscience wherever he goes. Like every exile, he feels guilty about being the one who left and survived.
It is fascinating to see how each member of the Matar family responds differently to Jaballa’s disappearance. Hisham’s elder brother, Zia, remains optimistic to the end, claiming that their father could still be alive, having perhaps lost his memory, “unable to find his way back, like Gloucester wandering the heath in King Lear”. The mother remains resilient, focused on the present, on raising her sons. In truth, both parents are strikingly resilient. In one of the last letters Jaballa manages to send his family from prison, he writes: “The cruelty is everything, but I remain stronger than their tactics of oppression . . . My forehead does not know how to bow.” Within the family, it is Hisham, more than anyone else, who allows the anger, the resentment and the despair to surface.
The family’s psychological torment is deepened by not knowing what happened to Jaballa. Was he shot? Was he hanged? Did he die at the hands of torturers? “Not knowing when my father ceased to exist has further complicated the boundary between life and death,” Hisham writes. “My father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future.” When, in 2011, the Gaddafi regime is toppled and political prisoners are freed one by one, the waiting becomes all the more painful. Suddenly, for the first time in years, there is reason to be hopeful.
Matar’s voice is at its strongest when he talks about his self-imposed exile. “I noticed how old I had become, but also the boyishness that had persisted, as if part of me had stopped developing the moment we left Libya.” He contrasts his lack of ability to settle down anywhere – his “bloody-minded commitment to rootlessness” – with “the resigned stability of other exiles”. “My silent condemnation of those fellow exiles who wished to assimilate was my feeble act of fidelity to the old country, or maybe not even to Libya but to the young boy I was when we left.”
Matar’s cultural and literary references throughout the book are mostly European. It would have produced a wonderful mix if he had included Middle Eastern or Eastern references, too. But his analyses are deep, from his boarding-school years in England to his exchanges with the then British foreign secretary, David Miliband, when he tries to secure international help both for his father and for other political prisoners.
One of the most memorable chapters concerns Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the second son of Colonel Gaddafi, a man with many sides to his personality, who makes promises he cannot keep and who ultimately sides with tyranny – and cannot understand the pain of the thousands of people who have lost their fathers, sons or brothers under his own father’s regime.
Towards the end, it becomes painfully clear that Jaballa Matar was probably killed at Abu Salim on 29 June 1996, when 1,270 prisoners were massacred. The revelation is strangely liberating for Hisham: “For a quarter of a century now, hope has been seeping out of me. Now I can say, I am almost free of it.” Optimism weighs us down sometimes, especially when it is unsustainable.
I have been reading The Return at a time when my motherland, Turkey, is sliding backwards at bewildering speed, and journalists, writers and intellectuals are being detained, arrested, blacklisted or ostracised. Matar’s story is not only the story of his family, nor even of Libya, but, sadly, of a fate that is repeated again and again in countries that separate fathers from their sons.
Elif Shafak’s “Three Daughters of Eve” will be published in February by Viking
“The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between” by Hisham Matar is published by Penguin
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile