The return Fathers, sons, and the land in between

Hisham Matar, 1970-

Book - 2016

"In 2012, after the overthrow of Qaddafi, the acclaimed novelist Hisham Matar journeys to his native Libya after an absence of thirty years. When he was twelve, Matar and his family went into political exile. Eight years later Matar's father, a former diplomat and military man turned brave political dissident, was kidnapped from the streets of Cairo by the Libyan government and is believed to have been held in the regime's most notorious prison. Now, the prisons are empty and little hope remains that Jaballah Matar will be found alive. Yet, as the author writes, hope is "persistent and cunning." This book is a profoundly moving family memoir, a brilliant and affecting portrait of a country and a people on the cusp o...f immense change, and a disturbing and timeless depiction of the monstrous nature of absolute power"--

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BIOGRAPHY/Matar, Hisham
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Travel writing
New York : Random House [2016]
Main Author
Hisham Matar, 1970- (author)
First U.S. edition
Physical Description
243 pages : map ; 22 cm
  • 1. Trapdoor
  • 2. Black Suit
  • 3. The Sea
  • 4. The Land
  • 5. Blo'thaah
  • 6. Poems
  • 7. Your Health? Your Family?
  • 8. The Truce and the Clementine
  • 9. The Old Man and His Son
  • 10. The Flag
  • 11. The Last Light
  • 12. Benghazi
  • 13. Another Life
  • 14. The Bullet
  • 15. Maximilian
  • 16. The Campaign
  • 17. The Dictator's Son
  • 18. The Good Manners of Vultures
  • 19. The Speech
  • 20. Years
  • 21. The Bones
  • 22. The Patio
  • Acknowledgments
Review by New York Times Review

THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS, by Dominic Smith. (Picador, $16.) A 17th-century Dutch painting and a forgery of it kick off a highbrow mystery. After the painting is stolen from Marty de Groot, whose family had owned it for generations, Marty's streak of bad luck comes to an end. Years later, the hidden commonalities between him, the artist - the only female painter in a Dutch guild at the time - and the painting's forger come into full view. WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. (Penguin, $17.) This masterly cultural history traces the United States' changing relationship to white poverty - from Britain's desire to banish its undesirable citizens to North America, to the stigmas and epithets attached to the underclass, to racial anxieties about becoming a "mongrel" nation. EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN, by Chris Cleave. (Simon & Schuster, $16.) In 1939 London, Mary North is given a teaching job just as the city's students are evacuated, leaving behind only those who are mentally impaired, disabled or black. Cleave drew upon his grandparents' correspondence for his novel, which our reviewer, Michael Callahan, praised for its "ability to stay small and quiet against the raging tableau of war." OPERATION THUNDERBOLT: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History, by Saul David. (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $18.99.) In 1976, hijackers forced the pilot of an Air France flight en route from Tel Aviv to Paris to land in Entebbe, Uganda, and took the plane's passengers hostage. David recounts the episode in thrilling, minute-by-minute detail, with attention to the masterminds behind the hijacking and the Israeli government's decision to carry out the dangerous rescue mission. THE SUN IN YOUR EYES, by Deborah Shapiro. (Morrow/HarperCollins, $14.99.) It's been 10 years since Viv and Lee, the daughter of a musician who died when she was a child, lived together in college, and nearly three since Lee all but dropped from view. But when she suddenly appears, asking Viv to join her on a quest to recover her father's unfinished album, the trip offers both women a chance at closure. THE RETURN: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar. (Random House, $17.) Matar's father, a prominent Libyan dissident, disappeared into a notorious regime prison in 1990; his fate remains unknown. This memoir, one of the Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2016, examines the grief of a family left in the dark, with meditations on dictatorship and art's capacity to console.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [April 9, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

Matar envies mourners at funerals. Unlike him, they have the luxury of knowing that their loved ones are dead. The uncertainty about what became of his father after he was incarcerated in a prison in Tripoli has haunted Matar's years of living away from his homeland of Libya. After several decades, novelist Matar returns to the country in this elegiac memoir. His father was a high-ranking military officer when Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power, and was imprisoned before being exiled. Those Matar's father associated with in his efforts against the Qaddafi regime many of them relatives met similar fates. Matar recounts their stories, the precious few details he was able to collect about his father, and his own anguish in the twilight of uncertainty following his father's presumed death. It is a testament to the power of his story that his own search campaign, involving human-rights organizations and both the Libyan and British governments, takes second place to the bitter poignance of his journey home. With muscular elegance, Matar demonstrates that hope can be a form of agony.--Thoreson, Bridget Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Novelist Matar (Anatomy of a Disappearance, 2011, etc.) returns to his native Libya in 2012 following a three-decade exile.At the center of this moving and vividly documented memoir is the author's quest to find answers to his father's disappearance in 1990. Jaballa Matar had formerly worked for the Libyan delegation to the United States yet later became an influential political dissident who, in reacting against Muammar Gaddafi's revolutionary regime, was forced to flee with his family from their home in Tripoli to Cairo. A decade later, while the author was a student in London, his father was kidnapped in the streets of Cairo by forces in the Libyan government. Though his eventual whereabouts would remain uncertain, he was likely held prisoner in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, where he may have perished in the 1996 massacre of over 1,200 prisoners. Matar provides an intimate and absorbing account of the complex political events that would eventually lead to Gaddafi's downfall. As he shifts his focus between past and present events, allowing details of his father's disappearance to slowly and subtly emerge, he reveals a suspense novelist's seasoned instincts. In his ruminations on returning to a long-forgotten family and country, and the consequences of time passing, he applies a poet's sensibility. "Somebody would be telling an anecdote and midway through I would realize I had heard it before," he writes. "It seemed as if everyone else's development had been linear, allowed to progress naturally in the known environment, and therefore each of them seemed to have remained linked, even if begrudgingly or in disagreement, to the original setting-off point. At times I was experiencing a kind of distance-sickness, a state in which not only the ground was unsteady but also time and space." A beautifully written, harrowing story of a son's search for his father and how the impact of inexplicable loss can be unrelenting while the strength of family and cultural ties can ultimately sustain. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1. Trapdoor Early morning, March 2012. My mother, my wife Diana and I were sitting in a row of seats that were bolted to the tiled floor of a lounge in Cairo International Airport. Flight 835 for Benghazi, a voice announced, was due to depart on time. Every now and then, my mother glanced anxiously at me. Diana, too, seemed concerned. She placed a hand on my arm and smiled. I should get up and walk around, I told myself. But my body remained rigid. I had never felt more capable of stillness. The terminal was nearly empty. There was only one man sitting opposite us. He was overweight, weary-­looking, possibly in his mid-­fifties. There was something in the way he sat--­the locked hands on the lap, the left tilt of the torso--­that signaled resignation. Was he Egyptian or Libyan? Was he on a visit to the neighboring country or going home after the revolution? Had he been for or against Qaddafi? Perhaps he was one of those undecided ones who held their reservations close to their chest? The voice of the announcer returned. It was time to board. I found myself standing at the front of the queue, Diana beside me. She had, on more than one occasion, taken me to the town where she was born, in northern California. I know the plants and the color of the light and the distances where she grew up. Now I was, finally, taking her to my land. She had packed the Hasselblad and the Leica, her two favorite cameras, and a hundred rolls of film. Diana works with great fidelity. Once she gets hold of a thread, she will follow it until the end. Knowing this excited and worried me. I am reluctant to give Libya any more than it has already taken. Mother was pacing by the windows that looked onto the runway, speaking on her mobile phone. People--­mostly men--­began to fill the terminal. Diana and I were now standing at the head of a long queue. It bent behind us like a river. I pretended I had forgotten something and pulled her to one side. Returning after all these years was a bad idea, I suddenly thought. My family had left in 1979, thirty-­three years earlier. This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-­year-­old boy I was then. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love. Joseph Brodsky was right. So were Nabokov and Conrad. 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. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured. But Dmitri Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak and Naguib Mahfouz were also right: never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed. You will be like a dead trunk, hard and hollow. What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return? *** Back in October 2011, I had considered never returning to Libya. I was in New York, walking up Broadway, the air cold and swift, when the proposition presented itself. It seemed immaculate, a thought my mind had manufactured independently. As in youthful moments of drunkenness, I felt bold and invincible. I had gone to New York the previous month, at the invitation of Barnard College, to lecture on novels about exile and estrangement. But I had an older connection to the city. My parents had moved to Manhattan in the spring of 1970, when my father was appointed first secretary in the Libyan Mission to the United Nations. I was born that autumn. Three years later, in 1973, we returned to Tripoli. In the years since, I had visited New York maybe four or five times and always briefly. So, although I had just returned to the city of my birth, it was a place I hardly knew. In the thirty-­six years since we left Libya, my family and I had built associations with several surrogate cities: Nairobi, where we went on our escape from Libya, in 1979, and have continued to visit ever since; Cairo, where we settled the following year into indefinite exile; Rome, a vacation spot for us; London, where I went at the age of fifteen for my studies and where for twenty-­nine years I have been doggedly trying to make a life for myself; Paris, where, fatigued and annoyed by London, I moved in my early thirties, vowing never to return to England, only to find myself back two years later. In all these cities, I had pictured myself one day calm and living in that faraway island, Manhattan, where I was born. I would imagine a new acquaintance asking me, perhaps at a dinner party, or in a café, or in changing-­rooms after a long swim, that old tiresome question "Where are you from?" and I, unfazed and free of the usual agitation, would casually reply, "New York." In these fantasies, I saw myself taking pleasure from the fact that such a statement would be both true and false, like a magic trick. That I should move to Manhattan in my fortieth year, as Libya was ripping itself apart, and for this to take place on the 1st of September, the day when, back in 1969, a young captain named Muammar Qaddafi deposed King Idris and many of the significant features of my life--­where I live, the language in which I write, the language I am using now to write this--­were set in motion: all this made it difficult to escape the idea that there was some kind of divine will at work. In any political history of Libya, the 1980s represent a particularly lurid chapter. Opponents of the regime were hanged in public squares and sports arenas. Dissidents who fled the country were pursued--­some kidnapped or assassinated. The '80s were also the first time that Libya had an armed and determined resistance to the dictatorship. My father was one of the opposition's most prominent figures. The organization he belonged to had a training camp in Chad, south of the Libyan border, and several underground cells inside the country. Father's career in the army, his short tenure as a diplomat, and the private means he had managed to procure in the mid-­1970s, when he became a successful businessman--­importing products as diverse as Mitsubishi vehicles and Converse sports shoes to the Middle East--­made him a dangerous enemy. The dictatorship had tried to buy him off; it had tried to scare him. I remember sitting beside him one afternoon in our flat in Cairo when I was ten or eleven, the weight of his arm on my shoulders. In the chair opposite sat one of the men I called "Uncle"--­men who, I somehow knew, were his allies or followers. The word "compromise" was spoken, and Father responded, "I won't negotiate. Not with criminals." Whenever we were in Europe, he carried a gun. Before getting into the car, he would ask us to stand well away. He would go down on his knees and look under the chassis, cup his hands and peek through the windows for any sign of wiring. Men like him had been shot in train stations and cafés, their cars blown up. During the 1980s, when I was still in Cairo, I had read in the newspaper about the death of a renowned Libyan economist. He was stepping off a train at Stazione Termini in Rome when a stranger pressed a pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger. The photograph printed beside the article had the figure of the deceased covered in newspaper sheets, presumably from that day's paper, which stopped at his ankles, leaving his polished leather shoes pointing up. Another time there was a report of a Libyan student shot in Greece. He was sitting on the terrace of a café in Monastiraki Square in Athens. A scooter stopped and the man sitting behind the driver pointed a gun at the student and fired several shots. A Libyan BBC World Service newsreader was killed in London. In April 1984 a demonstration took place in front of the Libyan Embassy in St. James's Square. One of the embassy staff pulled up a sash window on the first floor, held out a machine gun, and sprayed the crowd. A policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, was killed and eleven Libyan demonstrators were wounded, some of them critically. Qaddafi's campaign to hunt down exiled critics--­which was announced by Moussa Koussa, the head of foreign intelligence, at a public rally in the early 1980s--­extended to the families of dissidents. My only sibling, Ziad, was fifteen when he went off to boarding school in Switzerland. A few weeks later, mid-­way through term, he returned to Cairo. We had all gone to collect him from the airport. When he appeared amongst those spilling out of the arrivals lounge, his face looked paler than I remembered it. A few days earlier, I had seen Mother make several telephone calls, her finger trembling as she spun the dial. The Swiss school was remote, high up in the Alps. Public transport to the nearest village was in the form of a cable car, which operated for only a few hours in the middle of the day. For two days running, Ziad noticed a car parked on the path outside the school's main gate. It had in it four men. They had the long hair so typical of members of Qaddafi's Revolutionary Committees. Late one night, Ziad was called to the school's office telephone. On the other end of the line, a man said, "I am a friend of your father. You must do exactly what I tell you. You have to leave immediately and take the first train to Basle." "Why? What happened?" Ziad asked. "I can't tell you now. You must hurry. Take the first train to Basle. I'll be there and will explain everything." "But it's the middle of the night," Ziad said. The man would not offer any further explanations. He simply kept repeating, "Take the first train to Basle." "I can't do that. I don't know who you are. Please don't call here again," Ziad said, and hung up. The man then called Mother, who then telephoned the school. She told Ziad he needed to leave the school right away and told him what to do. Ziad woke up his favorite teacher, a young Cambridge graduate who had probably thought it would be fun to go and teach English literature in the Alps, skiing between classes. "Sir, my father is about to have surgery and asked to see me before going into the operating theater. I need to take the first train to Basle. Would you please drive me to the station?" The teacher telephoned my mother, and she backed up Ziad's story. The headmaster had to be woken up. He telephoned Mother and, once he too was satisfied, Ziad's teacher checked the train timetable. There was a train for Basle in forty minutes. If they hurried, they might make it. They had to drive past the car; there was no other way out. Ziad pretended to be tying his shoelace as they passed the men. The teacher drove carefully down the twisting mountain road. A few minutes later, headlights appeared behind them. When the teacher said, "I think they are following us," Ziad pretended not to hear. At the station, Ziad shot into the concourse and hid in the public toilets. He heard the train roll in. He waited until it had come to a complete stop, counted a few seconds for the passengers to disembark and board, then ran and jumped on the train. The doors shut and the carriages moved. Ziad was sure he had lost them, but then the four men appeared, walking up the aisle. They saw him. One of them smiled at him. They followed him from one carriage to the next, muttering, "Kid, you think you are a man? Then come here and show us." At the front of the train, Ziad found the conductor chatting to the driver. Excerpted from The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.