Burning questions

By Maureen Isaacson Time of article published Mar 2, 2011

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As Libya began to fall, protesters called for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Green Book to be burnt. Into the fire with his whacko philosophies, his political thoughts, the socio-economic theories and notions about his special brand of “democracy”. All these described the time of his victory in “the era of the masses”, which he said “follows the age of the republics”. The Jumiraya, or peoples’ mass meetings, which he offers are the smoke and mirror for the whims of the dictator and in this book is instruction on nationalism, the socialist Islamic state and something called the third universal theory. But it is Gaddafi’s pronouncements about black people and women that are most illuminating about the absence of vision that has famously steered his menacing regime.

“The backwardness of black people works to bring about their numerical superiority because their low standard of living has shielded them from the methods of birth control.” Therefore, black people will prevail.

Women should not be oppressed. “Women are females and men are males,” Gaddafi writes. “When a woman does not menstruate, she is pregnant. Modern industrialised societies, which have made women adapt to the same physical work as men at the expense of their femininity and their natural role in terms of beauty, maternity and serenity, are materialistic and uncivilised. To imitate them is as stupid as it is dangerous to civilisation and humanity…” And so on.

Gaddafi is at pains to illustrate in the Green Book that he is not a dictator, even if he revealed last week that he’s intent on drawing “the last drop of blood” from protesters, who he calls “mercenaries and greasy rats” and whose removal he ordered from the streets by the real mercenaries he has imported to do his filthy work of his sinking renegade regime.

Reality outstripped fiction in this fast-moving story as Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution, recent head of the African Union and good friend of South Africa began to sabotage his oil pipes.

But as the narrative staggered towards its inevitable conclusion, with stalwarts dying with Gaddafi’s name on their lips, a deeper, more intimate Libyan story stirred within, where it had left its impression.

Hisham Matar’s deeply affecting debut novel, In the Country of Men, shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker award, reveals the shocking events that took place under the reign of the maverick leader after the 1969 September Revolution in which Gaddafi seized Libya in a coup.

From the safety of Cairo, the 25-year-old protagonist, Suleiman, relives his childhood. In 1979 he was nine, unaware of the terror that had seeped into his life.

In the confusion of the secrecy thrust upon him, messages from the teachings of Islam persuade the young Suleiman that fear means guilt and that in the absence of his father – who is away “on business” – he should assume the role of household head. He is made to bear the burden of his mother’s emotional life as alcohol liberates memories of a girlhood spent in the country of men. She is beaten, age 10, for talking to a boy and married, age 14, to a man twice her age. Her husband is “Baba” – Faraj Bu Suleiman el-Dewani, Suleiman’s father.

Suleiman and his mother are two parts of one soul; one part is aware, the other innocent of the menace which the revolutionary forces of the new Libyan Arab Republic regularly unleash against dissidents.

He bears his mother’s pain in a relationship that is finely drawn amid the claustrophobic atmosphere of rising tension. In Cairo, the adult Suleiman is nostalgic for a Libya which he believed was democratic. “The sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it.”

But its gilt is thin. Suleiman, shopping for sesame sticks in the centre of town with his mother, suddenly spies his father, walking in the street, wearing an unusual pair of sunglasses, disappearing into a building, pursued by a clerk.

Suleiman and his mother are followed by men from the secret police, the Revolutionary Committee, who picked up their neighbour, Ustah Rashid, a university professor and a family friend, the week before. Before a search by the committee, mother and son burn Baba’s books. Suleiman in his innocence, saves one, Democracy Now, inscribed with a dedication from Ustah Rashid.

Ustah Rashid, interrogated as “a bourgeois traitor”, is forced to name fellow dissidents before being tortured and hung in the National Basketball Stadium, an event that is televised live.

Baba returns from prison, battered and half-blind. Suleiman, sent away to Cairo with the help of a family friend, learns that 15 years later his father has been arrested again, for reading aloud to his fellow workers from Democracy Now.

If the plot is “neat” it makes its point and informs one’s reading of current events.

Suleiman’s mother castigates him for saving Democracy Now – a rift develops, wider than the chasm that separates Cairo from Tripoli. When Suleiman’s father dies, a natural death, and mother and son are reconciled, democracy remains elusive. After all, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and Gaddafi are at the time in bed and Mubarak agrees to the rendition of Libyan insurgents.

Such a rendition is, in fact, the fate that befalls Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, who disappeared from his home in Cairo in 1990. Rendered back to Libya, sent to prison, he was last heard of in 1995 – he has joined the stream of the “disappeared”. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Matar said that although half of his life has been spent pursuing traces of his father, he has no idea whether he is alive or dead, inside or out of Libya.

In an essay in The New York Times in February 2007, Matar berates the US for failing to link the improvement of Libya’s human rights situation to its desire for acceptance in the international community.

The release of the thousands of silenced prisoners or an investigation of the countless cases of the “disappeared” could have been a condition of negotiation – but no country made this when Libya pretended to fight Islamic fundamentalism as post-9/11 paranoia set in.

Matar’s new novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance is due out in April. Its plot turns on the wish made by Nuri, in the Cairo flat the young boy shares with his father, where he wallows in the emptiness following his mother’s death. Nuri falls in love with the beautiful Mona, but she falls in love with his father.

He wishes his father would disappear. And he does.

In a tantalising blurb supplied by the publisher, we learn that the novel probes questions of how well we know those we claim to love and how the absence of the disappeared shape the lives of those left behind. Matar’s is a name to look out for. He lives in London now, and he continues to look for his father.

l See freematar.org

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