Early in Hisham Matar’s first novel, In the Country of Men, its narrator Suleiman, a nine-year-old child in Libya, describes a statue of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square. The Libya-born Severus stands with one arm pointing toward the sea, as though “urging Libya to look toward Rome.” Suleiman himself often dreams about the lands across the Mediterranean, from where his father, a businessman, brings him his most cherished gifts. However, this is 1979, and as Colonel Qaddafi ruthlessly consolidates his regime, torturing and murdering thousands of dissenters, Libya appears to have moved far from its cosmopolitan past.
Visiting Lepcis Magna, the Roman seaside colony where Septimius Severus was born, Suleiman finds that “absence was everywhere.” Standing in the antique city’s ruins, Suleiman’s best friend’s father, Ustath Rashid—one of the political liberals stealthily working against Qaddafi—recites an Arab poem: “Why this nothingness where once was a city?/Who will answer? Only the wind.”
As In the Country of Men goes on to describe, Qaddafi’s Libya suffers from a similar blankness, a political and intellectual vacuum maintained through fear and terror: in one of its scenes that dramatize the precariousness of the independent thinker in Libya, Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Guards chase a man who has a typewriter. Exalted as the country’s sole “Guide,” Qaddafi not only disseminates his half-baked ideology of Islamic socialism through billboards, books, and magazines; he also invades people’s homes through television, enforcing conformity through live telecasts of the interrogations and public hangings of his opponents.
A few educated and well-traveled men such as Ustath Rashid and Suleiman’s father dare to challenge the regime. Gathering in a flat in Martyrs’ Square, they write pamphlets inciting students to revolt against Qaddafi. But it doesn’t take long for them to be discovered and then, under torture, to betray their colleagues. Ustath Rashid is publicly interrogated and then hanged in a basketball stadium. Though he does not name Suleiman’s father as a coconspirator, the latter is nevertheless kidnapped and tortured by Qaddafi’s guards.
Hisham Matar seems to derive the menacing mood, if not actual events, in his first novel from his own childhood, which was spent in the shadow of political brutality. His father, a businessman, suddenly found himself on a Libyan wanted list—probably for no reason other than that he was well-off and had been exposed to other societies through his travels. He managed to escape to Egypt with his wife and two sons. One day in 1990, he went to answer the doorbell at his home in exile in Cairo, and never returned. Three years later, he smuggled out a letter to his family from the notorious Abu Salim prison in Libya. He has not been heard from since.
Matar, who left Libya at the age of fifteen, was educated in London. He is skeptical about the recent American and British eagerness to befriend Libya, one of the most active state …