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 sponsors of terrorism in the world. In 2004, Qaddafi agreed to destroy Libya’s weapons of mass destruction program and pay compensation to relatives of the 270 victims on the Pan Am flight allegedly bombed in 1988 by Libyan intelligence agents over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. In exchange, America and Britain lifted their sanctions on Libya. Visiting the mercurial Libyan leader in his tent in 2004, British Prime Minister Tony Blair hoped that Qaddafi would be an ally in the “war on terror.”

Libya has helped American security officials interrogate prisoners at Guantánamo and secure “rendition” to the US and other countries of Libyan Islamists across the world. Libya’s oil reserves, which are the largest in Africa, are another reason for America and Britain’s sudden warmth toward Qaddafi.1 But as Matar complained in a recent article:

No country made it a condition in negotiations that Libya investigate the countless cases of the “disappeared.” None of them compelled the Qaddafi government even to address the massacre at Abu Salim prison, where, one night in June 1996, more than 1,000 political prisoners were shot and killed.

Matar suspects that his own father may have been among those massacred inside the prison. He does not share the new-found Western trust in Qaddafi:

The impression that a bloodless battle has been won in Libya rests on an inflated notion of the threat the country, even with its rusty weapons of mass destruction, ever posed to the West. It misreads an act of diplomatic negligence toward the rights of the Libyan people as a victory for world peace.2

For all the grim news it brings us from a murky region, In the Country of Men is not overtly political or polemical. It has few details about the scale and scope of anti-Qaddafi dissent in Libya in 1979. Far from being idealized, the pro-democracy activists in the novel come across as naive and inept. Matar’s primary fidelity is to the truth of Suleiman’s experience. Since he lives in Libya, the obscure deeds of distant adults have filled his life with more than the usual private mysteries, joys, and sorrows.


Living in a well-to-do suburb, Suleiman spends his school holidays playing on the roof of his house or in the streets with friends, swimming at the nearby beach, and climbing mulberry trees—daily activities that the disappearance of his father and the mysterious “illness” of his mother (what the reader recognizes as alcoholism) do not much restrict. At the heart of the novel is Suleiman’s great love for his mother, who, in a country dominated by men, faces both domestic and political oppression.

Listening to his mother, Suleiman is able to reconstruct a central event in her life. Caught by a relative while holding hands with a boy at an Italian café in Martyrs’ Square (most of the novel’s dramatic events occur near the statue of the Roman emperor pointing to the promise of Europe), she is forced into marriage at the age of fourteen by male members of her family—the so-called “High Council,” an ironic reminder of Qaddafi’s revolutionary councils and committees. (Given her experience of men, Suleiman’s mother tends to regard her husband and his colleagues as dangerous fools.) Each night, drunk on surreptitiously bought alcohol, she pours out her bitter stories to Suleiman, the son whom she had tried to abort and who develops a touching desire to protect her against a cruel world:

Mama and I spent most of the time together—she alone, I unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.

Suleiman’s family phone is tapped, with threatening voices interrupting conversations. His mother is forced to burn her husband’s books and put up pictures of Qaddafi on the walls. Revolutionary guards constantly monitor the house from a car parked outside. In this suffocating atmosphere, Suleiman’s feeling for his mother grows:

She often, during those empty days when Baba [her husband] was away, walked aimlessly around the house. And she never sang to herself in that soft, absentminded way she often did when taking a bath or painting her eyes in front of the mirror or drawing in the garden. That singing that had always evoked a girl unaware of herself, walking home from school, brushing her fingers against the wall: a moment before the Italian Coffee House, a moment sheltered in the clarity of innocence, before the quick force that, without argument, without even the chance to say, “No,” thrust her over the border and into womanhood, then irrevocably into motherhood.

Matar’s novel abounds in unusual emotional situations. Certainly few of its readers are likely to live next door to people who face torture and execution. Yet in his account there is no moral grandstanding, no glamour of victimhood. He seems to know that life goes on in the most intolerable circumstances—the terrible knowledge that can also be a consolation—and, confronted by extreme inhumanity, he notices gestures of everyday kindness and dignity. Here is his description of Suleiman’s complex sympathy for his friend Kareem, the son of Ustath Rashid:

A certain sadness had entered his eyes the day Ustath Rashid was taken, but it wasn’t the sadness of longing, it was the sadness of betrayal, the silent sadness that comes from being let down. Or at least that’s how it seems now. He became quieter—he was always quiet, but not this quiet—and refused to join in any of the games we played. Instead, he would lean on a car nearby as we played football in the street, looking at us in a way that made me feel far away from him. At those moments I wished the Revolutionary Committee would return and this time take my father so that we would be equal, united again by that mysterious bond of blood that had up to that day felt like an advantage….

Matar balances such delicacy of sentiment with beautifully expressive images:


I wanted so much to bring him out of his silence. I took him swimming. But instead of heading for the deep, clear waters of the sea that touch the horizon, quickly past the blue-black strip that always frightened us because its floor was alive with dark weeds and movement and things, Kareem swam reluctantly. When I was past the dark waters, moving like a streamer with my long flippers, stabbing my arms fast into the pale turquoise, I looked back and saw him on the shore, walking away.

Matar also shows how ordinary human beings under severe pressures are as capable of great cruelty as of great sympathy. Suleiman, who is fascinated by the apparently powerful guards who stalk his house, abruptly beats up the local beggar. The novel really describes the arduous growth, in extremely unfavorable conditions, of a moral and emotional sensibility. In this, as in his clean, supple prose, which vividly evokes days of idleness, long warm afternoons, the sensations of extreme heat, and the coolness of shuttered interiors, Matar resembles the lyrical Camus of The First Man.

Like Camus, Matar affirms a graceful sensuousness and emotional attachments as having a reality absent from narrow and abstract politics. There is, however, no escaping a history shaped by righteous men. After Suleiman’s father returns home with a face disfigured by Qaddafi’s torturers, his parents decide to send him away to Egypt. Years pass before he sees his mother again, fittingly in Alexandria, “the city of fallen grace.” While still in Libya Suleiman had longed to grow up and distinguish himself from the people around him. “I couldn’t wait to be a man. And not to do all the things normally associated with manhood and its license.” It is the renewal of the filial bond—and remembrance and art—that seems to offer Suleiman some refuge from brutal machismo.

Having escaped Libya’s oppressive solitude, Suleiman wonders about his new life in Egypt: “how readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves.” The exile’s experience of deracination and painful self-invention is also the fate of Laila Lalami’s Moroccan characters in her novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. The young hijab-clad Faten, who has been a radical Islamist as a student in Rabat, becomes a prostitute in Madrid, uneasily satisfying the Arabian Nights fantasy of a Spanish client. Having failed to interest tourists in visiting Paul Bowles’s home in Tangiers, Murad, who has a college degree in English literature, turns to hawking Moroccan artifacts. Another well-educated young man, Aziz, leaves a wife he barely knows to work as a dishwasher in a Madrid restaurant. Fleeing a violent husband in a Casablanca slum, Halima almost drowns in the sea off Spain. Rescued by her ten-year-old son, she returns to Morocco to see him unexpectedly exalted as a folk saint.

Political despotism is only partly to blame for the displacement and bewilderment suffered by Lalami’s characters. Though Morocco’s King Mohammed VI wields absolute power, commanding loyalty bordering on sycophancy from the parliamentary parties, Moroccans enjoy a higher degree of political freedom than their North African neighbors, the Algerians, Tunisians, and Libyans. However, corruption, especially in business deals with France, taints many politicians and bureaucrats, increasing the appeal of radical Islamists among the young and the unemployed.3

The intense and usually thwarted search by young people for a stable job infects many lives with anxiety and anomie. Uprooted from their traditional livelihoods and exposed to modern education and urban life, millions of them have found their basic hopes disappointed throughout Morocco’s postcolonial history. Not surprisingly, they find the promise of modern life incarnated with tempting vividness in Europe, particularly Spain, one of Morocco’s former colonial overlords, which, increasingly prosperous and democratic, lies just a few miles across the Strait of Gibraltar.

Unable to create enough jobs, Morocco’s economy is propped up by remittances sent by the approximately four million Moroccans abroad—roughly 12 percent of the country’s population. Many of these often well-educated and skilled Moroccans live, often illegally, in Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Italy, bolstering the local economies with their low-paid jobs. Their growing presence in relatively homogeneous societies has helped right-wing politicians in Europe to incite xenophobic sentiments against immigrants, particularly Muslims.

But then countries such as Morocco, which have no oil or any other precious commodity, and seem condemned, in the present conditions of globalization, to uneven economic growth and a perennial state of underdevelopment, are unlikely to cease exporting some of their surplus workforce to Europe. Immigration to Europe, both actual and imagined, increasingly shapes Moroccan society and culture. Moroccan immigrants are the subject of the new novel Partir by the country’s most famous writer, Tahar ben Jalloun, who lives in Paris.4 Lalami’s novel opens with all its four major characters—Faten, Murad, Aziz, and Halima—heading toward Spain in an inflatable boat on the open sea.

As it turns out, only two of them make it; the others are intercepted by the Spanish police and sent back to Morocco. The rest of the novel describes, in careful, limpid prose, their separate pasts and futures. Lalami, who was educated in Rabat and London, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, writes about her home country without the expatriate’s self-indulgent and often condescending nostalgia. She brings a calm sympathy to all her characters, and so well chosen are they, from different classes and regions, that they manage to represent a broad panorama of a Moroccan society in troubled transition.

Returning to Morocco after a spell in Spain, Aziz notices a growing number of women wearing Islamic head-scarves; his own usually submissive wife startles him by claiming that it is “the right way.” In Madrid Aziz has suffered the humiliations inflicted on all North African immigrants; but he has also found there a new idea of himself. Distractedly making love to his wife, he remembers the women he has slept with in Spain, and wonders “what his wife would look like in a sexy bustier, straddling him, her arms up in the air, moaning her pleasure out loud. He couldn’t imagine Zohra doing it.” Briskly and subtly, Lalami shows Aziz’s growing alienation from his relatives and friends in Morocco; her evenhandedness offers us no scope for easy judgments.

Even those of her characters who are unable to make it to Europe find their inner lives in thrall to the Continent. Murad, the English literature major and reader of Paul Bowles, has spent much of his life imagining a life for himself in metropolitan Europe. In doing so, he has cut himself off from his own society; he can’t remember any of the stories he heard as a child from his father; he feels he has no inherited culture to pass on to his own children. In a scene rich with irony he appears as a salesman in a gift shop. Half-listening to Western backpackers looking for bargains, he reconsiders the larger consequences of his perennial longing for the West:

He’d been so consumed with his imagined future that he hadn’t noticed how it had started to overtake something inside him, bit by bit. He’d been living in the future, thinking of all his tomorrows in a better place, never realizing that his past was drifting. And now, when he thought of the future, he saw himself in front of his children, as mute as if his tongue had been cut off, unable to recount for them the stories he’d heard as a child.

In Morocco, as in many colonized countries, material want and constant fantasizing about a life elsewhere seem to have gradually damaged individual memory and, eventually, an entire cultural tradition built upon the transmission of memory. Murad follows in a long line of damaged men in postcolonial African fiction whom a Western-style education has unmoored from their tradition, and who abandon their own indigenous culture and society for the sake of what the Moroccan-American critic Anouar Majid calls a “catastrophic, even suicidal, journeys to the Northern metropoles.”5

It is true that compared to other African countries, Morocco knew a very brief and mild spell of colonialism—from 1912 to 1956. Visiting the country in 1917, Edith Wharton approved of French colonial rule.6 But as happened in many other colonized countries, a European power in Morocco profoundly disrupted traditional arrangements without replacing them with a workable modern political and economic system. With the best of intentions that went into setting up modern educational institutions, it created generations of rootless and confused men, who were likely, eventually, to focus their rage and despair on the modernizing West.7

In Heirs to the Past (1962), a novel by Driss Chraïbi, the most distinguished of the first generation of postcolonial Moroccan writers, a French-educated Moroccan fails to find the superior European civilization he has been taught to revere:

I’ve slammed all the doors of my past because I’m heading towards Europe and Western civilization, and where is that civilization then, show it to me, show me one drop of it, I’m ready to believe I’ll believe anything. Show yourselves, you civilizers in whom your books have caused me to believe. You colonized my country, and you say and I believe you that you went there to bring enlightenment, a better standard of living, progress, missionaries the lot of you, or almost. Here I am—I’ve come to see you in your own homes. Come forth. Come out of your houses and yourselves so that I can see you. And welcome me, oh welcome me.8

In Chraïbi’s first novel, The Simple Past (1954), a student in a French missionary school confronts the violence he has done to his identity:

You were the issue of the Orient, and through your painful past, your imaginings, your education, you are going to triumph over the Orient. You have never believed in Allah. You know how to dissect the legends, you think in French, you are a reader of Voltaire and an admirer of Kant.9

Such existential crises may no longer seem likely in postcolonial Morocco, which seems, to the passing tourist eye at least, more liberal and Westernized than most Muslim societies. But Lalami is aware of how the particular economic and social structures introduced by European colonialism still shape everyday life in Morocco. She is particularly deft at showing how displaced and deprived people in half-modern societies gravitate toward religious consolation. She evokes the most popular form of this phenomenon in the story of Halima, whose son turns into a saint in a Casablanca slum. Describing the student radical Faten and her influence on her middle-class friend Noura, Lalami provides, with admirable economy, a complex picture of the appeal of Islamism among even relatively well-off youth, and shows how Muslim identity is always a process, shaped by political and economic pressures and not something eternally fixed.

Waiting to go to New York University for advanced studies, Noura abruptly discovers in a highly politicized post–September 11 climate that she does not want to live in a country that apparently hates Muslims, and she adopts her friend Faten’s ostentatious virtuous ways. Noura’s Islamism is of course little more than adolescent playacting; she will soon get over it. Nevertheless, her parents are appalled to see their daughter, whom they hoped would achieve academic glory in America, reading Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian ideologue and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and wearing the hijab: “His precious daughter. She would look like those rabble-rousers you see on live news channels, eyes darting, mouths agape, fists raised.” Finally, Noura’s father manages to get Faten expelled from the university.

For another novelist this could have been the cue for Faten’s transformation into a suicide bomber. But Lalami spurns sensationalism of this sort, revealing her commitment to exploring the truth of ordinary lives. Faten shows the common fate of many trampled-upon lower-class women when she ends up as a prostitute in Spain. Lalami treats her tormentors with the same equable realism. She artfully makes us empathize with the fears and anxieties of Noura’s parents. She also examines their claims to moral superiority over the Islamists. Noura’s father, a senior bureaucrat who accepts bribes and dreams of Scotch whiskey during the feast of Ramadan, and her mother, a lawyer with a modish interest in human rights, come to exemplify the moral and spiritual mediocrity of the secular bourgeois elite that came to dominate not just Morocco but many other Muslim countries.

This elite has long lost the idealism of the earliest postcolonial years. Noura’s father, discovering some old prayer beads, can’t “help but think about his mother, for whom virtue and religion went hand in hand, about a time when he, too, believed that such a pairing was natural.” But now religion, increasingly invoked by popular Islamist movements, has become a threatening political challenge from below.

Speaking of the corruption and injustice of the Moroccan elite, the student radical Faten says, “If we had been better Muslims, perhaps these problems wouldn’t have been visited on our nation and on our brethren elsewhere.” More often disappointed than realized, this sentimental vision of faith nevertheless remains popular among Muslims. Lalami seems as unsympathetic to it personally as some of the recent Western literary explorers of radical Islamism, such as John Updike and Martin Amis. Yet she is able to show why it remains attractive to so many people by describing it in a particular national setting, against the backdrop of political despotism, a stagnant economy, and deeply entrenched class divisions.

Both as a novelist and as a critic—she comments regularly on literature and politics in her popular blog Moorishgirl.com (now lailalalami.com)—Lalami focuses on specificity and distrusts large abstractions—the abstractions that have become of the greatest importance in understanding the diverse political and cultural choices of Muslims, who seem lately to have become subject to wilder generalizations than would be deemed intellectually respectable for non-Muslims.10 She offers no false optimism. A meager modern society that consists of severe economic inequality, the stranglehold of a corrupt ruling elite, and the crippling dependence on a widely distrusted West will continue to force many people in Muslim countries into the simple solutions and consolations of faith-based politics. Relentlessly exploring the emotional climate of another secular dictatorship, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men offers even fewer comforts. As they reveal the darkening ambiguities of North Africa and its relationship with the West, these first novels make Septimius Severus’s antique exhortation to learn from Europe look touchingly innocent.

This Issue

April 12, 2007