Hisham Matar’s writing is like finely spun silk: so fragile that it’s breathtaking to follow his words as they connect one to the next, laying bare the vulnerabilities of the human heart; so powerful that its tensile strength not only carries the unbearable burdens of human cruelty and history, it threads a way forward over the chasms of despair—like an Andean rope bridge from one cliff to the next.

The Return: Fathers, Sons & The Land In Between is prompted by his first trip to Libya in 33 years, in the wake of Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow during the “Arab Spring”. His father, Jaballa Matar, was a prominent opposition leader, forced into exile with his family in 1979, kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police a decade later, and disappeared into Abu Salim, Libya’s most notorious prison, where, in all probability (his body has not been found), he was among the 1,270 political prisoners slaughtered there by the regime on June 29, 1996.

The Return is an intimate book. Matar writes about his friendships at boarding school in England, his dreams in exile in Cairo, his conversations with his uncle Mahmoud in Libya, his discovery that his father, as a young man, had (like Hisham) written fiction.

In its intimacy, The Return ranges far and wide across Libyan history and politics. Matar describes his negotiations with key Libyan government officials, including Seif-el-Islam Qaddafi, the dictator’s son, over the unknown fate of his father. He writes about his grandfather Hamed, born around 1880 in Ottoman Libya, a resistance fighter under Omar al-Mukhtar against the Italians, and a survivor of the genocidal tactics Italy used against what was then called Cyrenaica.

And, like many men separated too early from their fathers, he meditates deeply on the meaning of that intimate relationship:

“The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travelers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet, and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem adrift. They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently perhaps with a reassuring smile and and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder…. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting, of surrender and rebellion, until a son’s gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows. With every passing day the father journeys further into his night, deeper into the fog, leaving behind remnants of himself and the monumental yet obvious fact, at once frustrating and merciful—for how else is the son to continue living if he must not also forget—that no matter how hard we try we can never entirely know our fathers.” (pp. 51-52)

Crossposted at: https:/masscommons.wordpress.com

0 0 votes
Article Rating