The Return by Hisham Matar: Book Note
This week I read Hisham Matar’s The Return (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016). Matar is a novelist of Libyan descent, now in his mid-40s, based in London. The Return is a memoir about his 2012 visit to Benghazi, in Eastern Libya, in the brief period between the overthrow of the dictator Muammar Qadaffi and Libya’s descent into civil war. Matar’s large extended family (he had 130 first cousins) was based in Benghazi and a smaller southern town called Ajdabiya.
The purpose of Matar’s visit was to find out what had happened to his father,Jaballa Matar, apparently a democracy activist opposed to Qadaffi. The family had left Libya for Cairo in 1979, where they thought they were safe, but in 1990 Egyptian authorities turned Jaballa over to Libya. He was probably then incarcerated and tortured in a notorious Tripoli prison called Abu Salim. The family received a few smuggled letters from him until 1996, when the letters stopped. Jaballa was probably killed in a massacre at Abu Salim in 1996. Guards and soldiers took several hours to machine-gun over 1200 prisoners concentrated in six prison courtyards. But Hisham Matar never found out for sure what had happened to his father.
Matar provides some historical background to these events. His description of Italy’s conquest of Libya in the early decades of the twentieth century reminds me of the all the massacres—indeed genocides—by Europeans who conquered Africa. The population of Tripoli fell by one-sixth between 1911 and 1916, as the Italians especially selected “scholars, jurists, wealthy traders and bureaucrats” (p. 32) to murder, exile or imprison. They also established enormous concentration camps in which thousands of starving Libyans were kept in rags. Under Mussolini entire villages were gassed and bombed. Matar’s own grandfather was a tribal resistance leader who for some unknown reason was not assassinated by the Italians. (Matar bases his description of the Italian conquest in part on a book by a Danish journalist, Knud Holboe, who was murdered in Jordan, perhaps by Italian intelligence.)
The sadism practiced by Qadaffi’s regime is also beyond belief. Many family members were unaware until 2002 of the deaths of their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers in the 1996 prison massacre. That year officials came to their doors to ask for the “family books” in which each family officially registered birth, marriages and deaths. A few weeks after taking the books, the officials would return them, saying all was in order. Some families checked the books right away, others not till days or even weeks later. When they did, they discovered that “died of natural causes in 1996” had been written over the names of their imprisoned family members.
One mother made a twelve-hour trip every month to see her son in Abu Salim. After 1996 she never saw him again. But every month, the guards would accept the gifts of food, clothing, and soap that she had brought him, and encourage her to come the next month. Not until she examined the family book after the officials returned it in 2002 did she learn that for six years, she had been making futile trips to visit a dead man and supplying guards with goods that they could sell to surviving prisoners or keep for their own families.
Matar’s memoir is a little disingenuous. He never informs the reader of the name of his father’s oppositional “organization” based in Chad. Nor does he inform the reader of the name of the tribe he came from, based in Benghazi. Jaballa Matar was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, which suggests that he was a non-violent activist for democracy. But it would have been nice to have more concrete political information so that one could follow current events in Libya more clearly.
Nevertheless, if, like me, you know hardly anything about Libya, this book is a good place to start. It exposes how truly dreadful Qaddafi’s regime was, and puts the lie to those who nostalgically remember his “orderly” society in these days of civil war. It also introduces the reader to a family of patriotic scholars, poets, engineers and diplomats, an extended cosmopolitan family still strongly rooted in Arab tradition. But this type of family—nationalistic, patriotic, but still tolerant and learned, is fast being destroyed all over the Middle East.