Review by Marina Chamma.
For many, to talk about political prisoners is to talk about the injustice of their imprisonment and the weakness of governments that cannot tolerate dissent. It is more about ways to ensure their release and fighting for change while trying to stay away from a prison cell. We usually tend to forget about those left behind, the mothers, the brothers, the children and the friends, whose suffering outsiders may hardly ever fully comprehend.
In his debut novel “In the Country of Men,” Libyan writer Hisham Matar tells the story of a father imprisoned for his political beliefs in Tripoli, Libya in 1979 through the eyes of his 9-year old son Suleiman. Yet the real story is Suleiman’s daily struggle trying to cope with the disappearance of his father, living with his young mother, in Qaddafi’s brutal dictatorship.
Throughout the book, Suleiman is the son who misses his father and the man he looks up to. Yet time blurs the real image of Suleiman’s father with the father he wished him to be, more caring and affectionate than what he truly was. Suleiman becomes the man of the household, he assumes the role of husband and confidante to his young mother, who resorts to drinking undercover to cope with her husband’s disappearance. In Suleiman, we see a confused young man, who in a possible attempt to save his father, cooperates with the very own people – the moukhabarat or security services – that whisked his father away from Martyr’s Square. An inner rage pushes him to do things he knows are wrong, vying for respect and affection, yet he doesn’t seem capable of stopping. Similar to the way Khaled Husseini sways the readers into loving to hate some of his characters, Matar makes us hate Suleiman, knowing very well that his grief and desperation push him to do things beyond his control.
In a relatively short yet insightful novel, filled with rich, if sometimes redundant, descriptions, Matar illustrates the hardships the free at heart face in living in a police state, while managing the more human and psychological repercussions on those living under its tyranny and oppression.
In several of his interviews, Matar reiterates that his book isn’t based on his personal experience, given that his own father was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and has yet to be released. “It is a real, sincere worry for me, how readers come to my work knowing too much about my life,” Matar noted in an interview in October 2011. Regardless, the book remains a powerful reminder that the scars of such dark eras take time to heal and that a revolution doesn’t end with the toppling of a regime or a change in political systems. It also reminds us of the invaluable sacrifices of those fighting for freedom and dignity and why we all should see such changes through.