Tag: Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men, part three

(partonetwofour, and five

When Hisham Matar published In the Country of Men in 2006, Libya was in the midst of a comprehensive rehabilitation and restoration of normal relations with the Europe, the US, and Western oil companies. I find it illuminating to place it in the post-2004 timeline of Libya’s international rehabilitation:

CNN, 2004: “The Bush administration on Thursday lifted the U.S. government’s 23-year-old ban on travel to Libya a day after Tripoli reaffirmed its responsibility for the 1988 Pan Am 103 terrorist bombing.”

USA Today, 2004: Free from most U.S. sanctions after nearly two decades, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes his first trip to the West in 15 years Tuesday, visiting Brussels to re-establish ties with the European Union.

BBC, 2005: “Three US oil companies are resuming their oil and gas operations in Libya after a 19-year absence. ConocoPhilips, Marathon Oil and Amerada Hess had their exploration contracts suspended in the 1980s after the US imposed sanctions on Libya. But since the US lifted its embargo on Libya last year, other oil giants including ExxonMobil have returned.”

Al Bawaba, 2006: “We are pleased to be resuming our long and productive partnership with the people and the state of Libya in this strategic asset,” said Jim Mulva, ConocoPhillips’ chairman and chief executive officer. “This agreement provides a strong basis for us to invest in our aligned goals for increased reserves and production, and in the training and development of our Libyan work force.” The fiscal terms of the agreement will be similar to the terms in effect at the time of the suspension of the co-venturers’ activities in 1986.

Reviews of In the Country of Men, 2006:

  • Guardian: “At a time when western leaders have been cosying up to Gaddafi, it is salient to be reminded of the cruelty of his reign.”
  • Financial Times: “Libya was once a pariah state, but its ruler, Colonel Gadaffi, has orchestrated a dramatic rehabilitation of his country…[the novel is] a timely reminder of the brutal methods that Gadaffi employed to become the Arab world’s longest-serving leader.”
  • The Independent: “People should not forget the past, they should move beyond it,” Blair said of his visit to Tripoli. It is this platitude that Hisham Matar, a Libyan exile, confronts in his debut novel, which chooses to remember the brutality of Libya under Gaddafi.”

Reuters, 2007:  “Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed what he called Britain’s transformed relations with once-isolated Libya after meeting Muammar Gaddafi on Tuesday and the two countries unveiled major energy and defence deals. Libyan Prime Minister al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi said Libya would buy British missiles and air defence systems, in what would be the largest UK defence sale to the former outcast state since an international arms embargo on Tripoli ended in 2004.”

BBC News, 2008: “Libya is back in business with the West, able to exploit its oil and gas riches, after years of isolation. But as Lucy Ash reports, some are disappointed there has been little impact on the North African country’s human rights record.”

Huffington Post, 2009: “…nowadays billions of dollars enter and leave every day on planes carrying officials and business people eager to sign oil, trade and defense deals with Libya. It has been rehabilitated to such an extent that Gaddafi has hobnobbed with the Presidents of France and Italy in their respective capitals and in July, the Swiss president himself flew to Libya to apologize for the brief detention in 2008 of one of Gaddafi’s sons for allegedly beating up two of his servants.”

In the Country of Men, part one

As I did for Tarzan last year, I’m going to do a multi-part series of posts on Hisham Matar’s marvelous first novel, In the Country of Men. This is the first one (parts twothreefour, and five), which I hope will give you a start on reading the novel — if you want to follow along — and which gives away only a little by dealing only with the book’s very beginning. Note, though, that I am not going to protect you from spoilers or anything like that; it’s a short novel, and an amazing one, so if you want not to be “spoiled,” pick up a copy! 

If you know from the start that the sun in some way represents Gaddafi’s rule over Libya, the first lines of In the Country of Men will make a different kind of sense:

It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star.

These lines are not quite suitable for the nine-year old protagonist whose first person governs the narrative, of course, and the delicacy of the language bugged me for that reason when I first read it. But the very first line of the novel — “I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away” — clarifies the matter: the book is written in the voice of the fully grown Libyan exile who (we eventually learn) is telling us this story of his younger self and his younger perceptions from Cairo, in a “now” which is a full fifteen years later. And just as it is his mind that produces that delightful metaphor of “shade” as a “patch of mercy carved into the white of everything,” it is also through his mind that we understand the peculiar way in which that metaphor and this novel are about Muamar Gaddafi and the realm which is everywhere ruled by his absolute star. A nine-year old child does not know this, but will this will prove to be precisely the point.

The first time you read this novel, you, too, will likely not notice what is happening here. Certainly you will not understand the gravity of it, or the menace in that sun. And a few pages later, you when you read the description of Baba’s sunglasses, the way the narrator describes his younger self’s indignation will signify more or less the way they signify to nine-year old Suleiman himself:

Two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes. The sky, the sun and the sea were painted by God in colours we could all point at and say the sea is turquoise, the sun banana, the sky blue. Sunglasses are terrible, I thought, because they change all of this and keep those who wear them at a distance.

If the humpback metaphor is that of the 24 year old exile in Cairo, the indignation is the child’s at a father whose distance and refusal of intimacy (not to mention a kind of Oedipal culpability) will fester and burn under the blazing glare of Tripoli’s absolute star. To the child, sunglasses are just part and parcel of the thing that makes his father a gnawing and agonizing enigma.

But the fact that Suleiman’s father is trying to shield his eyes from the light will take on more meaning as the novel unfolds, as will the apparently throwaway fact that the cows which he has imported from Scotland are bothered by the scorching North African sun. “Where they are from the sun has no heat and barely any light,” his father’s closest friend declares, as they moo in wordless lamentation. And just moments before the narrator recalls watching the televised interrogation of an accused “bourgeois and a traitor,” it is important to note that the neighbor who complains about the cows — an odious woman, who the neighbor’s mother dislikes from the start — is married to a man who is “an Antenna,  a man of the Mokhabarat,” a person who the young boy recalls, is “‘able to put people behind the sun,’ as I had heard it said many times…”

“I celebrate this uncertainty”

I’m writing something on the broader contours of the “responsibility to protect” debate as it’s happening with respect to Libya, but in the meantime, I want to offer this piece from Anjali Kamat and Ahmad Shokr (from Economic and Political Weekly) as an example of the sort of thing which the American pundit seems to have no ability or desire to produce. Kamat and Shokr not only start from the premise that this is about the Libyans, first and foremost — and have bothered to acquire actual information about what is happening — but they do so because they recognize that any statement or polemic about what is happening in Libya that excludes Libyan voices is, as such, not worth listening to.

From the conclusion:

The anti-imperialist arguments against imposing a no-fly zone are many and convincing. Neutralising Gaddafi’s air power may not give the rebels a much-desired strategic advantage over his ground forces, which are better trained and equipped. Moreover, the decision by foreign powers to impose a no-fly zone is likely to be motivated by their own regional interests rather than a genuine concern for the well-being of Libya’s people.

However, at this crucial time, debates about a no-fly zone should not replace conversations about solidarity. The struggle of the Libyan people for freedom deserves the strongest support. The imperative for solidarity with the Libyan rebels is being lost in anti-imperialist polemics, some of which has casually dismissed those Libyans who call for a no-fly zone as naïve or, even worse, as imperial stooges. This is disrespectful to the many Libyans who have paid a heavy price for challenging Gaddafi’s regime on the streets. A more sensible antiimperialist position would focus less on what a no-fly zone means for western powers and more on listening to Libyan voices on the ground and finding ways to meaningfully support their struggle.

By contrast, Josh Marshall. Also, anything written by Andrew Sullivan, at least since he happily described the Libyan movement as an “opportunistic rebellion, fed by tribal rivalries, that was violent from the get-go.”

One Libyan who has gotten some play in the American media is Hisham Matar, a wonderful novelist (I just finished his In the Country of Men and can’t recommend it enough), who wrote this in the LA Times:

I could sense myself, particularly over the last decade, growing hopeless. I began to wonder whether Kadafi had succeeded in killing the Libyan spirit. I could feel my heart hardening toward my own country. I sheltered a quiet and perverse dislike for my own people; perverse because hatred of one’s own amounts to hatred of the self. At times, in Libyan gatherings, this would momentarily lift and I would find myself completely in love with all things Libyan. Vacillating between these extremes has often left me empty and weary.

I am 40 years old. I haven’t known a Libya without Kadafi. These days, witnessing the fall of the dictatorship and, more important, the rise of the Libyan people, I am realizing that up to now my country has been overwhelmingly a source of fear, pain and embarrassment. Now it is a source of joy and pride.

This, from Spiegel Online (on what Gaddafi means to him):

He has stolen my father from me, he has imprisoned my relatives, he has killed many of my friends. He is my enemy. But more importantly than my personal grievances, he has held back the whole country and forced the Libyan people to live in a permanent state of madness. He represents a kind of nightmare for Libya from which I am just waking up.

Everybody was surprised by the events, even the people who spend their whole life studying Libya. But once the protests started, it was surprising how unsurprising it really was. I sense it in the voices of the Libyans I have known all my life. They sound different, their necks free from being tied. Gadhafi was the person under whom we have all suffered. We are all united by our suffering under him.

And this, in the New Yorker:

As for what the future holds, I think we have to refer to the nature of the movement. Its character has been so far exemplary, showing maturity and good sense as well as a commitment to the rule of law. A provisional government has been set up, calling itself the “National Transitional Temporary Council”. It is, according to a statement issued, committed to “the establishment of a civil, constitutional and democratic state.” Obviously, there are reasons to worry; it would be unnatural not to be concerned when such a radical change is taking place. But I celebrate this uncertainty. For nearly half a century, we, Libyans, knew everything: we knew what to think, what to say, what to read, and how to live; every detail in our life had been decided for us. Now we can decide what sort of society we want.

I appeal to the international community to follow France and recognize Libya’s transitional government. This would help isolate the dictatorship even more and, more importantly, provide a logistical framework for Libyans to manage the needs of their people. We also need, desperately, medical and food supplies. Qaddafi is trying to starve the rebel strongholds.

(Matar links from Hisham Matar’s facebook page, EPW article via Katherine Hawkins)

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