Tag: Literature

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…”

Some Serious Silliness for the New Year: “The Literature of the Muslim World”

There is always a market for the serious Bernard Lewis-types who think they can summarize the “The Muslim Mind” in a few gestures, anecdotes, and clichés, and that piffle is worth regarding as the silliness it is. To talk about “Muslims” is to talk about people that are as least as different from each other as they are from their traditional opposite contrasts, “Christians” or “the West” or “Jews” or whatever. And yet, while anyone who thinks “Christian” or “Muslim” does very much analytic work as a descriptive category is a fool, it also might be that education is, on some level, a function of one’s willingness to risk being a fool and then picking up the pieces afterwards. In pursuit of the suspicion that this might be the case, I’ve been kicking around — part for fun serious, and part for serious fun — ways that one might teach a class on “Literature of the Muslim World,” somewhere between “The history of Muslims in the twentieth century as related in novels and poetry” and “Literature about the Part of the World Being Targeted by American Drones.”

There is no adequate way to describe such a survey, because the very idea of such a survey is silly: to imagine comprehending such a vast expanse of human culture and experience in a single course is to realize the utter, laughable impossibility of the task. Which may even be a laudable goal in and of itself. In any case, it’s no sillier than classes which I’ve taught on “African Literature” or “Third World Literature,” and since I think both I and my students profited from the experience, I‘d someday hope to profit from the experience of teaching this one, or some variation. So with particular thanks to a few very smart and knowledgeable people who offered some incredibly helpful commentary and suggestions, I offer you the list I’ve come up with, and would be delighted if people had more ideas for making it better. It’s a serious list, and yet it’s also not a syllabus, exactly; it’s the “dream scenario” version of the class I’d long to teach, the version of a class you come up with just before the point where you have to start getting down to the brass tacks of thinking about mundanities like assignments, attention-spans, semester lengths, and the sort of thing that makes every class a compromise with reality. This is not that; this is just a list. It is also really imperfect, I’m sure, as this is not really my field, and there are surely all sorts of ideological biases. So while I’m aware of some important omissions or slants, I‘d be more than happy to be more fully apprised of others that may occur to you.

An Antique Land, antiquity: In an Antique Land (Amitav Ghosh), plus excerpts from and about Ibn Battuta
Arabia, indeterminate: Endings (Abd al-Rahman Munif), opening to Cities of Salt (Abd al-Rahman Munif)

Palestine, 1960’s: Men in the Sun (Ghassan Kanafani), plus poems from Mahmoud Darwish
Egypt, 1917-1919: Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz)
Senegal, 1920’s-1930’s: Ambiguous Adventure (Cheik Hamadou Kane)
India/Pakistan, Partition: short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai
Post-‘52 Egypt: Miramar (Naguib Mahfouz)

Lebanon, 1970’s: The Story of Zahra (Hanan al-Shaykh)
Britain, 1970’s-1980‘s: East is East (O’Donnell/Khan-Din) and My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears/Kureishi)
Istanbul, memory: Istanbul (Orhan Pamuk)
Iran, 1980’s: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) with Seyyed Mohammed Marandi’s “Reading Azar Nafisi in Tehran”

Terroristan, Now: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb (Amitava Kumar)
USA, 2010: The Taqwacores (Zahra/Knight)

Additionally, just because these books are good, too:
The Country Without a Post Office, Agha Shahid Ali
Quarantine, Juan Goytisolo
Palestine, Joe Sacco
Bollywood! Mughal-e-Azam, Umrao Jaan, Pakeezah
Poetry! Hafiz, Faiz, Hikmat, Antarra, Qu’ran, and Ghazals of Ghalib, ed. Aijaz Ahmad
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Assia Djebar
The Translator, Leila Aboulela
Paradise, Abdulrazak Gurnah

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