Muammar, we're all crazy now

Oscar Turner finds that the horror at the heart of Colonel Gaddafi's Libya is addressed in Hisham Matar's winning debut, In the Country of Men

Sunday July 16, 2006
The Observer


In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar


In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar

The eponymous men in Libyan-born Hisham Matar's outstanding debut novel are impenetrable, austere, terrifying. For nine-year-old Suleiman, they are a flickering but potent presence: hands in smoke-filled rooms that he is instructed to kiss. But Suleiman is growing up in 1970s Libya and a far larger force looms over even these goliaths: Muammar Gaddafi, 'The Benefactor', 'The Guide'.

Oppression is with us from the opening page in the form of the relentless summer heat from which humans and ants scuttle into shady hiding. Suleiman's days lack form; school is out and he spends his time playing on the roof of his parents' house or in the streets of their affluent suburb.

Baba, Suleiman's father, disappears on various business trips. Mama dolls herself up for Baba's returns, but falls into a strange distemper whenever he is away: giggling, chain-smoking and forgetting to turn the gas off. Her medicine is procured under the counter from the local baker. It is her and Suleiman's little secret.

When Mama was 14, she was spied hanging out with boys at the Italian Coffee House. She was locked in her room for a month and forced into marriage. Suleiman is bound up in the guilt and rage that emanate from this. Baba is 'the man who was her punishment', Suleiman 'the boy that sealed her fate'.

An already mystifying world beinfoes markedly more so. There are strange meetings between the grown-ups and whispered words of political dissent. Suleiman spots his father crossing the street when he is supposed to be abroad. Baba is wearing shades and Suleiman is panicked by the concealment. More men turn up to ask aggressive questions and search the house. Ustath Rashid, the father of Suleiman's friend, is carted off; then Baba too disappears.

After his father's disappearance, Suleiman watches Ustath Rashid being interrogated on television. Rashid later appears on screen at the national basketball stadium, where he is harried up a ladder and hanged. When the image beinfoes too gruesome, the screen is washed out with images of flowers and the national anthem is played. Gaddafi, it is rumoured, controls this piece of programming with a switch in his room.

The spectacle has left Suleiman with a permanent sense of 'quiet panic, as if at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet'. As a child, he is unable to process the horror, lashing out at his playmates (and the local beggar) with a befuddled sadism. As an adult, exiled in Egypt, he is disengaged and empty. 'Nationalism,' we are told, 'is a thin thread'; but Egypt has not replaced Libya in his affections. As for men, Suleiman has gained little understanding of their ways: 'It's a sign of madness, I know, to claim to know what is in another man's heart.'

At a time when western leaders have been cosying up to Gaddafi, it is salient to be reminded of the cruelty of his reign. In the Country of Men is a powerful political novel and a tender evocation of universal human conflicts - over identity, forgiveness, love. It is due to be published in 13 languages and, despite its short length, took several years to write. It was more than worth the wait.


The Guardian 16/07/2006


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