Interview with Libyan author Hisham Matar

″You can't turn back the clock″

London-based author Hisham Matar writes about the disappearance of his father, a member of the Libyan opposition who was kidnapped while exiled in Cairo and has never been seen since. In ″The Return″, Matar describes his own fruitless search to trace his father and Libya′s brief moment of hope following the fall of Gaddafi. Interview by Claudia Mende

Mr Matar, your first two books were works of fiction. In your new book ″The Return″ you turned to a memoir. Why the change in genre?

Hisham Matar: The change wasn’t deliberate and it wasn’t even self-conscious. The idea for a book usually comes with its form – at least with me. The novels came as novels; they have that particular attitude and freedom of the imagination that novels afford. I started ″The Return″ writing in the dark.

For me all writing starts with something very small. Not a deliberate gesture, it starts with an image, a feeling or a particular idea or sometimes just a sentence. With this book I started wondering about that moment when I was at the airport in Cairo with my mother and my wife and I wanted to get on the plane to go back to Libya and at the same time I didn’t want to get on the plane. That moment fascinated me.

You write how you coped with the traumatic experience of your father′s disappearance. Wasn’t that too private for a wider audience?

Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (photo: dpa)
Mass euphoria for the Libyan dictator: "it’s easy to pinpoint the evil actions of a dictatorship, but it is far more difficult to pinpoint how oppressive authorities can inspire a sort of social psychosis when all the ingredients come together under the right circumstances," says Hisham Matar

Matar: I was worried about that aspect because I am a private person and the process of writing meant that I had to be very patient with things that actually make me very impatient. I wasn’t sure whether I could do it and whether I wanted to do it. But the material was so compelling that once I started, I couldn’t stop.

There is a contradiction in wanting to know on the one hand and at the same time not wanting to know. Did this drive your writing?

Matar: If anything drove the book, it was the opportunity to allow myself to be curious and to focus on a very complex set of events, which by nature implicate a wide register of  human emotions. It is about very private inner adjustments and events that have to do with the whole country and its history at the same time. I found this degree of scope fascinating as a writer.

At the end of ″The Return″ there still is no certainty regarding the fate of your father. Does the book nevertheless represent a kind of a closure for you?

Matar: The question of my father’s fate is still open. I wouldn’t say the book represents a kind of closure and I would say I am not entirely convinced by the idea of closure. I’m far more interested in things opening than closing. I wanted to attend to those things that I felt were overwhelming with real curiosity, attempting to exact a kind of authority over them precisely because they seemed so overwhelming.

I was put in mind of Primo Levy: in his writing you can also sense this desire to try to understand and document something that threatens to annihilate him. I understood what happened to my father in a similar way. The main intention of these events was to smother my ability to be curious and imaginative. So the book runs in the opposite direction, focussing on these things in an attempt to negate the repressive act which engendered this situation.

Your father was kidnapped in Cairo when you were 19. How can you detach yourself from a father who disappeared?

Matar: In order to grow you have to rebel. In my second book there is a sentence where the figure Nuri says the best way to win an argument is to disappear. It’s very difficult to argue with somebody who is not there. I was especially interested in that aspect.

Street fighting between Libyan military and militia members in Benghazi, November 2013 (photo: picture-alliance/abaca)
Caught between political impotence and ongoing violence: "the present is very much the result of 42 years of a terrible dictatorship. We have to look at things in a grown-up way because those who condemn the toppling of Gaddafi are refusing to engaging with the present. You can’t turn back the clock," says Matar

My father and I had a very robust relationship. We argued a lot and I was always very interested in my independence which he encouraged. He liked that quality, even if he didn’t always like the ways it presented itself. He disappeared when that was all going on. That made it even more complicated for me.

In your novel ″In the Country of Men″ you describe a scene where the masses are cheering at the execution of an opposition figure in Libya.

Matar: It’s easy to pinpoint the evil actions of a dictatorship, but it is far more difficult to pinpoint how oppressive authorities can inspire a sort of social psychosis when all the ingredients come together under the right circumstances. It is a universal danger, which always exists in different degrees. Now we see symptoms of it in the U.S., in the kind of discourse that the Trump administration is allowing, or in Britain where Brexit has made intolerance socially acceptable. It′s a dangerous game.

Beyond the fate of your family, your books remind me of the dashed hopes of a whole generation of young Arabs in the Arab Spring.

Matar: My book ″In the Country of Men″ was written way before these events, between 1999 and 2004. I was interested in that moment in Libya when students were trying to change things. I looked at the connection between political and social forms of control. In the book you have the side of the father who is politically restricted and damaged and the mother who is socially restricted. But I say all this in retrospect. When I am writing I have no idea what I am doing.

Cover of Hisham Matar′s ″The Return. Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between″ (published by Penguin Random House)
Hisham Matar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his book about the search for his missing father. Born in 1970 in New York, Matar, the son of Libyan parents, grew up in Tripoli and – following the emigration of his family – in Cairo. His father disappeared when he was 19. The businessman and former diplomat led a group of partisans opposed to the Gaddafi dictatorship

Do you see any chance for a political solution in Libya today?

Matar: Yes, I do but it relies heavily on a quality of leadership that I can’t see right now. At this moment a country like Libya needs extraordinarily wise leadership interested in dialogue and able to engage in compromise – motivated by what would be good for the country.

This kind of leadership doesn’t exist in Libya right now…

Matar: …That’s right and I am deeply concerned, because the longer the situation carries on, the deeper and the more established criminal organisations become – whether in the form of unlawful militias who are using the situation for their own authority and power or criminal organisations trading slaves and drugs and kidnapping people. The situation has reached epic proportions. It’s going to be very difficult to disarm and disband them.

Was the toppling of Gaddafi a mistake, then?

Matar: Although I understand where the sentiment comes from – many Libyans feel this way because the situation is so bad right now that all people crave is stability – but there is a problem of logic in that statement because the present is very much the result of 42 years of a terrible dictatorship. The present is far truer to the reality than the aspirations of the revolution. Of course we have to judge events by their results, but also we have to be a bit more complex in our assessments and not let only the present define how we judge past actions.

Would you say that this is true for the Arab Spring as a whole?

Matar: There are a lot of people in the Arab world saying that the Arab Spring was a headache we could have done without. Look at the region – how fragmented it is, with all these problems in Yemen and the nightmare in Syria, not to mention Egypt. Wouldn’t it be better to just leave things as they are? For me, such comments smack of self-loathing.

Why self-loathing?

Matar: It reminds me of the raped woman who says maybe it was my fault. As if we all deserved nothing better. We have to unmask this kind of statement. The present is very true to the Gaddafi past. We have to look at things in a grown-up way because those who condemn the toppling of Gaddafi are refusing to engaging with the present. You can’t turn back the clock.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© 2018

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