In the colonel’s crush­ing grip

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In 2011, the novelist Hisham Matar went back to Libya, the coun­try he had left as a child three decades ear­lier. Muam­mar Gaddafi was gone and, writes Matar, “spring was more ver­dant than any­one could re­mem­ber, which was taken as an omen for the bet­ter fu­ture that would surely fol­low”.

Matar notes how even the ar­chi­tec­ture had changed since he was a boy. Back then the houses were un­fenced, the doors open ex­cept dur­ing the worst heat — but now, af­ter the years of dic­ta­tor­ship, “high brick walls keep out the views and the win­dows are al­most per­ma­nently shut­tered”. Un­der au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism peo­ple retreat, care­fully, to the most pri­vate realm and so the build­ings are a metaphor for the coun­try.

Matar went to Tripoli, to Beng­hazi and also back to the place where his cen­te­nar­ian grand­fa­ther Hamed, a renowned rebel against the Ital­ian colo­nial power, had lived. There he met his Un­cle Mah­moud, his fa­ther’s much younger brother, who had been re­leased by the regime in the open­ing days of the Arab Spring af­ter 21 years in prison.

In Beng­hazi, he writes, “I had never been any­where so bur­dened with mem­o­ries yet also charged with pos­si­bil­i­ties for the fu­ture, pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, and each just as po­tent and prob­a­ble as the other.” Libyans held their fu­ture in their hands af­ter decades of dic­ta­tor­ship. At that stage no one could know what they would do with it.

How­ever, Matar, whose first novel, In the Coun­try of Men, de­scribed life un­der the Gaddafi regime, had other busi­ness and that is the real story of his me­moir The Re­turn.

He had charged him­self with find­ing out the truth about his fa­ther, Ja­balla Matar, an op­po­nent of Gaddafi who was ab­ducted in Cairo (with the con­nivance of the Mubarak govern­ment) in 1990, im­pris­oned in Abu Salim in Tripoli, a jail nick­named the Gates of Hell, and whose com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side world had stopped in the mid-1990s.

Af­ter that, Matar did ev­ery­thing he could to try to find out what had hap­pened to Ja­balla, even flying from Europe to Ok­la­homa to speak to a man who might know some­thing. “When Gaddafi took my fa­ther,” he writes to­wards the end of the book, “he placed me in a space not much big­ger than the cell fa­ther was in.”

The ti­tle of the book is also a metaphor, be­cause going back to Libya is al­most the least im­por­tant part of it. The Re­turn also refers to the fa­ther be­ing re­turned to his son. And the most strik­ing scene is set not in Beng­hazi or in the fam­ily home town of Ajd­abiya, but in Lon­don a year ear­lier. There, in the Jumeirah Carl­ton Tower ho­tel in Knights­bridge, Matar met Saif al-Is­lam Gaddafi, the sec­ond son of the Libyan tyrant.

The mo­ment and the place are beau­ti­fully de­scribed: its tawdry wealth as well as its air of men­ace: A woman who looked a lit­tle em­bar­rassed oc­cu­pied the cen­tre of the lobby pluck­ing away at a harp. Her skill was clear but she had ob­vi­ously been in­structed to stick to in­stru­men­tals of well-known pop songs. She was now in the open­ing bars of Yes­ter­day by the Bea­tles. We spot­ted the tele­vi­sion preacher Amr Khaled sit­ting with a group of ad­mir­ers. At sev­eral other ta­bles around the lobby high-class pros­ti­tutes sat in pairs, sip­ping wine. They looked like ar­ti­fi­cial flow­ers. Af­ter a marathon of pop­u­lar tunes the harpist al­lows her­self a brief di­ver­sion. One of Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions. Num­ber 7 I think. It lasted about a minute.

Saif turned up an hour late with a lawyer and some se­cu­rity men and the de­sire that he and Matar could be­come friends, re­solve the busi­ness of Ja­balla and move ahead for the sake of Libya.

Al­though it is clear to the reader that Saif is telling Matar that his fa­ther is dead, Matar needs to hear it for­mally and Saif is try­ing to place con­di­tions on the ad­mis­sion.

The two men cor­re­spond in­ter­mit­tently af­ter­wards by text and a tone of des­per­a­tion en­ters the dis­cus­sion — the des­per­ate one be­ing Saif.

“What bet­ter confirmation of the regime’s trans­for­ma­tion,” ob­serves Matar, “than the son of a dis­si­dent work­ing with the son of a dic-

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