In the colonel’s crushing grip
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-