Hisham Matar On The Power Of Libyan Fiction

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:25 pm

For decades, Libya's political environment has been brutal and repressive, and that has trickled into many aspects of daily life, including its culture and its literature. Hisham Matar, a Booker Prize-nominated author for In the Country of Men, says that amazingly, Libyan literature had a kind of golden the early seventies just after Moammar Gadhafi came to power. For a brief time, Gadhafi was seen as a liberator, and he inspired hope in people in all arenas — from business to art. But Matar says that quite suddenly shattered, in one terrible moment.

"In one year [Gadhafi] imprisoned a huge number of writers," Matar tells Renee Montagne on Morning Edition. "The revolutionary committee set up a sort of big literary festival, if you like, and then they just captured all the writers, they tortured them, and they put them in prison and that generation of writers spent minimum 10 years in prison."

The festival was a sort of trap to round up the writers and then imprison them all at once. Matar also remembers that Gadhafi sent army trucks to bookshops, and soldiers had a list of books the regime deemed inappropriate. The books were gathered up and burned.

Writers have been problematic for the regime for a long time, Matar says, but he doesn't think that's a unique situation.

"Dictatorship by its essence is interested in one narrative, [an] intolerant narrative, and writers are interested in a multiplicity of narratives and conflicting empathies and what it would be like to be the other, to imagine what the other is thinking and feeling," Matar says. "And that sort of completely unsettles the dictatorial project."

Because of the fear Gadhafi inspired in the intellectual community, many Libyan writers turned to allegory to make their work opaque to the regime. But Matar's own writing is more forthright about political experiences — he says that when he decided to set his novel in Libya in the late 1970s, it seemed inauthentic and insincere to not include the extraordinary details of the time.

Matar also wanted to write about the horrendous aspects of Libya's regime as an act of resistance. His father was kidnapped from his home in Cairo in 1990 and taken back to Libya where he was tortured and imprisoned. He disappeared in the political prisons, and the family still doesn't know whether he's alive or dead.

"I wanted to try to make something hopefully beautiful from this which on some level to me, doing that, in other words being able to sing about the terrible things, to me is an act of resistance. It is a way to say I will make art even out of this," Matar says.

In addition to the disappearance of his father, Matar's uncle and two cousins had been in prison since 1990. One of the early effects of the protests in Libya in March was the release of prisoners, and his uncle and cousins were released.

As he was being driven home from the prison, Matar talked to his uncle talked for over an hour. Matar was amazed by one portion of the conversation, where his uncle started every sentence with "do you remember?" – from how he used to push Matar's bike when he was a child, to the hot cinnamon drinks he liked.

"All of these things that he remembered. It just reminded me how ... there's only so much you can do to a man. You know, you can do a great deal. You could steal from them time and ability and possibility but you can't erase that thing, that spirit."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

We reached him at his home in London. Hisham Matar says when Moammar Gadhafi first came to power as a revolutionary liberator, he ushered in a brief golden age of literature, a golden age that ended completely and suddenly in the late 1970s.

MONTAGNE: And that generation of writers spent minimum 10 years in prison. I know people who've been in prison for 15 years just because their only crime is that they are a novelist or a poet or a short story writer.

MONTAGNE: So Gadhafi set up a sort of trap? He actually put on the festival in order to round up the writers?

MONTAGNE: Yes. But he also sent trucks. For example, I remember as a young boy all these beautiful bookshops in Tripoli. Army trucks went to them with lists of books that the regime had decided were not appropriate, and these books were gathered up and burned in the Green Square. So writers have for a long time been problematic for the regime. Dictatorship by its essence is interested in one narrative, an intolerant narrative, and writers are interested in a multiplicity of narratives and conflicting empathies and what the other is thinking and feeling. And that completely unsettles the dictatorial project.

MONTAGNE: Your own writing is much more forthright about political experiences than some others. Both of your novels deal with a political disappearance, and I wonder if that is inspired - it certainly is similar to something in your own life, and that is that your father was kidnapped in Cairo 21 years ago and has been missing ever since.

MONTAGNE: You're right in the sense that what has happened to my father, who was a political dissident who was tortured, imprisoned and then disappears in the political prisons in Libya, so we continue not to know whether he's alive or dead - when somebody dies, it's final, or at least to us it seems final. But when somebody disappears, the possibility of them existing in the same moment, in the same day, the same year, under the same moon, under the same sun, is a very vivid possibility. And what it does to the nature of the grief is uniquely different from the nature of the grief and longing when somebody dies. And so I wanted to try to make something hopefully beautiful from this, which on some level to me doing that, in other words, being able to sing about the terrible things, to me is an act of resistance. It is a way to say I will make art even after this.

MONTAGNE: You wrote in the first days of these protests in March about the fact that one of the early effects of those protests was the release of prisoners. And among them was your uncle and your two cousins, who had been imprisoned since 1990. What was the first thing that your uncle said to you?

MONTAGNE: Actually, the first thing that my uncle said to me when I spoke with him over the phone was, what's this I hear about you being shortlisted for the Booker Prize? So my uncle was keen to remind me that he was connected to the world. And then we talked for a long time because he was in the car being driven home, so we talked for about an hour. And there was this wonderful portion of our conversation in which every sentence he said started with, do you remember? And, you know, it was a marvelous proof, you know, his humor, his ability to remember all these wonderful details when I was young, how he used to push my bike, how - the sort of cinnamon hot drinks I liked when I was a kid, and all of these things that he remembered just reminded me how, you know, there's only so much you can do to a man. You know, you can do a great deal. You could steal from them time and ability and possibility, but you can't erase that thing, that spirit, you know. And I'm amazed by my Uncle Mahmoud, Mahmoud Matar, because he is speaking about forgiveness and he's speaking about, you know, reconciliation, and it's a marvelous thing. I think it's wonderful.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

MONTAGNE: Pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Hisham Matar's latest novel, "Anatomy of a Disappearance," comes out in the U.S. this summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.