Hisham Matar was born in New York in 1970 to Libyan parents. His father worked for the Libyan mission to the United Nations. But in 1979 being against the regime, he left Libya and went into exile in Egypt with his family. After living in Cairo for eleven years, his father was kidnapped and sent back to Libya where he was sent to prison and since 1995 Hisham Matar has no news of his father’s whereabouts. His mother and elder brother still live in Egypt.
Hisham Matar spent his young years in Tripoli and Cairo. He lived in Cairo for four years, and at fifteen went to boarding school in England. Then he studied architecture at Goldsmith college London University and still lives in London, married to American photographer, Diana Matar. He is working on a new novel set in Cairo and London.
In his twenties Hisham Matar worked as an architect and also wrote articles for the London based Arabic daily newspaper, Al Shark Al Awsat. His essays have been published in The Independent, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Times. In 2002 he was a finalist in East Anglia’s Best New Talent Awards for his poems, before preferring prose to poetry.
Hisham Matar’s first novel In the Country of Menwas first published in 2006 and was nominated for The Guardian First Book Award. It was on the short list of The Booker Prize of 2006 and won The Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2007. “In The Country of Men” was a big success and has been translated into 22 languages. Despite its short length it took five years to write.
The novel is narrated by a bewildered nine year-old Suleiman who is trying to decode the adult world that takes place inside his own family and in Tripoli, ten years after the 1969 Libyan revolution. The book starts in 1979, the year before he left Tripoli to go and live in Cairo.
Little Suleiman is confused as would be a nine year old who lives with a depressed, domineering, alcoholic and emotionally unpredictable mother (Mama), a nearly non-existent figure-head of a businessman father (Baba), and suspicious men (the secret police) moving around Tripoli and his neighbourhood.
Apart from Suleiman’s mother, the main character in the story who plays an important part in Suleimen’s life, the story is mainly about men, as the title of the novel suggests. The novel is not only about politics, it’s also about strong emotions, compassions and relationships between people sharing almost the same fate.
The story is poignant. Suleiman who at his age should be living a carefree life, is burdened by the cruel events surrounding him. Like nine year old Michele in “I’m Not Scared” by Niccolo Ammaniti and twelve year old Amir in “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, he is ejected too soon into adulthood due to circumstances and without any mercy.
Throughout the novel there is a sense of danger, fear, betrayal, and a very heavy atmosphere of oppression, that the nine-year old child caught in this claustrophobic world would rather not even attempt to decipher but instead escape to a freer place.
Nevertheless, the story is evoked with great subtlety and compassion. “In The Country of Men” is an interesting novel because it’s about Libya, a country which has encountered many world-wide controversies in recent years and yet remains completely unknown to the outsider.
Very rarely would one come across a book about Libya, its every day life and its regime. In one of his interviews Hisham Matar says : “I would have liked to write a book that had nothing to do with politics… I’m not really interested in politics, but politics was part of the canvas. I had to say something about it, otherwise all the different forces that are shaping these characters would be abstract.”
The characters in the novel are not fully developed but rather sketched apart from the character of Suleimen’s mother who stands out vividly among the other hazy characters, emphasising the endearing love binding the little boy to his mother, love that will remain just as strong even when the little boy becomes a young man in exile in Egypt.
“I look down at my legs, my grown-up legs in their grown-up trousers…. You’re a man, I tell myself. And she (his mother) is coming to see you, to see what has become of her darling boy, her only son. How will she be? …What will she think of me… Then I see her. She is standing next to her suitcase like a girl in the city for the first time… Mama, I say and say it again and again until she sees me. Mama! Mama! When I reach her she kisses my hands, my forehead, my cheeks, combs my hair with her fingers, straightens my collar.”
The style, in its unpretentious appealing simplicity, speaks to the heart on an emotionally realistic level. In one of his interviews, Hisham Matar denies that his novel In the Country of Menis autobiographical. He said it’s pure fiction and that he chose to fictionalise events of his childhood:
“The book is a product of my imagination: a human faculty that many, I am learning these days, are suspect of. This book took me five years to write; I am not yet interested enough in my own autobiography to spend that long writing it down. Besides, knowing what will happen next bores me… I enjoy the pleasure of inventing characters and their circumstances on the page. They remain mysterious even after the work is complete; in some ways even more mysterious. It’s magic.”
“Libya is a silent and silenced country. Somewhere between the covers of my book is a Libya that speaks. But most of all, I hope anyone who reads my novel is entertained and perhaps nudged a little.”