Hisham Matar

"In the Country of Men"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 15, 2007)

It is summer vacation and one of nine-year-old Suleiman’s favorite games is “My Land, Your Land” which he often plays with his close friend Kareem. “My Land” in his case is Libya, a country where the “unfaithful” are punished and where prominent pictures of the “Guardian,” Colonel Muammar Gaddafi must be displayed to avoid suspicion by the central authorities.

In such a harsh political climate, Suleiman knows trouble will soon find his father just like it did Kareem’s father, Ustath Rashid. Suleiman has already seen his father enter mysterious buildings in a local Tripoli town square when he really should have been abroad on business trips. What’s worse, his father’s friend Moosa and his mother are now burning all of father’s controversial books and Ustath Rashid has been publicly hanged in a basketball stadium in front of a cheering crowd. Is his father next? “The truth couldn’t be kept away, it was cunning, sly-natured, seeping through at its own indifferent pace, only astonishing in how familiar, how known it had always been,” Hisham Matar writes in his moving debut novel, In the Country of Men. While this might well be the case, the problem is little Suleiman is privy only to half-truths he puts together by feeling out his mother when she is not consumed by her “illness” (alcoholism) and by listening to actions that transpire between the other adults around him.

In the Country of Men also eloquently captures the love Suleiman feels for his mother who often captivates him with many stories, including one of her forced marriage as a teenager. She was given away to a man significantly older than her, right after she was found holding hands with a boy in a local café.  While Suleiman admires Scheherazade of The Arabian Nights fame, his mother dismisses her as a slave who thought she could escape by telling tales.

Suleiman’s mother also speaks out against her husband’s political activism--she only wants her family intact and safe. “Let me see the clouds above my country,“ she begs of her husband, “I want to look down and see it a distant map, reduced to lines, reduced to an idea.” As the Suleiman family find themselves in deeper and more significant trouble, it is the mother who exercises her limited influence and manages to rescue them from the brink of death and who also ensures a better life for the young boy.

“In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child craving concern,” Suleiman recounts later as an adult. It is a testament to the nameless terrors that pervade his childhood that despite the pervasive presence of such men, Suleiman himself could not wait to become a man “heavy with the world.” In a wise and moving debut, Hisham Matar captures this central paradox beautifully -- the book was short listed for the Man Booker Prize last year. In the Country of Men lays bare the heart-breaking complexities of a childhood spent trying to figure out the adult world through a nine-year-old‘s frame of vision.

One day Suleiman strikes up a conversation with a government spy, Sharief, who sits around in a white car and silently patrols the neighborhood. Despite his mother’s warnings, Suleiman is attracted to the official and in hesitant conversations, ends up betraying his closest friends and family. “Unlike Mama and Moosa, he answered my questions,“ Suleiman offers as an explanation, “He didn’t treat me like a child.” For a nine-year-old tired of piecing together half-truths arguably nothing could be more tempting--an adult who steers clear of condescension, who doesn‘t treat him like a child.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 41 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from In the Country of Men at Guardian Unlimited

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About the Author:

Hisham MatarHisham Matar was born in New York City in 1970 to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. He has lived in the UK since 1986 when he moved to London and to continue his studies and received a degree in architecture.

In 1990, his father was kidnapped in Cairo and has been reported missing ever since, but in 1996 the family received two letters with his father's handwriting stating that he was by kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police and turned over to the Libyan regime and was imprisoned at Abu-Salim in Tripoli. Since that date, no more information has been received about his father's wellbeing.

In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Guardian First Book Award in 2006.

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