Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman's days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father's constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother's increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn't he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie?
Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand--where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father's cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend's father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television.
In the Country of Men is a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare. But above all, it is a debut of rare insight and literary grace.
- Man Booker Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, Matar's debut novel tracks the effects of Libyan strongman Khadafy's 1969 September revolution on the el-Dawani family, as seen by nine-year-old Suleiman, who narrates as an adult. Living in Tripoli 10 years after the revolution with his parents and spending lazy summer days with his best friend, Kareem, Suleiman has his world turned upside down when the secret police-like Revolutionary Committee puts the family in its sights-though Suleiman does not know it, his father has spoken against the regime and is a clandestine agitator-along with families in the neighborhood. When Kareem's father is arrested as a traitor, Suleiman's own father appears to be next. The ensuing brutality resonates beyond the bloody events themselves to a brutalizing of heart and mind for all concerned. Matar renders it brilliantly, as well as zeroing in on the regime's reign of terror itself: mock trials, televised executions, neighbors informing on friends, persecution mania in those remaining. By the end, Suleiman's father must either renounce the cause or die for it, and Suleiman faces the aftermath of conflicts (including one with Kareem) that have left no one untouched. Suleiman's bewilderment speaks volumes. Matar wrests beauty from searing dread and loss. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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The Dial Press
January 29, 2007
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Excerpt from In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star. And it was rising now, this star, as faithful as ever, chasing away the blessed breeze. It was almost morning.
The window in her bedroom was wide open, the glue tree outside it silent, its green shy in the early light. She hadn't fallen asleep until the sky was gray with dawn. And even then I was so rattled I couldn't leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette and continue begging me, as she had been doing only minutes before, not to tell, not to tell.
Baba never found out about Mama's illness; she only fell ill when he was away on business. It was as if, when the world was empty of him, she and I remained as stupid reminders, empty pages that had to be filled with the memory of how they had come to be married.
I sat watching her beautiful face, her chest rise and fall with breath, unable to leave her side, hearing the things she had just told me swim and repeat in my head.
Eventually I left her and went to bed.
When she woke up she came to me. I felt her weight sink beside me, then her fingers in my hair. The sound of her fingernails on my scalp reminded me of once when I was unlucky. I had thrown a date in my mouth before splitting it open, only discovering it was infested with ants when their small shell bodies crackled beneath my teeth. I lay there silent, pretending to be asleep, listening to her breath disturbed by tears.
During breakfast I tried to say as little as possible. My silence made her nervous. She talked about what we might have for lunch. She asked if I would like some jam or honey. I said no, but she went to the fridge and got some anyway. Then, as was usual on the mornings after she had been ill, she took me on a drive to pull me out of my silence, to return me to myself again.
Waiting for the car to warm up, she turned on the radio, skipped through the dial and didn't stop until she heard the beautiful voice of Abd al-Basit Abd al-Sammad. I was glad because, as everyone knows, one must refrain from speaking and listen humbly to the Koran when it is read.
Just before we turned into Gergarish Street, the street that follows the sea, Bahloul the beggar appeared out of nowhere. Mama hit the brakes and said ya satir. He wandered over to her side, walking slowly, clasping his dirty hands tightly to his stomach, his lips quivering. "Hello, Bahloul," Mama said, rummaging in her purse. "I see you, I see you," he said, and although these were the words Bahloul most often uttered, this time I thought what an idiot Bahloul is and wished he would just vanish. I watched him in the side mirror standing in the middle of the street, clutching the money Mama had given him to his chest like a man who has just caught a butterfly.