Review

In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar



Although Hisham Matar's debut novel may seem autobiographical ---
the 30-something-year-old author shares many similarities with its
narrator, Suleiman --- it is purely a work of fiction.

Nevertheless, it was inspired by actual events and presents readers
with a searing portrait of Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, viewed through
the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. A complicated story of deception,
pride, nationalism and sacrifice, IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN is both
timely and poignant, and delivers an important message that is
likely to resonate deeply with audiences the world over.

The novel opens as the 24-year-old Suleiman recalls the summer in
Tripoli before he was sent away to live with friends of the family
in Cairo --- the summer before everything changed. It is 1979 and
he is nine years old. Much of his days are spent playing "My Land,
Your Land" in the dirt with the boys down the street, helping his
mother (Mama) around the house while his father (Baba) is at work
and listening to her tell stories of her past or of Scheherazade
from A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. It is dusty and scorching hot. He
is carefree --- but not as lighthearted and unburdened as he would
like.

In fact, his parents' behavior has been bothering him ---
specifically, the secrets they try desperately (but fail) to keep
from him. Mama gets "ill" from drinking from the dark bottle by her
bedside more frequently than usual, and Baba appears jittery and
distracted each night after returning from a long day's work. When
he spots Baba walking into a strange building with green shutters
and a red towel hung out front during the time he was supposed to
have been on a business trip abroad, Suleiman becomes more confused
and frustrated by his parents' increasingly apparent
deceptions.

Then, when the father of his best friend and next-door neighbor
Kareem, a confidant to Baba, is taken into custody by men in a
white town car and later interrogated on public television by the
Libyan Secret Police, Suleiman begins to feel like he and his
family are in grave danger as well. But when he confronts his
mother and their family friend, Moosa, about it after more men in a
white town car stop by looking for Baba, and Mama responds by
burning all the books in the house (including Baba's papers) and
hanging a massive portrait of Qaddafi in the living room, Suleiman
feels even more bewildered --- and scared. Especially the day that
Baba doesn't come home.

With the phone ringing off the hook, and Mama and Moosa whispering
to each other in the kitchen without giving him any comprehensible
explanation, Suleiman soon takes matters into his own hands and
does the only thing he thinks might help Baba and save his family:
he befriends the man in the white town car who asks Suleiman for "a
list of Baba's friends, as many names as possible, to vouch for
him."

Meanwhile, Mama is behaving stranger by the minute. She bakes a
cake for Ustath Jafer and Um Masoud, the government official and
his wife across the street. Not soon after, a beat-up and
bludgeoned Baba is allowed to return home and a somewhat stifled
order is restored before the still-befuddled Suleiman is shipped
off to Cairo to live under the care of Moosa's father, Judge
Yaseen.

What makes IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN so haunting is that it is seen
through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Because he is so young,
Suleiman can only begin to grasp the kind of monstrosities that
could await him and his family --- and anyone else who speaks out
in opposition against Qaddafi's brutal rule. As he fumbles through
childhood on the way to puberty, he also must come to terms with
what it means to live --- and die --- for what you believe is
right, no matter what the cost.

Although fictional, the story of the young and naïve Suleiman
and his family is not so far-fetched. Countless families are torn
apart by politics, warring faiths and underhanded betrayals, and
millions of citizens and dissidents are persecuted daily for
supposed crimes against their countries. IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN
touches upon just one of these life-changing stories that pulls
just as much weight as if it were heard on the evening news. A
noteworthy debut from a promising young author.

 

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 22, 2011

In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar

  • Publication Date: January 30, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Hardcover: 246 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • ISBN-10: 0385340427
  • ISBN-13: 9780385340427