Hisham Matar: On the Novelist and Dictatorship

Hisham Matar signing books after his talk at the American University in Cairo.

By Mona Elnamoury

Libyan creative writer Hisham Matar writes as if he dreams; no detail is without a symbol or an emotional function. That was my first impression on “Naima,” a prose piece excerpted from his novel Anatomy of a Disappearance. The piece centered on a little Libyan boy living in Cairo whose politically active father is abducted by authorities.  Matar’s careful attention to details and consciously musical diction seem to conceal as much as reveal the pictured psychological horrors and blunt realities. On the night before his lecture in the AUC entitled “Men Who Tiptoe Their Marital Bedrooms: the Novelist and Dictatorship”, I could not stop searching for his writings. They seemed to attract me instantly, wrap me entirely into their luring world of childhood perspectives. It was too late to go and buy an entire book of Matar’s, so what was available on the Internet had to suffice. And it did.

As if leaving the kids, the dishes in the sink, and driving for about an hour and a half from my suburb to the AUC campus in Tahrir  were not enough for revolutionary acts, it turned out to be one of those very dusty cold days of early spring. I went to the lecture with a feeling that I knew Matar, who I’d never seen before, intimately. But don’t we actually know people more when we read for them? What was the saying? “Trust the tale not the teller”. Matar’s tale tells about a world of fear from ruthless pathological dictatorship, exile into another homeland that became itself another doubtful home after the father’s abduction,  and unredeemed unhopeful ends.

There I was in the congested Libnan Square pondering on what I had read the night before. Matar’s  creative dilemma was moving into two dictatorial worlds: Libya and Egypt, loving both and being emotionally crushed by both. The first exiled him, the latter conspired against him and abducted his father. The two revolutions took place almost at the same time and he saw them as inseparable in rebellious acts as much as they were inseparable in corruption.  Sophie McBain says of his first book In Country of Men in  “Spear’s” that it was smuggled into Tripoli  and” was passed from friend to friend, as they pored over pages describing a chapter in Libyan history of which their parents never dared speak.”  But Matar is always reluctant to admit a political motive. To him, the artist/ novelist/individual remains the important issue.

On the way, I tried to imagine how his voice would sound in AUC’s Oriental Hall. Would his spoken words be as sensitive as his written prose? Why did he write in English? Was he submitting wholeheartedly to the discourse of his exile?  Was he the literary ambassador between two worlds as the New York Times review says of his last novel?  Was he at odds with a language whose native homelands forced him into exile? This was an important question to me, an aspiring creative writer myself, and one who writes in both Arabic and English. Unable to decide why the ideas choose to come to me in either, I was trying to pose the question for others hoping to find an answer for myself. Was Matar’s English the language of the empire, spoken in the face of its allied dictatorship forcing it to seek translation and analysis or hiding from it behind the masks of foreignness and literary tricks?

A fine grown man, soft faced and deep-eyed greeting everyone with “ Masa’a Elfol”.  He sounded calm, shy, and real. He immediately declared that the alluring part of the lecture’s title — “Men who tiptoe into their martial bedrooms” — was a rather hasty title for the lecture and that he would rather discuss the novelist/artist and exile/dictatorship or the novelist as citizen and artist.  He mentioned many Western literary figures, starting from Ovid and going to Alburt Camus and Samuel Beckett, writers in exile who managed to delineate exiles and express their alienation.  He moved from one to the other, quoting parts of their literary works or sayings as if he was telling of the conversation of a company of friends who had lunch with him just before the lecture.

Matar at the lecture. Photo Mona Elnamoury.Audience questions were also revealing. Though Matar writes about exile, about children who are originally Libyan and fathers who disappear, his work is not autobiographical. Writing comes to him as a matter of falling in love. He has to be in love with whatever or whoever he writes about. For instance, the father and son in Anatomy of a Disappearance start as fictional characters while Matar was on a short vacation in an almost vacant Red Sea hotel. On the beach, Matar sees an old man strolling beside a young man.  Not even knowing what relates them to each other, they interest him in a strange way and linger on his mind for years. Later on, they reappear and occupy an emotional part of him till their story is written. Getting the first rhythmical sentence: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”, was ninety percent of the job. The remaining ten percent took him three years. Not one word on Libya is in the book, though.

English as Matar’s current creative language is not a choice. Though he admits he is more capable in English, this does not mean he cannot write in Arabic if he chooses to invest time and effort.  Interestingly, English is a language that creates a veil between the surroundings and Matar, giving him a necessary distance to see better. Conscious about his linguistic choices, he gets “cooled” and writes in the right rhythm in English.

Pushed several times to explain the men “tiptoeing” into their bedrooms, Matar elusively tells two anecdotes he had recently read about illuminating conversations in bedrooms. However, he finally gets to the point that in Libya men used to hush all the time about their views in fear of the secret police; even in their own bedrooms, lest their own children may naively betray them. During the Libyan  revolution, Matar mentioned, children were interrogated about their parents’ favorite channels at homes! Matar admits that  he acted as his own censor not to make his books a horror catalog of the Libyan  totalitarian regime which is happily past. This in spite of being exiled all his life because of the regime and in the bitter fact that his father is still missing.

Kaddafi killed whole generations of artists literally and morally. But art has to rise above the dictatorial project of fixation. (I call it falling in love with Big Brother in the way George Orwell shows in 1984.) But that extra-literary concern would have left his works a dead corpse.

“So, if seventeenth century was the century of mathematics, the eighteenth of physical sciences, the nineteenth of biology, the twentieth is definitely one of fear ( here alienation and exile echo). Still, the twenty-first century is in the making and we can still shape what it is like.” Those were the ideas on my head as I drove back home. I felt joyfully light, even swinging inside the car to the music. My happiness rose because finally to me Libya would be akin to some other face rather than Kaddafi’s, and a good one. Hisham Matar’s image is still hovering in front of me with his short laugh, half given and half withdrawn; a soft well-lighted face that you can never miss the veil of sadness on.

Note: Cairo readers still have a chance to see Matar. He’s scheduled to be at the Zamalek Diwan tonight at 7 p.m.

Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic. She also writes.