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All the books on Libya’s modern history “could fit neatly on a couple of shelves,” Hisham Matar writes in his new memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between.
Whether or not that’s strictly true, there are reasons why historians have been relatively silent on the country: Libya’s recent rulers have not been kind to investigative writers. After Danish journalist Knud Holmboe published his 1931 indictment of Italian colonial rule, Desert Encounter, his book was banned and he was killed, allegedly at the order of the Italians. Matar’s grandfather Hamed was apparently arrested by the Italians and escaped, but no record of these arrests was kept. During the forty-two-year reign of Muammar Ghaddafi, dozens of writers were censored, imprisoned, or killed. Documents were falsified, hidden, and destroyed.
The Return doesn’t present as history, but as a son’s search for his lost father. Yet Jaballa Matar’s story can’t be knit together without the whispers, rumors, and contested fragments of Libyan history. The same is true of the story of Matar’s paternal grandfather, who fought against Italian colonial rule. The task spurs Matar to stretch far beyond his two earlier, acclaimed novels. This third book—part-history, part-memoir, part-journalism—is by far his most powerful work.
Yet despite his efforts, Matar’s reconstruction of Libyan history remains painfully lacking. Details of what happened in Abu Salim Prison, where his father was being held, are still incomplete and in dispute.
Jaballa Matar, a one-time ambassador, industrialist, and leading Libyan dissident, may have died at the age of 57, during a June 26, 1996 prison massacre. But even now, at the end of his son’s exhaustive and exhausting investigations, with the weight of powerful political figures behind him—even after the collapse of Ghaddafi’s regime, we don’t really know.
It was years before anyone heard of a massacre at all, which killed an estimated 1,270. In 2001, Matar writes, plain-clothed officials appeared in the family homes of prisoners who’d been in Abu Salim. Those officials took away people’s family registries, inserted a note that an imprisoned son or husband had died of natural causes in 1996, and returned the registries to the families.
One woman, Matar writes, had cooked meals for her son for five years after he was killed. The author imagines: “The guards took it all for themselves, throwing away the letters and eating the food, and sold the other items to the inmates, or took them for themselves, or gifted them to friends or to their own children.”
Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. But it is this cruelty of these unknowns that marks The Return. Even as Hisham Matar writes his history, after 2012, there is only a partial list of names of those who died in Abu Salim. His father might have died there, or later, and somewhere else. He might still be alive, wandering Libya, his memory lost. Those who know won’t say.
The thread that pulls us through the book is not the story itself, but the search for it. The narrative moves slowly at first, as we squint into the absence where Jaballa Matar and the history of modern Libya should be. It takes off, unexpectedly, turning into a cat-and-mouse thriller, when the preening Seif al-Islam Ghaddafi appears. Seif al-Islam was the most prominent of Ghaddafi’s children, the one who was welcomed into British circles of power, who styled himself as a reformer.
At this point, the book develops a painful sense of humor about the hangers-on who surround Seif al-Islam, like Mohammad al-Hawni, who Hisham Matar dubs “the Intellectual.” British power politics also are opened to a bracing laugh, as when the author is urged to think of something nice to say about the Labour Party’s human-rights record.
If there is a villain in this book, it is not Muammar Ghaddafi, who we never see. It is his bald son Seif, who, Matar tells us, uses Libya’s money in an elaborate whitewash. After Matar begins a noisy campaign demanding news of his father, the son of the dissident and the son of the dictator meet.
From the time of the first meeting, Seif and his supporters drop hints about Jaballa’s fate, such as: “What do you want if he is dead?” Mohammad al-Hawni tells Matar and his brother: “I want you to have faith in God. You are grown men now and must prepare yourselves for the worst.”
But when Matar asks, “When did it happen?” Mohammad al-Hawni raises his hands, saying, “I don’t know anything for certain.”
The narrative is rarely personal, even where it shows Matar as angry or overtired, as when he snaps at a Libyan embassy official, “Anything I need? Well, let’s see, what might I need from you people? Oh yes, I remember now. The same thing I have been asking for since 1990. What did you do with my father?” We get a rare glimpse of Matar’s private life when he shows us his diary entry from June 26, 1996. On the day his father might’ve been killed, Matar had trouble getting out of bed and was ashamed of himself for having spoken about money troubles the night before.
As historical journalism, it’s passionately researched and utterly partial. Hisham Matar’s considerable skill paints Jaballa as an almost unfalteringly great man. Seif al-Islam Ghaddafi, meanwhile, could not be a clearer face of cheerful, privileged evil.
The book shifts styles a number of times. In this, there is something of Grandfather Hamed in the text. Hamed designed his own village home, a cobbled-together place where, “Some windows looked out onto the street, some onto one of the courtyards, yet others, strangely, looked into other rooms.” The house, Matar writes, “was like one of my grandfather’s long poems: austere, unpredictable, plain, unfinished, yet inhabited.”
Matar’s greatest book thus far has the polish and aesthetic grace of his diplomat-father, Jaballa. But it also has Grandfather Hamed’s austerity and surprises. The places where we suddenly, strangely, look into another room.
The book ends not with Jaballa or Hamed, but with a slender hope for Libya’s future. First, there’s a nightmare: In it, a man who Matar had seen on television appears. In the TV interview, the man had apologized that young men had to fight and die for Libya because, “We should have done it for you earlier[.]” But although this nightmare reverberates strongly, Matar also serves life. As a final act, he fills glasses with yogurt milk and takes them out to his uncle’s children.