Hisham Matar, an American born British-Libyan author, is an acclaimed novelist and essayist. The Return—Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, is a memoir about his 2012 return to Libya and attempt to come to terms with the unfathomable loss of his father, Jaballa Matar.
Jaballa Matar was a wealthy Libyan, having made a small fortune importing Japanese and Western goods to the Middle East. He had been a Libyan army officer when Myanmar Qaddafi overthrew King Idris. Jaballa had been on business in London at the time and rushed back to Libya where he was immediately arrested. He was released five months later, stripped of his rank and given an administrative role in Libya’s Mission to the United Nations in New York. He had high hopes for the Qaddafi regime but after a couple of years he resigned and returned to Libya to work with the opposition. In the 1970s the family lived in Tripoli but in 1980 the family moved to Cairo.
In March of 1990, Jaballa was kidnapped from his Cairo apartment and at roughly the same time, Jaballa’s brother and other relatives were arrested and imprisoned at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. They were initially unaware of each other’s presence there but over time became able to communicate through a complex system. Jaballa was frequently heard reciting poetry. Hisham puzzles over his uncle and cousin’s initial inability to recognize his father’s voice. After a prison uprising in June of 1996, prison officials executed 1270 prisoners.
Hisham searches for his father and begins direct communication with Qaddafi’s son, Seif. Seif tries to befriend Hisham and arranges for the release of some of his relatives in 2011. However, Seif forces them to sign an apology “for having opposed the Great Leader.” Shortly thereafter, all of the prisoners were liberated. Men had spent 21 years in prison simply for opposing the regime. Hisham observes that “You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination.”
Throughout the memoir we learn a little of the history of Libya, including the Italian influence, Egyptian collusion and British opportunism. We learn of the importance of art, literature and poetry and of course the amazing story of human cruelty and survival. Although disjointed at times, the memoir is beautifully written and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.