In the year 2006 Hisham Matar published his debut novel In the country of men. This writer was born in New York (United States of America) when his father was a diplomat for the Libyan government. In later years he grew up in Tripoli and in Cairo.
These last two cities feature in this novel. It is the world, at times a small world, seen through the eyes of Suleiman, a small boy who lives with his parents in Tripoli. Suleiman has a close relationship with his mother even though at times she is a distant mother due to her longing for a bottle of drink. His father is a travelling salesman, who often is away for long periods. One day Sulaiman and his mother pass a square in their home town and suddenly Sulaiman sees his father (and his assistent) who should have been on a far away journey and now he is so close and still he is so far away.
Close and distant. He is close to his mother but she is a distant mother when his father is away. He is close to his father who often is away for weeks at a time. The boy and his parents live in the days of Colonel. This ruler with his harsh rule is a distant man, but still so close. One of the people of his Secret Service lives across the street.
One day their neighbour is taken away by silent men in a car. He is a university lecturer and a good freind to Sulaiman’s father. There was a close relationship between both families and now suddenly a chasm has erupted. A great divide takes place in a single moment. Sulaiman no longer plays with Karim. Mother no longer visits Karims mother. As if this family has suddenly been caught by a dangerous disease.
Some time later Sulaiman watches a television program. His sees a local stadium, chairs in the center, a jury, the man to be judged is his neighbour, a rope hangs in the distance. The court has decided before the court has opened its session. The next day the neighbours leave for Benghazi, far away. No farewells.
The next one to be collected by silent men in a car is Sulaimans father. These are the men to be feared in this country ruled with a iron fist. Good respected Egyptian friends are forced to leave the country and return to Cairo.
Sulaiman tries to unravel his life, his mother his father. What mysteries are contained in his house? Is his father a travelling salesman? What fear does his mother drink away? What will be his future? How does he relate to his parents?
Hisham Matar has written a beautiful debut novel. A book filled with layers of closeness and distance, of comfort and fear, of leaving and longing, of hope and chaos.
Hisham Matar – In the country of men – 2006