Hisham Matar: Libyan Novelist
Cressida Leyshon for New Yorker
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The Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, whose story “Naima” recently appeared in the magazine, exchanged e-mails with me from London last week.
The last time we exchanged e-mails, Hosni Mubarak had just resigned and the mood in Cairo was jubilant. Libya, at the time, appeared to be relatively quiet. Now Muammar Qaddafi is facing similar opposition and refusing to leave office, and the situation in Libya is violent and chaotic. It appeared as though most of the world’s press was in Egypt covering the demonstrations. It’s been much harder to get news out of Libya. How are you managing to follow what’s going on?
So much has happened since we last corresponded. The events in Libya have entirely taken me over. Anticipating the revolution, the Qaddafi dictatorship constructed a wall of silence around the country: no news could get out and no journalists were allowed in. Like many Libyans living abroad, I, along with my wife and several friends, set up an ad-hoc “news room” in our London apartment. We had many contacts inside the country. We began gathering eyewitness accounts, checking them, and then passing them on to the international media. Today, several foreign journalists are in Libya and our work is no longer needed in the same way.
Hearing firsthand accounts of the scale and nature of the violence has disturbed and upset me. Qaddafi is like that savage husband who likes to beat his wife behind curtained windows then tell the world she slipped on the stairs.
Were you taken by surprise by the wave of revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East? Once you saw the first protests in Tunisia, did you imagine that similar demonstrations might eventually break out in Libya?
The speed and determination of the uprising took everyone by surprise. Even those so-called Libya specialists are playing catch up. Yet the most surprising thing about it is how foreseeable or familiar it all seems, like a dream. In the sense that: of course the people were going to rise, and of course Qaddafi’s forty-two-year project to remake the country in his image was going to fail, and of course it was the young who were going to do it. I sometimes feared, perhaps because an overwhelming majority of the Libyan population was born after Qaddafi assumed power, that most Libyans, particularly the young, would feel it to be inevitable that dictators will forever rule Libya. I was wrong. It is exactly because the lives of most Libyans have been affected so comprehensively by the dictatorship that they are more eager and able to revolt. They are snatching their freedom from the grip of a beast, a man who in his last speech vowed to turn “Libya into cinders.” Hearing that reminded me of Queen Margaret’s words in “Richard III”: “That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes, / To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood…” But he won’t succeed. He will cause more suffering, but he won’t succeed.
You haven’t been back to Libya since you moved to Egypt when you were nine years old. Do you still have relatives and friends there? Are you able to reach them?
Apart from my immediate family, all of my relatives are in Libya. I have been able to reach most of them. Some, however, I remain unable to contact. I have not spoken to those in Ajdabiya, the town where my paternal family is from and continues to live. It was the first town to be taken from Qaddafi. It has become the front line in the latest battle. Qaddafi wants to retake the nearby oil fields. Ajdabiya won’t let him. I keep thinking about my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Although they all have their own houses, for some reason I continue seeing them in my grandfather’s old house, which, the last time I saw it, in the late nineteen-seventies, was the largest in the town and occupied its center. To my child’s mind, it was the point from which not only Ajdabiya developed, but every town and city in the country, indeed the whole world. And now, in my imagination, that house occupies the focal point of the uprising against Qaddafi. Appropriate, because my grandfather, Jaddi Hamed, was a poet who had fought in the resistance against Mussolini’s army. I remember him once unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it over his shoulder to show me the small rosette where a bullet had entered.
‘Where did it come out?’ I asked, expecting him to point to another, identical rosette on his back.
‘It’s still inside,’ he said.
I remember how terribly upset I became, not at that moment, but a little while later, when I returned to ask again if there was no way of removing it.
Ajdabiya has always put up a strong fight. From my family alone Qaddafi had imprisoned five men. This is why, I think, it was amongst the first towns to rise. The extraordinary thing is that, like the rest of the country, this small town is suddenly making sense of its history, that apart from a short interlude under king Idris, Libya has spent most of the past hundred years fighting fascism: first Mussolini, then Qaddafi.
Twenty years ago, your father, Jaballa Matar, was abducted in Cairo and forcibly returned to Libya. Your family received a couple of letters that had been smuggled out of Libya and, once, a tape recording that your father once managed to make in prison, but you don’t know whether he’s alive or dead. Have you learned anything new in recent days? Do you hold out any hope that he may still be alive?
As soon as the revolution is complete, I will return to search for my father. For years after I lost him I wondered if all of his activism and sacrifice was for nothing. It was a terrible thing to carry around, this resentment. These days I can see that he and people like him were carving with their bare hands the first steps to this revolution. The protesters in the streets have not forgotten them. They carry their pictures above their heads.
Qaddafi has called on his supporters to “get out of your homes and fill the streets,” and to attack his opponents “in their lairs,” and mercenaries have been arriving in Tripoli to fight on behalf of the regime. How vicious could Qaddafi be as he attempts to hold on to power?
The laws of the lowly gangster govern Qaddafi and his sons. They are prepared to torture, terrorize and kill the defenseless. In short, they are prepared to do anything to win. It seems they have never stopped to ask: When they win, what is it exactly they would have won?
I will never forget speaking to one of the protesters who was among those who went, on Friday, February 18th, after the funeral of the first demonstrators killed, to demonstrate in front of the Central Security headquarters in Benghazi. They kept repeating: “We and the security forces are brothers,” a moving sentiment in light of the fact that it was exactly those security forces who had shot at the protesters. Security officers came out and said, “Yes, we agree. We were wrong. We have decided to join the people.” Then they let in a group of demonstrators into the courtyard, “in order to discuss what we do next,” the officers told them. The gate was shut and the protesters sprayed. Twenty-three men were killed.
Protestors have taken over the city of Benghazi, in the east, and, possibly, Misurata, in the northwest. Does Qaddafi have a stronger base of support in Tripoli? He’s threatened civil war. Do you think there’s substance to those threats? Are you able to think about what might happen to the country in the long term?
It is evident that Qaddafi is mentally unwell. Like Richard III, he has barricaded himself within lies. I remember my father once remarking about the “shamelessness” of Qaddafi’s lies, that he has always been able to lie without blushing. One should always be wary of men who can lie repeatedly without their face ever changing color.
The Qaddafis, father and sons, speak the grammar of dictatorship: threats and bribery. Civil war is one of their threats. I have not heard one compelling argument to suggest that the country is likely to go that way. Libyan society is cohesive and generally moderate.
As for what the future holds, I think we have to refer to the nature of the movement. Its character has been so far exemplary, showing maturity and good sense as well as a commitment to the rule of law. A provisional government has been set up, calling itself the “National Transitional Temporary Council”. It is, according to a statement issued, committed to “the establishment of a civil, constitutional and democratic state.” Obviously, there are reasons to worry; it would be unnatural not to be concerned when such a radical change is taking place. But I celebrate this uncertainty. For nearly half a century, we, Libyans, knew everything: we knew what to think, what to say, what to read, and how to live; every detail in our life had been decided for us. Now we can decide what sort of society we want.
I appeal to the international community to follow France and recognize Libya’s transitional government. This would help isolate the dictatorship even more and, more importantly, provide a logistical framework for Libyans to manage the needs of their people. We also need, desperately, medical and food supplies. Qaddafi is trying to starve the rebel strongholds.
Have you been able to sleep in the last few weeks?
Very badly: an hour here, an hour there. For some reason I perk up at around midnight. I am neither in London nor in Libya. Purgatory. The only thing I can read is poetry. Not Dante, you will be glad to hear.