In Other Words
Muse of the Revolution
A Syrian-American writer finds her voice, with help from Libya's most famous novelist.
I had two New Year’s resolutions in 2011: to read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Anna was completed by Jan. 25 — just when our lives turned into a 24-hour TV marathon tuned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square as the world watched a dictator fall in 18 short days. We Syrians knew our country was not Egypt or Tunisia, but when even Libya ignited on Feb. 15, we collectively held our breath with hope. The weeks passed, the uprisings around the Arab world grew larger and more determined, and the seven volumes of Proust slowly collected dust on my nightstand.
Another writer entered my life instead.
I had never heard of Hisham Matar before February 2011. But after reading one of his early op-eds about the Libyan revolution, I immediately downloaded In the Country of Men, his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel about a 9-year-old boy in Tripoli whose father is abducted by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s secret police. I finished it in two days. Matar portrayed a Libya that at once cradles the novel’s young protagonist, Suleiman, and disillusions him. It was an intimate introduction to a country I knew virtually nothing about, except that its eccentric dictator with his crazy outfits was definitely worse than our own strongman, Bashar al-Assad. I was taken by the fact that such a courageous book, originally published in Britain and now widely translated, had been released back in 2006, when Qaddafi’s oppressive regime and police network were still strong.
Matar’s personal essays often revolve around an all-too-similar subject: the real-life abduction of his father, Jaballa, a high-ranking Libyan opposition figure who was seized from their family’s home in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Qaddafi’s notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. “My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete,” Matar wrote in one essay, published just after In the Country of Men. “What I want is to know what happened to my father.” But Matar’s demands remained unanswered: He lost contact with his father in 1996 and never found out what happened to him, even after returning to Libya 16 years later in the months following the revolution that toppled Qaddafi.
In that revolution, Matar found new cause for speaking out. On Feb. 15, 2011, during the very first protest in Libya, citizens demonstrating in Benghazi’s streets held up posters of Jaballa Matar and other political prisoners, demanding their release, Matar was told. Over the next few days, demonstrators were shot and killed as they chanted for their rights. “I appeal to Colonel Gaddafi and his security forces,” Matar wrote in the Guardian three days later, “for the sake of the mothers, for the sake of those who died, for the sake of Libya, please don’t shoot and torture your people.” As the revolution progressed, Matar set up a makeshift media office in his London apartment and worked around the clock connecting activists to journalists. When his sources confirmed that regime troops were massing outside Benghazi, preparing to raid the city and potentially kill thousands of Libyans, Matar was one of the voices that called for the international community to help prevent a massacre — “to assist the uprising and limit the soaring loss of innocent life,” as he wrote in the New York Times.
It was a bold appeal and one that most Syrians — scarred by the U.S. occupation of neighboring Iraq and afraid of inviting imperialism into our country — still struggle with after two years of regime brutality. Instead, we merely watch as the Syrian army and air force, assisted by Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, continue to bomb our country daily and the bodies continue to pile up — 100,000 and counting. Today, Matar’s pleas for intervention no longer inspire the uncertainty I felt when I originally read his words. He was right to stand up for Libya, and the Syrians who have held back from such blunt demands, whether out of pride or fear or both, have been proved devastatingly wrong.
FOR ME, HISHAM MATAR’S writing became the emblem of the Arab Spring. I read everything he wrote, religiously — his articles, his second novel, even his Facebook page. His words were powerful and brave. He was my guide to Libya, and then, after March 15, 2011 — the first day of the Syrian uprisings that would morph into nationwide devastation — he was one of the reasons I began to write about Syria.
I still remember the exact day when I made my decision: March 20, 2011, as we watched Syrian police attack the city of Daraa. A native of Aleppo, I had left Syria for the United States more than a decade earlier, but my memories of my home country were a heavy burden. I drew a straight line between the massacre in Hama that President Hafez al-Assad had carried out in 1982 and the bloodshed carried out in Daraa by his son Bashar. My parents’ generation had been silent under Hafez. Now my generation faced the same choice: speak the truth or turn away. I did not come from a political family and had not been trained as a writer, but in the end, I made a selfish choice: to write, so I could keep a record of my own voice for later, as proof that I was not silent. I did not know then that I would go on to narrate the stories of other Syrians whose voices might be unheard otherwise.
Matar’s work was my compass — a shield of literary courage. In the Country of Men and his other novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, are both political treatises on tyranny and oppression narrated from within the most intimate of settings: a family’s home. His storytelling dissects the moments when innocence is lost and family relationships are destroyed because of the brutal, everyday intrusions of a police state — when a schoolboy lies still in the dark of his dorm room, for instance, wondering about his missing father: “kidnap, abduction, theft?”
The world Matar describes is one we know well as Syrians: what it is like to fear surveillance constantly, never to trust, to be silent when an injustice happens right in front of you. He examines those moments that break you, even as a child: when you first learn that people disappear, are tortured for dissent, are killed for voicing their beliefs. His stories help readers understand why silence becomes the only option for survival and how the absence of the disappeared consumes those left behind: “[T]here is this void,” the young Suleiman muses, “this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike.”
Over time, Hisham and I became friends — first virtually, then in person. I took every similarity between us as a sign: the city where we were both born but did not live in long enough to ever be from, the profession we had studied but did not practice, our homelands with similar madmen filling the role of leader while slaughtering thousands. Our countries were parallel lines on the same path. The only difference was that Libya was just a bit closer to the finish line. But this was not a race, we told ourselves; we would all get there eventually. Or so we believed.
At the end of the summer of 2011, Tripoli fell to the rebels. Two months after that, Qaddafi was killed. Libya flipped the page to its post-revolution chapter, while my country transitioned to an even steadier flow of bloodletting. Syrians began to place bets on Assad’s fall, always choosing randomly symbolic dates. It would definitely be by the Eid al-Adha holiday in the fall — or maybe on the national holiday that marks the anniversary of Hafez al-Assad’s Nov. 16 military coup. By New Year’s 2012 for sure, because it can’t go on much longer than that. Right?
Every few weeks, these forecasts shifted another few months into the future. Then the siege of the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs in February 2012 changed everything. The warplanes, urban destruction, escalation of violence, mass exodus of residents, and brutal civilian massacres that followed revealed an evil we could not have imagined. For the first time, I longed for a disheveled dictator with crazy outfits. At least he was dead.
I stayed in touch with Hisham, though less frequently. The revolutions that had bonded us turned out to be asymptotes — curves that approached each other but would never meet. Instead, we discussed other things: music, architecture, books, and, of course, writing. His spoken and written sentences were often peppered with endearing exclamations of “fantastic!” Hisham loves Proust more than anyone else I know. He insisted to me that there is only one way to read the great French novelist: the way he had, “in one go.” Suffering from revolution fatigue, I took his challenge and renewed my resolution at the beginning of this year. Months later and only 185 pages in, the goal seems, once again, impossible.
Hisham never failed to remind me that I was more than just a reflection of the revolution. I knew at some level that he did not completely approve of the way I was going about things — becoming consumed by the events happening across the world and forgetting the other parts of my life, like the novel I had stopped writing when the revolution began or the hours I had once spent reading purely for pleasure. “I often feel you are trapped,” he once told me, “and I want to pluck you out of this entrapment but fail in knowing how.” I didn’t know either.
I COULDN’T REMEMBER the last time I had bought a magazine, but I couldn’t wait to pick up the New Yorker this past April to read Matar’s essay on his return trip to Libya in 2012. “The Return” is the unfinished chapter in a personal saga, when Matar finally moves beyond his father’s disappearance, from its anatomy to its aftermath. The text is classic Matar, filled with beautiful, short, quiet sentences. Scenes are described by changes in the color of light: shadows like “black claws on the cars,” a Libyan landscape the “color of healed skin.” There are no surprising or dramatic plot twists. Instead there are portraits of pain and loss: an ill-fitting suit, an elderly prisoner who lost his memory and was found in his Abu Salim cell with a photograph of Jaballa Matar, a heart-wrenching phone call between Hisham in London and a man in Tripoli breaking open rusted cell doors one after the other in search of Jaballa — a conversation ending with the words, “I am sorry.”
As I read the essay, my mind zigzagged back and forth between Libya and Syria. “What do you do,” Matar writes of his country, “when you cannot leave and cannot return?” I thought about what it would be like if I could travel back in time to before the Syrian revolution. Back before I had become immune to feeling repulsed at the image of a corpse in any form — tortured, scorched, decapitated, blown to pieces. Back before knowing what it is like to hear from my brother, then still in the Aleppo countryside, “Today I had a close encounter with a MiG.” Back before I had to wonder whether a drafting table I had once slid my T-square against might now carry the body parts of students from my university. Back when my country was still whole.
I had a clear but utterly irrational thought: What if I had never known of Hisham Matar or his father, Jaballa, or his resistance and courage? What if I could be like so many people around me who say, “Syria, it’s so sad” — and then go about their days? I might have sat out the Syrian revolution like my lifelong friends, who look at me now with their pity and “I told you so” smirks. I might also have been spared the firsthand knowledge that having a voice had turned out to be as devastating as being silent.
“Living in hope is a really terrible thing,” Hisham said in a 2011 interview. “Certainty is far more desirable than hope.” I used to disagree. Now I’m not so sure.
In the most powerful scene in “The Return,” Matar recalls kneeling over a metal grille on a New York City sidewalk and weeping for his father, whose all but certain death he had finally accepted. There was no escape from the gray, underground concrete space beneath the grille, “a room, barely high enough for a man to stand and certainly not wide enough for him to lie down.” He peered into that dark space so many of us know, where we face our fears, our sorrow, our destiny. The place where hope dies.
“I was done with resistance,” he announces in the essay. I did not know how envious I was of those words until I read them. How I longed to be done with the battles, the bloodshed, and everything that we could not stop. I longed to be done with resistance too.
I composed a message to Hisham but erased it three times before sending it. I settled with “When can we talk?” When he called, I began to cry as he said in his gentle voice, “I’m sorry; I’m so terribly sorry.” He listened to my incoherent ramblings and did not say “fantastic” once. He seemed happy about my renewed attempt to read In Search of Lost Time, though he abandoned his “only way to read Proust” rule and instead kindly told me, “People approach Proust in different ways.” He gave me permission to read again for pleasure, merely to seek beauty in the sentences. In doing so, he unknowingly gave me permission to not be just like him.
HOW DO YOU measure time during a revolution, during a war? The seasons pass, and no one places bets on a date for Assad’s fall anymore. Syrian time is measured by massacres and tragedies and the growing number of dead. Remember when it was 2,000? 10,000? 40,000? 70,000? 100,000? Remember?
Jaballa Matar once told his son, “Knowing a book by heart is like carrying a house inside your chest.” If he only knew how I — how Libyans and Syrians and others like me — carry his son’s heavy words in our chests and how they are more than a house. They are entire geographies of belonging and loss. Two long years ago, I used to ask Syrians: Have you read Hisham Matar? I used to press paperback copies of In the Country of Men into people’s hands and promise, “It will change your life.”
Books may change you, but beware in believing that you can change anything just because of something you read or something you write. Most times, words can’t change anything at all. All the truth and the stories and the dead and the time lost can’t save Syria. What remains is only the question of whether we can pull ourselves out of those spaces of despair that we constructed out of hope.
Some months ago, my friend Hisham, who has the rare gift of saying much in so few words, messaged me: “Remember my dear that revolutions exist both to save and destroy us.” In the name of perpetually living in hope, I had forgotten what he had said until it was too late.