My father had a strange habit of turning the car radio down anytime a police car drove past. Throughout my childhood in London, I noticed other idiosyncrasies — never mention our surname in public, always whisper when standing in a queue. He never claimed any state benefits and wouldn’t get us treated on the National Health Service. We were political exiles who had fled Libya in 1978 and eventually settled in England. No matter how many decades we spent there, we were guests. We were to keep our heads down and remain as invisible as possible until we went back home.
My family’s sudden departure from Libya led us first to Rome, where we settled in an apartment close to the Vatican. I was six when one autumn morning in 1980 my father received a call from a relative who worked for the Libyan government, telling him that his name had appeared on the “liquidation” list. My father took the first plane out of the country, to Amsterdam. The urgency of the situation hit me when my mother handed my siblings and I over to the care of our nanny, explaining that she also had to travel immediately. She spent two weeks, we later learnt, coming up with the cash and travel documents for a new life elsewhere. During that time we stayed with Bice, an energetic woman whose husband worked as a prison guard. The staff housing complex of Italy’s penitentiary system was my parents’ best bet to keep us safe, but it left my sister and I wondering why we were being looked after by men in green uniforms.
When we eventually settled in London, ours was a normal English suburban house, except that it was fitted with multiple alarm systems and security grills. Every evening, my siblings and I would argue over whose turn it was to handle the tedious routine of locking the doors and windows. The security system had been put in place because one day we had come home to find the place ransacked, but nothing missing. British authorities suspected Qadhafi agents and advised us to move temporarily while we secured the house. My mother moved our belongings in plastic bags over several weeks and took a different route to the new house every time, in case we were being followed.
My parents warned us repeatedly never to mention we were Libyan. This wasn’t too much of a challenge as we had acquired my Egyptian mother’s accent. Still, the benign question of “where are you from?” always wrapped itself round the pit of my stomach. Little was explained to children in those days. In my imagination, the danger took on a comic-book dimension with heroes and villains in costumes.
The unthinkable didn’t happen to our family, but it did to many others. In 1990, when Hisham Matar was 19, his father Jaballa Matar, a key figure of the Libyan opposition abroad, was kidnapped from their home in Cairo and sent to prison in Libya. I found his book The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography last month, a heart-rending account of just how personal politics can be.
Before I had heard of Hisham Matar, I knew who his father was. When I was 15 I’d watched my father and his friends huddle together in a corner of our house to discuss this latest kidnapping. With the news of each disappearance, our house stirred with activity. There were meetings and international phone calls to try and work out what had happened to people like Matar and Izzat al-Megaryef, who vanished in Cairo on the same day. Three years later came the disappearance of Mansour El-Kikhia — a former foreign minister and close family friend who was kidnapped in Cairo and later executed in Libya. Over the years, I heard many more names and stories of opponents arrested, killed or disappeared in Tripoli, Rome, London or Bonn.
Jaballa Matar was a Libyan army officer when a young Muammar Qadhafi seized power on September 1, 1969. Despite a brief imprisonment along with other senior military officers, he was buoyed by the promise of a new modern, republican era. “It took a couple of years — after Qaddafi abrogated all existing laws and declared himself de facto leader forever — for father to discover the true nature of the new regime,” Matar recounts. The family left Libya for Egypt in 1979.
The 1980s were a particularly dark period of Qadhafi’s rule. Opponents were rounded up, tortured or killed, sometimes hanged in public squares. Qadhafi’s death squads were sent out to eliminate the “stray dogs” in neighboring countries and European cities. Libyans lived in fear of other Libyans. “Encountering our dialect during those years was always disconcerting, provoking in me, with equal force, both fear and longing,” Matar writes.
When he was 12, his mother put him on a plane to Geneva. His father would pick him up at the airport. If Matar didn’t see his father on arrival, he had to call for him using a fake name. Under no circumstances should he use his father’s real name. When the two eventually found each other, Matar asked, “Why couldn’t I simply say your name? What are you afraid of, anyway?” As they walked through the crowd, they passed two men speaking in Libyan Arabic looking for Jaballa Matar.
It was in March 1990 when Egyptian authorities seized Jaballa Matar from his home in Cairo. Several years later, the family received a letter from Jaballa in which he said that he had been transferred to Libya by plane and taken to Tripoli’s infamous Abou Salim prison. He was never heard from again.
Over the next two decades, Matar struggled to get answers about his father’s disappearance, following every scrap of information that came his way. His quest would lead to encounters with Libyan ex-prisoners, diplomats, activists, politicians and businessmen. A meeting with then UK Foreign Minister David Miliband, who was irritated by the “noise” generated by Matar’s campaign, yielded no results. Neither did a series of surreal exchanges with Qadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam. Following a rapprochement between the UK and Libya in 2004, Islam was seeking to position himself as the face of reform and was welcomed by a British establishment seeking to rebrand Qadhafi and pave the way for lucrative oil deals.
Matar’s search brought only the painful realization that no amount of digging would ever uncover conclusive answers. “When Qaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in.” Matar now believes the most likely scenario was that his father was one of 1,270 inmates executed in the Abu Salim prison massacre of 1996.
As in his two previous books, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, Matar shows how politics translates inside people’s homes, how it “places a nation against the intimate realities of a family.” In a particularly poignant passage in The Return, Matar describes how his mother, not knowing whether her husband was alive or dead, would videotape his favorite team’s football matches for him. “When Father was away on work, my mother videotaped every one of their matches. She continued doing so after he was kidnapped, recording not only those of the German team but every football match broadcast, no matter how inconsequential.” She did this for three years.
The book moves back and forth between different stages of Matar’s life and his visit to Libya in 2012 after three decades in exile. As he waits to board his flight to Benghazi, he worries that his return would “rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love.” Throughout history, he says, writers and thinkers banished from their homes had each “tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country.”
But the homeland is the exile’s phantom limb, its persistent pain a reminder of its absence. The constant threat of danger, the nervousness and angst under which Libyans lived, taught us to tiptoe through life. It would be years before the 2011 revolution would allow us to firmly — though only briefly — place our heels on the ground.
Matar arrives in Libya during a brief window of euphoria, when everything seemed to be heading in the right direction. Politics was no longer the enemy; in fact, it invigorated those who had long ago given up. Matar’s cousin “went from being a prosecutor infamous for not being able to get out of bed before noon to one of the most energetic and articulate campaigners for human rights and the importance and inviolability of legal institutions” and “Libyan journalism, that frail and battered institution, was experiencing a resurgence.”
I was in Libya at the same time. It was my father’s first trip back in three decades. Returnees were welcomed at the airport by dozens of family members and taken home in a convoy of cars, horns blaring, like a wedding. Tour guides at the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna — long abandoned for the lack of tourism — recounted the place’s history with infectious enthusiasm. Qadhafi’s unimaginative plain green flag had been replaced by the colorful new flag of the revolution with its crescent moon and star. Everyone was overwhelmed by the endless possibilities — tourism, jobs, prosperity, openness, democracy, rights, freedom. There was a moment, as he sat by the sea, that Matar felt “a precise and uncomplicated conviction that the world was available to me.”
However, no sooner had the country taken its first deep breaths in 42 years, did everything start to unravel. Weak institutions crumbled, leaving the space wide open for armed militias, often with foreign backers. Like all dictators, Qadhafi had destroyed the bonds that hold society together. The country became engaged in a bloody civil war where groups vied for power, territory and oil. “The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: people would come to long for the days of Qadhafi,” Matar says.
The Return is a requiem to a lost father and a lost country that treats grief with gentle lyricism and unsettling calm. Matar evokes the anxiety of a life in exile, the fear of a regime that could strike at any time, the apprehension and exhilaration of going back home and the ugly legacy left by dictatorship. Through his own story, Matar manages to tell the story of the hundreds of Libyans and their families who fled their country. For me, he portrays with painful accuracy the personal cost of defying Qadhafi’s dictatorship, for which some paid a much heavier price than others. In big ways and small, it has shaped all of our lives and our characters.