Understanding Libya

NOTE: BBC World Broadcast invited me to submit a question to Hisham Matar for their World Book Club interview. It broadcast on September 3, 2011. Mine is the VERY LAST QUESTION in this 53 minute interview. I would recommend the entire interview if you are interested in Libya, or in this outstanding writer—but at least, take a listen to the question from A Traveler’s Library. (You can download it as an mp3 file, or as a PodCast.)

A Book for the Middle East in Troubled Times

Bandera tricolor de Libia
Rebel flag, Libya

Destination: Libya

Book: In the Country of Men (2006) by Hisham Matar

It has been difficult for me to comprehend the arrogant statements of the dictator of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. When he asserts, “The people LOVE me!” in the face of thousands of ill-armed, desperate rebels trying to depose him, I think he must be out of touch with reality.

Then I read  In the Country of Men and I understood a little better. The novel, written by an ex-pat Libyan, Hisham Matar , tells the horrific story of people who live under conditions similar to Stalinist Russia. In public they loudly announce their loyalty to the revolution and The Guide (reference to Gaddafi). In private, the intellectuals read widely and share ideas about how to change their government.

They watch television to catch sight of friends who have been hauled off to revolutionary court, and see public beatings as “confessions” are extracted and public executions. The fact that the author chooses a nine-year-old boy as his narrator makes the story that much more horrifying.

In a child’s view of the world, anything could possibly be true. “Shlooma” is still learning what things mean and how the world works, so he describes terrifying events and evil people in an almost matter of fact tone. His main concern is his relationship with his parents.

Concern. I think that was what I craved.  A warm and steady and unchangeable concern.  In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child craving concern.

He mistakes an oily enforcer for a friend and nearly betrays his own beloved father. He discovers his own capacity for evil when he betrays his best friend. A friend whose father had taken him to see Leptis Magna, the great Roman city whose ruins lie in the desert 120 km outside Tripoli.

In the perfect society that Gaddafi imagines his country to be, we see people who do not practice religion at all, an alcoholic mother, families who live in terror because the father has been dragged away.  But because the story is the story of a young boy, we also see the very human results of that mother, the distracted father, the normal rivalries between neighborhood boys. We learn what his house looks like, what he eats, how he plays during one summer in his life. Here is a description of shops:

Black silk scarves billowed gently above one, columns of stacked red caps stood as tall as men outside another. The ceiling was made with dark strips of fabric. The white blades of light that pierced through the occasional gaps illuminated the swimming dust and shone still and beautiful on the arches and floor, but darted like sparkles on the heads and down the bodies of the passersby, making the shadows seem much darker than they were.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this magnificently poetic book, even though it’s message becomes painful at times.

As for learning about today’s Libya, I did not realize how many attempts at uprising their have been against Gaddafi in his forty years of rule. This book reflects an attempt in 1979.  A friend of the family says,

“There was so much hope, so much hope.  Three years ago eight thousand students in Benghazi and four in Tripoli. Twelve thousand students took a stand in an illiterate country of less than three million…It took three years for hope to be reborn only to see the few who dared sacrificed for the many.”

Time after time “The Guide” has flicked away the bothersome people. His network of enforcers keep people in line and he sees a calm and compliant people. The few troublemakers will be easily dealt with as they have been in the past. That is the mindset that establishes his self-deluding “The people love me” statement. And that is why I am reading and sharing literature that comes from the troubled Middle East here at A Traveler’s Library.

The other countries of the world have stepped in this time. The situation is different, whether Gaddafi knows it or not. He may not, but we need to understand as much as possible. Read a New Yorker interview with Hisham Matar about the current uprising. You can follow @hishamjmatar on Twitter

Review the other Books for Troubled Times, as you read the news. Syria is edging toward the top of the news once more as rebels there attract attention. Our book, The Calligrapher’s Secret shows Damascus in a quieter time and perhaps explains some of the divisions in the country. We have also discussed, Egypt (A Traveller’s History) and Afghanistan (The Minaret of Djam), and before the recent uprisings, Yemen (The Woman Who Fell From the Sky).

The Libyan flag photo is from Flickr, and you can click on the picture to learn more about the photographer. If you choose to purchase one of these books, or anything else that tickles your fancy, after clicking on one of my book links, I will make a few cents off of each purchase. Thank you!

I strongly wish that I could visit the many Roman ruins that inhabit the shores of Libya. Perhaps…some day.  Do you have a list of places that you would like to travel to in more peaceful times?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

22 thoughts on “Understanding Libya

  1. Congratulations, Vera, at having your question answered by the author you so admire. Hearing that had to be a thrilling moment for you. I don’t know how I missed this review the first time around, but it does sound like a fascinating book, especially in light of the current events.

  2. Sounds like a fascinating read! I’m especially intrigued by the fact that the author chose a little boy as the narrator. Children can be both perceptive and naive, so that’s an interesting choice and also makes the horrors of the situation that much more horrific, as you point out.

  3. My husband, the historian, often talks about the Roman ruins. I have wondered why we finally helped the Libyans, when the calls to help, say Darfur, did not receive any response, and concluded it was the oil. You have really made me want to read this book. I am putting In the Country of Men on my list. Thanks!

    1. Alexandra: I worry, too, about the countries where we do not help. However, part of the judgement call here was that Arab countries ASKED for help, and such a large community of nations responded. Also, I think we have to take into account whether the people who are rebelling have good reason (as opposed to tribal power struggles), and can govern once they win (if they do). That’s the tricky part of the juggement.

  4. I don’t think I could read this book- too upsetting (the Kite Runner was bad enough…) but it sounds like something others would enjoy very much. And of course, it’s quite timely.

    1. I think the fact that the boy was narrating helped keep it palatable. And there comes a point when we cannot absorb any more of the terrible things that happen to people. But this is so poetically written that it was well worth gritting one’s teeth from time to time.

  5. GReat review. The world watches the Middle East and Arabic Africa with interest. I think it acts as a salutory reminder of how much we take the freedom of speech for granted when you see intelligent people publicly support a poor leader but privately work ways to dismiss them (survival instinct at its most basic I guess). For a place to visit, I’d love to see the Mountain Gorillas (again) in the Dem Rep of the Congo – a nation that has only seen wars for the last couple of decades and has suffered from the most inept leadership for so long.

    1. Thanks, Mark. Yes, we not only take our freedoms for granted, but are totally unaware of the kind of lives some other people lead.

  6. This looks to be an awesome book, exploring conditions under the dictator. Thank you for sharing Hisham Matar”s “In the Country of Men” I subscribe to Archaeology Magazine, and several years ago they did an article on Leptis Magna – it sounds amazing. -r

    1. Richard–the link I provided leads to some pictures of Leptis Magna which is so large and so complete that my mind wanted to label it a movie set instead of an archaeological ruin. I feel fortunate that I’ve been to Ephesus in Turkey and also Caesarea in Israel, both of which are striking, but Leptis puts them in the shade. It may be greedy of me, but I’d like to add that to my list as well.

  7. I read this book few weeks ago. It is indeed an excellent read. I’m now on to The Calligrapher’s Secret!

    1. Raymond: Thanks for seconding my positive thoughts about this wonderful book. I hope you like Calligrapher’s Secret, too. Syria is a country that has always fascinated me. I’m so glad that I have piqued the interest of several readers.

  8. An excellent introduction to this book! The excerpts you posted were indeed gripping…poetic…and made me want to read the entire book. I’ve been following the Middle East uprisings…especially Libya…let us pray this time will be different.

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