In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar
IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN tells the story of a young boy, Suleiman. He is the only child born to a highly intelligent fifteen-year-old-girl who had been given in marriage to a complete stranger at the age of fourteen. But she has discovered her own secret, which is uniformly kept in black bottles, which, she assures Suleiman, contain her medicine. She binds him to absolute and utter secrecy. Above all she instills into the very marrow of his bones that her husband (his adored father) must never, ever know.
From the earliest age Suleiman lives and breathes it all, clapped up in the house with Mom (Dad is away on business most of the time), the curtains drawn against the outside world. He is terribly afraid his mother will die of her illness at any time, but he can tell no one at all, not even his only friend, Kareem.
“If love starts somewhere,” writes Suleiman later (when he is twenty four), “if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.” She was a girl of eighteen when he first remembers the beginning of love. But this was no Oedipus complex, nothing so banal.
But what of the man who grows out of it all after his parents manage to get him out of Libya to Cairo? Well, he meets his mother at the Central Bus Station at Alexandria many years later. “I can’t remember her face,” he panics, “what if I don’t recognise her?” She is coming to see what has become of her darling boy, her only son. She was the same age when he was sent away as he is now.
But that is not really the main theme of the book. IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN tells the extraordinary and heartbreaking story of a university professor, an idealistic business man, other intellectuals and hundreds of university students who dared to cry freedom in Gaddafi’s Libya, and paid the hideous price. We hear the young mother’s impotent cries of disbelief that they could be so foolish. ”Walk by the wall,” she implores, “look the other way.” When she is silenced by scorn she says, “O, my apology,...how foolish of me...I must be a good wife, loyal and unquestioning, support my man regardless.” Loyal she remains and her affections take a surprising turn. But she was right. Gaddafi, the Guide, the Leader of All, is still there and they are not.
IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2006 and the Guardian First Book Award.
Note on the history of Libya:
From 8BC Libya attracted emigrants from its surrounding countries – Berbers, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. Ironically the unification of Libya came about in 1934, when Mussolini bombed the helpless natives with biplanes, invaded their land, and established Libya as the official name of his Italian colony. (King Idris I, Emir of Cyrenaica, stoutly but hopelessly resisted the Italians). From 1943 until 1951 most of Libya was under British administration, in defence of the Suez Canal, so vital to their ships on the way to Australia, New Zealand and India, and all points south of the Equator. In 1947 King Idris returned from exile in Cairo, and Italy relinquished all claims to Libya. All might then have been well, had not oil been found there in 1959, and one of the world’s poorest nations (Libya is mostly desert) become an extremely wealthy state. In no time at all King Idris had to go, his son’s life was made impossible, and an army coup enabled Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddfi as supreme leader and despot of an extremely secretive and wealthy state, consisting of about three million profoundly religious Muslims. They in their turn drew another veil of secrecy over their lives, namely the honour of the family.