In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

Politics, love and betrayal in the murky world of men, by Dr Jennifer Minter

Even the title, In the Country of Men, reflects Hisham Matar’s concerns that there is no place for a woman’s desire in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Recalling one of his last summers in 1979, the nine-year old Suleiman is scarred by the circumstances surrounding his father’s political activities and his mother’s desperate search for happiness. The young boy learns that there are many different types of betrayal which overlap in dramatic ways, just as there are various ways that one can exploit and misuse power. Matar develops parallel stories that reflect the nature of the father’s and the son’s struggles to negotiate conflicting loyalty structures as they both struggle for survival – both physical and psychological.

Matar depicts a corrupt political system that confines characters to marginal statues and rules by fear. The power of the dictator, or the “guide”, is compared to the sun that is “everywhere,” “flooding” and “swelling with heat.” The unrest and disturbance caused by the overwhelmingly powerful sun is made clear in the depiction that “every person went in desperate search for shade.” For the people, there is no respite from the intrusive surveillance methods employed by the government. Their telephone lines are tapped, their homes are searched, their cars pursued by military vehicles, even the “wall has ears.”

It is clear that the government has diverged from its supposed role as a service provider for people living in the country; rather, it becomes an instrument at the hands of the dictator to exploit and manipulate people.

Due to the brutal and oppressive tactics employed by the state to control its citizens, people’s moral compass becomes disoriented. The majority of Libya’s  citizens are portrayed as compliant. There is an “absence” of morality, critical thinking and decent behavior, which is illustrated by the “loud, hysterical and constant chanting and cheering” when Ustath Rashid is executed. They become nonchalant to other’s sufferings, and lose their sense of moral imperative.

Sharief & Jafer

As a brutal political machine, the state betrays and kills its enemies.   In Libya, intellectual and social freedom is a threat.

Even the perpetrators, represented by Sharief, become victims in the sense that they have been brainwashed to such a point that they never question the leader. They are “heart and soul devoted” to the Guide.

They help the Guide to use “terror to eliminate anyone who stands against the revolution.”

Those who oppose the Guide or his Revolutionary Committee are “traitors” and “conspirators”.  Anyone who criticises the Guide becomes a target and Mama believes that , “they are going to get us all in trouble.”

Ustath Jafer is a typical servant of the Guide. He is devoted to him and well rewarded. He lives a life of relative luxury.  Such ruthless officers prosper in Gaddafi’s Libya. He is a member of the secret police, having been trained by the KGB in Moscow. (160)  Suleiman and his friends admire his power. This is because he alone decides “who was to remain in front of the sun and who to be fixed firmly behind it” (160)

Um Masoud attributes their “good fortune” and luxury to the Guide’s “generosity”.   “It wouldn’t be right to bite the hand that feeds you.”)

How do we see the power of the state?

The victims are whisked away in cars without the right of reply. “That’s the fate of all traitors”, says Um Masoud when Rashid is taken.  The members of the secret police in the car kick, slap and humiliate their victims.   “No one is ever beyond their reach”. There is “no space to argue or to say no”.

The secret men who listen to all their conversations are brutal and rude. “Why don’t you stuff this telephone up your arse, fucker”.

The secret states exploit an individual’s weaknesses

Sharief knows Mama’s guilty “secret” and tells Suleiman “you will have to help me”.  Sharief wants the names of people who have been involved in Baba’s secret activities.  (132) Suleiman is pressured to help Sharief who coerces him into providing information to protect Mama.  Sharief also tells Suleiman “men are never afraid”. And you are a man, aren’t you? (132)

The police state encourages people to betray their honour.  Mama’s offer of the cake to Um Masoud is the beginning of her subservience. It is the “dark art of submission” (157)

Even the children also learn to distrust one another

Mama tells Suleiman that “this is a time for walking beside the wall” and urges him not to be too close to Kareem. As for Kareem, “a certain sadness had entered his eyes the day Ustath Rashid was taken. “It was the sadness of betrayal, the silent sadness that comes from being let down”.   (40)

Siham, who appears withdrawn, loses her brother in very sad circumstances. She tells Suleiman “your father has brought ruin on my brother’s head”  (154)

Revolutionary Fathers and their sons

Moosa and Nasser are two impressionable young activists who admire and follow Baba. (150/136)    Judge Yaseen believes that Baba is responsible for his son’s disappearance and tells him, “you have ruined my son”.   Mama tries to dismiss this terrible affair as just “child’s play”.  It is “children playing with fire”.   (Nasser is labeled a “conspirator” and “traitor”, which leads to imprisonment. (He is eventually released because of an “arbitrary amnesty”)

Enemies and betrayal

Ustath Rashid and Faraj (Baba) and their families are constantly watched by the state’s revolutionary committee.

Rashid is an educated and idealistic history professor who is “loyal to his political cause” and he believes that his politics are worthy of his commitment. He engages in the resistance activities and attempts to overthrow the corrupted government. But because of his involvement, he is arrested, tortured, and eventually executed.

Mr Rashid appears, in contrast to Baba, to be the ideal father.  Mr Rashid teaches Kareem how to drive and lets him drive around the quiet streets of Gergarish (22).  Mr Rashid is approachable and friendly. “I watched Kareem muzzle into his father’s side” (29)

He has a good rapport with his students; he is a liberated (free-thinking) man. During the excursion to Lepcis the “whole bus began singing and clapping”. (25)  The point of the excursion is to celebrate their ancient history and visit the Roman ruins founded by the Emperor Septimus Severus.

The only mulberry tree, which symbolizes wisdom and righteousness left on Mulberry street, is planted in Rashid’s back garden. This symbolism suggests that Matar agrees with Rashid’s resistance, and deems it to be heroic and honorable. Dissidents such as Rashid “focus on the paradise” and forget their fear: it is with their undaunted spirit of “justice” that they put up a decent fight. Although their deeds elicit the wrath of “the guide,” their bravery and ideals live on in the mind of younger generation. Their sacrifice, like that of Prometheus’s, will be commemorated.

In contrast, Baba is “aloof” and Suleiman regrets that he does not share a similar close relationship with his father.

Unlike Rashid, who demonstrates more affectionate and human characteristics, Faraj is a distant figure for both his wife and his only son. He appears oblivious of his wife’s addiction to alcohol. Instead, he entrusts Suleiman with the household, reminding him that, “You are the man in the house.” Suleiman feels the burden of responsibility; he has to “guard” his “ill” mum and he “never could nap”, as he is “afraid” of her “craziness”.

Ustath Faraj appears to be playing with fire because he pursues his human rights agenda. He wants a “better Libya” and according to Suleiman, he gathers with a “handful of men” in a flat on Martyr’s Square writing pamphlets “criticising the regime”  (96)

Matar suggests that during times of political oppression individuals make very difficult decisions which often come to define them in damaging ways. When faced with torture, individuals often compromise their heroic principles.

Baba betrays Rashid.  Matar suggests that individuals make difficult decisions under stress.

Matar depicts political activists who often betray each other to escape torture.

Suleiman’s innocence evaporates when he learns that his father has betrayed his friend Rashid. Although he learns from the Revolutionary Committee officer, Sharief, that Baba “melted like butter”, Suleiman begins to realise just how difficult it is to defend one’s principles in Libya. There is no doubt that Baba is tortured, but at some stage, Baba is defeated by the brutal power of the state.  Suleiman becomes aware that his father is no longer a political idol.

Eventually, Baba’s betrayal of Rashid comes to define him in very damaging ways. When he eventually returns home, Moosa cannot bear to look at him. He states, “the betrayal in his eyes… his voice scorches me, this is worse than death – forgive me – this is the blackest day of my life” (107) Moosa and Suleiman are disappointed. Their disappointment reveals the difficulty of remaining a martyr in very difficult decisions. As Mama says, the fact that Baba would not ‘die” for another is a source of deep regret for Moosa (107) who loses his political idol.

In humiliating and disgraceful circumstances, Rashid is hanged in the National Basketball Stadium. At first, he begs for mercy, “pleading like a guilty child” (185). The noisy crowd yells for death, “jumping and howling” (“Hang the traitor”) Crying pitifully and soiling himself, Rashid climbs the ladder and is yanked by the guards who ignore his cry of confession.  The crowd celebrate. (187)

Even though Rashid weeps when he is hanged, and even though Baba betrays his friend, there is still a sense that these men acted in heroic ways. Both challenged the state and were defeated in different ways.  In his new workplace, Baba still preaches to the men about their freedom, honour and principles.

The television broadcasts Rashid’s interrogation. (114-115) Importantly, he defends Baba when the name, Bu Suleiman is read out. Earlier, he had “gifted Baba with  his ‘undying loyalty’” and during this incident he honours his pledge (115).  Rashid’s defence of Baba and the denial, “no”, makes a big impression on Suleiman. He states, “what heroic chords that word caused to resonate in my ears!” (115)

Suleiman compares Rashid’s act of heroism with that of the slaves in America who united against their masters.  Something in the “no” reminded me of that solemn standing ovation the slaves had given to their masters.” (115)

In this case, the hysterical crowd reflects the mind and soul of a ruthless state that becomes the cruel betrayer of people’s freedom.  “The crowd’s chanting and cheering was so loud, so hysterical and constant, that it fused into a continuous hum, like the hum of a giant vacuum cleaner” (184) Also the two henchmen are representatives of the state who humiliate the victim as he begs for life.

Patriarchal power: the High Council

Symbolically, as the power of the father merges with the power of the state, Suleiman wonders: “Can you become a man without becoming your father?” (149)    In this case, Suleiman thinks about the father as a symbol of an oppressive regime where male authority tramples on women’s rights.   Mama refers to “YOU” in the plural form to refer to all men who reject and betray her. “You all leave me alone.” (*143)

The father is the man of the “High Council” who has the ultimate say in the mother’s fate. However,  Matar also suggests that the father is both cruel and kind, or has to be cruel in order to be kind. During one key moment, Mama cries because “his mercy was harsher than his justice” and she sees a glimpse of a “troubled man”.  (173)

Mama knows only too well, that her own romantic model of stories is a disappointment: “Scheherazade accepted slavery over death” (129).

A thwarted love story: Mama’s lost soul

Matar weaves the romantic stories of Mama and her obsession with Scheherazade, throughout the narrative, offering parallel stories of misuse of power and betrayal.

Growing up, Suleiman learns the full extent of Mama’s despair and unhappiness in the embedded story of her betrayal. This betrayal also reflects his awareness of the brutal power of men and its terrible consequences.

Mama becomes a victim of the oppressive decisions taken by the “high council” of men in her family.  According to Matar, the High Council represents the power of men in Libya and there are similarities between the High Council and the Revolutionary Guards. As Mama often says, “all you men are the same”.

Matar states: “When it comes to a daughter’s virtue, we are fierce, deadly and efficient”. They are as efficient as a “German factory” (147)

Mama fell in love with Jihan, a Christian from Palestine. They were 14 years old. She confided in her brother Khaled, who, despite his “liberal ideas”, betrayed her to the High Council.

Uncle Khaled tells their mother to “marry her now, or she’ll shame us all”.  (147).   To hold hands, as Mama did, is to be a “slut” (147). Matar shows how the family is more concerned about its reputation and pride than about Mama’s happiness.

Her own mother also betrays her. So annoyed is she at the love affair, the grandmother states that she would marry the mother to a “slave as black as this night” if he would propose.

Mama refers to the “black day” that she married Baba.  She suffers from depression because of her stress and unhappiness and the secret medicine she takes becomes a source of shame for both mother and son.

Suleiman: loss of innocence

As he emerges from innocence, Suleiman also becomes aware of the extent of his mother’s oppression owing to that “black day” and he begins to entertain fantasies of himself as the saviour.  From that time, the mother seemed to descend into despair. She only briefly emerges in the days after Baba’s recovery when she seems to get some enjoyment out of their sexual encounters.

Eventually Mama and Baba repair their relationship but this is because he gives up his political dissent. As a result, Mama’s health also improves. “Their new life together, where Baba never went away and Mama was never ill, distanced me from them” (221).

Sulemain and Kareem

Matar parallels the son’s and the father’s stories to show how Kareem and Rashid are, both, betrayed by Suleiman’s family.  In this case, the personal and the political are intertwined.

Suleiman is ashamed of the way he treats his friend, and believes that he does not have the courage to make difficult choices and defend his principles.

Suleiman gives names and addresses including Rashid’s, to Sharief, a member of the Revolutionary Committee and naively believes that he might be able to save Baba.

He tries to give Baba’s book “Democracy Now” to Sharief, tells the voice on the tapped line of the whereabouts of Nasser and even offers to give more information that would put the adults around him in danger.

However, rather than portraying Suleiman’s betrayal as malevolent actions, Matar suggests that he innocently and naively tries to do the right thing, which is to abide by his government. Therefore, betrayals conducted in these circumstances are not condemned; rather, they are seen as misplaced loyalties and symptoms of a sick regime.

The betrayal is particularly shameful, because the boys were like brothers, playing their games to fill in their days.

More worrying, Suleiman wonders whether he betrayed his friend, Kareem, through a deliberate misuse of power.

In the company of his friends, Suleiman states that Kareem’s father is a traitor. “Everybody knows your father is a tr-“. (108)  Whilst they seek to humiliate Kareem, Suleiman further charges his friend with being a “coward”, “a crybaby” and a “girl”. Kareem is offended and humiliated by Suleiman’s statement. In a fit of anger, he leaps upon Suleiman and Osama tries to separate them, who challenges them both to a game of My Land, Your Land. Suleiman betrays Kareem’s confidence and confession to him that, “every time he heard a love song he would go all soft in the stomach for her.” (110).

Kareem accuses Suleiman of a lack of principles. He states, “you have no word, you are not a man because you have no word”. (110)

Matar depicts Suleiman’s internal discussion which shows his guilt. The “voices” in his head which are “telling me off” (111) reinforce his anxiety and inner demons. “When the Day of Judgement comes . . .  your heart will be seen for what it is: empty and cruel” (111) This voice addresses Suleiman as “you” in the second person, as if his conscience is giving him a lecture. Suleiman is unable to defend himself convincingly and must face the full extent of his treachery, “You even enjoyed it, admit it”.

Mama and Salwa

Najwa also betrays Salma. They are described as “two lost sisters who had finally found each other.” Salma even cares for Najwa on the occasion when she sees she is intoxicated. However, when Rashid is taken, Najwa becomes fearful and withdraws her friendship, advising Suleiman to not “be close to” Kareem. Najwa’s desire to protect herself and her family comes before loyalty to her friend.

Her identity as a mother gives her the courage to protect her son regardless, even if “it takes the last of [her].”

Mama is ultimately a woman who has the courage to try to resist. Suleiman refers to her as, “the mother who tried to never have me, the mother who never chose it, the mother who resisted in all the ways she knew how.” (245)

Suleiman describes her as “the mother who resisted in all the ways she knew how.” For her, Suleiman is “the light of her life” and they are life “two halves of the same soul, two open pages of the same book.

Mama loses everything that she cherishes. Her ultimate act of loyalty is to send the son to Egypt for a better life.  “I will get my son out of this place if it takes the last of me”. (97)  Her decision is “against her husband’s reservations and her only son’s plea.”

At the airport, Mama tries to conceal her deep sadness. She has “one hand over her mouth, her eyes concealed behind the black sunglasses.

At the airport, Mama tries to conceal her deep sadness. She has “one hand over her mouth, her eyes concealed behind the black sunglasses” which cover the extent of her misery.

When Suleiman leaves for Egypt he is aware that he will probably never see his father again and that he will also lose his intimate and loving relationship with his mother. In Egypt, the young boy lives with an “ever-present absence”, like an “orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss”. The “Stray Dog” does not return as he is forever threatened by the “Evader’s prison sentence” for deserters. Ironically, his father dies just a few days after the leader lifts the ban on Libyans travelling abroad.

Salma

Najwa is not the only women to endure a miserable life in such a patriarchal society. After her husband, Ustath Rashid, is taken by the Revolutionary Committee, Salma has to fend for herself and her son, Kareem, alone “in a world of men, and the greed of men.” She loses her husband to the ruthless government and loses her friendship with Najwa.

They eventually end up leaving their home due to the stigma of disloyalty. “The poor woman now suffers the consequences”.  They are vulnerable and socially isolated, but perhaps are rewarded with a happy streak owing to Kareem’s relationship with their childhood flame, Siham. Forever faithful, Kareem keeps Suleiman informed about his mother’s wellbeing, and becomes alarmed at her depression following Baba’s death.

Kareem’s letter to Suleiman reflects Matar’s central concerns: “In this country we don’t understand the illnesses of the heart.” (238)