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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

''In the Country of Men is a skilfully constructed political exposé''


Annie Gagiano - 2007-01-29


In the Country of Men
Author: Hisham Matar
Format: Hardcover
ISBN:
9780670916399
Published by: Penguin/ Viking, 2006
Click here to purchase your copy from Kalahari.net.


As he recalls leaving the country of his birth, the adult narrator of this complex novel recalls two perspectives on this land from which he had been sent away in his childhood: the first contains the harrowing, unanswerable questions: “Why did we have so much respect for blood? Why is the sun so unforgiving?” (225); the other is his last view (from the aeroplane taking him to Egypt) of Libya: “Libya was coastline, on one side the relentless yellow desert stretching into Africa, on the other the foam-sprinkled and curling royal blue of my childhood-Mediterranean” (228). The whole text spans this arc between helpless yearning for a paradise that was never more than an illusion and dawning awareness of the dreadful, manmade social construction that overshadows and deforms the land and almost all its people.

On one level, In the Country of Men is a skilfully constructed political exposé, but its deeper analysis is one of the relentless process by which a child is corrupted, made cruel and cynical by being brought up in an atmosphere of confusion, of conflicting loyalties and dangerous secrets – familial and political.

The title is carefully chosen and does not indicate (as may seem) a primarily feminist or gender focus, even though these perspectives are important issues in the novel, nor is the cover image that of a girl, but of a young boy.

The narrator’s name, Suleiman, is profoundly ironic in view of his incomprehension and terribly confused apprehension of the processes in which he, his parents and their friends and neighbours are caught up and swept along. The nine-year-old boy’s mother and father are, according to custom, known as Um Suleiman and Bu Suleiman (in addition to their own names, Najwa and Faraj), but the "parental" versions of their names emphasise the intertwinement of their fates with their son’s. Suleiman is in fact enjoined (as only child and son) to fulfil his father’s role during the latter’s frequent absences – a burden far too heavy for the boy to carry at his age:
The things she told me pressed down on my chest, so heavy that it seemed impossible to carry on living without spilling them. I didn’t want to break my promise – the promise she always forced me to give, sometimes over thirty times in one night, not to tell, to swear on her life, again and again, and then be warned, "If you tell a living soul and I die my life will be on your neck" … (19)
This secret that the child is burdened with is in fact not directly political, but it is nevertheless both shameful and dangerous in the context of a Muslim state: Suleiman’s mother seeks refuge in alcohol – smuggled grappa – when unable to cope with the fears and imagined horrors resulting from her husband’s necessarily secret political activism in opposition to the reign of Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Guide, the Colonel, the Son of the Desert, and the publicly revered leader of the nation.

The boy feels an uncomfortable mixture of concern and contempt for what he can only term his mother’s “illness”, whose complex causes he only dimly apprehends. It is when she is in a drunken state – during the long nights when he keeps vigil by her bedside, terrified that she will fall asleep with a burning cigarette in her hand or leave the gas oven on – that she loads him with yet another burden: her lingering resentment and fury at having been married off too early to protect her family’s exaggerated concern for their reputation. Immediately after the consummation of her marriage at fourteen to Faraj (who was 23 at the time), Najwa’s mother had told her: “If … you didn’t turn out virtuous … your father was prepared to take your life” (13).

Najwa is a fascinating character whom the reader is allowed to understand much better than her son is able to, at his age. In her fierce mental resistance to the familial patriarchy that married her off in her early teens to a stranger – for the mere fact of having held hands with a boy of the same age in a café – she comes across as a startlingly outspoken feminist, irrepressibly denouncing oppressive males ranging from what she calls “the High Council” (her father and brothers who forced her into premature marriage and motherhood) to the henchmen of the regime. “I don’t want those rats in my house,” (66) she hisses at her husband’s best friend when he is doing his best to placate the secret service search team who have come hunting for her husband by offering them hospitality.

But Najwa is also remarkably unimpressed by the politically resistant activities of her husband and his cronies, articulating her cynicism towards and her disdainful mockery of their chosen line of action at every opportunity. “What are you people thinking,” she challenges her husband’s devoted follower (the young Egyptian, Moosa): “a few students colonizing the university will make a military dictatorship roll over? … if it was that easy I would have done it myself” (53). Rousing the youth to bait the regime is, she declares, merely to inspire them “to madness” (81).

Najwa’s political pragmatism is sadly confirmed when several of her husband’s closest friends and associates and a large number of students are captured, killed or tortured for what she denounces as the folly of taking a stand against Qaddafi’s regime – which eventually also tracks down the boy’s father (Faraj).

Yet there is no final validation of Najwa’s ideas or her role. Her son’s increasingly ambivalent feelings towards the mother he cherishes and guards end up in a confusion of anger, pity, hate and yet joy (21). Najwa’s personality is a powerful force trapped in too narrow a cage, allowing her finally no nobler a role than that of the devoted wife she eventually becomes. In protecting and rescuing her son from the insanity and danger of Libyan life at this time, she also instructs him in the dark arts of betrayal and what he calls “submission” (157).

When her husband is forced to go on the run, Najwa shouts at Moosa for having “inflated [her husband’s] chest with his adoration” (95), denouncing their participation in what she sees as the political posturing of “children playing with fire” instead of following her own rules for survival: “Walk by the wall … look the other way” (96). She shouts at Moosa: “I’ll support nothing that puts my son in danger” (97). But Najwa has no understanding of the moral morass in which the child is being swamped by the poisonous combination of her own general over-protectiveness towards him (with its weird lapses and inconsistencies) and (on the other hand) his father’s weak and brittle idealism and aloof distance from his son - against the ever-present background of Libya’s brutal power politics. Nor does she recognise the harm done to Suleiman in the long run by her own “ruthless, steely certainty that made her send me away [to Egypt, at the age of nine,] against her husband’s reservations and her only son’s plea” (234).

Since both Suleiman’s parents lay on the boy the fantasy that he should and can be his mother’s rescuer and protector, he emerges – caught helplessly between her overwhelming presence in his life and his father’s constantly recurring absences – as an unpleasantly selfish child, whose sweetness, hope and capacity for loyalty have become contaminating forces in their unnaturally intense concentration on his emotionally exploitative and needy mother. Hence the question, “Can you become a man without becoming your father?” that the boy fearfully asks himself (49).

Nothing in the boy’s childhood is ordinary or safe. Even the innocent pleasure of gorging on mulberries is symbolically contaminated by the nausea and sunstroke that result, and because the fruit is stolen from the yard of the next-door home, where his best friend’s father, a man he’d loved and looked up to, had recently been taken captive by the regime - in full view of the neighbouring boys. Suleiman had found himself unable to give the arrested man’s only son, who had been his best friend, the necessary emotional support. This is the first sign of his own growing inclination to treachery and cruelty, begotten by the combined influences of political tyranny and his mother’s survivalist ethos. “No need for you to be so close to that boy,” his mother had earlier told him, subsequent to the arrest. “Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful” (40). “Promise you would always protect yourself,” she had earlier enjoined him (18). In this way, selfishness is made into a duty.

Soon after the arrest the boy witnesses – at a time when everyone is sleeping - the televised screening of his friend’s father’s induced “confession” in admitting to his own and others’ participation in a meeting concerning the distribution of clandestine pamphlets. The broken, humiliated man nevertheless protects (by explicit exclusion) Suleiman’s father Faraj – who had in fact been the leader of their secret group – by vouching at huge risk to himself that Faraj had not been present at a crucial meeting of the conspirators against the military dictatorship. Later, the boy is allowed to watch the staged execution of his friend’s father, an event that occurs among the jeers and cheers of the massive crowd attending the televised event. Every detail of the breaking of the victim is noted by Suleiman, yet he cannot bring himself to give comfort or to show sympathy for the man’s bereaved son, perhaps because of his shame at having earlier betrayed this former friend.

An aspect of corruption in this setting (as so often) is seduction by power. The repulsive secret service official deployed to spy on their home charms Suleiman with the transparently false claim that his aim is to protect the boy’s father from the "real" traitors; he offers him a sweet supposedly from his father and (best of all) he answers the boy’s questions (“Unlike Mama and Moosa”, as Suleiman observes) – “He didn’t treat me like a child,” the boy concludes naively. In a recognisable parody of sexual molestation, Sharief (the spy) then invites Suleiman to touch his gun, “black and fat on the seat beside him”, while he tells him the final, seductive lie that “Men are never afraid” (131).

The boy’s yielding to the gloating joy of power is illustrated in two encounters with a local beggar; once when he makes the beggar run from him – a grown man screaming with fear at a child’s persecution – and much later, when the boy nearly causes the terrified beggar’s death by drowning. Suleiman is also tricked into giving away (over the telephone) the location of the flat where the group of would-be revolutionaries had had their centre, while the book called Democracy Now that the child had secretly saved for his father becomes one of the offerings of obeisance and proffered information he makes to Sharief, the government spy. This book carries a poignant inscription proving the link between Suleiman’s and his friend’s fathers - as it does their shared commitment to democratic rather than to locally “revolutionary” (Quaddafian) values.

The family pattern of betrayal persists. Najwa ingratiates herself with the wife of a politically powerful official, their near neighbour and a woman her husband had detested for her readiness to backbite those in political disfavour with the regime.

But the formal act of submission nevertheless contributes to Suleiman’s father’s release – as does his own spilling of the beans about his co-conspirators. We learn that he did so under extreme torture – as his monstrously deformed face and wounded body testify once he is back home. Without recognising how they are adding to the horror and eerie mystery of the situation, the parents initially attempt to keep the father’s presence and his terrible state (and, of course, its causes) from the boy. But Suleiman is witness to the bitter outburst of Moosa, his father’s formerly devoted disciple, against what the latter reveals as the “betrayal” enacted by Faraj: “I can’t bear looking at him [Faraj] … his voice scorches me ….They killed the students closest to us. Rashid is dead” (207).

One harrowing truth that this text emphasises is that nobility of heart and conduct all but disappear under tyranny – even among ordinarily decent people with laudable ideals. The narrator mentions that the most “lasting” impression that the public execution of his friend’s father (who was also his father’s friend) left on him was “a kind of quiet panic, as if at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet” (197). The tame word insecurity is given vivid life in such a description. Elsewhere he announces his conclusion that “perhaps anticipation is the root, the source, of all misfortune” (225) – a type of mental yielding to the fear induced by any evil power.

But I conclude this account of Matar’s text by quoting a poignant passage in which the narrator helps us to understand the merely mortal weakness and need that led Suleiman step by slippery step down such an awful slope:
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. And although I didn’t think of it then in those
terms, my self-pity had soured into self-loathing. (166)
In this both rich and terrible narrative, the reader is made to understand the inextricable nature of the politics of the self, the family and the state, and how tyranny and the cunning, secrecy and weakness it awakens in people deform the best aspects of humanity – love and innocence and fidelity.