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The Return


Avenging his father
RAYYAN AL-SHAWAF | Issue Dated: December 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Avenging his father | The Return | Hisham Matar |



Author: Hisham Matar

Penguin Random House India

Edition: Hardcover



Price:Rs 1799

When Hisha Matar was 12 years old, a hair-raising incident revealed to him just how marked a man his father Jaballa, a Libyan exile agitating against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, had become. Matar, flying from Cairo to Geneva, had often wondered why his dad, due to meet him at the airport, went in for cloak-and-dagger behaviour. On this occasion, Jaballa had told his son that if they didn’t cross paths at the arrivals terminal, he should ask someone at the information desk to call for him over the public address system – using an alias. When, after some confusion, the two found each other and began making their way to the airport’s exit, “we passed two men speaking Arabic with a perfect Libyan accent,” Matar recalls. “‘So what does this Jaballa Matar look like anyway?’, one of them asked the other. I went silent and never complained about my father’s complicated travel arrangements after that.”

The hand that ultimately snatched his father, when Matar was 19 and studying at university in London, belonged, scandalously, to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak’s security agents . They kidnapped the 50ish Jaballa from the Matar family’s Cairo apartment and delivered him to their Libyan counterparts. The Egyptian authorities then lied to the Matars, telling them that Jaballa remained in their custody and that, so as not to “complicate the situation”, they would do best to keep quiet. For a long time, the family did just that.

The Return Matar’s latest work, is subtitled “Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between”. For readers (such as this reviewer) who have always suspected that the true story is more compelling than its twin transmutations into fiction, this long-awaited nonfiction book will provide satisfying confirmation. For those already enthralled by Matar the novelist, The Return – a portion of which appeared in The New Yorker – offers an irresistible opportunity to connect his elliptical fiction to the real-life experiences that serve as its ingredients.

As for Matar himself, he resists the temptation to cast his family’s ordeal purely as a detective story, even though such an approach would have given his book an identifiable structure and in all likelihood increased its sales. Instead, the author alternates between two narratives, only one of which emerges as an account, suitably tense and intrigue-filled, of a decades-long quest to pluck clues from a void. The other approach, impressionistic and digressive, takes in everything from history to architecture as it explores how Jaballa Matar’s murky fate became “a place of shadows where the only way to engage with what happened is through the imagination, an activity that serves only to excite the past, multiplying its possibilities, like a house
with endless rooms, inescapable and haunted.”

This latter, unpredictable narrative also probes how Jaballa’s absence shaped his son. By the time he had reached his 30s, far from sublimating such rage and hatred into fine, if narrowly themed fiction, Matar was making scant headway on his first novel. In fact, he had come perilously close to allowing his inner demons to consume him. So much so, he writes, that “I found myself standing at the edge of the Pont d’Arcole (a bridge over the Seine River) in Paris, staring into the green rushing waters below” – and contemplating suicide.

The portion of The Return that resembles a detective story begins with an unexpected revelation. “It was clear that he had been shot or hanged or starved or tortured to death,” Matar writes of his father in the very first chapter. He discovered as much during the Libyan revolution in 2011, when rebels broke into the notorious Abu Salim prison complex – from which Jaballa had smuggled out three letters in the mid-1990s – and set the inmates free. Jaballa was not among them.

Sometimes, when Matar brings together both narratives, they end up colliding rather than complementing each other. The most comical instance of this occurs when the author recounts the audience he was finally granted with David Miliband, the UK’s foreign secretary at the time (2010). This came following a public campaign to persuade the UK, which was then cozying up to Gadhafi’s regime, to insist that the latter reveal the whereabouts of Jaballa and other political detainees. The unlikely novelist from Libya had made his way into the corridors of power in his adopted but long-indifferent country, and would now demand justice for his father.

How does Matar the writer convey the stress and anger roiling within Matar the avenging son? He doesn’t, opting for erudite divagation instead. “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office building is architecturally interesting in the way that it suffers from conflicting influences,” the author observes, remarkably detached.

That’s why this book is important. The Return reacquaints us with the barbarity of Gadhafi, exposes little-known machinations engaged in by his cunning son (and then-darling of the British) Seif al-Islam, and demonstrates the extent to which the regime ravaged one family, the Matars, among thousands. All this makes it that much more difficult for glib “devil you know” enthusiasts to convince us that we should pine for the pre-Arab Spring era.   

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017