The Return: Fathers, Sons and The Land In Between by Hisham Matar

The same kind researcher that suggested me the works of J.M. Coetzee also suggested this book. This book is a truly beautiful piece of work, where the author, Hisham Matar is in search of his father Jaballah Matar, a revolutionary Libyan who was against the Qadaffi regime. Jaballah was kidnapped by the Libyan regime and has been missing. Hisham decides to visit Libya, his home country, after the fall of Qaddafi and looking for answers or remnants of his father or what happened to him.

Through this harsh journey, he visits a places that pull him in a rip-tide of memories about his father and his childhood.

Here are some of the best excerpts from the book.

Context: Hisham, his wife Diana, and Hisham’s mother flew back into Libya. Matar is in Benghazi.

We drank our coffee and talked about living here part of the year. The light was slowly seeping out of the sky. The sea was calm but not still. Its surface was mapped with current lines running running in different directions, as faint as sleep marks on skin. I felt I was not observing but remembering, as if Diana and I had already lived here and were now returning in the same spirit in which we had visited other cities where we had once lived, standing together in front of a building we used to call home and feeling the odd sensation one feels when the changes in us are juxtaposed against the constancy of a familiar geography. In the background of thoughts, I could detect an echo of an old power: that childhood convictions that the Libyan Sea was an open door and that appetite for an authentic acquaintainceship with nature, which has become less consistent over the years, was returning now unhindered, renewed.

I don’t mean a casual desire for travel, not a tourist’s curiosity for sites and landmarks and languages and new faces, but a precise and uncomplicated conviction that the world was available to me. But wasn’t this an odd thing to think now, now that I was finally home? Or is this what being is like: home as a place from which the entire world is suddenly possible?

Context: Hisham Matar, after all these years, still meticulously gathers information about his missing father who may or may not have been killed in the Abu Salim Prison Massacre.

It was in 2001 that we began to hear stories of plain-clothed officials arriving unannounced at homes all across the country. They would ask for the household’s Family Book - a legal document listing all the members of a nuclear family, their dates of birth and, if deceased, the date and cause of death. A couple of days later the book would be returned. It seemed to be a routine check, and, when asked, the officials said, “Yes, everything is in perfect order”. The one thing all the families visited had in common was that they had a father, a husband, or a son in Abu Salim.

Most families did not notice the altercations until several days later. I heard of one family, who discovered the change only when, a couple of months later, having taken the book out to register a new-born, they saw that the imprisoned grandfather had been dead for several years. One of the stories told is of a woman who looked through her family book when it was first returned but noticed nothing different. She searched it carefully, and was relieved that all was as it should be. It wasn’t until a week or so later that, for reasons she could not account for, she woke up in the middle of the night and went to the drawer where the official document was kept. She could see now what her eyes had not been able to see the first time around. A line written in strong blue ink against her son’s name read: “Died 1996 of natural causes”. She was heard screaming. Her family tried to restrain her, but she managed to run out on to the street. Out of all the words she must have screamed that day, the only one that survived the various retelling of the story was “Years”. She screamed it over and over. She might have been referring to the years she would have to endure without her son, or those in the past, significally from the year 1996, in which she continued to make the long journey from where she lived in Benghazi to Tripoli, hoping the prison guards would allow her to see her son. In the years, before 1996, she had been allowed visits and even permitted to bring her son clothes, vitamins, food, toothpaste, aftershave. But since June 1996 her twelve-hour trips had been in vain. The guards seemed genuinely sorry. Visits had been indefinitely suspended, they told her, and promised to deliver her gifts, and they never neglected to tell her to try again next month. Every month for five years she cooked meals and purchased gifts for a dead son. She wrote him letters in which she pondered what to say and what to leave out. The guards took it all for themselves, throwing away the letters and eating the food, and sold the other items to the inmates, or took them for themselves, or gifted them to friends or to their own children. Perhaps an after shave or new pyjamas were given to a son on the occasion of his birthday. “Years”. That was probably what she meant.