It was when I picked up this book to read that I remembered how I ended up buying it. I stumbled on a Twitter (I am not up for that X thing here) handle that was an authority of sorts in English-translated Arab Literature. I slid into the DM and asked for recommendations of novels that matched my taste. In The Country of Men was not one of the 3 books recommended but it kept popping up in the reviews of those books, so I decided to check it out, I ended up buying it and 3 years later it rose to the pile of my 2023 TBR list. An added point was that it was not a translation but originally written in English.
In The Country of Men is a novel set in Libya in 1979. The main protagonist is a 9-year-old Suleiman. In 1979, Muammar Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule was in full swing. Freedom was an alien concept in the polity and, full and coerced obedience was the order of the day. The slightest defiance was met with arrest, torture and even death by public execution in some cases. It is in this world of palpable fear that Suleiman is growing up in a middle-class family. In The Country of Men is told through the eyes of a boy and this child protagonist’s storytelling serves myriad purposes as it aids the writer to be vague in different ways; the plot is loose and almost open-ended, and a lot of decisions are left unexplored and the reader is left to make up his/her mind. It could be frustrating for many readers but it also seems plausible because this is a 9-year-old protagonist in an environment where distrust, fear and suspicion rule. It makes sense because he is unsure of most of what is happening around him. His father goes away on repeatedly undefined business trips and when he is home, he is holed in his study reading any one of his very many books that seem out of bounds to everyone else. Every time his father is away, his mother is always ill and always in need of a special liquid medication that is only available from the local grocery shopkeeper. To the reader, it is obvious that Najwa, Suleiman’s mother is an alcoholic who only gets a chance to indulge in her addiction once her husband is away and it is a secret her son has to keep despite not being fully aware of her illness. Faraj, Suleiman’s father is a democratic activist who is involved in the underground civil disobedience movements and his regular business trips are actually trips to the discreet apartment in the city centre where he and his comrades meet to plan their disident actions.
Suleiman begins to see how unsafe the country is when Ustath Rashid, the father of his best friend Kareem, is abducted by the Revolutionary Committee for being a traitor to the Gaddafi regime. Suddenly Faraj’s library of books has to be discreetly burned before the Revolutionary committee cone looking for Baba too. The secrets that are kept from Suleiman or that he has to keep are too weighty for a child of his age but this is Gaddafi’s Libya; secrets, distrust and fear are the currencies of daily living. Nothing like the Libya that Social Media Pan-Africanists fantasise about. Baba gets arrested, tortured and returned back home, broken physically and emotionally. Tough decisions are made and from afar, as a 24-year-old man, Suleiman reminisces on his childhood and the losses that have shaped him.
Hishom Matar’s prose is eloquent as can be, coming from the voice of a 9-year-old. His description of Najwa’s loneliness was particularly poignant as was Rashid’s torture and execution. In The Country of Men is a good read although the plot is loose and the pace is too slow.