Classic review: In the Country of Men
For 9-year-old Suleiman, childhood in Tripoli means a disappearing dad and a mom who tells stories that burn his young ears.
[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Feb. 6, 2007.] Suleiman lives on Mulberry Street, but it's nothing like the Dr. Seuss story. That street was so gentle and boring its hero had to gussy up events to make them worth telling, whereas Suleiman doesn't need to use his imagination at all.
Instead of a horse-drawn wagon plodding slowly down the street, the 9-year-old boy sees his best friend's father arrested by the Revolutionary Army, beaten and kicked and carted off in a white car. That's because this Mulberry Street is located in Tripoli, Libya, under the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
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In the Country of Men, which was short-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize, is a knockout – emotionally wrenching and gorgeously written. It is not primarily a political novel; it's about the relationships in one family and about a boy struggling to make sense of events, both public and private, that he has been exposed to far too soon.
The story begins in 1979, eight days after the neighbor, Ustath Rashid, "vanished like a grain of salt in water." Suleiman's baba, Faraj, is away on a business trip, and his mother is getting over an "illness." But when Suleiman goes shopping with his mom, he sees his baba downtown, wearing unfamiliar sunglasses and disappearing into a strange building. Nor is his mother's illness anything so straightforward as a cold.
His mom is only "ill" when his dad is away, Suleiman explains. She gets her "medicine" in bottles wrapped in black plastic bags that the baker keeps hidden under his counter.
On those nights, Suleiman is afraid to leave her alone, and she regales him with stories, like his hero Scheherezade. Only instead of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba, his mom, Najwa, tells him about how, at 14, she was forced to leave school and marry an older man she had never met as a punishment. Her crime was holding hands in a cafe with a boy.
But much of what Najwa tells her son is difficult for a 9-year-old to bear. "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 30 times over in one night, not to tell, to swear on her life, again and again...."
And when Suleiman can't hold the words back she reproaches him, saying, "I beg you, don't embarrass me.... A boy your age should never speak of such things."
Although a compulsive storyteller while drunk, Najwa has little patience for Scheherezade. "Scheherezade was a coward who accepted slavery over death," she snaps at the son she calls her "prince," retelling the final chapter with feminist fury, as Scheherezade gathers her three sons about her and begs to live.