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.

In the Country of Men By Hisham Matar Bantam 256 pp., $12

[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.

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.

" 'To live,' she repeated. 'And not because she had as much right to as he, but because if he were to kill her his sons would live "motherless" ... My guess: five, maybe ten years at the most before she got the sword.' "

But in daily life, Najwa makes the same choice as the scorned queen.

"Here it's either silence or exile, walk by the wall or leave," as she explains to Moosa, an Egyptian friend whose business schemes (Polish tires, chickens) are a source of much amusement.

She drinks because she's terrified: Suleiman's father is a political dissident. During his "business trips," he writes the prodemocracy pamphlets Suleiman and his friends see people ripping up on their doorsteps.

Now that their neighbor has been interrogated on live TV, Najwa is certain that Faraj will be next. She burns all his books (except one that Suleiman hides in his own room) and hangs a giant picture of "The Guide" on their wall. And when Faraj doesn't come home, she bakes a cake and goes to a high-ranking neighbor to beg for the life of the man of whom she once fainted at first sight.

Matar's writing is strikingly poetic. He brings as much detail to a boy's whimsical thought of mulberries as a crop planted by angels to remind Adam and Eve of paradise as he does to a public execution. And that detail helps to bring to life a place where the TV programs shift from interrogations to a still life of pink flowers, and where people are hanged in stadiums from basketball hoops, to the cheering of crowds.

While it's never a good idea to read too much autobiography into a novel, author Hisham Matar does share certain characteristics with his narrator. Both were 9 when they left Libya – although Matar was accompanied by his parents, and Suleiman is sent abroad alone. Matar's father was also a dissident, although according to an interview Matar gave last year to London's Guardian newspaper, he was not politically active until after the family was living in Egypt. In 1990, his father was kidnapped from Cairo and returned to Tripoli, where he was imprisoned and tortured. The family hasn't heard any news since 1995.

"Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that's why many feel it must be anxiously guarded," Suleiman writes years later from his home in Cairo, where his "stray dog" status means that he can't return to Libya and his family isn't allowed to leave.

The too-hasty coda is the only weak part of the novel. The grown-up Suleiman glosses over the experience of exile in a way that seems at odds with the sensitive, confused child he once was.

Reviewers like to give debut novels a pat on the head by calling them "promising." If "In the Country of Men" proves to be merely a promise of what Hisham Matar can do, London's literary lights had better watch their backs.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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