In early March, 2012 – five months after the death of dictator Muammar Qaddafi – Libyan writer and Man Booker Prize finalist Hisham Matar boards a plane from Cairo to Benghazi. Thirty-seven years after leaving Libya, he is returning to his native country in search of answers to his father’s disappearance.
Jaballa Matar, a businessman and leading exiled dissident of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi was kidnapped by Egyptian security agents in March, 1990, and handed over to the Libyan regime. At the time, Hisham was 13.
Ever since the kidnapping, Hisham and his family have been gathering every possible scrap of information, hoping to someday grasp the truth. The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between is Hisham’s account of his journey to find answers.
During his time in Libya, while campaigning for his father with the help of international human rights centers, Hisham talked with anyone who might have known his father’s fate.
Uncle Mahmoud, his father’s brother, spent 21 years in Abu Salim prison in Libyan capital Tripoli. Mahmoud told Hisham how during his first days in prison he could hear another prisoner reciting poetry late into the night. “The voice was that of an elderly man,” he said. “One day he called out my name. I answered asking him who he was. ‘You don’t recognize me?’ he said. I told him, ‘No.’ He didn’t speak after that. Do you know how long he fell silent for? A whole week.” Only after a week the prisoner started talking again and finally his uncle Mahmoud recognized it was Hisham’s father, Jaballa.
Years before, Hisham met another man in London who told him that although the authorities made sure to keep Jaballa away from other prisoners, he exchanged messages with Jaballa. When Hisham asked if the man ever actually saw his father, he describes how “he used to stand on the shoulders of one of his cellmates and watch through the high windows as Father paced the courtyard alone.”
Hisham juxtaposes these accounts with a few messages from his father that were smuggled out of the prison, still struggling to learn his father's fate. As the book progresses, Hisham gradually accepts that his father is deceased and begins to focus on learning how he died.
Despite the tragic outcome, as he journeys, Hisham does succeed in getting to know his father in greater depth. He learns that his father was an editor of a literary journal in college, where he wrote short stories. When for the first time he opens the journal, he looks at the photo of his father in his late teenage years: “He was wearing a suit and tie and a confidently serious expression. He looked like a young Albert Camus.”
"The Return” is not about one family. It’s the story of Libyan opposition and resistance, although the Matar family shapes the storyline. The book details Libyan resistance against the Italian colonization in early 1900s, of which Hisham’s paternal grandfather took part. It’s also about the dissidents’ campaign against Qaddafi’s regime that Jaballa and his family were part of, as well as the 2011 uprising during which Hisham lost one of his nephews in the fight against Qaddafi.
The book describes how, cruelly, even the dimmest ray of hope can keep the families of the disappeared from accepting the possibility of their loss. After Jaballa’s kidnapping, Hisham’s mother continues to record every soccer match broadcast for three years, hoping her husband, a passionate soccer fan, will come back and watch them. Another mother whose son was imprisoned continues to cook meals and purchase gifts for him, even after 1996 when prison visits were abruptly suspended. It’s only in 2001 that she stops her trips to the prison, when she is officially informed that her son was among those executed in June 29, 1996 massacre.
But in the end this book is about survival, the urge to live that has sustained Hisham during his darkest moments. It’s only in the course of this journey, when Hisham finds his father's short stories, that he discovers that Jaballa used the words “work and survive" to finish one of his stories. It's a narrative about a boy who suffers series of misfortunes. In the end the boy stands up again and decides to carry on – exactly as Jaballa must have wanted Hisham to do.