TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has often thought of his father as neither dead nor alive. Hisham Matar's family was living in Egypt, in exile from Libya, when Matar's father, a prominent opponent of the Gadhafi regime, was kidnapped, taken back to Libya and imprisoned. That was in March 1990, and it was the last time Matar saw his father.
The only word he'd heard from his father over the years was through a couple of letters smuggled out of prison. In March of last year, after the revolution that overthrew Gadhafi, Matar returned to Libya for the first time since leaving, to look for his father or at least to try to find out what became of him.
In Libya, Matar also reconnected with two uncles and two cousins who were dissidents and who had been imprisoned for 21 years. They were released on the same day, just two weeks before the popular uprising against Gadhafi began. Another cousin was killed by a sniper in the battle at Gadhafi's compound.
Hisham Matar writes about his father and the recent trip to Libya in his article "The Return," published in this week's edition of the New Yorker. Matar is a novelist who divides his time between New York and London. He teaches a course at Barnard College on the literature of exile and estrangement.
Hisham Matar, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So when you set out for Libya, to see if you could find your father who had been imprisoned for many years, the last you'd heard of him was in 2010, you learned that somebody had seen him or said that they'd seen him in prison in 2002. So you really had no idea if he was alive or not.
So when you go to Libya looking for your father, where do you start? What was the plan?
HISHAM MATAR: Well, the plan was to speak to as many people as possible, people that were in prison, people that are involved in the government now, and to basically make as many inquiries as possible. But even before we went, it was becoming explicitly clear that he was no longer alive because all the prisons were opened, and the political prisoners had been released and accounted for, and he wasn't among them. That fact had become clear, you know, before arriving in Libya.
So the question was, well, what actually happened to him, where might his body be, and so that was the nature of the inquiries.
GROSS: You describe in your New Yorker piece being on the phone with a man who was one of the men hammering the cells of the worst prison in Libya, a prison which you knew your father had been, at least for a period of his imprisonment, and you were on the phone as they were liberating prisoners, political prisoners. One of the things you were hearing as you were on the phone, they were able to open the door of a cell, and in the cell was a man who obviously hadn't been exposed to daylight for many years.
He had no memory anymore. He didn't even know his name. His only possession was a photograph of your father. And so you're on the phone when they find him with this photograph?
MATAR: So, yes. So I was on the phone with the person who - one of the people that were releasing the prisoners that were there. So this happened very shortly after Tripoli was - fell under the revolutionaries. And they - obviously with every cell that they opened, there was, you know, heightened anticipation on my part.
But then when they reached this final cell that contained what they described to me as an important person from Ajdabiya, which is my father's hometown, I was incredibly hopeful, if that's the right word, except what I was feeling was slightly a dark sense of hope.
But then, you know, eventually they opened it, and they found this man who had been in solitary confinement for a long time, you know, in this windowless room. It was obvious that he hadn't been out of this room in years. And they found beside him a photograph of my father.
But the man had lost his memory. So he wasn't able to tell him anything about his own identity, let along how he came to have this photograph, or what his relationship might have been to my father, or if they knew each other, or if they were friends or comrades, or - I mean, it's a revelation that poses more questions than answers questions.
GROSS: It just seems so - oh, frustrating is not a strong enough word, that you find somebody who has a photo of your father, but this man has no memory, and so there is nothing that he can give you in terms of a clue. To be so close and so far at the same time, I just can't imagine the emotions that that set off in you.
MATAR: Yes, and this seems to be a sort of a repeated pattern not only with me and my family and trying to find information about my father, but with many families who have endured disappearance, that somehow with every new piece of information there seems to be either more questions, or other questions become more aggravated in their desire to be answered. And this seems to be a pattern.
But also one of the things - one of the questions that it raises, for me, at least, every time it happens is that how do you mark something like this. You know, where is the - you know, what is the appropriate way to be faithful to the memory of this event, to attend to it, because the possibility is very credible that I might never find out what happened to my father. And therefore what - how do you accommodate this thing, this very strange thing that I've been trying to accommodate for over two decades now, certainly more than half my life.
GROSS: You write that you've grieved his loss, but you've never grieved his death, because you've never really known for sure, though you suspect now, you know, that he died.
MATAR: Yeah, and I think also, you know, something extraordinary happened when I was in Libya making these inquiries. I got a sense of my father, in a way, restraining me, urging me not to proceed. I felt him every time I asked about him. I felt him as if he were saying, you know, just stop.
MATAR: You know, I'm not in this place. I'm not where you are looking. And it reminded me of a line in one of his letters, the first letter that was smuggled out of prison and reached us. And he says in this letter: Don't come looking for me. And he meant it in the literal sense, then, and he meant it to do with, you know, don't compromise yourselves by coming to Libya and either subjecting yourself to danger, allowing the regime to use you in some way.
You know, don't - you know, so he was warning us in that sense. But after, now, the revolution and this change and me physically being in Libya, that statement in the letter seemed to have a slightly different meaning to me. It seemed that don't come looking for me, meaning I'm not in - I'm not in these places. I'm not with these people that you're asking. I am somewhere else.
And it brought me back to the things that are most intimate and most important and incredibly private, to do with my relationship with my father. It's as if the events that have happened, his forced disappearance, was also an attempt to, kind of, make him disappear from my own mind, you know, to make me focus only on the urgency of trying to find him.
So that - I found, that was an unexpected event.
GROSS: So when you imagined your father giving you this message I'm not here, I'm not where you're looking, do you mean that you think your father was trying to tell you I'm dead, I'm freed from the prison, you're not going to find me anyplace that you look; except maybe like in your heart and in your memory. Is that what you mean?
MATAR: Yes, something like that. I mean, I felt that it wasn't - he wasn't literally saying I am not in this physical place, but that you're involved in your mission to try to find me is something that's far more attainable to you than you think; that the people with whom we are deeply involved, emotionally and psychologically, the way that we hold them, the way that we attend to them, sometimes is much more subtle than the ways that we think.
It's not necessarily by buying them what they love or fixing the world for them. Sometimes it's something much more subtle than that. And I felt that my father was - his statement was in that kind of vicinity.
GROSS: My guest is Hisham Matar. His article "The Return" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Hisham Matar. His article "The Return" in the current edition of The New Yorker is about returning to Libya after the revolution to search for his father, who was imprisoned in 1990 by the Gadhafi regime.
I'm going to try to sum up why your father was considered an enemy of the Gadhafi regime. So tell me if this is accurate. He had been in the military under the king, and then when the coup overthrew the king, and Gadhafi became president, your father was given a diplomatic position in the Libyan Permanent Mission to the U.N., largely to get rid of him without alienating him as a military man and risking turning military men against the regime.
But then your father decided to continue to fight the Gadhafi regime and ran a militia that hoped to depose Gadhafi. Do I have that right?
MATAR: Yes, except I think the description of a militia might not be accurate. I mean, he was part of an opposition group that had an armed element. Maybe that's called a militia, but it doesn't ring true. But yes, that's roughly what was going on.
My father was an incredibly able and focused opponent to the regime. He had absolutely no intentions of giving in to them or, you know, being co-opted in the many ingenious ways that that regime managed to co-opt so many decent people. And so he was a thorn in their side, and they've tried several things to silence him or remove him or buy him or scare him.
And eventually they succeeded by kidnapping him from his home and imprisoning him and then eventually killing him or causing his death in some way. We don't know exactly what happened.
GROSS: How much did you know about what he was doing when you were young?
MATAR: I knew quite a bit. You know, we - my family is small. There's only four of us: my parents, my brother and I. And we were very close as a unit and talked about most things that concerned us and talked openly and in a free and honest way. And so, you know, we had a clear sense of what father was involved in and the extent to which he was involved and the dangers that that posed to him.
And we were very resistant and really had several arguments about it because we naturally feared for him and wanted to persuade him to not go down this incredibly intense path, you know, that you have to risk unreasonable things. But he, you know, he was devoted. He was completely devoted.
GROSS: To the cause.
MATAR: Yeah, he was completely devoted to liberating Libya from this dictatorship. And even, you know, after facing the grim reality of prison and being tortured and all the details that he actually notes in his letters, you know, he does say that if he had it to do again, he would do exactly the same thing, that he actually thinks that this event, the event of his incarceration, is not something to mourn, it's something to celebrate, in his words, because he said that he's thankful that he had had the ability and the courage to face up to this regime, and that he would think it would have been a worse fate if he had bowed to them. So he seemed really strong in prison. And one of the positive things that happened out of the trip is that I got to meet a lot of people who knew him in prison and told me things about him that were extraordinary and that confirmed this sense of this strength that he had in prison, and that he became a sort of father to a lot of the young prisoners and gave them a sense of hope and strength.
One of the most moving and extraordinary examples of this for me is these young prisoners who told me that we had never seen your father, but we could hear him. So we would speak to each other, but we never saw him because each one of us is locked in a cell.
But whenever he would hear that one of us was taken and to be interrogated, he would call out, and he'd say boys, if you get stuck, tell them I told you to do it.
MATAR: And so many things like this that I learned about him that although of course they don't resolve my bigger problem of knowing what had happened to him and the very basic human desire and need to have a grave, some marker for the end of such an important life, stories like this still just - you know, they comfort on some level. They make me feel that he was - that they didn't manage to break him, and that not having been broken was, to some extent I'm sure, a comfort to him, as well as it was to others.
GROSS: Well, you also write about how some of his fellow prisoners said that he would read - he would just, like, recite poetry all the time. He had committed so many poems to memory, he could do that. And he had told you when you were young that knowing a book by heart is like carrying a house inside your chest. So that must have been reassuring, too, to know that he recited poems, and in that sense he was able to access something beautiful even when he was in this horrible cell.
MATAR: Yeah, it was an astonishing demonstration and victory on his part on an old argument that he and I had because like most children I wasn't exactly excited about being obliged to memorize pages and pages of text. And he would tell me that - he would try to convince me about the virtues of doing such a thing, that it would, you know, teach you about language, that it would...
He described it once, he said it's like - it's the difference between, you know, reading a poem is like a bird flying over a forest, but memorizing it is like that same bird walking through the forest as well as, you know, learning how to fly over it. So he would give me all these examples to try to sell me the idea of memorizing these poems, which I did.
But - and later of course learned other virtues of - many wonderful virtues about memorizing text, that it does feel like company, in a sense. But this story of him reciting poems to comfort himself and others in prison was just another demonstration of how right he was that - and it made me feel, it made me feel - I was happy for him to have had these poems in his chest, that they were there to delight an comfort, perhaps, and entertain him and others, that literature, oftentimes I think we misrepresent literature as some kind of sort of comfortable thing that you, you know, you sink into a nice comfortable chair, and you read a book, and nothing ever really changes in you.
And you go on to the next book and so on. And examples like this show you that actually literature is just far more fundamental. It's about the makeup of our psychology. It becomes a kind of country for us and a kind of solace and friend at times, as it did, I think, for my father in those times.
GROSS: When you were in Libya trying to investigate what happened to your father, how long was he in prison, did he die in prison, was he executed, did he starve, were you able to track down any prison guards who might be able to tell you anything, former prison guards?
MATAR: No, that was very difficult. It remains incredibly difficult. So the prison guards that have been captured, they are very reluctant to give information that might incriminate them. So that's - you know, that still remains, that still remains very difficult.
GROSS: You mentioned in our past interview, several years ago, that when you were about 15, your father gave you - I think you were about 15 - your father gave you a video of a public execution in Libya because there had been public executions to instill terror in the population. And he felt that you were old enough to see this and that you should know, at this point, what was happening in your country.
Did the images from that video kind of haunt you ever since?
MATAR: Yes, and also I have to just say that I'm - you know, memory plays tricks. So - and part of - the piece that I'm writing is also a piece about memory, in a sense. But memory plays tricks. So I'm not sure if my father had given me the video, or my brother and I snuck into his study and took it and watched it against his will, or - you know, I'm not - I don't remember exactly. But I remember seeing it, and I remember that it was incredibly haunting and terrible, really terrible.
I think watching human beings do terrible things to human beings is already outrageous and moves us, should move us, incredibly deeply and outrage us. But something about watching your own do terrible things to your own, that somehow makes it more intimate and therefore more horrible and dare I say also more interesting, interesting in the sense of, you know, anybody who is interested in the nature of being a human being.
GROSS: When you were imagining, like, what happened to your father, was he executed, did he die of starvation, did this video create images in your mind that you would have preferred not to have?
MATAR: You know, I have learned so much about what this regime had done to people that I have already - I already have, you know, a large library of awful possibilities that have happened to my father. I try, you know, lest I go mad I try not to think about that and try to think about the things that I think my father was encouraging us to think about in his letters, you know, his strength and his ideas and his commitment to what he thought was right.
GROSS: Hisham Matar will be back in the second half of the show. His article "The Return" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with writer Hisham Matar. In this week's edition of The New Yorker, Matar writes about returning to Libya for the first time since his family went into exile. In 1990, his father, a political dissident, was kidnapped from Egypt, where the family was living then and taken to a Libyan prison. That was the last time Matar saw his father. In March of last year, after Gadhafi was overthrown, Matar returned to Libya to search for his father or for clues of what became of him.
You made your trip to Libya in the hopes of finding out what happened to your father and if he died in prison, if he was executed, if he was tortured. One of the things you did learn was about the life of your Uncle Mahmoud, who was imprisoned for 21 years and had been released in February of 2011 - 14 days before the uprising against Gadhafi. What did he tell you about life in Abu Salim prison, the prison in which you know your father at least spent part of his time in prison?
MATAR: Extraordinary things. Mostly about what he had endured there, and he had endured terrible things. But also, you know, I've sadly been in conversations with political prisoners in Libya for a very long time. As you might imagine, people had left at different stages. And some of what my Uncle Mahmoud was telling me reminded me of these other conversations, that there's a pattern, and the pattern is usually desiring to confirm to you that they hadn't been obliterated, that this individual hadn't been erased by everything that had happened. So my Uncle Mahmoud was an exceptional in this because he - because of how close we are and what he could tell me, but also of this amazing ability of his to remain gentle and loving and able to forgive and, you know, it was astonishing, it was really astonishing to me, given particularly what had happened to him, that he remained so - I mean it's really it was something that moved me so deeply and just - I find it such a lesson in how to be a human being. He's amazing in that way. Even though, you know, he had experienced astonishing hardships of, you know, being tortured and imprisoned and mistreated, and yet he somehow came through that. And, yeah...
GROSS: And that's 21 years in prison. That's in solitary the whole time?
MATAR: No. No. He was with other people. There were moments when he was alone but mostly he was with other people.
MATAR: And always in close contact with his nephews and - so which is...
GROSS: Who were also in prison. Yeah.
MATAR: Who were also imprisons, yeah.
GROSS: So he managed to know while he was in prison that you'd been nominated for England's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize. Did he have a radio in prison?
MATAR: Eventually, you know, there were certain sort of - prison life was incredibly unpredictable. There are moments of hardship and then suddenly, you know, they'll bring them a radio and food gets better, and then just as quickly things go back to being really terrible. And sometimes there was a reason for the change, sometimes there wasn't. It was just seemingly arbitrary. And so yes, there was a time when they had - when he had a radio, when occasionally they could get a hold of the newspaper - of course it was the national newspaper. And he had heard on BBC radio, the Arabic BBC Radio, World Service, that you know, this Libyan writer had been nominated for the Booker and he heard it was me. And then he heard an interview with me and he told me when we spoke, the moment he was released we spoke on the phone. He was being driven home and we spoke for a long time. It was the first time that I heard his voice, you know, since he was imprisoned for 21 years and we were very close when I was a kid. So he meant, you know, means a great deal to me. So we were speaking on the phone and the first thing he said to me was, so what is this I hear about you having been shortlisted for the Booker?
MATAR: You know, it was like you mischievous so-and-so.
GROSS: So your father gave his life because of his commitment to overthrowing the Gadhafi regime. Your uncles were imprisoned for the same reason; a cousin lost his life during the revolution that overthrew Gadhafi. When you went to Libya last year, you know, the fledgling new government, the revolutionary government was trying to create order in the country. But one of your cousins who is a judge was on strike - as were, you know, a lot of other judges - because they feared that they could make, you know, fair decisions without fear of reprisals. So were they worried about this new government punishing them for decisions or former Gadhafi people who were still in the country?
MATAR: No. The fear is not from the government - fear of reprisals, at least, is not from the government. The fear is from these bandits basically, militias who are armed, act independently. They are, you know, only answerable to themselves and to their immediate commander and they don't fall under any kind of national authority, even though sometimes they take, they oblige the government to pay them money because they threaten it to pay them money. I don't think this will surprise most people who know something about post-revolutionary Libya in the sense that because Libya doesn't have a national army, or an incredibly weak one, or one that is forming, and equally not really a police force, the government, which is an elected government, had to rely on armed groups. Some of them had fought in the revolution, some of them claimed to have fought in the revolution, who control national assets, who basically, you know, look after the airports and the oil fields and the national borders and ports and so on, so the government doesn't feel it can do without them until it can quickly create an army.
But we what that situation has done is that actually it gave these people more power and it made them coalescent and start to create their own, start to have their own political agendas and ambitions, and some of those, some of their intentions run against, you know, the independence of the judiciary, for example, and so it's a huge problem and it seems to have only gotten worse since the time that I write about it in 2012; it seems to have only gotten worse.
GROSS: So seeing what's happened in post-revolutionary Libya, what kind of feelings has it left you with about revolution and what it can or can't accomplish?
MATAR: Well, I've always said, I've always said I'm not by temperament a romantic about revolutions or given to revolutions. I've always thought that they are not the ideal way to change. But we were in a situation where we didn't have any other option. And so in this case we had to have a revolution. But revolutions - and history shows them to be incredibly temperamental things. They call for excitement and violence and blood and impatience, all the things that I am personally, you know, that I fear and dislike. And so, you know, that's generally about revolutions. But how I feel now about what's happening in Libya, you know, I think that there are some things that give one, you know, great enthusiasm and hope, such as what's happening in cultural life and what's happening to a certain extent in democratic political life. The fact that Libyans elected a parliament. The fact that when enough voices gather around and criticism gather around a minister, that minister, you know, there's a high chance that they'd step down, and that has happened. The amount of, you know, cultural festivals and publications that are happening there, these are positive things but there's also equally worrying things going on, such as this question of security that I alluded to and the general sense of impatience and fatigue that revolutions leave countries in that just has to take its course in some sense. But it seems incredibly - it's very worrying what's happening at the moment. Yeah.
GROSS: My guest is Hisham Matar. His article, "The Return," is in the current edition of The New Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Hisham Matar. His article, "The Return," in the current edition of The New Yorker, is about returning to Libya after the revolution to search for his father, who was imprisoned in 1990 by the Gadhafi regime. The family had been living in exile in Egypt at the time.
You were forced to flee Libya when you were eight or nine. In your heart Libya is, you know, was a beautiful place. You wanted to be there. But knowing what actually happened to your country and having gone back there, having seen what the lives of your relatives who stayed were like, including the lives of relatives who were imprisoned and the lives of their families, what do you think your life would have been like had you stayed, had your family stayed?
MATAR: I don't know. I try not to think about that - just because the trajectory of my family poses so many different possibilities. You know, had we stayed in New York when my father resigned from the diplomatic corps where I was born, what would've happened? Had we stayed in Libya, what would've happened? Had we stayed in Kenya, what would've happened, where we went first before settling in Egypt? You know, and so on and so on. So there are so many if's there. But I want to tell you that when I was in Libya, one of the things that happened is very quickly, about the second or the third day of being there, I suddenly felt a sort of panic because suddenly I realized that all my tools with which I could interact with this place are tools from the past. They're all to do with my family, my father or what happened to my father, my memories of childhood, my relatives, that I had nothing immediate. And I wanted, I yearned for something incredibly direct and almost something that had nothing to do with morality or nothing to do with history. And I mourned it. I realized that I don't have that. And then, but very quickly, as soon as I sort of acknowledged that, I very quickly, in the next few days, I started to have this what felt to me to be a sincere, uncomplicated relationship to the land, to the quality of the light, to the trees. There's something about the land of the countries where we come from that seems almost immoral and has nothing to do with history, has nothing to do with lineage even. It is something far more immediate and far more simple and basic. And I can't tell you the extent to which I felt - I yearned for it, even when I was on it and I felt a kind of nourishment from being in it - the landscape, I mean. And Libya's landscape is stunning, maybe more so to me, maybe I'm being biased, but I'm sure I am, but it helps to be in such a magical landscape on which, you know, Greek tragedies were staged. It's just so luminous and marvelous that for moments you feel it's somehow elevated above all of the temporary complications of history and my particular history.
GROSS: We talked a little bit about how your father recited poetry in prison and how he loved having committed poems to memory, being able to have it in his chest. I want to just read an excerpt of a letter that he wrote that was smuggled out of prison. It seems to me he was a very good writer. So here's the excerpt.
And now a description of this - this was when he was in prison - and now a description of this noble palace. The cell is a concrete box. The walls are made of prefabricated slabs. There is a steel door through which no air passes. A window that is three and a half meters above ground. As for the furniture, it is in the style of Louis XVI. An old mattress worn out by many previous prisoners, torn in several places. The world here is empty. Had you thought of your father as a writer?
MATAR: Yes, actually. Because he was, you know, he was really interested in literature and wrote some poems. He wouldn't have called himself a writer because I think he, you know, he didn't dedicate himself to it fully enough. And he knew that. But he loved literature and he loved - had a high regard for the implications and the esthetics of language. And it was apparent in his conversations.
He was incredibly articulate, had beautiful Arabic, and in his letters before prison, when I was a student and he would send me letters. So, yes. No, it certainly didn't surprise me. His eloquence didn't surprise me. But in the prison letters there are moments when his eloquence almost becomes as a kind of gesture of defiance. That I am going to sing even here. I'm going to write a, you know, a beautiful sentence.
GROSS: Did your father's love of literature help you feel that your father would have approved of the life that you chose for yourself? A life of writing literature and of teaching literature, as opposed to the life that he chose, which was the life of a more physical opposition to the Libyan regime, to the Gadhafi regime?
MATAR: Yes. Absolutely. And that statement that I told you about before, Terry, about the letter when he says don't come looking for me. In that too is to me that other meaning. Find your own way. Which was always a sentiment that he insisted on - that each one of us has to find his own way, that we don't have to follow him.
And he had a high regard for my misery pursuits in literature when I was a kid. Which reflected in the letter that he sent from prison when he said, you know, started addressing us individually, you know, he wrote mostly letters describing to us all together in general what has happened.
But then addressing each one of us individually. And he started with my mother, then he went to my brother, then he came to me. Then he said - being the youngest. So he said I wonder if you are still interested in your two loves: poetry and music. And my heart stopped at that moment because I thought he would be completely permitted to say - the following sentence, for it to say because I hope you have outgrown these childish habits or something.
But instead what he says is he says I hope so. I hope that you are still loyal to poetry and music. So for him to give me this confirmation from arguably the darkest place has bolstered my conviction that what I do and, notwithstanding my limited abilities in it, is worthwhile.
GROSS: Hisham Matar, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
MATAR: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: I wish you good health and all best.
MATAR: Thank you. I wish you good health, too, and all your listeners.
GROSS: Hisham Matar's article "The Return" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. His latest novel is called "Anatomy of a Disappearance." Coming up Ken Tucker reviews the album that's number one on Billboard's country album chart. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.