Hisham Matar on Libya's awakening

Libya has finally begun to move on from the burdens of its past, but what will the post-Qaddafi era bring? The Review talks to Hisham Matar, the acclaimed author, about one nation’s awakening.

Hisham Matar.
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One morning in late September, as Libyan rebels launched their final advance on Sirte, Muammar Qaddafi's hometown, Hisham Matar explained to a small, rapt audience at the century-old Chicago Club why the removal of repressive long-time dictators, though great, had not been the most meaningful achievement of the Arab Spring. "Our collective imagination - a whole array of expectations about our governments, our institutions, our dreams - has just shifted," he said. "The horizon has moved much further than even the most audacious of us would have suggested."

Matar speaks softly, but with confidence and precision. "You can see it on people's bodies, in their eyes and their faces, hear it in their voices," he adds during an interview in the lobby of his downtown hotel later that morning. "It's as if these regimes were sitting literally on top of us. There's a new ease, a new optimism, a new sense of ownership of the future. That tiresome record of complaining with resignation at the end of it - that's gone, and it's quite an extraordinary thing to lose so quickly."


Little-known outside literary circles before this year, Matar seems to have surfaced at precisely the right moment to herald a new Arab modernity. Born in New York City in 1970, he moved with his family to Tripoli three years later when his father, Jaballa, resigned from a United Nations posting in objection to the Qaddafi regime. In 1979, Jaballa found himself on a Libyan government watch list and again moved the family, this time to Cairo. He wrote articles calling for democracy, and became a leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. In the mid-80s, Matar was sent to boarding school in the UK, where he stayed to study architecture at university.

On the afternoon of March 12, 1990, Jaballa was taken from the family's Cairo home by Egypt's mukhabarat, handed over to the Libyan government and deposited in Abu Salim prison. Two letters, smuggled out by fellow prisoners in 1992 and 1995, relayed stories of interrogation and torture. The family has not heard from Jaballa since. His fate remains unknown.

Matar's twenties fell away in a decade of hate for the Egyptian and Libyan governments. By 2004, he had moved to Paris, met his future wife and begun work on a novel. In the Country of Men, published in 2006, is the story of a sensitive Libyan boy experiencing the quiet panic of a childhood under despotic terror. The book made the Man Booker Prize shortlist and won the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize, honouring a work that evokes "the spirit of a place".

Released early this year, his second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, is also narrated by a sensitive Arab youth and has received strong reviews. The story pivots around his father's mysterious abduction and the long-held secrets it reveals. A "chronicle of the dead years", is how the poet and critic Luke Kennard described the book in his February review for this publication. "Moving and impressively concise, what ultimately sets Anatomy of a Disappearance apart and makes it something of a modern classic is not just the universality of loss, but the deep humanity of Matar's prose." Written in English, that prose is simple, declarative, and all the more forceful as a result of his great care.

"Every word we utter betrays us, says a little more than what we think we are saying, reveals more than what we anticipated, exposes us further," Matar said during a recent lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Few better expose the long, dark reach of dictatorship than Matar, which is something of an irony, as Anatomy's publication coincided with the uprisings sweeping the region. Suddenly, Matar was everywhere: writing about Libya and his father in the New York Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker; interpreting the Arab Spring at think-tank discussions and literary festivals; chatting with the BBC, NPR and other news channels.

All at once, and despite spending more than half of his life in the UK, Matar emerged as the new Arab world's unofficial interlocutor to the West. "It's not so much translating or communicating things, but it's dispelling the presumptions that we are quintessentially different," he says of his new role. "I'm very glad to be one of the people in the army of artists that are doing that on both sides. I do think this opportunity is a fantastic moment for anyone interested in culture, to start to define this relationship."


The Arab Spring did not begin with Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi. Nor did it begin with Iran's green movement in 2009, or Lebanon's so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005. It began more than a century ago, with scholars, writers and revolutionaries who sounded the region's first modern-day clarion call for unity and self-determination.

Soon after Khayr al-Din, a reformist Circassian legion of the Ottoman Sultan, became prime minister of Tunisia in 1873, he founded Sadiki, a liberal university that taught secularism and emulated European politics. The new college became a breeding ground for the political elite that later built the institutions of an independent Tunisia. Around the same time, Muhammad Abduh, a prize pupil of the bold religious and political thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, gained a pulpit as professor of history at Cairo's Darul Uloom. He denounced unjust rulers, sought harmony among religions and sects and argued that every society should be allowed to choose the form of government best-suited to its era.

And on a June 1880 night in Beirut, a small band of Muslim and Christian men snuck out under cover of darkness and posted placards at street corners and public squares, as co-conspirators did the same in Damascus, Tripoli and Sidon. The message on their poster "rebukes the people of Syria for their lethargy," writes George Antonius in his masterful 1946 history, The Arab Awakening, "incites the people to sink their differences and unite against their tyrants under the inspiration of their 'Arab pride'."

Included were verses from Arise ye Arabs, and Awake! Written by Ibrahim Yazeji, the poem is a call to unity and insurgence that appealed to students and gained a wide following despite being too treasonous to print.

Using the social media of their day, 19th century Arab youth spread the word. "The notion of concerted action to throw off the detested yoke is gradually shaping itself," the French writer Barthelemy Denis de Rivoyre wrote after visiting Beirut in 1883. "An Arab movement, newly-risen, is looming in the distance."


The distance was further off than he thought; the nahda sparked several uprisings and an extended surge in Arab nationalism and expression, particularly in Egypt and the Levant, but ultimately fell short of its goals. Word of its demise, however, may have been premature. A century and a quarter on, the Arab Spring seems to have brought the Awakening to fruition. The movement has ousted three leaders and pushed others to the brink- and more than 90 per cent of Tunisia's 4.1m registered voters turned out for the first election of the Arab Spring last week - yet the real coup may have been more social and cultural.

"Regardless of the political outcome in particular countries, this has already heralded a new chapter in Middle East history, one of those epoch-making moments," says Charles Kurzman, sociology professor at the University of North Carolina and co-director for the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. He is guest-editing a forthcoming issue of the journal Mobilization focused on the region's uprisings. "We've seen this in a variety of ways, particularly in regards to empowerment."

The Arab Spring has shattered the old order. A wealthy Cairene man complained to Matar of a recent outing to buy the newspaper from an old man who'd been selling him the paper for decades. "He drove to the newsstand and said: 'Hey, boy, bring me the paper!'" says Matar. "The old man brought the paper over and said: 'Don't ever talk to me like that again.' That never would have happened before the revolution."

It has unleashed cultural ferment. In 1977, the Qaddafi regime organised a festival of literature - then threw all of the writers who participated in jail. Yet mere months after overthrowing their despots, Egypt and Libya are enjoying an explosion of new periodicals, including 150 new journals and magazines in Benghazi alone. "Most of them aren't very good, but that's alright," says Matar, who is discussing collaborations with Egyptian writers. "It's an exciting time to be an artist in this part of the world."

It has fostered religious and regional unity. In February, the revered Sunni scholar Yusuf al Qaradawi returned to Cairo from Qatar - the first time he'd been in his homeland for 50 years - and delivered a Friday sermon to one million Egyptians of all creeds. He began with: "O Muslims, O Christians," - the second phrase a stunning departure from Islamic tradition, particularly for a conservative imam - and went on to speak in favor of secularism and democracy. Bahrainis recently organised a protest in support of the Syrian opposition. And when Matar arrived in Egypt in August, an immigration official, on learning he was Libyan, told him: "Come on, hurry up. Get rid of that tyrant."

Perhaps most importantly, it has burnished the region's international reputation. Arabs willing to risk their lives for freedom and dignity have gained the moral high ground, particularly on American and Western leaders who colluded with the likes of Qaddafi and Mubarak for decades. For the first time in centuries, the West is looking to Arab nations for lessons on civic responsibility and courage.

Witness the Occupy Wall Street movement. It began in September with a couple of hundred young protesters camping out in Lower Manhattan to protest ineffective governance and the yawning gap between rich and poor but has since swelled to a mini-revolution, inspiring copycats in a hundred other cities worldwide, from Los Angeles to Berlin to Hong Kong. The weak global economy has played a role, as in Arab countries. But the success of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has been the spark. "This was absolutely inspired by Tahrir Square, by the Arab Spring movement," Tyler Combelic, a web designer protesting in Lower Manhattan told the New York Times last month.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the highest praise probably came from the Swedish Nobel committee in awarding a share of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to 32-year-old Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman. The choice of Karman, a liberal Islamist, highlights how Arab women have asserted themselves socially, politically, like never before - and underlines a key international concern.

"From a Western perspective, there's been much hand-wringing about instability, particularly about an Islamist government, in Egypt, in Libya," says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, who joined Matar at the Chicago Club breakfast, which had been organised by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "This is the wrong question. Our goal is to bring about democratic institutions... but we have to keep in mind it's the right of the people in these countries to shape their futures, so it's also in some sense their right to fail."

For Libya, some degree of political failure seems likely, at least in the short-term. It has no Khayr al-Din or Muhammad Abduh in its past and, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, is woefully short of the building blocks of modern governance. Under Qaddafi, Libya had no political parties, parliament, or civil society. The only government ministry worthy of the name was the state oil company. To make matters worse, Italy's fascist colonisers limited Libyans to a third-grade education until the 1950s. "The first educated generation was my father's," says Matar. "Our institutions are really basic."

Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of The Spirit of Democracy, estimates Libya might be able to cobble together the rudiments of a democracy in a few years. Libyans returning from abroad, like Ali Tarhouni, who gave up a comfortable economics professorship in Seattle to support the revolution, may help speed the process. Either way, Matar sees the coming period of instability as constructive. "We Libyans need to live through a stage where we don't know what's going to happen," says Matar. "We need to mature through uncertainty. I've always known what I'm supposed to say, supposed to think, and suddenly I don't, and it's very exciting."

Matar has some of the grace often born of suffering and contemplation, and his thoughts echo those of another writer who came to prominence with the overthrow of an oppressive regime. "People have passed through a very dark tunnel at the end of which there was a light of freedom," Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright, said in a 1990 speech in London, months after the Velvet Revolution ousted Czechoslovakia's communist leadership. "Unexpectedly they passed through the prison gates and found themselves in a square. They are now free and they don't know where to go."

After teaching a literature course at Columbia University's Barnard College this autumn, Matar plans to return to Libya for the first time in more than three decades. His first mission is to find his father - though hope has diminished in recent months as rebels have opened most of the country's prisons with no sign of Jaballa. Next up is building a new Libya. For Matar, the revolution and its success could hardly have been more personal: with the help of friends, he set up a communications centre for the uprising in his London apartment; watching demonstrations on TV, he saw protesters holding photos of his father; and in August, his 22-year-old cousin, a rebel named Izz al-Arab Matar, was killed in the assault on Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli. "I want to know what it's like to have a country again," says Matar, envisioning a cultural role for himself. "This will be a new opportunity for me to engage with Libya in a way that is fuller."

Matar, who has begun batting around ideas for a new novel, says he has no interest in politics or public service. Yet in his UCLA lecture he highlighted the balancing acts performed by Andre Malraux and Mario Vargas Llosa, writers who late in their careers embraced public life. Malraux became a French minister of state and cultural affairs, while Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru. "Both were too good and too honest to let this contaminate their art," Matar said. "They were allowed to be both artists and citizens, to be selflessly committed to their craft but also to critically engage the current issues of their time."

Now that Qaddafi is dead, Libyans are moving forward. Anger at the corruption, cronyism and mismanagement of the old regime is widespread. Diamond warns of a "policy of vengeance" in the new Libya. To Matar, the legacy of "brother leader" represents a singular hurdle. "Qaddafi is a real challenge to Libya's conception of itself," he says. "You can't tell me he's been dropped from Mars, and you can't tell me he did this on his own. What does that say about us? What does that say about our history? Without addressing personal responsibility and accountability we are in great danger of replicating elements of the past."

In the years that followed the Velvet Revolution, President Havel's decision not to chase down and prosecute the two and a half million members of the Czechoslovakian communist party helped the country maintain greater stability than some of its neighbours. "It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last 40 years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us," Havel said just days after assuming the presidency, on New Year's Day, 1990. "On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone, to do something about it."

The task for Libyans is much greater. Tribal divisions remain, caches of thousands of weapons are scattered across the country and the rebellion created a handful of powerful militia commanders, like Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, who may have difficulty laying down their arms. Back in March, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worried about Libya "becoming a giant Somalia." Just days before Qaddafi's death, Clinton spoke during a surprise visit to Tripoli University. "One of the problems you will face is how to reconcile different people, how you will bring people into a new Libya and not spend your time trying to settle scores from the past," she said.

Recent reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented armed militias backed by Libya's Transitional National Council arbitrarily detaining, beating and even torturing Qaddafi loyalists. Rebel fighters are reportedly keeping lists of such loyalists, including up to 10,000 from Sirte alone. And indeed, several mobile-phone videos strongly suggest Qaddafi's killing was an act of vengeful passion committed by angry rebels and Libyan citizens. Few understand the need for retribution as well as Matar, who cautions against it.

"Even as the son of someone who has disappeared, who has been tortured, I don't want revenge," he says, pausing in thought. "What I want is accountability: I want the torturer to know what he's done, to know that he understands the magnitude of his actions. And that's not out of the desire to punish him, but out of the desire to try to see - and it's a big risk to the heart - whether it is possible for me and him to come to regard ourselves as brothers. What it provides as a possibility for the future of Libya is bringing these people from the brink of inhumanity, of savagery, back to society in some way - that respects the suffering of the victims, that respects the desire for accountability, but refrains from revenge and from reprisals and from inflicting pain, and is motivated by the desire for brotherhood."

This sense of creativity, unity, ownership and responsibility Matar praises is not irreversible. The killing of two dozen Copts by Egypt's increasingly powerful military leadership during recent clashes in Cairo has sparked renewed religious animosity. Nationalist and Islamist groups have been energised across much of the region, threatening to change the tenor of events and the thrust of governance. In Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, uprisings have stalled in the face of suppression or turned increasingly violent. New governments in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are likely to disappoint those hoping for mature democracy. That old malaise could creep back.

Towards the end of the breakfast discussion, Matar urged patience. Outside the second-floor windows of the Chicago Club, a shelf of grey clouds loomed over Grant Park and Lake Michigan beyond. "History moves at such a glacial pace much of the time, and moments like this it seems to move at the speed of light," he said. "But we can't expect it to continue to move at that pace. A hundred years might be a good distance to judge whether this has been a good idea. It's going to take that long for these events to reverberate."

David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National's Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.