Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York City, where his father was working for the United Nations.
When he was three years old, his family went back to Tripoli, but due to political persecutions by the Gaddafi regime, in 1979 the family was forced to flee the country, and lived in exile in Cairo, before moving to London in 1986.
He then trained as an architect, and was there when his father Jaballa, a political dissident, was kidnapped in Cairo. He has been reported missing ever since, and his whereabouts never discovered, despite various clues suggesting his survival. Matar discusses this in his highly successful memoir, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (2016).
Matar began writing his first novel, In the Country of Men, in early 2000. In the autumn of 2005, Penguin International signed him to a two-book deal. That debut was published in July 2006 and has been translated into 22 languages. His second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011) further explored fictional events and themes similar to the plight of Matar’s father.
In 2008 Matar became the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow Commoner at Girton College at the University of Cambridge. In 2014 he became the Weiss International Fellow in Literature and the Arts and Adjunct Associate Professor in the English Department at Barnard University in New York City. He writes widely for various international publications.
The Libyan émigré Hisham Matar burst onto the literary scene with his 2006 debut novel In the Country of Men, a harrowing treatment of the lives of dissidents under the Gadaffi regime.
Drawing on the first hand trauma of his activist father’s own disappearance, this English-language novel met with instant acclaim and Matar was hailed by the New York Times as “an authentic interpreter and witness, someone who could speak across cultures and make us feel the abundant miseries of the revolt” against an authoritarian regime.
In recent years, Mata’s work has become inescapably topical. When the appearance of his second novel An Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011) coincided with the Arab uprisings and the ensuing fall of Gadaffi, it lent his fiction new urgency, and in the words of Hermione Lee, made his two novels “more compelling and moving than ever.”
The material that was to become his first novel surfaced first in articles he wrote on his father’s disappearance for Amnesty International in 2003. As it happens, he was already well underway on In the Country of Men, which he had begun in 2000, and woke early each morning to write while working full time as an architect, to complete the manuscript. The novel told the story of Suleiman, a nine year old boy struggling to come to terms with the disruption to family life caused by the Gadaffi state police. Its title referred to the various forms of masculinity into which the novel’s hero is rudely forced to accept and embrace as his life radically changes. It was nominated for the 2006 Booker Prize and Guardian First Book Award, and US National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize among others.
Many critics praised the powerfully evocative language in which Matar captured both the prelapsarian Tripoli haze of “that last summer before I was sent away”, and the austere prose through which we glimpse Suleiman’s later intense fears. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Matar claims that the this story was in fact originally intended as poetry:
'Shortly before writing my novel the poems I was attempting to write had become more and more concerned with narrative. In the Country of Men began as one such poem. A scene that is now about forty or fifty pages into the book, where Suleiman is alone in the garden picking mulberries, was the first thing I wrote. I thought I had begun a poem about a boy in the garden, in the mythical garden, as it were, picking ripened fruit. Twelve lines, three or four weeks at the most and I will be done, I thought. The novel took five years to write.'
Upon its release various reviewers noted these qualities. The Washington Post declared it “a haunting, poetic story … this sad, beautiful novel captures the universal tragedy of children caught in their parents' terrors.”
Reviewers were also largely positive on its social vision, seeing in it what the Observer praised as both “a powerful political novel and a tender evocation of universal human conflicts”. Looking back from a post-Gadaffi world, of course, its discussion is movingly prescient. But even at the time, reviewers were alive to the political implications for reminders of the cruelties of the Libyan regime during a period of British foreign policy in which Gadaffi was coming in from the cold. The Financial Times similarly thought it useful as a “poignant tale of personal and collective betrayal and a timely reminder of the brutal methods that Gadaffi employed to become the Arab world’s longest-serving leader.”
For some dissenting voices, however, the novel fell short of meaningful comment on these larger concerns. The Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef, for example, expressed worries that the book’s attempt at broader canvas critique might be purely pragmatic or commercial, writing in the New Statesman that "Matar seems to have set out to write a novel about a lonely child in Tripoli but - perhaps to tempt a publisher - shoehorns in Libyan politics under Gaddafi in a manner that precisely tallies with western stereotyping. ... Suleiman relates these events with a minimal appreciation of what his father and his comrades were trying to achieve. His account provides us with no insight into Libyan politics of the period, nor, oddly, does it generate any sympathy for the dissidents." Others also found the surprisingly upbeat conclusion unconvincing in such a dark work.
Matar’s second novel returned to similar themes, and translated them to experience of exile. Published in 2011, Anatomy of a Disappearance again contained a character whose father is taken away by the authorities. This time it followed the story of Nuri, a teenager living in exile with his family in Cairo in Egypt. After the sudden death of his mother, he also loses his father Kamal Pasha el-Alfi who disappears in mysterious circumstances in Switzerland, clearly abducted by the an unnamed Arab regime. Matar again narrates the experience from Nuri’s perspective, as he attempts to understand this loss later whilst living in London, suffering the indignities, pleasures and pains of exile, and recovering his own sense of self.
Reviews were positive but perhaps inevitably less ecstatic than for this debut. The Financial Times praised it as “beautifully crafted tale coiled around an enigma” worthy of the stylist of the first. For Hermione Lee in the Guardian, this second instalment had the feeling of an “somber” and elegant thriller, “spare and pared down,” but was lacking in the evocative language and “vivid sense of a particular city at a particular moment that In the Country of Men had, and I didn't find the teenage Nuri quite as involving a narrator as the nine-year-old Suleiman.” Robert Worth in the New York Times also thought it “a little disappointing. The narrative voice has a coldness, a pained fragility, utterly at odds with the vividness and spontaneity” of its predecessor.
Throughout his rise to prominence, Matar has been resistant to the roles of autobiographer or political commentator that have been cast upon him. As he stated in a 2007 interview, he is “not aware that I have told ‘my story’”:
I am not even sure what story that would be; one is made up of so many stories that it is hard to find the authoritative one. …. I was commissioned once by the London Independent on Sunday to write an autobiographical essay. Nothing bored me more. I hope that I will, with age, become less disinterested in the telling of my past for it seems, even at this age, so voluminous and intricate and infinitely worthy of meditation. Not so much because I have lived a particularly interesting life—even though the life I have lived has been interesting enough for me—but because the early years seem so rich, and our distance from them obscures and enriches them even more.
As for being a voice of larger Arab resistance, Matar’s two novels have clearly earned him a place in a long tradition of what might called émigré chroniclers of Arab dissident: alongside writers such as Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, and more recently, Iraq’s Mahmoud Saeed. Yet whilst eager to celebrate this connections and inheritances, Matar has argued that we should read his work in a broader and more generous context:
The late [Syrian writer] Nizar Qabbani had once referred to Arabs obliged by distance and exile to write in languages not their own as wild horses. I took that to mean that he admired our freedom, but lamented our loss, perhaps even our unruliness. It is certainly not an easy thing to write outside one's language. It is the deepest and most peculiar dimension of exile that I have experienced. But, in the end, if I were to be utterly candid, I am as interested in the Arabic novel as I am in the Norwegian or South African or American. All that matters in the end is good writing. (Words Without Borders interview, 2007)
And though some might read him as a protest writer, Matar has said that "I think ultimately I am a sensualist and an aesthete.” He told the Guardian in 2006, “I'm not really interested in politics, but politics was part of the canvas. I had to say something about it, otherwise all the different forces that are shaping these characters would be abstract." Summing up this ambivalence for a 2011 profile, Hari Kunzru calls him ‘Libya’s Reluctant Spokesman’
Whether understood as cultural mediator between Western readers and a misunderstood North African world, or simply as an expressive chronicler of psychological disruption and loss, Matar’s voice has become an fixture of the British literary scene. And his insight into the aftermath of the Arab Spring is perhaps more necessary than ever. As he wrote in January 2015 for the New Yorker, “Libya has all but disappeared from the news, yet what is taking place there is of deadly importance”
Dr Tom Wright