Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa Matar, an active opponent of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail. After 1996, there was no word of what happened to him. This beautifully written memoir concerns not only Matar’s memories of family life before his disappearance, but also the desperation of those left not knowing their loved one’s fate. Read on Radio 4, the book has received remarkable reviews from (among others) Colm Tóibín and Hilary Mantel.
The book is particularly moving on the effect of the disappearance on everyday life. Matar’s mother continued videoing football matches for her missing husband for years after he disappeared. In their exile, Matar and his family do everything they can think of to find out what has happened to Jaballa. At the same time, Matar develops as a novelist, publishing among other things the well-reviewed Anatomy of a Disappearance. After Tony Blair’s rapprochement with Qaddafi in 2004, Matar, who was living in London, notes: “none of us felt safe. Officials from the Libyan embassy attended the first reading I gave from my first novel. A report was sent to Tripoli and I became a watched man. It was deemed no longer safe for me to visit my family in Egypt, which caused a second exile” (p. 174). While the book concerns Matar’s relationship with his father, his mother also stands out as a remarkable woman in her own right.
I learnt a lot about Libya’s history from this remarkable book, and its impacts on those who live through it. While The Return gives some truly horrendous accounts of human rights violations, it is also a book about deep resilience and love.
Review by Bethan