by Hisham Matar
I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy arrived only at night…
Suleiman, a.k.a. “Slooma” is a boy who doesn’t understand himself. What makes him turn on his best friend, and cruelly stone a beggar when Suleiman is afraid? (And then naively think that they will forgive him.) Why does he feel both love and hatred for his mother, who suffers a mysterious “illness” when they’re alone? And what aren’t the grownups telling him about his father’s secret in Martyr’s Square?
Suleiman doesn’t understand these things, but we do. We understand that the fear of living in a dictatorship makes the stress leak out brutally. We understand that his mother is an alcoholic. We understand that life under Colonel Khadaffi’s regime is terrifying. Far more frightening for normal people than we normal people in the U.S. ever suspected growing up in the 1980s.
Like the Albanian book, Chronicles in Stone, this story is served better by the voice of a child than by an adult narrator. Because this method of storytelling forces you to read between the lines to figure out what’s going on. Censorship and repression is alive and well in Libya in 1979. Terror and defiance in equal measure. It’s horrifying, and heartbreaking.
A Good Read
I enjoyed this book. It felt Libyan. It’s my first book set in the Muslim world through young male eyes and really different to, say, Infidel. Of course, that was non-fiction.
The baking heat of Libya is described beautifully; the sesame sticks wrapped in white waxed paper twists; the glorious mulberries, “fruits of angels”. The ever-present sea. The monuments left by ancient Romans – the Italian running the café with its huge portrait of The Dear Leader – I mean The Colonel. It’s a big, glorious, gloppy fictional mess.
I was struck by the similarity of young Suleiman’s religious experience to my own – he’s been frightened of hellfire by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and talks of Adam and Eve and the angels constantly. But when he sees men eyeing his mother disrespectfully he wonders if she should wear a looser-fitting robe.
1) Mama (“Um Suleiman, the Mother of Suleiman) wasn’t thrilled to marry Baba at 14. She repeatedly tells her son this in various inappropriate ways. 2) She drinks to cope, which is not only shameful, but illegal. 3) Mama is upset with the family friend, an Egyptian named Moosa, for encouraging Baba to write pamphlets against the regime. Moosa could be deported, but Baba can be “put behind the sun”. He can be executed on state TV.
That’s the rating on the Hollymeter: Great writing, interesting and sympathetic characters – a terrible time in Libyan history that Americans know little about. At least I didn’t.