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Libyan novelist returns to fact  

25 November 2016

Anthony Phillips on an author’s own story

The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between
Hisham Matar
Penguin £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50



I MUCH dislike being told what I “ought” to read. But forgive me: this is a “must-read” book. Why? First, as befits a prizewinning novelist, it is beautifully written with honesty and sensitivity. Second, in the worst of circum­stances, it gives a picture of the best of family life. Third, it shows a rigorous under­stand­ing of the cost of being fully human. If you are like me, it will drive you to rage and tears alternately.

In March 1990, the author’s father, Jaballa Matar, one of Muammar Gaddafi’s most prom­inent opponents, actively working for his overthrow, was kidnapped from his Cairo flat by Egyptian secret police and handed to Gaddafi. His family never saw him again; nor have they ever known for certain what happened to him.

As his son Hisham writes, “I envy the finality of funerals. I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”

The memoir is an account of how, after the fall of Gaddafi, the son returns to Libya from exile, to discover the truth for himself and his family. Debating the wisdom of this, he notes: if you don’t, you are “like a dead trunk hard and hollow”, and later notes “guilt is the exile’s eternal companion”.

A review that picks out the bare bones of the story cannot do justice to the many tender or horrific incidents recorded, nor the pain that screams through these pages. Just one example: during the revolution, Hisham’s London flat becomes a makeshift newsroom for gathering information for the international media. In a call that Hisham makes to the strategic town of Zlitin, recaptured by Gaddafi’s forces, who had dug up the buried bodies of the revolutionary soldiers and burnt them, Hisham speaks to an old man, asking him if his son is safe. “Yes. He’s in the room.” Then, after a pause, “But it’s been three days now. I am doing my best, but he’s beginning to smell.”

Hisham’s memoir brings home the decades of torture, war, and dis­place­ment that have engulfed Arab lands. But it also gloriously affirms that no dictator, however ruthless, can in the end crush the human spirit. In the words of Hisham’s viciously tortured uncle: “I kept a place in my mind, where I was still able to love and forgive everyone.”


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

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