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In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men (2006)

by Hisham Matar

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English (50)  Dutch (2)  Norwegian (1)  Greek (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (55)
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First Libyan Lit read. As a reader I loved it. It is told mostly from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy but written when he was 24, so it is more fleshed out than you might expect. The more world lit I read, the more pissed I get with fundamentalism and the patriarchy. Not “Oh good, it’s not just my country.” But it’s f’ed up everywhere. Good perspective of Libyan society, though.
  jveezer | Oct 12, 2018 |
In 1979, the protagonist of In the Country of Men, Suleiman, was nine years old. I had just turned ten. This colored my reading of this book because I remember Qaddafi, or at least the news reports and talk about him, and I couldn’t help but compare what I knew with what Suleiman experienced, and what neither of us really understood. Suleiman’s world is frightening and confusing. He navigates childhood with its ever-changing allegiances and hidden traps and he’s also forced to make his way through levels of adult worlds, the first, that of his mother’s “illness,” the second the political climate of Libya under Qaddafi.

From the moment we meet Suleiman we know nothing is okay. The first sentence of the book says this is a tale of the summer before he “was sent away” (1). Immediately things are tentative, sliding out of his reach and of ours. The next thing we find out is about his mother’s illness and how his father is unaware of it, “she only fell ill when he was away on business” (2). To a child, that’s a scary coincidence, but to an adult reader that’s deliberate, a sign of something his mother is hiding from his father but that she can’t hide from her child. Alcoholism was my first thought, and I was not wrong. This forces Suleiman to act as her caretaker during her illnesses, staying awake to make sure she doesn’t set a fire by falling asleep (passing out) while smoking, then, childlike, taking advantage of her guilt the next day and getting treats and a special lunch.

Suleiman describes his mother as dealing with “a world full of men and the greed of men” (4). In describing her youth, his mother says of the agreement between her father and her husband-to-be that word had been given and received, “men’s words that could never be taken back or exchanged” (174). This is the world in which they both live, where the words and the power belong only to men and Suleiman and his mother are dragged along as if caught in the currents of those words. It’s no wonder that his mother clings to the story of Scheherezade even as she hates it. Scheherezade is a woman who used her own words to survive in man’s world and at the end of the stories used what little power she had gained to ask to live for her sons’ sake. Part of that, I think, is self-hatred, because she feels trapped in her own marriage because of the son she never wanted to have, the one she now cares for more than almost anything.

Suleiman’s father is a bit of a mystery in the book, as fathers so often are to their young children. He is “Baba” and that is his role and his name. Suleiman sees him as powerful, a man in a man’s world, typing out and reading his words, words that tie him to the other men in power. What Suleiman can’t see, and what his mother seems to, is that other men depend on his father’s words also, or at least his willingness to write them, and that his father’s words are not always his own. “Your father feels nothing when he’s reading,” she says, “He loves his books more than anything else. One day they’ll come to burn them and us with them” (98). When Mama and Moosa burn Baba’s books to hide them from the Revolutionary Committee, Suleiman is angry and saves one, thinking his father would want it. He doesn’t yet understand that not all man’s words are welcome in man’s world. Only those that are approved.

Their neighbor, and Baba’s close friend, Ustath Rashid is arrested. Suleiman sees him on television being asked to confess, the screen goes dark at a time when it is hinted that Rashid is being tortured. Much later in the book we see a televised “trial” ending in the hanging of Rashid. It takes place at a sports arena and is cheered on by “fans.” Mama says the next morning that instead of begging, “he should have said something” (189). Her belief in men’s words seems intact, but how can it be with her own husband arrested and possibly facing this same sort of trial. It’s interesting that when she went to speak to the local party representative about freeing her husband it was she and his wife who did most of the talking, and it’s his wife who comes over not long after the trial to give her the good news that her husband can be released.

At the end of that summer, Suleiman is sent away, as he told us he would be on the first page. No one’s words are enough to save him in Libya, so he is sent to live with Moosa’s father in Cairo, where he grows and seems happy. Suleiman becomes a pharmacist and is “fully aware” that this choice is inspired by his mother and her “illness.” After years of not speaking to her, and after his father’s death, his mother is finally able to visit him in Cairo. One of the last things we hear him say is “Mama.” Though it is a country of men and it is men’s words that have the power, it is his mother, no more than a woman, who inspired him most. ( )
  tldegray | Sep 21, 2018 |
shortlisted 2006 man booker prize
shortlisted 2007 national book critics circle
quite boring, slow moving ( )
  mahallett | Jun 28, 2018 |
Nice! The depredations of being sensitive and wise while living in the shadows of tyranny, described in lucid prose. Hisham Matar is a sensitive writer. ( )
  Avishek.Sahu | Apr 19, 2018 |
In the Country of Men has been on my radar for a while, but I read it this month because it was the July choice for the ABC Radio National Africa Book Club.

I was disappointed in their book list, because nearly all the authors chosen are well-known expats rather than authors who actually live and write from within African countries. The book club was an opportunity to introduce less familiar authors and to support the fledgling African publishing industry, but unsurprisingly since the books were chosen by popular vote, it turns out that the list consists of well-known books by well-known authors who are published by global publishing companies. And while I don’t consciously read and review for gender balance, I was surprised to see only three books of the ten were by women, and the list didn’t include great feminist authors like Bessie Head and Amma Darko. And no Zakes Mda or Helon Habila!

OK, off my soapbox, what about the book, eh?

Hisham Matar was born in the US, and spent some of his childhood in Tripoli until political repression forced his family to take exile in Cairo. He moved to London when he was 16 and completed his education there.

In the Country of Men is the only book I’ve come across set in Libya and it was shortlisted for the 2006 Booker, so I ordered in a copy and read it over a couple of days. It’s a poignant coming-of-age story in which a nine-year-old narrator has to confront the tragedy of life under the dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The early chapters reveal Suleiman’s childhood, and his unusually intense relationship with his mother. An only child, he is her only compensation for an unhappy forced marriage, but he is not enough. When her much older husband Faraj is away ‘on business’ Najwa drinks herself into a stupor, and it’s a risky form of substance abuse because it’s not only against their religion, it’s also illegal. Suleiman thinks that she is ill at these times, and that the alcohol is medicine, and he feels protective towards her.

To read the rest of my review (which has some spoilers) please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/08/04/in-the-country-of-men-by-hisham-matar/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Aug 5, 2016 |
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I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away.
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Viking UK hardcover edition published 2006
Dial Press hardcover edition / February 2007" T.p. verso.
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Book description
On a white-hot day in Tripoli, Libya, in the summer of 1979, nine-year-old Suleiman is shopping in the market square with his mother. His father is away on business - but Suleiman is sure he has just seen him, standing across the street in a pair of dark glasses. But whiy isn't he waving? And why doesn't he come over when he knows Suleiman's mother is falling apart?

Whispers and fears intensify around Suleiman: his best friend's father disappears and is next seen being interrogated on state television; a man parks his car outside the house every day and asks strange questions; and his mother frantically burns his father's books. As Suleiman begins to wonder whether his father has disappeared for good, it feels as if the wall of his home will break with the secrets that are being held within.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385340435, Paperback)

Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman’s days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father’s constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother’s increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn’t he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie?

Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand—where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father’s cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend’s father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television.

In the Country of Men is a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare. But above all, it is a debut of rare insight and literary grace.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:03 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Ultimately, this is a novel most concerned with relationships between people - friends, spouses, comrades, and , particularly, parents and their children. Matar movingly charts the ways in which love endures in situtations of great represasion, but salso shows how repression threatens everything, even love, putting relationships under a strain that can be unendurable .... Whatever his subject, Matar writes beautifully"--Bookjacket.… (more)

» see all 8 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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