In the Country of Men Summary

Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men

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In the Country of Men Summary

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Nominated for the Booker Prize in 2006, In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar, depicts the turmoil within both a country and a family during a time of extreme political and social change, betrayal, and danger: the rise of the Qaddafi regime in Libya during the summer of 1979. Young Suleiman el Dewani, the 9-year-old narrator, remains confused throughout the novel by the happenings around him, both in his country and within his family. He witnesses the brutal oppression of the Qaddafi regime—symbolized by the arrest, televised “confession,” and public hanging of his best friend’s father and college professor, Ustath Rasheed. He also bears witness to his own family’s disintegration, as his father is hunted by the Revolutionary Committee for his pro-democracy activities, and as his young mother, Najwa, drinks herself into unconsciousness to cope with her own despair and anger.

Themes of secrecy and betrayal permeate Suleiman’s world. For example, Faraj’s frequent business trips “abroad,” running his successful business, are not always what they seem; Suleiman sees his father in town when he is supposed to be out of the country. Left frequently at home alone with his mother, Suleiman alternately feels responsible for her emotional and physical wellbeing and trapped by her alcoholism and emotional needs. She tells him the stories of her life, including her forced marriage at age 14 to Faraj and motherhood at 15, when she gave birth to Suleiman, her only child. Her drinking continues, however, whenever Faraj is not at home. Without parents to guide him, Suleiman turns to Kareem Rasheed, his best friend, and his father’s best friend, Moosa.

Suleiman’s narration of life in Tripoli during this time period offers a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people’s attempts to survive while trapped within the political oppression of Qaddafi’s rise to power. At the beginning of the novel, Ustath Rasheed, Kareem’s father, has already been arrested. Faraj’s activities soon bring the unwelcome attention of the Revolutionary Committee to his own home, bringing about searches, wiretapping, spying, and eventually Faraj’s arrest. During his arrest, Faraj is tortured, but he eventually returns home, a psychologically and physically damaged man.

Another significant theme lies in the powerlessness of children, women, and even grown men at the different levels of the Libyan society. Children, of course, live with the least autonomy, both in the society and at home, while women fair little better. Women cannot even choose their own husbands, as represented by Najwa’s story. Though married against her will at age 14, she has affection for Faraj, particularly taking great care of him when he returns from his imprisonment. However, she has little influence over Faraj, and she has no social life outside the home. Men rule the home, but even they are powerless against Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Committee forces. The message clearly comes across from Suleiman’s narration that no one has control over his own life or the freedom of self-determination.

Suleiman lives a claustrophobic life, with most of the scenes in the novel taking place within his home or garden, with a few excursions into the outside world to play in the streets with the neighborhood boys. However, the pressure never lets up, even in play, because these boys are the sons of the newly risen government officials or pro-democracy rebels. When the outside world intrudes into the home, it is typically in the form of danger or bad news: phone calls, radio broadcasts, televised interrogations, or visitors, including the spying or searches of the Revolutionary Committee.

Suleiman himself betrays both his friend Kareem, telling the other neighborhood boys Kareem’s secrets, and own his father, helping the security services who have taken his father away—in a confused and helpless rage—hoping that somehow his collaboration will help his father. These betrayals highlight the fact that no one escapes the contamination of a dictatorial regime.

It becomes clear, however, that Suleiman is narrating this novel as a 24-year-old man looking back on that time in his life. His parents, fearful for his life in Tripoli, send him to Cairo to live with Moosa and his family, who have been exiled from Libya. Suleiman believes this visit is only for a short time, but soon he learns that there are no plans for him to go back home. In a very real sense, Suleiman is betrayed by his own parents.  When his father dies a short time later, Suleiman is not allowed to return to Libya for the funeral. Suleiman is left to construct his life from the remnants of his scarred childhood.