The Return by Hisham Matar
"It took me time to understand the implications of Father’s actions"
The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travelers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet, and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem adrift. They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently, perhaps with a reassuring smile and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder. And the fathers must have known, having once themselves been sons, that the ghostly presence of their hand will remain throughout the years, to the end of time, and that no matter what burdens are laid on that shoulder or the number of kisses a lover plants there, perhaps knowingly driven by the secret wish to erase the claim of another, the shoulder will remain forever faithful, remembering that good man’s hand that had ushered them into the world. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting, of surrender and rebellion, until a son’s gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows. With every passing day the father journeys further into his night, deeper into the fog, leaving behind remnants of himself and the monumental yet obvious fact, at once frustrating and merciful—for how else is the son to continue living if he must not also forget—that no matter how hard we try we can never entirely know our fathers.
I think this as I consider Uncle Mahmoud’s account of learning that Father was not safely home in Cairo but a few metres away in a cell in the opposite wing. Like many of the stories I heard from men who were in prison at the same time, this one, too, offered more questions than it did answers. I wondered why Father waited so long before speaking. He had already been in Abu Salim for a few days and must have heard uncles Mahmoud and Hmad, cousins Ali and Saleh, talking loudly across the cells. And why, once he had spoken and was not recognized, did he wait a whole week before trying again and then, after that second attempt failed, wait yet another seven days? What was he thinking about in that time? From where did the doubt or reticence stem? And why the secrecy; why not simply say “Mahmoud, it’s me, your brother, Jaballa”? On the other hand, I could not understand why Uncle Mahmoud and the others were unable to make out the voice of the man they knew so well. In fact, even before Father spoke directly to Uncle Mahmoud, calling out, “Mahmoud, you don’t recognize me?” how could they not have realized that the man reciting poems at night was Jaballa Matar? They may not have recognized the voice, but how could they have missed the clue in the poems Father selected for those night–time recitations? Father’s literary memory was like a floating library. It would have been unusual for him not to be able to recall at least one poem by every significant Arabic poet from the modern era. But in prison he did not go to the poems of Ahmed Shawqi or any of the numerous poets from the period of Al-Nahda, the so-called Arabic Renaissance that took place at the turn of the twentieth century, nor did he turn to Badr Shakir al-Sayyab or the various other modernist poets he admired. Instead, in those dark and silent nights when, as Uncle Mahmoud had put it, “the prison fell so quiet you could hear a pin drop or a grown man weep softly to himself,” Father sought refuge in the elegiac Bedouin poetry of the alam. The word means knowledge or banner or flag, but has always, at least to my mind, signified an apprehension gained through loss. It’s a poetic form that privileges the past over the present. It is popular across Cyrenaica, but no more so than in Ajdabiya.
I picture him reciting the alam in the same voice he used at home, a voice that seemed to open up a landscape as magically uncertain and borderless as still water welded to the sky. This happened rarely. It would often take several obliging individuals to get him to start. Friends would turn to him towards the end of one of those epic dinner parties my parents used to host at our Cairo flat. This stage in the evening, which always arrived too late, was for me the moment that made sense of all the preceding madness. It was like one of those villages perched high in the mountains, reached after too many dizzying turns and arguments: Mother saying, “Enough, let’s turn back,” and Father answering, “But, look, we’re nearly there.” Then the incline would flatten and we would be inside the village, protected from the vastness of the landscape.
First, there was the menu, which shifted several times before agreement was reached. And then the machinery would start. Every resource would be employed—servants, children and a handful of committed friends—until each desired ingredient was located and delivered. My mother managed this complicated operation with the authority of an artist in the service of a higher cause. She spent hours on the telephone, handing out precise instructions to the butcher, the farmer who brought us our milk, yogurt and cheese, and the florist. She made several trips to the fruit-seller. She would drive into the Nile Delta, down narrow dirt roads, to a small village near Shibin El Kom in the Monufia Governorate, to select, as she used to say, “with my own eye,” each pigeon. I would be sent to get nutmeg from one spice shop west of the city, then gum arabic from another in the east. There was only one vegetable-seller in the whole of Cairo from whom to buy garlic at this time of the year. Several samples of pomegranate would be tasted before she placed the order. And because, she maintained, Egyptians have no appreciation for olive oil, she would order gallons from her brother’s farm in the Green Mountains or, if the Libyan–Egyptian border was closed, from Tuscany or Liguria. Ziad and I would then have to accompany the driver to the airport to explain to the customs officials why our household consumed so much olive oil, pay the necessary bribes and return home to Mother’s happy face. Orange blossom water was delivered from her hometown, Derna, or, if that wasn’t possible, from Tunisia. On the day of the party, a dash of it would be put onto the pomegranate fruit salad and into the jugs of cold water. The marble tiles would be mopped with it too.
The combination of Mother’s eccentricities and Father’s wealth—he had made a small fortune importing Japanese and Western goods to the Middle East—meant not only that we could live lavishly but also that the money helped fuel Father’s political activism. He set up a fund for Libyan students abroad and supported various scholarly projects, such as an Arabic translation of a legal encyclopedia. But what made my father dangerous to the Qaddafi regime was that his financial resources matched his political commitment. He was a leader. He knew how to manage and organize a movement. He coordinated several sleeper cells inside Libya. He set up and led military training camps in Chad, close to the Libyan border. He did not only pour his own money into this; he also had a gift for raising large donations and would shuttle around the world convincing wealthy Libyan exiles to support his organization. Its annual budget in the early 1980s was $7 million. A few years later, by the late 1980s, that figure had gone up to $15 million. But he did not stop there. He personally commanded the small army in Chad.
Growing up, I had somehow always suspected that our money would all disappear. I worried about it. On more than one occasion I asked him, “How much is left?”
“Well, Minister of Finance,” he would say, smiling. “Let’s just say it’s none of your business.”
“But I want to make sure we’ll be all right.”
“You’ll be all right,” he would say. “All I owe you is a university education. After that, you are on your own.”
After he was kidnapped, we found that the bank account was nearly empty. According to the statements, the balance in 1979, the year we left Libya, was $6 million. In a little over a decade, it had all vanished. I felt terribly resentful, particularly since the day Father had disappeared, the countless so-called activists who used to float in and out of our flat, and even Father’s closest allies, vanished. It was as though we had contracted a contagious disease. Most of all, I couldn’t believe he would leave Mother, who had never worked a day in her life, without a proper income. Ziad and I had to immediately find ways to support the family. The only explanation I could think of was that Father must have been certain of imminent victory. He must have thought he and Mother would return to Tripoli, sell the Cairo flat and perhaps live off the land he had in Libya. It took me time to understand the implications of Father’s actions. When it came to Mother, he considered Ziad and me as his guarantors. He believed he could rely on us. It was a profound gesture of trust. I know, not least of all from his letters, that from within his incarcerated existence the thought of his sons brought him comfort and reassurance. He had given me something priceless: namely, his confidence. I am grateful I was forced to make my own way. His disappearance did put me in need and make my future uncertain, but it turns out need and uncertainty can be excellent teachers.
During the Cairo years when he was still here, we lived in a penthouse that occupied the entire top floor of a tall building in Mohandeseen. When we first moved in, you could see for miles, all the way to where Cairo ended and the farms took over. But very quickly high buildings rose all around us and left only narrow views on to the horizon. In preparation for those dinner parties, men would come and hang precariously off the ledge to wash the glazing that covered the whole wall at one end of the drawing room. On the day, the brass incense cup would be taken into every room, the smoke deposited in each corner, trapped behind curtains. The doorbell would not stop ringing with deliveries. The kitchen, which was off the main entrance, would have my mother at its center, helped by the cook and a couple of maids. The radio would be on very loud, playing the songs of Farid al-Atrash or Najat al-Saghira or Oum Kalthum or Mohammad Abdel Wahab. My mother belonged to one of those Libyan families for whom Cairo was the cultural capital. She loved the city and moved in it with great ease. She would repeat what her mother used to say whenever she encountered a grim person: “Don’t blame them; they must’ve never been to Cairo.” In those days my mother operated as if the world were going to remain forever. And I suppose that is what we want from our mothers: to maintain the world and, even if it is a lie, to proceed as though the world could be maintained. Whereas my father was obsessed with the past and the future, with returning to and remaking Libya, my mother was devoted to the present. For this reason, she was the truly radical force in my adolescence.
Ours was a political home, filled with dissidents and the predictable and often tiresome conversations of dissidents. These high dinners were my mother’s retaliation against that reality. Her obsessiveness with where and when to get each ingredient, combined with her extraordinary talent as a cook, produced astonishing results that literally silenced these men of action. I would escape the activity and not return till evening. Mother would pull me into the kitchen, insisting I taste several of the dishes, asking if the salt was right, if she should not add more chili. The table would be set so magnificently that guests would either be speechless or induced to such heights of pleasure that they could not stop talking. I remember once a gregarious man who had been a minister under King Idris. He had dominated the conversation until soup was served. He took the first mouthful and fell utterly silent. The entire table took note of the sudden change. “All well, Minister?” Father asked. The man nodded without bringing his head up. He would occasionally dab his eyes with the napkin. I thought he was one of those men who break out in a sweat the moment they start eating. It wasn’t until his plate was empty and he had no option but to look up that we saw his eyes were red. When the main course arrived, his emotion shifted to laughter. All this gave Mother great satisfaction, and, even though Father tried to hide it, his pride was clear. Those were the strong years, when my parents had the confident manner of couples that, notwithstanding the usual apprehensions of parents, regard the future as a friendly country.
And it was usually after one of those dinners that the welcome request would arise, spoken softly at first, then less timidly by another guest, before the insistent calls would grow into a loud clamor. Father’s cheeks would redden slightly, his eyes betraying a twinkle of pleasure, and then he would yield. Nothing seemed to please him more than the presence of poetry. A good line reassured him, put the world right for a second. He was both enlivened and encouraged by language. It would become clear that his earlier resistance was merely to test the enthusiasm of his companions. He would lean slightly forward and it would happen: in that tentative silence, a new space would open up. He knew exactly what to do with his voice, where to tighten the strings and when to let them slacken. He always bracketed these recitations, perhaps out of reminiscence or loyalty to his hometown, with the alam.
He had, on several occasions, written in the genre. He recited them to me when he and I were alone in the car, which is to say, very rarely. My father hardly ever drove me to school, or to sports clubs, or collected me from a friend’s house. Once, on my mother’s insistence, he came to watch me compete in judo. I was distracted by how out of place he looked. He neither fitted in with nor could altogether hide his disinterest in Egyptian middle–class society. He almost never engaged in small talk or talking merely to pass the time. I cannot recall him speaking about money or property or the latest this or that. He had an astonishing ability to sustain social silences, which is why he was often mistaken for being haughty or cold. He was certainly proud. I recall him once saying to a member of the Egyptian government who was trying to convince him to quit politics: “The only thing standing between you and me is a suitcase. If I’m no longer welcome here, I’ll pack tomorrow.” He taught my brother and me to never accept financial assistance from anyone, especially governments, and when giving to give so discreetly that your “left hand does not know what the right hand has done.” Once he saw me count change before handing it to a beggar. “Next time, don’t make a display of it,” he said. “Give as if you were taking.” It took me a long time to understand this. If we passed laborers or street-sweepers eating their lunch and they invited us to join them, which was the custom—meaning they never expected you to actually join them—Father would sit in his fine clothes on the ground amongst the men and, if I was not as quick as he was, he would say, “Come, an honest meal feeds a hundred.” He would take a bite or two, then conduct his magic trick, sliding bank notes beneath the plate mid–sentence. He would look at the time and say, “Men, you are excellent, thank you.” His voice, which was always gentle, would rise if he learnt that one of the servants had turned away a needy person or shooed off a cat. The simple rule was never to refuse any one or thing in need. “It’s not your job to read their hearts,” he once told me after I claimed, with shameful certainty, that begging was a profession. “Your duty is not to doubt but to give. And don’t ask questions at the door. Allow them only to tell you what they came for after they’ve had tea and something to eat.” The word got around. Our doorbell would ring two or three times a day. Most people needed money for food or school or medicine. Some wanted us to mediate in a dispute, to return to them a piece of property—a wagon, a bicycle, a basket—that someone had confiscated after an argument. My brother and I would often manage this without my father’s involvement, as if it were part of our education. It thinned the walls of our privilege a little and taught me something of the injustice and humiliation of being in need. The other thing he insisted on was that we learn how to ride a horse, shoot a rifle, and swim. It was something his father, Grandfather Hamed, believed and, I suspect, took from Umar ibn al-Khattab. Father would drive me into the desert on the edge of Cairo, beyond the Giza Pyramids, to teach me how to handle a rifle. It was on such rare afternoons, when we were alone in the car, that he would recite to me his new compositions. If I teased him, he would say, “They are masterpieces; you would’ve known this had you not been an ignorant boy,” which made me laugh like nothing else.
Uncle Mahmoud knew all of these details. In fact, given Father’s intention to covertly inform him of his presence, it is very probable that Father had chosen one of his own poems to recite, perhaps the one that starts:
Had the pain not been so precise
I would have asked
To which of my sorrows should I yield.
Uncle Mahmoud blamed his failure to recognize his brother’s voice on the general confusion of prison life, the shock of his capture, the endless interrogations, the disorienting confinement. “Such circumstances,” he said, “tamper with your cognitive powers.”
He could detect that I was not entirely convinced.
“In the end,” he added, “I just didn’t want to believe it.”
But shock and the refusal to accept bad news can only partly explain it. I was gradually surrendering to the only explanation that seemed credible. Father wanted to be recognized just by his voice. To be known without needing to provide any more evidence. Perhaps, like me, what was uppermost in his mind was preservation. Part of what we fear in suffering—perhaps the part we fear most—is transformation. I still have recurring dreams in which I appear to him a stranger. One of these took place only months after his disappearance and yet I have never forgotten it. In it, Father had undergone an experience so extreme that he could not recognize me. He looked at me as if we did not know each other. Therefore, perhaps Uncle Mahmoud’s inability to recognize Father was not only due to the bewildering effects of prison life but more to Father having become a changed man. And perhaps Uncle Mahmoud knew this but did not want to say it out loud. Perhaps on hearing his brother’s voice, Uncle Mahmoud’s response was like that of Dante when, descending into the depths of hell, the poet comes upon Ciacco, a man he had known in the life before but who was now completely unrecognizable, and tells him:
The anguish you endure
Perhaps effaces whatever memory I had,
Making it seem I have not seen you before;
But tell me who you are, assigned to so sad
A station as punishment—if any is more
Agony, none is so repellent.
Like Dante, Uncle Mahmoud must have known it was my father’s voice, and, like Ciacco, Father was hoping to prove to himself that he was who he had been.
Excerpted from The Return by Hisham Matar. Copyright © 2016 by Hisham Matar. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.