On 22 August, the day Libyan rebel forces took Tripoli, acclaimed author and son of Libya, Hisham Matar, opened an impassioned essay with, “We got rid of Muammar Qaddafi. I never thought I would be able to write these words. I thought it might have to be something like: ‘Qaddafi has died of old age’; a terrible sentence, not only because of what it means but also the sort of bleak and passive future it promises. Now rebel forces have reached Tripoli, we can say we have snatched freedom with our own hands, paid for it with blood. No one now will be more eager to guard it than us.”
Almost exactly two months later, on 20 October, the Libyan people finally rid themselves of the dictator along with his brutality, oppression, and humiliation. As Matar says, it is a country’s “return to sanity.” He considers this historic, fundamental, national moment as one of great “momentum and possibility,” for a future as unlimited as the Libyan people’s imagination.Although it has been a historic week for Libya, Matar has been hesitant to speak directly about Qaddafi’s death, although he has been bombarded by requests to do so. Two days ago, he emailed me his thoughts on this issue, "Everybody is asking me to respond to his death. It is very odd to be asked to respond to a death. And I really have very little to say. I am feeling a great deal, but yet to find the words. All I can say at this point is that the manner in which he was killed, he and his son, and the way the bodies were treated, has made it difficult to rejoice."
The events of the Arab Spring pushed Matar and his work into the media’s spotlight. He was recently declared by The New York Times Book Review as being “uniquely poised to play the role of literary ambassador between two worlds that have long been locked in mutual suspicion and ignorance.” As such, Matar has become a popular figure, busy giving interviews and writing articles for the last nine months on the rapidly unfolding political situation in Libya, in addition to promoting his new novel, and teaching this fall at Barnard College in New York.
When I met Matar earlier this month in Chicago, I may have been influenced by the acute attention to detail in his novels, because one of the first things I noticed is how slowly he smokes. The cigarette seems to take a lifetime, somehow burning at a slower pace, perhaps because it is in the hands of Hisham Matar. His signature, rectangular, black-rimmed glasses along with his English preppy style, suit his architect-turned-novelist personal narrative. He likes to walk while he smokes, but if he stands while smoking, the cigarette will dangle from his folded right arm. And in that moment, he looks exactly like his portrait inside the book jacket of his latest novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, taken by his wife, artist Diana Matar. It seems that both husband and wife are masters of capturing the essence of a person or a place, she with light and he in words. This essence of Hisham filters into everything he writes or says, sometimes to a fault, where one must begin to question what is fact and what is fiction, although Matar himself insists there is a clear line between himself and his protagonists, Suleiman and Nuri. Both novels, the Booker Prize shortlisted debut, In the Country of Men, and Anatomy of a Disappearance, revolve around the brutal consequences of living under dictatorship on a family, a topic that is central to this acclaimed Libyan author’s life, as his father disappeared from his home in Cairo in 1990 into the infamous Abu Slim prison in Tripoli.
As we sit down for tea and an interview, his voice is measured, the pauses stretch between my questions and his answers; you can almost feel him thinking, his words precise, restrained, just like he smokes, just like he writes. But at moments he is humorous and laughs with heart and enthusiasm. He frequently describes things as “fantastic,” drawing out the middle, stripping the word from its American banality; he makes it genuine, elevated, musical. Our conversation began with the relationship between his novel and the revolution, but soon meandered into topics covering Spanish novelists, the problems of writing outside the mother tongue, the process of an architect turning into writer, and the subtle yet sublime joy of studying stone masonry. Fantastic, as he would say.
Lina Sergie Attar: How did it feel to have the release of Anatomy of a Disappearance coincide with the Libyan Revolution? It definitely affected the public’s view of your work, did it change how you viewed the book retrospectively as well?
Hisham Matar: That’s a big question. It felt like I would imagine it would be to have a child in a war; you don’t have time to enjoy it. My book came out in March in England. March was a really terrible time, when it all hung in the balance. I remember the book launch party being a very strange affair. My mother came over for it, and we weren’t sure, how could we go to celebrate anything? We went, and it was actually a very beautiful time, there was something really meaningful about it, but it was also heavy with melancholy. That’s how it felt. It was very appropriate, there was joy, but there was also a sense of deep anxiety and distraction, a sense that suddenly the events have superseded even something as important to me as my book, something I worked on for four years.
How it affects reading the book worries me. Because I don’t think books should be approached that way. Contrary to my publisher’s beliefs, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Not that there was a choice, but I don’t think it’s good for literature. Your ideal reader is the reader who arrives at the book with their private passions; with their memories, psychology, and emotions. There is no title on the book; your name is not on the book, you don’t exist. They don’t know anything except the book. That’s the platonic reader for me. So in this circumstance, it’s almost the opposite, the reader is coming with a lot of stuff, a lot of noise around them. I hope my book will be in print for long enough that it will survive the events, that people will forget, and they will go to it in a different way.
LSA: You’ve talked before about how it takes a long time for literature to respond to current events. You finished the book in the fall, but if the revolution had already started, would it not have affected the book?
HM: No, but I would have not been able to work. Another effect of the revolution is that I haven’t been able to write much fiction. I’ve been writing a lot of non-fiction and have been incredibly productive. When I finished Anatomy of a Disappearance, I didn’t immediately switch into writing another book, which is what happened with In the Country of Men. I finished it and started Anatomy almost immediately. I didn’t have any burning idea, so I thought, well, this is an interesting place, being out of a book. Ten years I’ve been immersed in writing two novels and now I’m out of that. What am I going to do? I can sit around and wait for the idea to come, or I could just decide to do something I had never done before, which is say yes to everything. I’m so picky when people ask me to write an article, most of the time my answer is no. But this time I thought, let’s just say yes to everything and try to write something that would please me, take the subject and turn it, and do something else with it. Just as a game with myself to see how much I can do. So I said yes to everything and I was producing almost a piece a week. It was fun, it was good to be productive. And just at that moment, the revolution happened and suddenly everything went to another place. So I’ve been going from one extreme of writing a lot of immediate responses to events, especially in the early days when it was news actually, to commentary, to long essays that have nothing to do with the revolution at all. That’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last nine months or so. And now I’ve been thinking about something.
LSA: The idea is coming.
HM: Yes, there is a very strong idea and it looks like I’m going to go for it. It seems like I was very lucky. It is ridiculous to say, but of course the events of my country are far more important than my petty, personal schedule. But it was very convenient that the revolution happened when it did, because I had just finished my book.
LSA: You write novels, but your personal story is such a powerful one, you must be aware that is always at the back of your reader’s mind. How do you deal with the weight of that transposition while you write?
HM: When I am writing, I don’t think about any of that. I don’t think about what people will think. I don’t think about all my doubts. All of the various questions that enter my mind afterwards are not there when I’m writing. It’s only when I’m not writing that I think about them. It is a real, sincere worry for me, how readers come to my work knowing too much about my life. Because I am a very private person and I don’t actually like people knowing a lot about my life. But I was put in a situation where I had to speak about my father’s case; I had no choice. And that revealed a lot about my life to people. It sort of became this cycle where I felt obliged to write memoir in order to prove to people that my books weren’t memoir.
LSA: But they seep into each other. At moments.
HM: In what way?
LSA: I mean, for instance, in Anatomy of a Disappearance when Nuri’s father tells him, never leave your plate unattended, I remember you wrote also in a non-fiction piece, that your father told you that once in a restaurant?
HM: No. Maybe, there are details like that. I don’t remember. What’s interesting is that sometimes, in the same review, somebody would quote from my book – it happened a couple of times – and then refer to me, say some facts about my own life, and somehow the facts would get switched in the reviewer’s mind.
LSA: What is the significance of the “only child” narrator in both your novels?
HM: These two books are very interested in something I have an inclination towards, which is a very focused voice: very restrained, it holds back, the tone is almost of someone talking next to you, very quietly. The concentration of the prose and the narrative needed a character that is also concentrated in their perceptions. They feel they are trapped within their own personal experience; they don’t have a confidant, they don’t have a friend or a lover or a sibling. That’s why it seemed like an interesting device. Suleiman and Nuri are very different in some ways, but they have a lot in common. They both pay a great deal of attention, especially to details. That is in a way their tragedy. I think if they were distracted characters, life would be slightly better for them.
LSA: What is the origin of the single Arabic line in Anatomy of a Disappearance? Why did you decide to leave it untranslated? Who did you write it for?
HM: I wrote it for my readers. It was an interesting way to highlight this game that the characters were playing, of pretense, of creating more mystery around them. I wanted to reflect that. Instead of saying, they said this in French and they said that in Arabic, and they said this in English, I decided it would be better to do it in language. And it wasn’t such a significant piece of information that a reader who didn’t understand French or Arabic wouldn’t get the gist of the whole thing.
Arab writers writing in Arabic often times are shy or apologetic about the fact that they are Arab. When they write, they have to say “flat bread,” or “this is how bread is in the Middle East is made.” Don’t explain it. Books should be written in such a way, I believe, like all art: all art is local, it all starts in some place or somewhere. You have to write in such a way, I feel, that a native from that place would read it and not feel patronized, or that they’re being told something they know already. When that happens to me as a reader, and it has happened to me – when I pick up a book by an Arab writer and he explains something to me and I know that he knows that I know – it makes me feel like I’m an intruder, like this is not really for me. So I didn’t want that, but at the same time I didn’t want somebody whose not Libyan or not Arab, not to have the same kind of intimacy. That’s the difficulty, I’m sure in places I didn’t do it well, but that was the intention. It made no sense to me at all why people would include French words in their novels for the longest time, and not italicize the text and not explain to us what that means. They seem to assume that we speak that language. It also made no sense why I should italicize Arabic words written in English like mukhabarat, for example, or ya sater. And this was just a step further from that, to just leave the text as it is.
LSA: But when people write in French, even if you don’t know French, you can actually read it. But Arabic is different, and I think it was a very significant piece of information that you withheld from people who cannot read it. As a reader, I felt it was a secret between everyone who reads Arabic. It was significant, especially since the father, who was a central figure in the book, spoke so little.
HM: Yes, you’re right. You’re right, in a sense. There were several things going on, the ones I described, and also the fact that I had been published, but I hadn’t had one line of Arabic text published, many lines of Arabic text published in translation, but not something I wrote. So I thought this will be fun. I had a joke with my English editor and I said, “You are publishing my first Arabic sentence.”
Also on a very private level, it was a small reference to Juan Goytisolo, a wonderful Spanish writer. He is a novelist who opposed Franco. It’s a long story, but he went to Paris and married a beautiful woman he loved. When she died, he couldn’t live in Paris anymore even though he’d lived there for 24 years having fled from Franco’s Spain, so he went to live in Morocco. He wrote a lot about the relationship between Spain and its Arabic heritage; how Spain is an idiotic country because it doesn’t understand its Arabic heritage. He said something very provocative: these people civilized us, and if I were at the gate I would have opened it to the Moors. And in one of his novels, he addressed this issue. The text is in Spanish, but he keeps dropping these Arabic lines, and they get longer and longer, and they become paragraphs, and the last three pages of the book are in Arabic. You can’t finish the book if you don’t know Arabic. It’s just fantastic.
LSA: In Anatomy of a Disappearance, the narrator says, “Nothing is more acceptable than that which we are born into.” What were you born into? How did you accept it?
HM: I think there is a fallacy in modern life, particularly in our generation, and particularly in a place like America, but also in other places, a fallacy that somehow we live outside of history or beyond history, that we just can completely reinvent ourselves: now I can be like this, now I can be like that, I can change, I can change everything about me, my name, my beliefs, my identity. And I don’t buy it really, I think actually one of the most interesting things about identity is how you can’t change it. You can only work with it and add to it but you can’t suddenly erase things. Which is also partly why I write the way I write. I don’t like to plan the book, I like to start and let it lead, because it’s a bit like what happens in life, you know? I wish I paid more attention when I was 25, or if I didn’t do that or I did more of that, but I can’t, that’s what happened.
LSA: So you have to accept it.
HM: So you have to accept it. But accept it doesn’t mean celebrate it and approve of it. I completely approve of people walking around dissing their past; I don’t have a problem with that. But really early on, I think those very early years in our lives, what we are born into seems incredibly acceptable regardless how bizarre it is. You have children who are born in very strange families, unusual settings, and circumstances, and to them it is perfectly normal.
LSA: The names in the book, Nuri, Mona, Munir, Rue Monnier, are variations on light and wishes. Can you speak about the significance of these names?
HM: Absolutely, spot on. I think you are the only person who spotted this, who has written about it. I wanted a relationship between the names, and it was happening on the page, I didn’t sit and decide beforehand. I knew he was Nuri from the start. With Suleiman I struggled, Nuri was immediate. Before I wrote a word, I knew his name was Nuri al-Alfi.
LSA: Why did you leave Kamal Pasha’s homeland unnamed? What does that country without a name represent to you?
HM: It’s fairly obvious where they are from, there are clues; they’ve got to be from Iraq. Because there is no other country in the Middle East where a king was shot in 1958 except in Iraq. And the fact that they go to Paris, they don’t go to Italy or Britain, which is what Libyans would have done.
LSA: It wasn’t really clear to me.
HM: No? Well, I wanted it to be subdued. The effect is that I think 20 percent of the people who have written about the book got that it was Iraq. That is basically what I wanted. In a sense that, it’s more useful for the reader not to know where they are from because I felt that this sort of family, a family that has fallen between two historical chapters: the post-independence monarchic Middle East, and the post-revolutionary republican reality inspired by Jamal Abd al-Nasser. You find such families in Egypt, in Libya, in Iraq, and other Arab countries. They are families that have been cancelled, or superseded by history. When I was at university, I became close to this Egyptian family that was like that. Abd al-Nasser kicked them out and they moved to this flat on Harley Street in London. They had their old furniture, and the flat was too small for it. I thought these people were fascinating because they had money and languages, and in a way that made it more difficult for them to settle because they just could keep moving. This seems to add to Nuri’s sense of displacement. But in the very background, as an echo.
LSA: For me, obviously the king was a clue and the other clue is when Nuri’s mother dies, the neighbors refer to “the Arabs upstairs,” and I kept going back to that line, what do you mean, the Arabs upstairs?
HM: That’s what the Egyptians do, they call them Arab.
LSA: And then I thought, this means they are not from Libya. And I knew it must be Iraq, but I wondered, why would an Iraqi family cross over all these other countries to settle in Egypt? So I decided they have to be from Libya and you didn’t want to say so.
HM: No, no, they are not from Libya, but I don’t mind people thinking that.
LSA: I didn’t want to believe that they weren’t from Libya.
HM: You wanted them to be from Libya? No, that’s fine. They could be from Libya, I don’t mind them being from Libya. But also with this book, I enjoyed the international aspect of it, the first book was very locked down to one place. I enjoyed traveling, Norway, Sweden, Egypt, and England, and the fact that they could be from Iraq. I enjoyed all of that. It felt liberating.
LSA: Do you ever write in Arabic? Do you feel something was lost, a more direct connection with the people from the cities you write about, because you did not write your novels in Arabic?
HM: No, I don’t think about writing in Arabic, I don’t write in Arabic. Do I feel something was lost? Possibly, but I also think something was gained. I do feel writing in this other language has allowed me a kind of distance that has paradoxically made me braver, made me more audacious, to write about things I am very obsessed about, in a way that doesn’t have a lot of heat in it. Because I don’t like heat in literature, I don’t like that feeling when you are reading a book and you feel the hot breath of a writer against your neck. I like the distance. Writing in English allows that sort of distance. I struggle with it; it’s not something that sits completely easily with me.
LSA: So you feel that Arabic would have been a closer language for you to write in?
HM: Yes. My Arabic isn’t as good as my English but that’s a technicality, I could make it as good as my English. But it’s closer; the word closer is appropriate. Words in Arabic have a depth of reference to me that no other language does, because that’s the language my parents used, that’s the first language that I used to express my emotions, my desires, my needs. “Give me a glass of water” in Arabic, to me, has a completely different reality than it does in English, because it has with it so many references. Somehow by writing in English, that distance has allowed me a kind of freedom to write about things that matter to me, that seem overwhelming at times, but also it allowed me stylistically to be pared down and with a poetic value that is restrained, which is the aesthetic that I like. That’s what I mean by the metaphor of the hot breath.
There is a tradition of writers doing this, I am not alone. Samuel Beckett switched languages at a very interesting moment in his career. He was at the top of his game. And it has always been a mystery to me, why did he switch languages, knowing the secrets of the English language probably like no one else at that time? It is very difficult to find an English prose stylist that has done the extent that Beckett has done. He wasn’t just a brilliant writer, but linguistically he unlocked the language, he did things with it that we didn’t even know were possible. So to do that, and then, suddenly say, “actually you know what? I’m going to write in French now, and I’m going to translate my own work back to English sometimes, and sometimes I won’t.” To do that, it’s mind-boggling. I’ve been interested in that for a long time. I think one of the answers is that it was such an intense time, the war, in order to gain the kind of distance he needed to write about the things he wanted to write about, he had to change.
LSA: Why did you decide to study architecture? Do you miss it? Can you describe the transformation from architect to writer?
HM: I don’t miss it. I’m glad I studied it and that I didn’t study the obvious: English Literature. Writing particularly benefits from studying something else, I think. I like to feel that I’m coming at literature from my perspective, rather than from doing it at Cambridge. I think for some people, doing an English degree is great for their writing; for most people, it’s great. For me? I wonder. For me, it might have put me off, it might have pissed me off, made me leave and not finish my degree, not have any job to do. I didn’t want to do consulting, which is what everybody who has an English degree ends up doing; something to do with pushing papers around on a desk. I wanted to make something.
I was interested in buildings and in music, as you know. Music was really the passion, it was really what I always wanted. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve always envied music. I still envy musicians, particularly composers and conductors. And the reason I envy it is because I think something happens in music that doesn’t happen in literature, it can’t happen in literature. Language is always a translation of something. At moments, with Beckett, the language itself becomes the thing. And that’s an amazing event. But most of the time we are translating, we are pointing towards something. And I love that game, I don’t begrudge it, but music is capable of being the thing, it’s not trying to reference anything else. It’s not trying to pretend it’s an emotion, or a certain light, or a nocturnal moment, no, it is the thing itself. That’s why I envy it. In architecture, I’ve always felt like an impostor, I’ve always felt out of place, even though I worked, had very high standards, wouldn’t just take on any job, and had very discerning aesthetic beliefs. I wasn`t a hack, I was really doing it properly, I taught at university and all that. But I always felt I was out of place, like I was acting on some level. I don’t feel that when I’m writing. I feel it sometimes when I am doing the public side of being an author. But, I never feel I’m pretending when I’m writing.
LSA: What, in your opinion, is the connection between architecture and literature? How does being an architect affect or inform your writing?
HM: I think as a writer you have a responsibility to know a lot of things to do with the arts including architecture. You have to know about music, you have to know about painting and sculpture. And architecture is obviously one of those things. I am baffled when I find an author who has absolutely no interest in music. I don’t understand how that’s possible. Or no interest in philosophy or in the landscape or doesn’t pay attention to nature. To me, those things are so central to what it means to be a writer. Architecture, was on some level, a really good training because it taught me to look. In order to draw something, you really have to look at it for a long time. It taught me the classic sense of order, proportion, and how to use light. The reason we were attracted to architecture isn’t because of buildings, but because of human life and human life in buildings and how you might alter how people behave. That’s what architects are interested in, not in bricks and mortar and steel and glass; those are just tools. The way that you and I are sitting at the moment, is influenced by this room, influenced by this building, and the way we are sitting at the moment influences what we are saying to each other. If I were sitting next to you there, the conversation would be slightly different. All of these seemingly minor changes have a big effect on how people conduct themselves. That’s one of the many reasons that working and studying to be an architect became helpful.
But then, you know, I became a stonemason for a couple of years after architecture. That was brilliant because it was very slow, so slow, it’s like writing. It really humbles you.
LSA: It must have been so hard, that kind of physical labor.
HM: That’s what people think, but it’s actually not. There is this old society of carpenters, I think it was set up in the 1500s in England, and they started a school for carpentry and stone masonry. I wanted to do a degree in carpentry because I thought I would like to design and make furniture. So I went, two weeks late to the carpentry course and it was completely over-subscribed. They said, “Well, we have a stone masonry class available.” So I said, “Okay I’ll have a look.” And they took me down. I could smell the stone. It was so beautiful and so plain. In carpentry, there are all these tools. Here, there was just stone, chisel, and mallet. Five different sorts of chisels and that’s it.
LSA: And what did you make?
HM: We did a rose window for a church. We did a capital that was about a meter and a half square and stood a little over a meter high. And there were three of us working three days a week on it and it took us six months.
But the first thing they taught us, and you do this for two months, was how to square stone. Day in and day out for two months, you learn how to square the stone. They give you a big block and you are supposed to make it into a perfect cube. They measure it, it has to be completely flat, with corners exactly 90 degrees. So this man gives me the chisel, and he went away. And I thought: chisel, mallet, man, stone, I know what to do, bang! And I didn’t realize that I was making a lot of noise and my arm was hurting. The instructor came back to me. He had a very thick Irish accent, his father was a stonemason, his grandfather was a stonemason, and his great-grandfather too. He had a lovely photograph of all the generations of stonemasons from his family standing – wearing caps and ties, and long, leather aprons – and holding their mallets. He said to me, “You’ve got to find its weakness. You see this?” And all he did was just lift the mallet and let it fall. And once you’ve discovered that, it becomes a rhythm, it’s very calming, and I liked it a lot. So, no it wasn’t difficult; you don’t need a lot of strength. Stone masonry is fantastic. That, I miss.
LSA: Across the Arab world today there is much talk about “breaking the wall of fear.” Were you afraid when you wrote In the Country of Men?
HM: Yes. I was afraid. Again, when I was writing, I wasn’t afraid. In the act of writing, I had to make sure I don’t go one way or the other, not for me but for the integrity of the work. The dangers were, because of my feelings about the dictatorship, that I put in a lot of the awful things, and make it a document. That would have killed the book. The other temptation was to take out too much, because it was too dangerous: not only for me but also for others, that’s what really made me worry. And I remember one moment when I was fairly far into the book and I suddenly panicked.
LSA: How do you imagine your father would respond to your novels?
HM: It’s very difficult, very difficult. I’ve no idea.
LSA: You never think about that?
HM: I try not to. But I think he would be very proud, I’m sure. But who knows what he would make of my work. Somebody recently in one of the universities, did a post-graduate study comparing Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt with In the Country of Men. I knew when I read that he would bikayyef, be thrilled.
LSA: Writers constantly write about their trauma. Do you think you are destined to write about disappearance?
HM: No, I’ve done something here that I feel, I’ve did that. I think I’d like to stay in non-fiction for a little bit. I have a couple of essays I would like to write about what is happening now.
LSA: What are you reading right now?
HM: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf. It’s an incredible book, it’s really magic. I’m teaching it, so that’s why I’m rereading it. It’s very difficult to not be awed by it again. It’s just wonderful.
LSA: Do you listen to music when you write?
HM: No, I don’t. I can’t. It depends, I mean I don’t listen to background music, generally. But it depends what sort of music, if I’m listening to a band that I like, let’s say Radiohead, I listen to them as as background music. I could be cooking or talking to a friend and listening to that. But most of the music I listen to is classical music.
LSA: So when you are writing, you need silence?
HM: Completely. Silence, and I need to be alone. Where the possibility of anybody entering the room or knocking at the door is zero. That’s the best circumstance.