Posted by: koolwine | January 28, 2011

Libya: In the Country of Men

Nine-year-old Suleiman is too young to comprehend the danger that his family is in even after his father, a member of an anti-revolutionary movement against Muammar Qaddafi, disappears.

Country Focus: Libya

In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar
Originally published: Viking UK, 2006.
My edition: Dial, 2008.  246 pgs.

Acclaim: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Winner of the Europe and South Asia Region of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize: First Best Book; Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award

Why did Suleiman see his father in Martyr’s Square when his father was supposed to be away on a foreign business trip?  And why is Suleiman’s mother always “sick” whenever his father is away on business?  Nine-year-old Suleiman, the unreliable narrator of In the Country of Men, seeks the answers to these two questions.

In the post-revolutionary Libya of 1979, Muammar Qaddafi has decreed that his forces “are capable of and have the right to use terror to eliminate anyone who stands against the revolution.”  ‘Anyone’ includes the father of Suleiman’s best friend, who is taken from his home by Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Committee and then interrogated and executed live on national television.  This man’s fate foreshadows what may befall Suleiman’s father, who has attracted the attention of the same officials.

Although the suspense surrounding the repercussions of Suleiman’s father’s anti-Qaddafi activities drives the main storyline, it is Suleiman’s mother whose backstory In the Country of Men fully explores.  Her downed bottles of “medicine” encourage her to bitterly relate to Suleiman how she and his father came to be married and the circumstance of Suleiman’s conception. The unpleasant recollection drives home the words of Suleiman’s Koran teacher: “God has promised every mother Paradise because the suffering endured by women surpasses all kinds of human suffering.”

If he had been a sentimental writer, Matar might have given the offspring of such vulnerable parents a sugary sweetness to comfort his mother or an unlikely courage to defend his father.  Instead, Suleiman is equal parts naive, cruel, selfish, cowardly and greedy.  Devoid of cuteness, this boy mirrors the harsh world that surrounds him.

Hisham Matar’s first novel presents an unflattering view of a deeply repressed country.  He tackles political persecution, the sorry state of women’s rights and the themes of betrayal and cowardice.   That he does so successfully and eloquently through the voice of an innocent – not to mention to a reader who is unfamiliar with Libya – makes this book exceptional.



  1. Feeling the Heat in Libya « World Lit Up…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……


  2. A little light on the fun section but these three sentences say so much about the main character – It reminds me of the old saying about playing just a single musical note: if it’s the right note at the right time, you only need one. Very eloquent.

    “If he had been a sentimental writer, Matar might have given the offspring of such vulnerable parents a sugary sweetness to comfort his mother or an unlikely courage to defend his father. Instead, Suleiman is equal parts naive, cruel, selfish, cowardly and greedy. Devoid of cuteness, this boy mirrors the harsh world that surrounds him”.


  3. Hi there, I really liked your blog and your review of Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’ and wondered whether you might be interested in asking Hisham Matar a question about this book? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything – doesn’t have to be particularly clever!), along with where you’re from/live. We can either arrange for you to talk to Hisham Matar himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
    Best wishes,
    BBC World Book Club


    • Absolutely! I’m thrilled! A question will be forthcoming…


      • Cool!


      • Yeah! I was pretty blown away.


      • Let us know when this will air.


      • September 3 on the BBC but I think that it is up to your local station. I will let you know as the date gets closer.


  4. I enjoyed reading this book very much. I thought it extremely well written. There are passages that are poetic in their beauty. “That night I dreamed of Baba floating on the sea. The water was unsettled, moving as it does in the deep, rising and falling in hills. He lay on his back. He looked like a small fishing boat trying to surrender to the sea. I was there, too, working hard to keep my shoulders above water, to not lose sight of him, but the sea rose, and he vanished from view. I kept swimming. I knew I was close. Then I saw him, wooden and stiff. When I reached out to touch him he turned into a fish, agile and shy. He plunged with a splash down and away. I could see his silver spine flicker below the water. I turned around and saw no shore to return to.” Ch 8

    In addition to the themes of betrayal and cowardice I felt there was a high degree of alienation felt by Suleiman, especially with reference to his father which seemed to spread to his mother and friends. The three physiological reference points mentioned in the book are the sea, the sky and the desert. Matar notes that all three are constantly changing, never the same when you look at them twice. When Suleiman begins to form a bond with Sharief (whom I took to be a Gaddafi stand-in) it seems to be a reaction to the alienation he is feeling from the significant others in his life. Matar also refers to Suleiman’s feelings of patriotism for the national teams at this time. I wonder if Matar is suggesting that loyalty to a corrupt regime is fed by the alienation of its citizens? And then the exile to Egypt becomes the ultimate alienation.

    My knowledge of Libya is unfortunately limited to associations with bombs. Libya’s support of terrorist bombings in Europe, the Lockerbie bombing, Reagan’s order to bomb Libya and now NATO bombing Libya. “Country of Men” expanded my knowledge of Libyan society and whetted my appetite to learn more about the country and its people.

    I should also add that I played Tripoley as a youngster and you have reawakened my interest in the game. I know my family will enjoy since they love playing cards. 🙂

    Thanks again for this excellent recommendation.

    I purchased “The Seamstress” for $.07 plus $3.99 shipping from a used book seller on Amazon. Looking forward to reading that book.


    • This passage stuck out to me:
      “Two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes. The sky, the sun and the sea were painted by God in colors we could all point at and say the sea is turquoise, the sun banana, the sky blue. Sunglasses are terrible, I thought, because they change all of this and keep those who wear them at a distance.”
      Those lines reflect what you said about the sea, sky and desert always changing. Thanks for pointing that out.

      I suspect that you will find The Seamstress to be quite a departure from In the Country of Men, but let me know!


  5. […] Libya: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar […]


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