Sunday, March 26, 2017

Hisham Matar's the Return

Hisham Matar is a Libyan by birth and is now a British author living in London and New York. the Return is a memoir written by him about his experience of going back to Libya, after Qadaffi had fallen and seeking to find out information about of his father's disappearance after being imprisoned by the Qadaffi regime in Abu Salim prison.

Hisham has inherited well the passion and integrity of his African lineage and taken well to the western systems of scientific enquiry and art appreciation. As a result this memoir is an intense, poetic and a moving meditation on displacement and loss. Hisham has packed his memoir with so much of history, politics and art stories, that this book is sure to become a classic. 

At the outset the book looked small and i was hoping to race through it in no time and finish it. But it was packed with so much beauty that i had to savour and relish it as slowly as i could. With a grandfather, Hamed, who fought alongside the tribal hero, Omal al- Mukhtar, against the Italian colonial power and a father, Jabal Matar who dared to stand his ground against an anarchist regime, it was only natural that Hisham brims with Patriotism, resolve and love for his father land. His passion for the land comes through in his Vivid descriptions of the Libyan landscape, sky, sunlight, sea, shore and the air. 

And having chosen to earn his living as and only as a writer and as someone who chooses to find the much elusive solace in his long visits to the National gallery and contemplating on a given painting for hours and days and years together, it is only natural that when such an artistic and a contemplative mind narrates his memoir, you get a lot of perspective on architecture, paintings and literature.

Talking of Loss and the pain of coping with it, i wonder if one can be more meditative than this:

... ' No, he is not dead.'. Perhaps that is not only a denial of terrible news but also a monetary recognition of a truth, one that passes and is buried along with the deceased. Disbelief is the right instinct, how far can the dead really be dead? I think this because absence has never seemed empty or passive but rather a busy place, vocal and insistent.......

... How could the complexities of being, the mechanics of our anatomy, the intelligence of our biology and the endless firmament of our interiority- the thoughts and questions and earnings and hopes and hunger and desire and the thousand and one contradictions that inhabit us at any given moment- ever have an ending that could be marked by a date on a calendar?

Through the book we get a fairly rich account of Libya's modern history and a some vivid first hand account of the recent uprisings that toppled Qadaffi and many a dictator in the region. There are interesting profiles of important political players involved like that of Qadaffi's son and some prominent British political leaders of the time. 

The story of the revolution from grass root level is a very moving one. We get to know about revolutionaries, leaders and foot soldiers from three different generations- The tribal uprising in the colonial era, the resistance during post Idris time and the revolution that toppled Qadaffi. 

Among the prominent political figures, Seif al Islam, Qaddafi's son comes across quite prominently and his political maneuvers to sell the idea of Libya, the legacy of his dictator father and his western training, to the west are clearly portrayed. Hisham has a tongue in cheek way of describing Saif's speech warning the revolters of dire consequence

... Seif appeared on television from Tripoli. Behind him was a map of the world, so large that his bald head barely managed to fill South Africa. he sat slouched in his chair. The tiny island known as the French Southern and Antartic Lands was a sizeable fleck beside his left shoulder. The South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands pointed at his right elbow.

If there is one running theme through the book its one's love for his father. While Hisham and his father's relation is the prominent theme, we also get to witness Jabal Matar's love for his Father Hamed, something that Hisham figures runs through in him too.

I have always wondered if it is possible to lose your father without sensing the particular moment of his death. I recall an interview on the radio with a Syrian poet...He came to London... One afternoon he felt the compulsion to go out into the square. ' I walked under the trees. it was a beautiful day. But i could not get rid of a desperate sadness. I longed for my mother. When i returned to my room i found a message telling me that she had just passed away.'

I remember hearing that on radio and thinking, it makes perfect sense. Of course, i told myself, it would be impossible that i should fail to detect the moment when someone i love dies.

When his enquiries and circustances point to a day in which he deduces he must have lost his father, Hisham rushes to his diaries to find what he was doing on that day...

It was a Saturday. i was living in the West End, some twenty minutes' walk from the National Gallery, and poor.... The entry reads:

' Could not get out of bed till noon. Walked to NG. Done with the Velazquez. I've switched to Manet's Maximilian...'

.... Most of all, what sent a shiver through me was the fact that, on the day 1270 men were executed in the (Abu Salim) prison where my father was held, i chose to switch vigil, which by then i had been keeping for six years to Edouard Manet's The Execution of Maximilian, a picture of political execution.

Hisham then goes on to relate the unsettlingly appropriate story of how the French intervention in Mexico had come to a disastrous end with the execution of their installed ruler in 1867 and how Manet was responding to it.

Hisham has a keen eye for art and architecture and is stunningly elaborate in his descriptions, weaving in the history, aesthetics and technical aspects. Describing downtown Bengazhi, and the different features and styles across its shoreline, Hisham observes that, 

Cafe (Vittoria) occupies the spot where Mussolini landed. Lest Il Dice's eyes be offended, a great deal of trouble went into erasing any signs that this was an Arab and Muslim city. Not one Ottoman or Arab minaret, house, colonnade or dome could be seen from this angle. It was a feat of archetectural camouflage. ... Punctuating this Italian disguise is the Benghazi cathedral, one of the largest Roman Catholic Churches in North Africa.

He then goes on to relate the story of its architect Guido Ferrazza , who overlooked Benghazi's transformation into an Italian city in the 1920s and the sad story of hanging of student leaders in 1977. Hisham, can also sit back and relieve us of these details and abruptly enter a poetic mood,

.. The cocktail of influences - Arab, Ottoman, Italianate, European modernists- suits the relaxed , eclectic and rebellious nature of the city. But there is something else, a material that does not belong to any other culture or period. it is timeless and unique to Benghazi. It is perhaps the most important architectural material there is, more than stone. It is light. 

While the pain of loss and the poignancy of the revolution form the major bulk of the book, there is a layer of the book that deals with the abstract nature of displacement. Referring to his having to leave his father land during a time of crisis and growing abroad,

... It seemed as if everyone else' development had been linear, allowed to progress naturally in the known environment,... I was experiencing a kind of distance-sickness,.... the only other individuals i met who seemed afflicted by a similar condition were ex-prisoners. 

The following lines from Jean Rhys, Hisham quotes sum his predicament:

'I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere and i knew it and all my life would be the same, trying to belong and failing'