Shortly after seizing power in 1969, Moammar Gadhafi stripped army officer Jaballa Matar of his military rank and sent him to New York to serve as first secretary of the Libyan Mission in the United Nations. Jaballa quit three years later, however, and, on his return to Libya, became one of the most prominent figures of the armed opposition.
He so enraged authorities that he, his wife and sons Ziad and 9-year-old Hisham had to leave their home in Tripoli for Cairo. Yet not even this was a safe haven. In 1990, Jaballa was kidnapped from the family’s Cairo flat and taken to Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, also known as the Last Stop, “the place where the regime sent those it wanted to forget.”
He never returned.
In March 2012, five months after Gadhafi’s overthrow, Hisham Matar, author of the novels “Anatomy of a Disappearance” and “In the Country of Men,” traveled to Libya for the first time since 1979 to find out what happened to his father. He has documented his journey in “The Return,” a moving new memoir that is as much a commentary on the power of art as it is a harrowing tale of life under totalitarian rule.
In prose that often has the pacing of the best spy novels, the book goes back and forth between the 2012 trip to Libya, stories of Jaballa’s past and the history of Libya, and Matar’s earlier efforts to locate his father. He visits with relatives and others who knew his father, including Uncle Mahmoud, who served 21 years at Abu Salim and was surprised to learn that the elderly man reciting poetry late into the night in an adjoining cell was his older brother Jaballa.
And the book chronicles Matar’s campaign, begun in 2010, “focused on my father’s case and, more broadly, human rights in Libya,” an endeavor that ultimately leads to meetings with Seif el-Islam, Gadhafi’s second son, who claims to know if Jaballa was one of the 1,270 prisoners massacred at Abu Salim on June 29, 1996, but demands concessions in exchange for his information.
“The Return” contains frequent references to paintings and literature: the works of Turgenev and Dante; Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian,” an unfinished painting that “evokes the inconclusive fate of my father and the men who died in Abu Salim,” and, most memorably, the stories Matar’s father composed as a teen. One of these stories is about a young boy whose father died. The story concludes with the boy declaring, “I decided to work and survive.” That’s one of the messages of this gorgeously written book: Even in the face of unspeakable injustice, family and stories possess the power to help one endure.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between
By: Hisham Matar.
Publisher: Random House, 243 pages, $26.