Hisham Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, was a successful Libyan businessman who took his family to Cairo in 1979, partly due to his opposition of Colonel Gadaffi’s regime. Ten years later, he was kidnapped by those who he had very publicly opposed. He was taken to Abu Salam prison, along with various other members of his extended family. His wife and kids would never see him again. As news about a massacre inside the prison in 1996 began to trickle out, Hisham and his family started to suspect that Jaballa may well have been among the 1,270 inmates who lost their lives that day. But nobody would tell them for sure, and false rumours and mistaken sightings would only add to the uncertainty.
It was a state of being that would go on to influence much of Hisham’s personal and professional life. His two novels, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, were both loosely based on his father’s abduction and heavily rooted in his experience as a Libyan exile. In The Return, Hisham steps away from the fictionalised accounts to bring us a memoir about the disappearance and everything that happened both before and because of it. And why not? It’s a story with more twists and turns, more heartbreak and moments of hope, than many bestselling thrillers could hope to muster.
It’s a memoir that does two things particularly well. One, it gives an account of what it’s like to live inside a dictatorship, one that was often hidden and supported by Western states in need of oil and other spoils, one that turned out to be much more deadly than people suspected at the time it was occurring, and one that followed its citizens wherever they went, making escape almost impossible. But as well as being a great historical document, it also works as an evaluation of the father/son relationship from a previously unexplored angle. Here we see a son in limbo, a father neither dead or alive, a relationship turned into an obsession. It’s an endlessly upsetting account, but also one in which you can’t stop admiring the people at its centre. The bravery shown by both Hisham and Jaballa, and many more, is nothing short of incredible.
Any Cop?: The story in these pages is so remarkable that it might not matter how it was written. The people you side with are so easy to admire, and those you side against make it very easy to despise them. The situations people find themselves in are so crushing, so intense, that even the most average of writers could have made them moving and enthralling. Add to that the delicate prose of the author, and you’re looking at a modern masterpiece.