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One man’s quest to find his abducted father

Hisham Matar’s “The Return” is a harrowing memoir about a son’s search for his father, who was forcibly taken from their Cairo apartment in March 1990. At the time, 19-year-old Matar was unaware that it would be the last time he would see his father. It would also spark an arduous, but ultimately unsuccessful, quest to find him.
Matar’s father Jaballa was a military man, diplomat, poet and businessman who moved his family to Cairo from Libya to live in exile after King Idris of Libya was overthrown in a coup d’état.
He was a patriot and an activist, staunchly and vocally opposed to the government of Muammar Qaddafi. He had been a thorn in the side of the regime since the 1970s, but was able to keep out of harm’s way until the day he was kidnapped and handed over to Libyan security forces.
In a few letters following his disappearance, Jaballa was able to get word to his family that he was in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, known at the time as the “Last Stop.” It was an abysmal jail that held scores of political prisoners, including Hisham Matar’s uncles and cousins, for decades until they were either killed or freed. But in 2011, when every last cell of Abu Salim prison was broken open, Jaballa Matar was nowhere to be found. The last correspondence with his family was a letter from 1996. So what happened to him?
Mysterious circumstances, evocative details
The book moves back and forth between present and past, as if the reader is in Matar’s mind, going through events beside him. You are instantly pulled into the story by its mysterious circumstances, following the writer, who like a detective unearths hidden secrets and discovers the unknown. But before you can get carried away in the mystery, Matar has a way of reminding you that this story is real, with real people, real sorrows and real joys. Its pages are filled with Matar’s memories of his childhood in Libya, his garden full of grape vines and lemon and orange trees. It is bursting with recollections of his mother’s cooking and father’s poetry, aromas of his grandfather’s eucalyptus tree and the thrill of playing soccer with his brother in the streets of Tripoli. He allows you a glimpse into the struggles and fears he endures as a child, teenager and, eventually, a man without his father.
Reading this book is like being part of a cathartic experiment in which the author is aware that the telling of the story will somehow help ease his pain. Before you are even halfway through the book, however, you know that his pain is not something that can be buried.
“I was the son of an unusual man, perhaps even a great man. And when, like most children, I rebelled against these early perceptions of him, I did so because I feared the consequences of his convictions; I was desperate to divert him from his path. It was my first lesson in the limits of one’s ability to dissuade another from a perilous course,” the author wrote.
Matar’s loss of his father and not knowing what happened to him, only able to recall memories and feelings at various times, are pains that will come and go, and will sometimes drop him to his knees or pass him by like familiar aromas.
Identity and belonging
Matar’s return to Libya, after 36 years, is revealed masterfully. His own insight into his life and that of his family’s is so careful and precise — like an artist painting his masterpiece. He produces a resolute, traumatic and beautiful picture embedded in roots, history and family. As a writer of two previous fiction books, “In the Country of Men” and “Anatomy of a Disappearance,” both based on characters who live in exile, Matar’s memoir was a long time coming.
Throughout the book, the author reveals his struggles with identity and belonging. He quotes novelist Jean Rhys to help portray what he feels: “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. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.”
As a Libyan born in New York, the city “means nothing and everything” to Matar as he tries to understand where he belongs in the world. He has lived in many places but his roots are in Libya. His childhood memories of his home are fixed, bringing him joy, but they coincide with harsh political realities. His awareness of these facts is intertwined with the story but does not take away from the book; rather it adds a dimension.
The search for Matar’s father reveals facts he did not know about Jaballa through brief phone calls, cryptic e-mails, and recollections of uncles, friends, and strangers. They help him learn that behind the man he knew for 19 years, was another complete person, fixed in principles. The discovery, and inevitable journey, is a full expression of human life, the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, gains and losses.
This book is a record of a determined family, whose roots are deeply embedded in Libya; their love grows from its soil and their feet have dug themselves into its land. It is the way Matar writes, the impact of his words, that allows a reader to understand how important a story this is. Matar’s fastidiousness in his retelling is what makes it such an outstanding book. One can’t help but think that his writing is the extension of his father’s resoluteness. A passage his father wrote, revealed to Matar by a relative, is the resounding voice one is left with at the end of this book: “Don’t worry; I am well. I am like the mountain that is neither altered nor diminished by the passing storm.”
— Manal Shakir is the author of “Magic Within,” published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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