Hisham Matar’s The Return opens with the author waiting at Cairo International Airport for a plane to take him back to Benghazi, in Libya, following the fall of Col. Muammar Qadaffi. It is 33 years since Matar, then eight years old, left the country for exile in Egypt and Europe. In 1990, Matar’s father was kidnapped by the Egyptian Secret Service and handed over to Libyan authorities, where he became one of Col. Qadaffi’s many political prisoners. Matar has not heard from his father since 1996.
Matar, born in New York but now resident in London, understands he was always going to return to Libya, because never returning “meant never allowing myself to think about [my father’s disappearance] again, which would only lead to another form of resistance, and I was done with resistance.” The result is a memoir that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for autobiography, as well as the Rathbones Folio Prize. The Return is an emotional but measured narrative of the disappearance of the author’s father, interwoven with Libya’s recent history.
I begin reading it on a train between London and Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. A return to Glasgow is not a return for me in the same strong sense that Libya is for Matar. My first visit there was 10 years ago, just after my own father went missing. It is his city. I caught the tiny orange underground metro, so “wee,” as the Scots say, you can’t stand up straight in the carriage’s centre. I got off in the borough of Ibrox; I had a vague sense that, as my father had supported Glasgow Rangers Football Club, whose stadium is in this part of the city, then this was the suburb in which he would have grown up, and disappeared into. To call it a suburb is generous. Many of the apartments in Ibrox are two-storied breezeblock structures with boarded up windows, although people still live inside; on that first visit there were no cars on the streets, and the trash of chip packets and Irn Bru soda cans filled the front porches up to the window sills. It was a frightening glimpse of a poverty-stricken city where the life expectancy for men can reach as low as 39.
Ten years ago, I searched for traces of my father but found nothing. Glasgow was impenetrable.
Young Hisham Matar is the autobiographical model for the protagonist of his first novel, In the Country of Men. The boy, Sulaiman, is the son of a dissident Faraj, and “the Guide’s” eyes and ears see and hear everything that his family say or do. The novel (and Matar’s second, Anatomy of a Disappearance) explores how State repression under Qadaffi threatened everything, especially love and trust.
“I don’t remember a time when words were not dangerous,” Matar wrote last year in an essay. “But in the late 1970s, when I was a young schoolboy in Tripoli, the risks had become more real than ever before. There were things I knew my brother and I shouldn’t say unless we were alone with our parents…Men were locked up for saying the wrong thing or because they were innocently quoted by a child.”
For six years after his father was arrested there was contact via letters smuggled out of Abu Salim prison (where the majority of Qadaffi’s political prisoners were detained). Then in 1996, the letters stopped. In what I can only describe as an inverse echo of our stories, in 1996 I was writing to my father to tell him to not contact me, precisely as the Abu Salim massacre—in which it is likely Matar’s father was executed—was taking place. One son desperate for a father’s safe return; another son desperate to break off all communication.
“I had never felt more capable of stillness,” Matar writes while waiting for the boarding call for his plane to Benghazi.
I had never felt capable of stillness, I write melodramatically as I sit in a Glasgow café near Queen Street train station, waiting until I can check in to my hotel.
Matar suggests it takes a conscious effort to remain still. “On the plane from London to Cairo,” he writes, he finally understood “the logic of the contradiction” that had caused his lifelong restlessness: “home” always felt impermanent. “It turns out that I have spent all the time since I was eight years old, when my family left Libya, waiting…A feeble act of fidelity to the old country, or maybe not even to Libya but to the young boy I was when we left.”
Still: to calm, quieten. Also: still, even now.
Ten years after his disappearance my father remains missing. On the anniversary, I’ve come back to Glasgow to look for him, with Matar’s words for company.
My father’s disappearance was nothing like Matar’s. My father was not a great man, a dissident whose disappearance made it into The Times, who had the U.K. and U.S. governments and international NGOs involved in attempts to secure his release. My father was an accident-prone engineer and lifelong alcoholic with his own inherited family trauma, who was finally thrown out by his second wife after 30 years of marriage when he came home after a three-day bender and fell asleep outside the house in the gutter. Like the ghost in the flat where my father first lived after leaving my mother (a ghost who, incidentally, stole all the tea towels), my father was a presence that could not be counted upon. He slipped through the net of our ambivalent care a few months later.
“When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him,” writes Matar. “You are the scene of a shameful private battle.”
When my father first disappeared we only half-hoped it would not be for long: he was an embarrassment most of the time, never violent, but unpredictable, always disappointed in everyone around him. He would, my uncle, his brother, assured me, “Come back when he’s licked his wounds.” But that did not happen, and as the years passed, I tried my best to ignore the “shameful private battle” of not quite looking for him hard enough. I turned to books as both education and evasion. I sunk into Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son with the intention to never forget its call for intellectual freedom from a father’s overbearing influence; it was some justification for refusing to devote my time to searching the dry hostels and homeless centers. I read and re-read Andrew O’Hagan’s Our Fathers, about three generations of Glaswegian men torn apart by alcohol and ambition; and O’Hagan’s The Missing, about lost persons, especially those, in a brutal exposé, who were victims of mass murderers Fred and Rosemary West. I convinced myself, and others, that if I were reading about fathers, especially the absent kind, the drunken, lying kind, as in John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father, then mine was a search of sorts, a reconnaissance into the mindscape if not the cold doorways of where a missing, stubborn, alcoholic might be. I kept this charade up for nine years. And then my mother died.
Matar’s books, despite the loved mothers, real and fictional, and the steadying influence of his wife, Diane, are stories about men: sons and fathers, despots, uncles, family friends and brothers, cousins killed during insurgencies, politicians, and, in a large section of The Return, Seif Qadaffi, son of the Colonel, who pretends, at best, but mostly dissimulates, to try to find out what happened to Matar’s father. There is an ease that Matar exudes in the company of men. I envy him. I grew up in a female household, my father absent beginning when I was two years old. I have no problem with yoga classes, but all-male bonding is a strain. This is even more true now in the middle of a cycle of therapy prompted by the death of my mother.
My mother’s death at 68 was not a surprise. She lived a difficult working-class life, with two or sometimes three menial jobs to support her two children, and always, we learnt later, carrying the sorrowful body-burden of being forced to give up her first child for adoption when she was only 16. I grieved my mother’s death well, if measured by a lack of diversionary tactics (I haven’t spent the last year reading Sons and Lovers). But the loss of one parent forces attention to your relationship with the other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the therapy focused on unburdening myself of the psychological armor I’d fashioned in childhood as protection against an unpredictable and alcoholic father.
Therapy exposed me to reality in a way that reading books about missing fathers could not—and was not meant to. In a year of curative work, I began, with the mental equivalent of a child’s brightly-coloured plastic hammer, to chip away at that over-protective armor. I still didn’t think I was ready to look for my father. But yet here I am, in my father’s city, 10 years after he stepped out of our lives.
In my hotel that night I delight in picking up Matar, my newfound travel companion. I relish travel for the contradiction Matar writes about; having the distance to reflect upon home as impermanent. Like Matar it was not “a casual desire for travel” I sought, “not a tourist’s curiosity for sites and landmarks and languages and new faces, but a precise and uncomplicated conviction that the world was available to me.” Wasn’t the world available to me now I’d sloughed off the chainmail that had, for 30 years, defied my father’s afflictions, but at high personal cost? Matar’s thoughts about travel come when he is back in Libya, and they surprise him: “Wasn’t this an odd thing to think now, now that I was finally home? Or is this what being home is like: home as a place from which the entire world is suddenly possible?”
Almost asleep, I read Matar’s story of watching a football game between Bayern Munich and Glasgow Rangers. Matar chooses to support Rangers (my father’s team) because they have a black player when such things were unusual.
“Here was an eighteen-year-old Arab Muslim praying in an English pub for a Scottish team because they had a black player who might or might not be African, while his Libyan family, exiled in Cairo, were rooting for a German team,” writes Matar. And here was an English atheist lying in a Glasgow bed reading a book by a Libyan man whose words jar memories of a missing Scottish father who could be homeless on the streets of London, or (albeit unlikely) imprisoned in Libya.
I put down The Return and think of Matar’s New York Times essay railing against the philistinism of Donald Trump: “Books have invited me into different countries, states of mind, social conditions and historical epochs,” he writes, “they have offered me a place at the most unusual gatherings.” This is what The Return offers, a more affecting book than either of Matar’s novels. In the fictions, the control of emotion in the narrative stymies empathy with the protagonists; in the autobiography, it is much clearer that this control is the author’s attempt not to lose his mind to a grief held in limbo.
Sometimes parsing life through literature reveals the greater truth. But, just as often, it does not. For 10 years I have avoided looking at the faces of the homeless men in Glasgow and London. But the paradox of having removed the armor with which I protected myself from his drunken outbursts (“You’re a child of hate!”) and the disappointment he could spear me with, with just that shake of his head, is this: now I no longer have the armor to protect myself, I am ready to face him.
And the next evening, there he is. After a day walking the streets and staring at people in cafés, I am leaning against the door of a packed metro carriage and look across to see my father. His greying hair is brushed back over the balding head. He’s wearing loose workman clothes, baggy blue jogging bottoms and a knitted jumper too big for him but worn to keep him warm while laboring. It’s splattered with flecks of white paint, as are his arms. His jumper sleeves are pushed up to his elbows like he always used to, especially when driving. He’s holding the rail above his head and I see one of the same hairy arms that I’ve inherited, crooked arms that don’t straighten at the elbow despite various yogis’ attempts to unbend them. Most importantly, he still has his yellow, drooping mustache. It makes him look sad, like Hulk Hogan post-sex tape. He’s carrying a newspaper rolled up in his other hand. He grimaces with fatigue. The lines around his eyes crease into that resigned expression I know so well but have not seen since 2007 when my uncle and I registered him as missing.
I watch him over the heads of the crowd. Impatient at the slow-moving train, he looks and sees me staring. What color are my father’s eyes? I can’t remember.
The metro pulls into the next stop. I stare again. Once or twice he catches my eye. Does he recognize me? There are too many people to move closer. Are those his ears? Does my father have ears that big? I’m running through the synchronicities that have brought me here; that I am here means that my father does have ears that could belong to a donkey. I’ve come to believe in synchronicity, in some special power of love to connect across time and dark distances. Why else would we both be here?
I can’t keep staring. What do I do? What I’ve done for the past 10 years?
The carriage pulls into Buchanan Street station and he maneuvers to alight. The doors open. I get out and stop so that he can pass. I make a show of having to pull up my trousers, as if anyone is paying attention. Two hundred people are heading for the exit. He walks past and I follow. I tell myself I have to do this. I follow up a flight of stairs. There’s a throng of people. I think I’ve lost sight of him. I don’t know where—then, there he is. Then we’re at the top of the stairs and he’s walking away. The crowd thins out on the concourse. There’s a space where an approach won’t bring embarrassment. I’m going to do this. I know what I’m going to say. I walk faster. Is this how tall my father is? Did he have that much hair left? Are those his ears?
I tap him on the shoulder. I ask if his name is Phil.
It makes sense to him now why I was staring. He smiles. He doesn’t have the bunched front tooth I inherited. He doesn’t speak English that well. He shakes his head. Says no, I think. But I don’t really hear him.
Sorry, I tell him. I thought you were a friend of my father.
He puts an awkward, friendly hand on my arm, then turns and exits to the street.
A bubble of blackness surges from my abdomen, where it has always been, hidden behind that armour. I’m in the middle of the concourse so I push it down and with it the tears. I say in my head, I’m really upset. I’m really upset but I don’t cry.
I’m okay, I tell myself. I’m 41 years old, and I feel like a child again.
At 2 a.m., I’m sitting on the hotel’s broken toilet seat shitting out everything I’ve eaten for the past 24 hours. In the next two hours I go back and forth between bed and toilet 15 times, taking The Return and reading the same pages over and again. “The dead live with us,” writes Matar. “Grief is not a whodunnit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back. It is part of one’s initiation into death and—I don’t know why, I have no way of justifying it—it is a hopeful part at that.”
Sitting sniveling on the toilet seat I cannot see much hope left.
Yet I went up to that man who I thought was my father. At least I did that.
“What is extraordinary,” Matar continues, “is that, given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light. It is in that direction that there is the least resistance. It is somehow in the body, in the physical knowledge of the eternity of each moment, in the expansive nature of time and space, that declarative statements such as ‘He is dead’ are not precise. My father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future.”
At 4:30 a.m. I climb back under the covers to find myself without warning crying deeply and painfully, sputtering through tears and snot and vomit:
I wanted it to be him. I wanted it to be him.
“The truth was, at that moment I didn’t believe Father to be dead. But the truth was also that I didn’t believe him to be alive either,” writes Matar as, back in Benghazi, he hears what he has always feared: that those who last saw him in the Abu Salim prison did not see him come out alive when the remaining prisoners were finally released.
About two thirds of the way through The Return, Matar raises the idea that one should know the moment one’s father dies. It troubles Matar because he has not, he believes, felt the moment his father was killed. Matar recounts the story of a Syrian poet who he hears talk on the radio about the way he (the poet) knew the moment when his mother passed away. The poet was in London to give a reading, and took a stroll around Grosvenor 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.”
Matar agrees and thinks it “impossible that I should fail to detect the moment when someone I love dies.” And yet, he adds, “now that it is unimaginable that my father is alive, I am unsettled by the failure.”
Matar is not a consistent diary keeper, but he did at times maintain a journal. He goes back to look at his entry for the day on which his father most likely died, at the Abu Salim massacre on June 29, 1996. At that time Matar was going to the National Gallery five days a week to practise a form of looking at art where he would sit in front of one painting for 15 minutes every day, and not move on until he felt he had exhausted the picture. He did this on June 29. Here is his entry:
“Could not get out of bed till noon. Walked up to NG. Done with Velásquez. I’ve switched to Manet’s Maximillian. Never speak about money worries again.”
The time is out of joint: an early riser, Matar couldn’t get out of bed. Strictly private about financial affairs, the night before he was moaning about money. On the day that the massacre of 1,270 prisoners took place, including most likely his father, “I chose to switch my vigil, which by then I had been keeping for six years, to Édouard Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximillian’, a picture of a political execution.”
I wonder if I’ll know the moment of my father’s death? “Trust thyself,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” For a son to know his father’s moment of death, such a connection must have been threaded with iron strings. My father loved me despite the unpredictability, the curses, the dissatisfactions. Has a whisper of my father’s last breath come to me?
The next morning I check out of the hotel, sit in a café and finish The Return.
“We need a father to rage against,” writes Matar. “When a father is neither dead nor alive, when he is a ghost, the will is impotent…I envy the finality of funerals. I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”
Standing in the middle of Buchanan Street, in my father’s city, I say it out loud:
“My father is dead.”
There’s still no answer.
The Pulitzer jury named Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad this year’s winner in the fiction category.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker
The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery by Micki McElya
Winner: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson
Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It by Larrie D. Ferreiro
New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America by Wendy Warren
Biography or Autobiography:
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.