An Interview with Hisham Matar

Concern. I think that was what I craved. A warm and steady and unchangeable concern. In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child craving for concern. And although I didn't think of it then in these terms, my self-pity had soured into self-loathing. —Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men

Hisham Matar was born in New York City in 1970 to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. He has lived in the UK since 1986. His début novel, In the Country of Men, was published by The Dial Press (a division of Random House) in the U.S. (2007) and Viking in the UK (2006) to great critical acclaim. It was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary honor, and, more recently, it won the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize.

This interview took place in early May 2007, a couple of months following the U.S. publication of In the Country of Men.

Nouri Gana: Tell us a bit about yourself, your childhood, your education and your current life. I understand that your novel is based on real life events?

Hisham Matar: Initially I wanted to be a musician, or, more precisely, a conductor. I practiced hard but it gradually, painstakingly, became evident that the little talent I had was further compromised by an atrocious lack of discipline and a very distracted nature that took me hopping from one instrument to the next: first I struggled with the piano for about six years, then with the oud (lute) for a year, then did what all young teenagers do when they discover their limitations, I took up the guitar and wanted to be a pop star, wrote songs heavily influenced by the Libyan singer-songwriter Ahmad Fakroun and, of course, Bob Dylan. Unlike Suleiman, the protagonist of In the Country of Men, who lacks musical ambition and interest and sees it only as a way of pleasing his distracted parents, I had a sincere enthusiasm for music that has only grown stronger with the years. What attracted me to conducting when young was the miming of the music; it seemed fabulously fun to do—it still does. What also appealed to me about such a job was the possibility of knowing intimately a piece of music as complex as Rachmaninoff's second and third symphonies or Bartok's String Quartets (the latter never in need of a conductor of course—case in point); to know each part, each layer, and be intimate with each instrument, its role and function and nature, its possibilities and desires and ambition, its inherent limitations. So conducting seemed a way into music. I remain a keen listener. The art of listening, like the art of reading, is often overlooked.

My second idea was to become an architect. I apprenticed for several years, read everything I could find on the subject, and, eventually, opened a practice in London. I was occasionally asked to lecture on the subject in universities and it amused me that I was teaching a discipline I was never academically qualified to practice. On several occasions I wondered if I should not enroll myself into my own class. But the idea of being taught by a lecturer who had nothing to teach me that I did not already know put me off the idea. Besides, I wouldn't have known what grade to give myself, or what I-the-lecturer would do if I-the-student turned up late or missed a class. I often feel, in almost everything I do, as a quiet imposter, especially if someone is watching, which is why I often left the lecture hall feeling I had not done my job properly. One has seen so many people walk that it is impossible to know how one would have walked had one reached the conclusion independently that walking was the thing to do; in almost everything we do we are acting, copying others. In almost everything else this can be seen as an act of fidelity, a taking part in what might be called our common human fraternity. But when it comes to one's most precious tasks it can feel deeply dispossessing. So although I was quite successful as an architectural designer, enjoyed my work and carried it out with a high degree of competence, I occasionally felt unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Eventually, writing was the only thing left that didn't feel like a lie, which is a paradox because what I write is fictitious, it never happened. And, luckily, as it turned out, what had originally attracted me to music, architecture and poetry—the holy trinity of my youth—remains fundamental to writing novels.

NG: How did you come to fiction writing? What are the major literary influences on you?

HM: I came to fiction through poetry. Poetry paralleled my interest in music and architecture. I can not think of a time when it had not—whether, in the early years, through my family, or later—been present in some way in my life: the reading of it and the attempts, often futile, of writing it. Shortly before writing my novel the poems I was attempting to write had become more and more concerned with narrative. In the Country of Men began as one such poem. A scene that is now about forty or fifty pages into the book, where Suleiman is alone in the garden picking mulberries, was the first thing I wrote. I thought I had begun a poem about a boy in the garden, in the mythical garden, as it were, picking ripened fruit. Twelve lines, three or four weeks at the most and I will be done, I thought. The novel took five years to write.

Most of my early reading was in poetry. I continue to be intrigued by Lord Alfred Tennyson's ability to grieve for his friend Lord Hallam for over fourteen years. Memoriam, the series of poems he wrote over that period, is a moving and curious testimony to the perennial nature of grief. Not many people read Tennyson these days. It's a shame. He had a fabulous ear for language—and a wonderful beard. I like a good beard. It is rare these days to see a well-groomed, flamboyant beard. Tennyson's, from what I can see through the few photographs I have seen of him, was not necessarily carefully groomed, but certainly flamboyant. Some of the other writers whose work I return to are Joseph Conrad, Ivan Turgenev and Marcel Proust.

NG: When and why did you decide to tell your story?

HM: I am not aware that I have told "my story," I am not even sure what story that would be; one is made up of so many stories that it is hard to find the authoritative one. In the Country of Men is entirely fictional. I would be lying if I were to claim that what happens to Suleiman or any of the other characters has happened to me or to anyone else I know. Writing for me is a series of implications: one sentence implicates the next. I lose interest if I know what will happen. I was commissioned once by the London Independent on Sunday to write an autobiographical essay. Nothing bored me more. I hope that I will, with age, become less disinterested in the telling of my past for it seems, even at this age, so voluminous and intricate and infinitely worthy of meditation. Not so much because I have lived a particularly interesting life—even though the life I have lived has been interesting enough for me—but because the early years seem so rich, and our distance from them obscures and enriches them even more.

NG: Was it natural, artistic and/or political for you to write in English? At least retrospectively, would you have chosen to write your novel in Arabic? Is your novel going to be translated into Arabic?

HM: My novel was translated into Arabic by the Lebanese poet Sukainah Ibrahiem and published in December 2006 by Dar Al-Muna, a publisher based in Stockholm. Since I was a boy I attended English schools. For this reason my English tends to be better than my Arabic. This is the practical reason behind my writing in English. That is not to say that it is "natural," as you call it, to write in English. In fact what interests me about my situation is how unnatural it continues to be. It never ceases to unsettle me that I am operating in a language my grandparents would have not understood.

NG: What do you think about the fast-growing corpus of literature in English produced by diasporic Arab writers? Can we now be justified in speaking (both theoretically and critically) about the rise and proliferation of the Arab novel in English?

HM: The late Nizar Qabbani had once referred to Arabs obliged by distance and exile to write in languages not their own as wild horses. I took that to mean that he admired our freedom, but lamented our loss, perhaps even our unruliness. It is certainly not an easy thing to write outside one's language. It is the deepest and most peculiar dimension of exile that I have experienced. But, in the end, if I were to be utterly candid, I am as interested in the Arabic novel as I am in the Norwegian or South African or American. All that matters in the end is good writing.

NG: Who is your favorite Arab novelist/writer in English?

HM: I am terribly ignorant with regards to contemporary writing in general. I find I rarely read a book by a living author. But I would love for you to introduce me to the work of contemporary Arab novelists writing in English. Particularly now that I have been asked to guest-edit an issue of a British literary journal and feel a pressing need to know who is writing what now.

NG: In In the Country of Men, there is a sense in which Scheherazade (the famous heroine of The Arabian Nights who saved her life and the lives of her likes from the wrath of a vindictive Shahrayar by spinning suspenseful stories within stories) is a site of a persistent disagreement between Suleiman and his mother. Obviously, I find that the mother is very bitter about Scheherazade's legacy, unable to reckon with Scheherazade's feats of courage at a time when more than anyone else in the family it is her, Najwa, who goes to lengths to preach and enact submission to Qaddafi's regime and the Revolutionary Committee. Is there a sense in which Suleiman's telling of his story is a vindication of Scheherazade? In what way is your novel, much like Scheherazade's stories, a narrative of rescue and survival, if not of cure and reparation? Does your narrative provide you with a sense of closure over the unredressed wrongs incurred by your family and the still undisclosed mystery of your father's disappearance?

HM: Your question is so interesting and interestingly phrased that I am tempted to leave it unanswered, mostly because I am sure I will answer it inadequately. It remains questionable to what degree the author is an authority on his or her work. There is a presumption of intimacy. A perceptive and sensitive reader may discover secrets in a work that may remain forever concealed from the writer's gaze. I feel much of my work is concealed from me. A writer can never read his or her work. I will never be able to read it. So ask me another one of your marvelous questions.

NG: I am puzzled by Najwa's insistence that her son not get close to Kareem after the tragic arrest of his father, reiterating "It just isn't good for you to be close to all of his sadness. Grief loves the hollow; all it wants is to hear its own echo." What could be the meaning of the last sentence? It does seem to me not only to undercut any sense of empathetic solidarity with victims but also to undermine the very experience of victimhood and the univocal grief that sustains and inheres in it?

HM: You see what I mean? Your questions are thoughtful and because of this the burden to respond is great. But, you see, asking me such questions is like asking a greaser in the belly of the ship, whose main concern is making sure the engine remains finely oiled, what the purpose of the journey is and whether the books will balance up at the end. I don't know to what extent I can explain any character, let alone their actions, in my book. Everything I know about them is in the book. I simply don't know why Najwa says what she says. All the language that the author possesses in regards to a work is in the work. Ask another question, please.

NG: Upon discovering that the novel is being written from the perspective of a nine-year-old Suleiman, I was thinking that this might be a Bildungsroman, but there are many instances in which this is also a Bildungsroman in reverse, especially when Suleiman is estranged from the literary voices that he used to have faith in. The end of the novel, however, and the retrospective retelling of the story from the perspective of the adolescent Suleiman reinstates the Bildungsroman as the evident genre to which the novel belongs, and is reminiscent in particular of one of my favorite Bildungsromans, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which, interestingly enough, Stephen Dedalus seems to me to be a distant inspiration for Suleiman, who found in his life in Cairo the "silence, exile and cunning" that Stephen Dedalus make use of as weapons for political dissent and artistic empowerment. In what sense, if at all, is your novel indebted to this perspective?

HM: Interesting you should mention that particular quote from that particular novel. I remember when I first read it, it struck me in the way I imagine lightening striking a poor unsuspecting peasant plowing a field. Joyce had a fancy for striking down his readers like that; it is, paradoxically, from where his strength is derived and where his weakness is found, too. Permit me to quote the entire sentence as it is one of only a few sentences of his that I have committed to memory: "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning." I don't live by it, of course; how terrible it would be to live by such a narrow definition and promise. But what marvelous prose! You can feel the world close in on the narrator, his options narrowing, not only through the meaning, but the retracting movement of the sentence, like a tide's pull, which of course serves the theme of a man coiling on to himself. Paradoxically, for a sentence that declares cunning, it is itself empty of cunning, which is why it is tragic, for it hints at the futility and desperation of the vow. It also has the cadence of a boy's repentance, tender and bewildered and eager to convince. Marvelous.

NG: Is exile the proverbial or rather alternative vantage point from which to orchestrate political resistance to dictatorships in the Arab world?

HM: You ask terribly important questions of a terribly inadequate man. I will start by saying I am not interested in political resistance, although I am deeply interested in justice. Justice is educative, justice is apolitical, justice resists nothing, for it is the normative state, may even go as far as saying that justice is, in the Aristotelian sense, aesthetic. Therefore what preoccupies me in my work is the art itself. It is a question of fidelity: I refuse for my work to serve anything or anyone but itself; more precisely, the work refuses, and I obey.

NG: In what way was the perspective of a nine-year-old boy necessary but impossible, and how did you think you resolved this paradox? Many of my favorite moments of insight and intellection, including the epigraph above, could have hardly been entertained by a nine-year-old. Here is another example: "We drift through allegiances, those we are born into and those we are claimed by, always estranging ourselves" (167). What are the more important allegiances that one should not compromise?

HM: The narrator plays a trick on the reader; the story is actually told not by a boy of nine but by an exiled young man of twenty-four recalling and evoking the past, hoping by some magic that the telling alone would return him to the place and the people he as a boy had left. He is trying to mend the fracture, the point at which his personal narrative had been amputated. This is why the prose shifts between the contemplative, reflective poise of an adult and the bewilderment of a child.

NG: What do you think about the post-9/11 Libya, setting itself on a course of disarmament and hitching its wagon to the "war on terror," and normalizing its relations with Euro-America? I always thought that the globalization of the war on terror had indeed intensified the repressive mechanisms of oppressive regimes and in fact provided them with the ultimate ruse (i.e., the war on terror) so as to be let off the hook when it comes to human rights abuses, torture, and annulment of democracy and freedom of speech. Do you think this is true of Libya, and what are the prospects for real change in your homeland?

HM: There is no evidence of any improvement in the dire human rights situation in Libya since the 2003 American and European acceptance of the Qaddafi dictatorship. In fact, it can be argued that the welcoming back of Libya into the so-called international community has softened the critical gaze on the Libyan regime, encouraging it to act with even more impunity toward its own people, for none of the governments that now profit from their good relations with Libya has made it a condition that the Libyan dictatorship makes significant improvements in its human rights record. For example, the US rendition of Libyans suspected of terrorism back to Libya has not only condoned Qaddafi's oppression of his own people, but demanded it. I have argued this in a recent essay for The New York Times.

NG: Arab writers and artists today face many challenges; foremost among them is, I think, the convergence between democracy and imperialism: oftentimes when an Arab writer or artist agitates for democracy, freedom of expression and modernity in his or her own country, his or her stance ends up serving, however unwittingly, the imperial ideologies of colonial powers. How can Arab writers and artists continue to be critical of their own countries but simultaneously stand against imperial hegemony?

HM: It is certainly the case that many in the Arab world now see democracy as an American idea. Which can limit and corrupt sound political discourse. But it is not inevitable that it should. For long now the Middle East has allowed its political discourse to be framed and determined largely by its ideas of the Other. Surely, intellectual slackness, oppressive regimes and national lack of confidence have all contributed to this malaise. But mostly I think it is a question of pride. Like their African neighbors, Arabs, too, are a proud people; any plan for the future must take this in mind. And the West's gaze on them has for some time now been a harsh and severely critical one; contrasted from within by a muddled, confused and soft critique of the self. So this recent claim that the ideals of democracy have come to equal imperialism, is only the last such episode in this sordid dance.

NG: Do you think the fully deserved (judging by the economy and quality of its prose alone) success of your novel is retrospectively, significantly, or perhaps only partially boosted by its critique of a rogue regime in the eyes of Euro-America? Is this the first programmatic literary critique of Qaddafi's Libya or has there been others in Arabic? What do you think contributed the more to the wide acclaim of your début novel?

HM: I am doubtful about how literary success is measured. Many well-received books have vanished not only from our bookshelves but also from memory. Janacek was so disappointed with his creation that he grabbed the first movement of his Piano Sonata from in front of the pianist and tore it up. Later that day he threw the second and third movements in the river. Thankfully, suspecting that this might happen, the pianist had made a copy of the sonata. It is thanks to him that the piece survives today. Now it is regarded as a great work. Were Janacek still alive, he might still disagree.

NG: What are you working on right now? A new novel? About what?

HM: I have made it a habit not to talk about what I am writing, not only because of my persistent superstitions, but because I do not have the language with which to describe something that possesses all of the words that are related to it: a book can only lend some of its language as ambassadors of meaning after it has been written; now the loan would be tantamount to theft. So it is a question of fidelity. And it is very dangerous to be disloyal; for in order to speak about what I am writing I would have to first exit the work. Asking me this question is like asking a couple in the throes of passion, "How is it going?" or "Could you tell us how it feels?" Lovemaking and writing are not too dissimilar. Both demand complete surrender. They offer us a rare glimpse of escaping the confines of solitude, for at their best they are like dissolving. No wonder then why mystics of various traditions—were they Marguerite Porete, Ibn Arabi, Rabi'a al-Adawiyya or John the Scot Eriugena—cannot escape the metaphor of love when speaking about the divine.