archive - issue 14

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  • /

    By Ruth Barker
    On the QWERTY layout of my computer keyboard, the symbol / appears beside the questioning symbol ?. They are represented together on the same key, and
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  • Apartment / Containers

    By Vincent Bezuidenhout
    These diptychs are the start of a series of images I have been working on regarding the visual landscape we choose to surround ourselves
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  • I returned home after my first year in college to discover my younger sister had turned gorgeous. This was a disappointment, but not an
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  • Butterfly

    By Adriana de Barros
    The pupa, a silk wrap of emotionsIsolated, within breathing, wanting to bethe intense pronoun of selfIt is silly to be one's own pronounShe giggles
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  • Collage

    By Claudio Parentela
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  • Drag and Snap

    By Leigh-Anne Niehaus
    This series is inspired by the childhood game of "snapdragon", which allows for simplistic and delightful decision-making through random selections of colour and number.
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  • Evidence of Life

    By Tamlyn Martin
    Below is an extract from a series of 11 poems created in parallel with visual artworks. 5. Memories laced with visceral realityFlooding herThe gentle
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  • Forward! Slash!

    By Travis Lyle
    You think you're a forward-thinking kinda person, do you? Lemme be the one to break it to you, sunshine – you're as lame as the
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  • Human/Nature

    By Lydia Anne McCarthy
    This series explores moments between nature and human beings that are at once idealistic and unsettling. Each picture is an independent narrative, but placed
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  • Immigrants

    By Stanley Onjezani Kenani
    you want to livenothing leaveto liveyou swimor like fresh sardinesyou are packedin boatsyou leaveto live.  you leavegold in the belly of Africaoil in
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  • In Between

    By Tania van Schalkwyk
    Raised in an Arabian land of heat, fire and temper,sometimes the calm of England clamps downlike damp in a bathroom with no windowand a
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  • Letter to the Editor

    By Elan Gamaker
    Dear Sir/Madam I should like strenuously to object to the subject matter ("/") of your current issue. It must first be mentioned, however, that it
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  • Or: a line drawing

    By Gabeba Baderoon
    Pencil and nothing. Her face turned almost entirely away. Forehead, cheekbone,jaw,the bun low in her neck,shoulderand down,the long linejust enoughthen left alone.
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  • p u n c t u a t i o n

    By Ula Einstein
    Einstein works with a diverse range of media, including drawings and installation with fire, thread, and blades. The series of drawings and installations with
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    By Sean Hampton-Cole
    Keys. John speaking. 'Lo?Good morning. May I speak to Bob Mitchell please?Bob in Bonds?I'm not really sure. I'm trying to...You want extension 125. This
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  • Pretty Babies

    By Peregrine Honig
    With the premise that "/ " presents what is IN and what is OUT, the "Pretty Babies" series explores the fashion industry's well-published and syndicated DOs
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  • River Bank

    By Mario Sughi
    The symbol / is intended initially as a symbol of division. A real or unreal line divides the girl from the water, the girl from
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  • Scissor

    By Charlotte Gait
    There was a time when you and I were connected by iron, acid, vitamin and blood. Where every mouthful I took was with the
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  • Seasaw

    By Sol Kjøk
    Here, the motif is conceived of as a seesaw (the typo in the title is intended, as this drawing is part of a series
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  • Series Seven Up

    By Noel Fignier
    Text by João Branco Kyron, HipnóticaThe collision is imminent and in the fraction of time left, the eyes shut and the vision is superbly
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  • A battle over samoosas between the snobbish Cinderella and a homeless electrician is mediated by Cinderella's boyfriend JJ. The samoosa battle is conflated with
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  • Wayne Porter, freelance journalist, donned his anthropologist's birthday suit and hit the bowling alley. Bar the bowlers hat tipped gently off centre, the man
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  • The Incised Wound

    By Joanne Hichens
    "Please, for me, Dave," I placed my hand on his, and really, no begging, just asked him nicely, "Lay off the booze tonight." Whether
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  • He had been driving for hours through that unstable, somnambulist night when he fell asleep at the wheel. He awoke with a start and
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  • The space between.

    By Mehita Iqani
    It's a handy little line, the one that we use to make our options known. Either/Or. Paper and ink or binary code? Its clichéd,
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  • Un Hombre Fuerte

    By Tamo Vonarim Written these words are, at times of a subconscious flow – whether they are mine, I don't know. All I know is that I
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  • Unbroken Awareness

    My life is now a floating shellI am a vessel on that river.The storm, the ship, the sea,Whose shores we lost in crossing.  I
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  • Untitled

    By Wilhelm Saayman
    This series of images, made using pen and ink, photographs and Photoshop, explore alternate/dream realities.
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  • Untitled

    By Aryan Kaganof
    /At R550 rand I thought I'd rather die/ My mother: can I trust this woman?/ I thought the Romans were coming, dinkum/ …and always
    Read More
Monday, 30 April 2012 02:00

In The Country Of Men

With the Arab Spring, which began in December 2010, as well as the murder of South African journalist Anton Hammerl shot in Libya by forces loyal to the dictator Qaddafi during the Libyan war of 2011, so fresh in our collective memories, Hisham Matar's debut novel In the Country of Men is both topical and disturbing.

Set in Libya in 1979, In the Country of Men tells of nine-year-old Suleiman's complex childhood: games in the street with his friends intertwine with a deeply ambivalent relationship with his mother. Married at 14, a mother at 15, Najwa seeks a remedy for her "illness" inside a bottle of illegal "medicine". When she is "ill," she pours bitterness and love into her young son's receptive ears in equal measure.

The constant anxiety about his mother and the lurking fear that if he doesn't save her something terrible will happen reflect the effect of the greater political landscape overshadowing Suleiman's childhood. Inexorably led into a dark political world of oppression and violence he cannot yet fully understand his mother's fragile emotional state. Also, his father's political dissidence extracts an inevitable toll on Suleiman's psyche. They mark him for life: "I can feel the distant reverberations from that day, my inauguration into the dark art of submission," says the grown-up Suleiman, many years later from his distant new life in Egypt.

Throughout the story, Matar explores several universal themes in a variety of ways. Loyalty and betrayal, the concepts of manhood and heroism, truth and deception, love and alienation, oppression and freedom, and individual rights versus national pride are all threads woven into the exquisitely lyrical narrative.

The vivid imagery of life in Libya and the graceful, poetic style of the prose make In the Country of Men a quick, easy read, even though Suleiman's narrative is dark with his lost (or sacrificed) innocence. The boy's flawed understanding of what's happening around him exacerbates the Oedipal nature of his relationship with his parents. He is, after all, only a child. But he is a child damaged by both the oppressive society in which he lives and the way in which this has affected his parents.

He can't make the complete connection between the oppression of his mother's rights as an individual and the political oppression his father resists. Deprived of her education, identity and freedom, Najwa was forced into a marriage at 14 by the male elders of her family because she met a young male school friend for coffee. Although she had no real choice, over the years Najwa learned to love her husband Faraj, but that love is convoluted and tainted with a repressed bitterness for the freedom she lost to gain the protection of her husband. In the same way, the people of Libya are forced to embrace a national pride and love for their Guide and Leader, Muammar Qaddafi. Having deprived his wife of her individual freedoms, Faraj determinedly fights the loss of his own freedoms under the Qaddafi regime.

The intersecting political and personal worlds, with their distorted concepts of manhood and power, rupture Suleiman's identity into a strange mix of innocence and guile, compassion and cruelty. In his later analysis of his actions, the older Suleiman says, "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 concern. And although I didn't think of it then in these terms, my self-pity had soured into self-loathing."

Suleiman's self-loathing made him an unappealing character and he lost my sympathies early in the story. As a woman who has known only freedom, I couldn't relate deeply enough to the forces that so harshly influenced Suleiman's development from boy to man. Sadly, I didn't enjoy the novel as much as the beautiful, evocative writing deserved.

In the Country of Men is, however, a well-written, interesting novel and one that provides a disturbing picture of the old Libya. Reading the harsh realities of life under the tyrant Qaddafi, I'm no longer surprised that the Arab Spring resulted in the gruesome and violent death of a leader who betrayed his people for power.  

To hear Hiram Matar discuss In the Country of Men, listen to this BBC podcast.

Author: Hisham Matar
Edition: Kindle
Publisher: Penguin
Date of Edition Publication: March 1, 2007
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Judy Croome

Judy Croome lives and writes in Johannesburg, South Africa. Shortlisted in the African Writing Flash Fiction 2011 competition, Judy’s short stories and poems have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, both local and international, such as The Huffington Post. Her books "a stranger in a strange land" (2015);"The Weight of a Feather and other stories" (2013); “a Lamp at Midday” (2012) and “Dancing in the Shadows of Love” (2011) are currently availableJudy loves her family, cats, exploring the meaning of life, chocolate, cats, rainy days, ancient churches with their ancient graveyards, cats, meditation and solitude. Oh, and cats. Judy loves cats (who already appear to have discovered the meaning of life.)  Visit Judy at or join her on Twitter @judy_croome