archive - issue 14
In The Country Of MenBy Judy Croome
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.
Title: IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN
Author: Hisham Matar
Date of Edition Publication: March 1, 2007
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 available. Judy 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 www.judycroome.com or join her on Twitter @judy_croomeWebsite: www.judycroome.com