Libyan novelist Hisham Matar

Outspoken Qaddafi critic, son of a Libyan political dissident and noted novelist explains why the West’s past embrace of Libya’s leader constituted ‘diplomatic negligence.’

Born in NYC to Libyan parents, novelist Hisham Matar spent his early childhood in Tripoli. His father was an anti-Gaddafi activist, and the family fled Libya in '79 and lived in exile in Egypt. In '86, Matar moved to London, where he completed his education and began his writing career. His first novel, In the Country of Men, won several awards and has been translated into 22 languages. His upcoming text, Anatomy of a Disappearance, mirrors Matar's personal story—his father "disappeared" from Cairo in '90. Apart from his immediate family, all of his relatives are in Libya.


Tavis: Tonight, though, we begin with news out of Libya. Hisham Matar is an acclaimed Libyan author and the son of a political dissident who’s been in jail in Libya for more than 20 years now. Many other members of his family are now fighting alongside the rebels in hopes of ousting Colonel Qadhafi.
He is the author of the notable novel about life in Libya called “In the Country of Men.” Later this year he’ll be out with a new novel called, “Anatomy of a Disappearance.” Hisham Matar joins us tonight from London. Mr. Matar, good to have you on this program. Thank you for your time, sir.
Hisham Matar: It’s good to be here.
Tavis: Let me start by asking you to give me some more detail about your family’s relationship with the Qadhafi regime.
Matar: Well, my father was a political dissident for many years and we lived in Cairo, in exile, and in 1990 he was kidnapped by the Egyptian secret service police, who then handed him over to the Libyan secret service police, who then flew him to Libya.
He was imprisoned without trial, he was tortured, and he disappeared, as many Libyan political prisoners have within Qadhafi’s political prison system. So we don’t really know whether he is alive or dead. We don’t know his fate. Yeah, that’s the history.
Tavis: So the last time you spoke to or saw your father was when?
Matar: The last time I spoke to my father and saw him was in 1990. He was taken in March 1990 and I saw him a couple of months before then, because I was studying abroad in England.
Tavis: Let me start by asking, then, what you make of the normalized relations that this country, the U.S., has had with Qadhafi, has had with Libya over all these years. I ask that because it’s fascinating to me that presidents and others now want to refer to him as a tyrant, as if he became a tyrant overnight.
So what do you make of the longstanding, normalized relations we’ve had with this country that we now are bombing by day and by night?
Matar: That’s an excellent question, and in short, what I think of it is it’s scandalous. But more importantly than that, I think we can learn quite a lot from it if we look at it more in detail. So the argument was this. The argument was by becoming friends with Qadhafi, by giving Qadhafi international legitimacy, the United States and the EU, the European Union, were securing two things, and those were – that’s how it was sold to us.
The two things that they were securing is that they were making Qadhafi less dangerous and therefore the world will be safer, and secondly, they were making Qadhafi more likely to engage in reform, and therefore be less able to behave with the same level of impunity that he was behaving against his own people.
Now, we can see now that those two things didn’t work. I actually believe that there were some very decent people who were trying to sell us this argument who sincerely believed this was true. So what I think is more worthy than just saying, well, this was a defunct argument, which it so evidently was, I think it pays us to look at the details by which this argument was sold to these decent people.
The way it was sold is that there were these very sophisticated PR companies based in New York and in London who actually still seem to be in the pay of the Qadhafi regime who engaged in a very complex and sophisticated program in order to convince Western Europe and the United States that this was now a reformed dictator.
The facts are very different. The facts are that by giving Qadhafi international legitimacy and treating him like a respectable statesman, America and Western Europe have arguably extended the life of this very old dictator and certainly allowed him to act with even more impunity against his own people under the claim that now any dissident was a terrorist, and made the project for democracy very difficult and actually made what Libyans are trying to do now very difficult.
So in my opinion, it’s a disgraceful misjudgment and at best diplomatic negligence.
Tavis: So let me ask, having said all of that, what you make, then, of the UN resolution and the military activity that has followed that resolution.
Matar: Well, I think it’s very complex, actually, what’s happening right now. I think the Libyan people – we have to remember, now that other countries are involved, that this is very much a Libyan revolution. It’s a revolution that was started at grassroots by young people, by women and men, by lawyers, by teachers, by workers, and it’s a revolution that actually, in its early days, was completely peaceful.
The reason it had to carry arms was because it was treated with absolute brutality, indiscriminate violence. The cause of this revolution are very noble and I think quite surprising. I have to admit, as a Libyan, quite surprising, because many Libyans like me, democrats, have been disheartened, wondering whether a 41-year-old dictatorship has not managed to crush that beautiful thing in the human spirit that calls for the light, that calls for justice, that calls for accountability and dignity.
I didn’t surrender to these doubts, but I must admit in my quiet moments I did wonder. This revolution comes as a complete and unequivocal answer to these doubts of mine, which I believe I’ve shared with many other people, that the dictatorship didn’t manage to do this. So we have to remember in these times now that other countries are involved in this conflict that it still remains very much a Libyan revolution.
Tavis: Speaking of other countries getting involved, I suspect on the one level those on the ground may be somewhat appreciative of the help, but as is always the case there is a line where you can step across it and go too far in terms of occupying, in terms of staying too long, trying to do too much. Where is that line?
Matar: Yes. Well, I think that line has to be informed by history, and the history is that Libya is an overtly sensitive country to colonialism because it’s had a terrible experience under fascist Italy.
The Mussolini campaign to take Libya in the early 1900s was a savage one, and one that actually shamefully many people don’t know about. Mussolini and his army have killed almost 50 percent of the Libyan population then, half a million people, in order to subdue this small North African country.
So Libyans are very sensitive to foreign intervention, and I am encouraged by the text of the resolution because it seems to be aware of this history and it’s quite nuanced about its mandate that – it knows about this Libyan characteristic. I think it would do very well to adhere by it.
Tavis: Let me ask you this, Mr. Matar, and that is whether or not you are clear or whether or not you are satisfied with an understanding of what the Obama administration intends to do where our country is concerned. I note that when the administration says we’re only going to be there for a few days but nobody wants to put a real timetable on that, we were in Iraq initially for “just a few days” and we’re still there eight years later.
I’m trying to get at whether or not you are clear, to your own liking and your own understanding, about what the point is of the U.S. mission. Is the point to bomb a few days, to help out those rebels on the ground? Is the point to take Qadhafi out? Are you clear on what the mission’s goals are here, because I’m not?
Matar: Well, I won’t for a moment claim to be speaking for anyone but myself, so I don’t know actually what a military analyst would say about that. But in my humble opinion it seems that the facts on the ground were this: You had a very robust but actually quite amateurish fighting force made up of civilians, people who weren’t trained to carry arms.
I know people in Libya who are only five weeks ago running small businesses and in some cases attending university, some cases attending school. Kids as young as 16 who carried books to school six weeks ago and now are carrying arms. So very high on bravery and on will and on determination, but very low on training and ability.
They were making significant advances, particularly when you consider that in towns such as Misurata, for example, which is very close to Tripoli, it’s been bombed very heavily, yet still the dictatorship hasn’t managed to assert its full control on it. Equally with Az Zawiyah, which I think the bravery of the men in Az Zawiyah and the women in Az Zawiyah is almost mythic in scale.
Yet the dictatorship has pounded it night after night and they still haven’t managed to take control of it entirely. So with that sort of scenario on the ground you think, well, the resistance is moving and has managed to remain strong, but they need some help. I think the international community has come in to provide that.
Now, as you know very well, as soon as this amount of military intervention starts to happen our reliance on (unintelligible) and sensible human beings is very high, meaning that it has to remain tempered, it has to remain disciplined and it has to remain nuanced to the history that I mentioned.
Tavis: Hisham Matar, thank you for your time, good to have you on. I appreciate you sharing your insight, sir.
Matar: A pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm