Arts + Culture

Hisham Matar’s The Return: Touching Bottom in an Ocean of Grief

This memoir of returning to Libya after the fall of Gaddafi will absolutely break your heart. It is also really really good. Read it.

“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance.” —The Return


You don’t need to read Hisham Matar’s novels before reading his just-published memoir about looking for his father in Libya. The Return stands on its own: it’s one of the most perfectly and precisely executed personal memoirs I’ve ever read. The back cover is filled with the usual glowing blurbs and lavish praise, but they’re all true: it’s an absolute masterpiece.

It manages to be desperately intimate and personal, heartbreaking and poignant, and yet it’s also “dazzlingly multiple,” as Marcia Lynx Qualey puts it, an infinite history of modern Libya: “memoir, geography, biography, journalism, literary criticism, and dark historical thriller.” It’s a book that looks inward to look outward, a deep-dive into Libya’s literary ocean. Read it. It’s just, you know, very good.

On the other hand, if you have read Matar’s two novels—In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011)—then The Return turns out to be the concluding volume of a trilogy that Matar couldn’t have planned to write, and couldn’t have known he was writing until he did. His two novels are about memory and lost fathers and a childhood spent in Libya that becomes an adulthood in exile; they are the novels that Hisham Matar wrote in the long uncertainty he inherited from his lost father and from memories of his childhood in Libya as he became an adult in exile.

Indeed, his novels are so close to his own life that at one point in The Return—as the two are boarding a plane to Libya—his mother asks a “mischievous question,” as he calls it: “Who’s returning? Suleiman el-Dewani or Nuri el-Alfi?” These are the names of the protagonists of his two novels, fictional versions of Matar himself that—in his mother’s very serious joke—were suddenly brought to life. After a life spent dreaming about return, and in his fiction, trying to imagine the truth of his lost father, The Return is Hisham Matar coming face to face with reality—or trying to—but finding it to be as ambiguous and depthless as any novel, an ocean without a floor.

At its core, the story is simple enough: for two decades, Jaballa Matar’s family lived with the uncertainty of his death, who had been kidnapped—while already in exile—and had been lost in Gaddafi’s prisons ever since. As far as his family knew, he was probably dead, but—without word or confirmation—how could they grieve? Without the truth of his death, how could they stop waiting?

“I envy the finality of funerals,” he writes, in The Return; “I covet the certainty.”

For Hisham Matar, fiction took the place of the knowledge that was denied him: about his father, about his family, and about Libya. “To be Libyan is to live with questions,” as he writes in The Return, and his novels asked these questions: “When I think of what might have happened to him,” he writes, “I feel an abyss open up beneath me.” His novels chart the abyss.

In the Country of Men, his first novel, is the story of a childhood in Gaddafi’s Libya, the bildungsroman of a mind shadowed by dictatorship, born into complicity with a patriarchal patriotism while too young to understand. It is also about how an adult mind tries to make sense of that origin, years later: it is written by the British author and narrator that its protagonist has become, thousands of miles away, after he has become a man and after he has lost his father, to Gaddafi’s security forces.

In other words, it’s Hisham Matar’s own story: born in Libya, Matar fled with his family to Cairo when he was nine—roughly the age of his first novel’s protagonist—and then to Britain, where he has lived ever since. In the Country of Men was the novel he had to write to understand the half-formed understanding he had formed, of himself, as a child; it is about being the son of a father who was destroyed by his own country, and about what’s left afterwards.

Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, is the next version of this story, as life moved forward: after a childhood in Libya, it gives us the family in exile, as a son struggles to re-discover the father who was abducted by security forces; instead of a child, it is the adult life as constructed out of absence and loss. If In the Country of Men was an anatomy of childhood, then Anatomy of a Disappearance is a young man trying to imagine how he could grow older himself, and who—in the absence of a father—he could become.

And then, in 2011, the reality changed. The Return is the book that Hisham Matar could only write after Gaddafi was dead and after the prisons opened up: it is the book he could only write once his father—and the fatherland that Gaddafi had made Libya to be—were in the ground. And so, it serves as a kind of punctuation mark to the writer he had been. After decades trying to fill the abyss with fiction, The Return is the book he wrote about putting his own feet in the water. Suddenly, it wasn’t Suleiman el-Dewani or Nuri el-Alfi that was returning: it was Hisham Matar.

The irony of The Return, however—an irony poignant and devastating and real—is that art can create a shape and a structure and even a kind of narrative out of a world that will never provide it, or allow it; there is an aesthetic satisfaction from Matar’s novels that The Return cannot provide, because reality is not nearly so simple.

When the prisons are opening and his father is not found, hope becomes impossible: “it was clear” he says, “for the first time, the truth became inescapable…it was clear that he had been shot or hanged or starved or tortured to death.”

This is what is clear, and all that is clear: the one thing that can be known is that it was one of these many things, an endless series of this, or this, or this, or this. Or something else…

Despite the promise of the title (and the window of optimism for a post-Gaddafi Libya that infused the time of Matar’s visit in 2012), The Return is ultimately about its impossibility, something all the more devastating if you never fully left. After a lifetime as a Libyan in London, The Return reveals a Hisham Matar who turns out to be British. In one of the most cutting exchanges in the book, David Miliband “placed his hand on my shoulder”:

“So tell me,” he said. “Are you British now?”

“Yes.”

“Good man. Excellent. So you’re one of us.”

Was he patronizing me? Perhaps not. Perhaps it was the genuine warm confederacy of a fellow Brit. Or maybe it was the impatient, political, bullying pragmatism of power towards a person of mixed identities, a man whose preoccupations do not fit neatly inside the borders of one country, and so perhaps what Miliband was really saying was, “Come on, you’re British now; forget about Libya.

There is no love lost between Matar and the UK Labour party that embraced and helped to rehabilitate Gaddafi’s reputation, in the waning years of his regime—and some of the best parts of the book are Matar’s long campaign against this rehabilitation—but it can be easy to miss the unambiguous “Yes” with which Matar answers the question. His return to Libya is not the return of a lost son, but the return that confirms the impossibility of return: after a lifetime of Libyan exile in Britain, his return to Libya finds him a stranger, fatherless in his fatherland. He is as British in Libya as he is Libyan in the UK; for such a person, return is not the end of exile, but the confirmation of its permanence.

In this way, the book is the funeral oration for a father who was a proud and unambiguous patriot—who was born, lived, and died in Libya—and part of what Matar lost with his father was the pride that was his father’s most salient feature, the lost nationalism and refusal to bend of a generation that was killed by Gaddafi, and which is not recovered. Burying his father means turning the page on a light that was snuffed out, on a generation’s postcolonial dreams—which The Return lovingly dwells on—that never came to fruition.

And yet, this is not pessimism, not despair, and not surrender; elsewhere, Matar has spoken of the Arab revolt of 2011—across the region—as the recovery of pride and self-determination (whatever the short term outcome). 2011 was the beginning of something, and the beginning has not yet ended. And so, for all the sadness and grief of a memoir of a father that was never found, who can only have died in 1996, The Return is about a legacy of grief lifting. Funerals do not heal grief, but they do, at last, end. The Return is a funeral, an old repetitive story that ends, and about the promise that soon, someday, there will be something novel. Funerals are where patriotism burns away, when what is left behind is love, and a willingness to live again, after grief.

Aaron Bady is a writer and recovering academic in Oakland, CA. Check out aaronbady.com and follow him on Twitter @zunguzungu.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njeri, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njeri. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko met Mwangi through the creative and activist hub he created called PAWA 254, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njeri represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njeri's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njeri, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has more than one cinematographer, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njeri and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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