It's been 20 years since Hisham Matar's father disappeared. He was a vocal opponent of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and was kidnapped while living in exile in Egypt in 1990. Just as Gadhafi's regime was collapsing this summer, Matar published Anatomy of a Disappearance, a novel about an exile who is kidnapped, as told from the perspective of his teenage son.
"All that I did not know about my father ... was like a mask that suffocated me," the 14-year-old narrator says. He does not know who kidnapped his father or why. He does not know if his father is dead or alive. The young boy feels guilty for losing his father, and for not knowing "how to find him or take his place. Every day I let my father down," he says.
The construct of the father and son is one way to approach contemporary Middle Eastern history, Matar tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. The older generation of the father was the "audacious" generation, he says. "[They] were reckless politically and had these high dreams." Matar's generation — the generation of the son — was more "restrained" and "shy."
"I am part of a generation that isn't as audacious as the generation before," Matar says, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "I think my generation's inability to speak in absolute terms when it comes to politics is a very positive thing; it's made us more nuanced, made us more complex."
With the Libyan revolution this summer, it appears that the cultural pendulum may be swinging back in the other direction. "One of the nicknames of the Libyan revolution is the 'revolution of the young men in falling jeans,' " Matar says. "It seems like audacity has skipped a generation."
Watching the dramatic events unfold in Libya, Matar says he sees a moment of transition, full of uncertainty and anxiety. "But what is certain," he says, "is that people have glimpsed another possibility ... a very quick glimpse of what it might be to live in a just and dignified way."
Matar was just a boy when his family left Libya in 1979, but he says his childhood memories of the country are vivid. "Some of the most powerful memories are those when you are very, very young," he says. "Adult life is seen through the reflection of complex, rational thought."
Matar hasn't been back to his home country in 32 years, but he says he's still in love with Libya. "My family history is so intertwined with the country," he explains.
Matar's father was kidnapped by the Egyptian secret service in 1990. He was taken to Libya where, the family later found out, he was imprisoned and tortured. He never had a trial, so they do not know what he was accused of. They also do not know whether he is dead or alive.
"It's impossible to give up hope until you know ... " Matar says. "I recently went to a fishing village in Ireland and it's the only place ... where I found people that feel exactly the same way that I do about my father."
In this village, several fishermen had gone out to sea in their tiny boats and never returned. Their loved ones had not given up hope that the men would someday return — however unlikely the odds.
"Living in hope is a really terrible thing," Matar says. "People speak about hope most of the time as a very positive thing. ... [But] it's a very dispossessing thing, it's a very difficult thing to live with. When you've been living in hope for a long time as I have, suddenly you realize that certainty is far more desirable than hope."
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
More than 20 years ago, the Libyan writer Hisham Matar's father disappeared. His father was an opponent of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and was in exile when he was kidnapped. He hasn't been seen since. Just as Gadhafi's regime was collapsing this summer, Hisham Matar published a new novel about an exile who's kidnapped. "Anatomy of a Disappearance" is told from the point of view of the victim's son.
Mr. HISHAM MATAR (Author, "Anatomy of a Disappearance"): All that I did not know about my father, his private life, his thoughts, why he was kidnapped and by whom, what he had actually done to provoke such actions, where he was at this moment, whether he could be counted amongst the living or the dead, was like a mask that suffocated me. I felt guilty too, as I continue to feel today, at having lost him, at not knowing how to find him or take his place, every day I let my father down.
INSKEEP: Hisham Matar reading from "Anatomy of a Disappearance," his new novel. He's in our studios. Welcome to the program.
Mr. MATAR: Thank you.
INSKEEP: The passage that you read is the memory of a young man who doesn't know where his father is now. And in fact, you choose to tell this story through - 14-year-old, he's 14 at the time of the kidnapping - which means he knows even less, he's not really sure what it was his father was doing that was making anybody angry. He's not really sure who kidnapped him, although it's believed that a Gadhafi-like government kidnapped him. Why tell the story that way?
Mr. MATAR: I think ultimately, you know, one of the ways into contemporary Middle Eastern history is to use the construct of the father and son.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
Mr. MATAR: The older generation, the generation of the father were the audacious ones, the ones that were reckless, politically, and had these high dreams and didn't blush when they spoke about it. My generation were the generation of restraint, a generation that was shy about speaking about these things.
INSKEEP: You're saying your father's generation was the one that dreamed of modernizing and bringing ahead the Middle East and building a new world, and that younger people, people of your age and - how old are you may I ask?
Mr. MATAR: I'm 40.
INSKEEP: People of your generation went along with the dictators who ended up in charge of these various countries for a long time.
Mr. MATAR: Well, everybody went along, but I do sense, and I have sensed since I was very young, that I'm part of a generation that isn't as audacious as the generation before. The generation - and actually I think that lack of audacity is not such a bad thing. I think my generation's inability to speak in absolute terms when it comes to politics is a very positive thing; it's made us more nuanced, made us more complex.
Now we see that the newer generation, the generation of the present revolutions, you know, one of the nicknames of the Libyan revolution is the revolution of the young men in falling jeans. You know, they are...
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: People 10 or 20, or even 25 years younger than you.
Mr. MATAR: Exactly. And it seems like audacity had skipped a generation.
INSKEEP: Now what have you thought as you have watched the revolution, specifically in your country? I think you told someone a few months ago you're consumed by this story.
Mr. MATAR: It's a moment of dramatic transition. It's embedded in. It's also a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. But what is certain, is that people have glimpsed another possibility. They have just a very quick glimpse of what it might be to live in a just and dignified way. And that might take a long time to be realized, but I believe that once you see that, once the people see that it's impossible to erase it.
INSKEEP: When was the last time you were in Libya?
Mr. MATAR: My family left Libya in 1979. So I haven't been to Libya in 32 years.
INSKEEP: How vivid are your memories of your childhood in Libya?
Mr. MATAR: Very vivid. You know, as a writer I know that some of the most powerful memories are those when you are very, very young. After that everything becomes, it's as if, sort of, seen through a reflection, you know, adult life is seen through the reflection of complex rational thought, you know.
Mr. MATAR: 'Cause when you're young it's so immediate and a lot of sensations are for the first time so - it's very vivid, but it's also abstract. So there's always a question of, you know, why didn't you get over it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
You know, if you were a sensible human being you wouldn't be thinking about Libya anymore. But I'm not sensible. I am deeply involved with Libya, for many reasons, I think - mostly because I'm in love with it, but also because my family history is so intertwined with the country.
INSKEEP: So you left the country in 1979 because your father had disagreements with the regime, and you lived abroad in Cairo, if I'm not mistaken, your father was picked up in 1990.
Mr. MATAR: Yeah.
INSKEEP: What happened?
Mr. MATAR: Well, after we left Libya my father became a very vocal opponent to the Gadhafi regime, and we lived in Egypt, which was a safe place for people who were on the wrong side of the Libyan dictatorship, up to the late '80s when they started to become friends, but also they realized that they could help each other.
INSKEEP: The Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt and the Gadhafi dictatorship in Libya.
Mr. MATAR: Absolutely. And one of the things that they did was to hand over dissidents that were residing in each other's countries, so my father was a victim of that. He was kidnapped by the Egyptian Secret Services and he effectively disappeared.
We later found out that he was sent to Libya where he was tortured and imprisoned, never subjected to a trial, so we don't even know what he's technically accused of. And the dictatorship continued, until its end, to deny this fact, and the Egyptian dictatorship also.
INSKEEP: Could your father still be alive in Libya somewhere?
Mr. MATAR: It's a possibility. You know, it's impossible to give up hope until you know, really. I recently went to a fishing village in Ireland. That's the only place I went to where I found people that feel exactly the same way as I do about my father.
There are several fishermen who had disappeared, you know, because they fish on their own in these tiny boats, very high sea. So I met this lady who's about my age. When she was eight year old her father went out to earn his keep and he never returned. She can't entirely give up hope that he is somehow alive, you know. On some levels it seems a far clearer situation: sea, man, never seen again.
And it illustrates also how hope, living in hope, is a really terrible thing. I mean, people speak about hope most of the time as a very positive thing. And I understand why, and it's become sort of entered into political language and so on. But really if you stop and think about the state of living in hope, it's a very dispossessing thing, it's a very difficult thing to live with. So when you've been living in hope for a long time, as I have, suddenly you realize that certainty is far more desirable than hope.
INSKEEP: Hisham Matar is the author of "In the Country of Men" and his new novel "Anatomy of a Disappearance." Thanks very much.
Mr. MATAR: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.