Posted by Guest on June 21, 2017 in Blog

Hisham_Matar_2_.jpgBy Haley Arata

Ten hours writing, three coffees, and two hours on the Internet: the magic writing formula for award-winning Arab American writer Hisham Matar. 

Matar was born in New York, grew up in Tripoli and Cairo, and now lives in England. Hisham’s father, Jaballa Matar, opposed the Gaddafi regime and when Hisham was young his entire family fled to Cairo to avoid political persecution. It was during one of early days in Cairo that Matar remembers hearing the words of the one of the most influential books to his life and writing career. He was at his home in Cairo, which was filled with Libyan political dissidents as it often was, when someone read aloud passages from a book. The words relayed the thoughts of a man, and Matar recalls the writing as honest and the words as illustrating. He does not remember the name, nor the author, of the book, yet the memory of that afternoon remains strong. “Every word I have written has been propelled by an enthusiasm rooted in that afternoon so long ago, when I was a boy and didn’t yet know that I needed books at all,” Matar said. “Perhaps the book has been more useful to me lost than found.”

Matar’s first two novels, In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, were met with great acclaim.  Matar’s third and most recent novel, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, won a Pulitzer Prize and the Rathbones Folio prize this year. A narrative that tows the line between fiction and nonfiction, The Return tells the story of a man’s journey to Libya to find his father, mirroring Matar’s own journey to the country in search of his missing father, Jamalla, after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.  

5884487010_5e0727960d_z_2_.jpgIn 1990, when Matar was nineteen years old, his father was kidnapped from his home in Cairo. For two years, Egyptian secret service agents led the Matar family to believe he was being held in Egypt. But in 1992, the Matars received a smuggled letter from Jamalla with the truth: the Egyptian secret service had abducted him in Cairo and imprisoned him in Libya. Twenty years later, Matar found out that his father might still be alive. Someone had reported seeing Jamalla as a political prisoner in Tripoli. This discovery occurred around the same time that Matar had happened upon inspiration for a new novel.

Lounging by the poolside while on vacation, Matar glanced up to see a young boy and his father walking and holding hands. According to Matar, at this moment he was overcome with a sense of inspiration: “Inspiration…in the sense that an event happens, it’s very precise…but it seems mysterious, infinite…it contains within it so many other possibilities…it appears to be out of this world.” Encouraged by the mystery and possibility of this moment, Matar began writing the manuscript for what would later become The Return. And almost at the same time, Matar received word that someone in Libya reported having seen his father, Jamalla.

Was this fate? Maybe. Nonetheless, imagination and reality seemed to converge as Matar embarked, with pen in hand, on his journey back to Libya. Not only does the story reflect Matar’s search for his father, but it also delves into the complex history of Libya. The story tries to bring to the surface the reality of the Revolution, from the depravity, to the struggle, the violence, and the hope; but it also seeks to reveal the effects of politics on the intimate life by highlighting the small moments in life that are affected by political events such as a regime, a revolution, a coup. These moments are often overlooked and Matar felt that, as an artist, he was able to bring to light this narrative that further reflects what he believes is the authenticity of the revolution.

Matar grew up in a home filled with people engaged with political work. Although he claims he is not a man of action, he explores politics and identity, struggle and intimacy through his writing. He acts through the power of storytelling.

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.


Haley Arata is a 2017 intern at the Arab American Institute.