The Return by Hisham Matar

The intensley personal story of Hisham's return to Libya to find his imprisoned father. Shortlisted for the 2016 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction

Early morning, March 2012. My mother, my wife Diana and I were sitting in a row of seats that were bolted to the tiled floor of a lounge in Cairo International airport. Flight 835 for Benghazi, a voice announced, was due to depart on time. Every now and then, my mother glanced anxiously at me. Diana too seemed concerned. She placed a hand on my arm and smiled. I should get up and walk around, I told myself. But my body remained rigid. I had never felt more capable of stillness.

The terminal was nearly empty. There was only one man sitting opposite us. He was overweight, weary-looking, possibly in his mid fifties. There was something in the way he sat – the locked hands on the lap, the left tilt of the torso – that signalled resignation. Was he Egyptian or Libyan? Was he on a visit to the neighbouring country or going home after the revolution? Had he been for or against Qaddafi? Perhaps he was one of those undecided ones who held their reservations close to their chest?

The voice of the announcer returned. It was time to board. I found myself standing at the front of the line, Diana beside me. She had, on more than one occasion, taken me to the town where she was born in northern California. I know the plants and the colour of the light and the distances where she grew up. Now I was, finally, taking her to my land. She had packed the Hasselblad and the Leica, her two favourite cameras, and a hundred rolls of film. Diana works with great fidelity. Once she gets hold of a thread, she will follow it until the end. Knowing this excited and worried me. I am reluctant to give Libya any more than it has already taken. 

Mother was pacing by the windows that looked on to the runway, speaking on her mobile phone. People – mostly men – began to fill the terminal. Diana and I were now standing at the head of a long line. It bent behind us like a river. I pretended I had forgotten something and pulled her to one side. Returning after all these years was a bad idea, I suddenly thought. My family had left in 1979, thirty-three years earlier. This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was then. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love. Joseph Brodsky was right. So were Nabokov and Conrad. They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured. But Dmitri Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak and Naguib Mahfouz were also right: never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed. You will be like a dead trunk, hard and hollow. 

What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?



Back in October 2011, I had considered never returning to Libya. I was in New York, walking up Broadway, the air cold and swift, when the proposition presented itself. It seemed immaculate, a thought my mind had manufactured independently. As in youthful moments of drunkenness, I felt bold and invincible.

I had gone to New York the previous month, at the invitation of Barnard College, to lecture on novels about exile and estrangement. But I had an older connection to the city. My parents had moved to Manhattan in the spring of 1970, when my father was appointed first secretary in the Libyan Mission to the United Nations. I was born that autumn. Three years later, in 1973, we returned to Tripoli. In the years since, I had visited New York maybe four or five times and always briefly. So, although I had just returned to the city of my birth, it was a place I hardly knew.



What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?


In the thirty-six years since we left Libya, my family and I had built associations with several surrogate cities: Nairobi, where we went on our escape from Libya, in 1979, and have continued to visit ever since; Cairo, where we settled into indefinite exile the following year; Rome, a vacation spot for us; London, where I went at the age of fifteen for my studies and where for twenty-nine years I have been doggedly trying to make a life for myself; Paris, where, fatigued and annoyed by London, I moved in my early thirties, vowing never to return to England, only to find myself back two years later. In all these cities, I had pictured myself one day calm and living in that faraway island, Manhattan, where I was born. I would imagine a new acquaintance asking me, perhaps at a dinner party, or in a café, or in changing-rooms after a long swim, that old tiresome question ‘Where are you from?’ and I, unfazed and free of the usual agitation, would casually reply, ‘New York.’ In these fantasies, I saw myself taking pleasure from the fact that such a statement would be both true and false, like a magic trick.

That I should move to Manhattan in my fortieth year, as Libya was ripping itself apart, and for this to take place on the 1st of September, the day when, back in 1969, a young captain named Muammar Qaddafi deposed King Idris and many of the significant features of my life – where I live, the language in which I write, the language I am using now to write this – were set in motion: all this made it difficult to escape the idea that there was some kind of divine will at work. 

Find out more about the author

Related features