When you have oil …

7 July 2017

… you can do whatever you like, is the thought that kept going through my mind as I read Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking, 2016). Matar is a Libyan American writer whose father, Jaballa, was kidnapped in Cairo by Egyptian authorities and handed over to the Libyan dictatorship. Hisham never saw him again and this book is his way of both remembering and honouring his father.

Though there are harrowing descriptions of conditions in Abu Salim prison and the torture meted out to political prisoners by Qaddafi’s thugs, this is a beautifully written, gentle and compelling memoir. It exudes Hisham’s sorrow and regret, as well as his overwhelming sense of failure to get his father and other family members released.

The return of the title takes place in 2012 when Hisham, accompanied by his wife Diana (the acclaimed photographer) and his mother, goes back to Libya. This is after the revolution of 2011 had toppled the Qaddafi regime and before the present civil war had begun. The structure of the book is complex, moving backwards and forwards in time and ranging between settings – Libya, London, Paris. The reader shares the writer’s roller-coaster of emotions as he recalls his childhood lived with his parents and brother in exile in Egypt and his school years in England, his yearning for his father, his never-ending efforts to get news about his incarcerated family members and his attempts to confront both British and Libyan government officials.

It was his dealings with David Miliband, Labour foreign secretary, and Seif el-Islam, Qaddafi’s son, that set the oil refrain going in my head. British Prime Minister Tony Blair normalised relations with Libya in 2004. He was accompanied on his visit there by Peter Sutherland, chairman of BP. The oil multinational subsequently announced its return to Libya and confirmed a £450 million agreement, adding that if all exploration reached its full potential the deal could be worth £13 billion. Little wonder Hisham got no traction with his campaign to put pressure on the Qaddafi regime – what are the lives of a few hundred dissidents worth in the face of all that lucre?

Another uncomfortable revelation in this book is Hisham’s request to Nelson Mandela. He asked whether, given his close ties with Qaddafi (a long-term supporter of the African National Congress),  Mr Mandela could enquire about Jaballa’s whereabouts. The chilling reply was: “Mandela says to never ask him such a thing again”. Unfathomable that the world’s most famous political prisoner should be so unconcerned about others in a similar situation on the same continent.

Yet this is not a political book. Rather its subject is love – the love of sons for fathers, the love that binds families together, love for country and landscape. It is also about unbearable loss, described with such reserve and poignancy that make this an unmissable read.

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Hisham Matar went to New York to receive the award, which prevented this reader from hearing  him speak at the Auckland Writers Festival.