by Ruwa Alhayek
Hisham Matar is a Libyan writer, born in New York, raised in Cairo, and who has lived and taught in England for over 25 years. His most recent book, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between, is a finalist for the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award. The book tracks the author’s return to Libya on a quest to find out what happened to his father, Jaballah Matar, who was a political exile taken from Cairo to his native Tripoli to be imprisoned in the Abu Salim prison in 1990. Hisham and his family lost contact with his father for many years after that. In 1996, in Abu Salim, the guards killed at least 1,200 of the prisoners. Word of the massacre did not even reach people right away. The government released information about those who were killed in the massacre several years later—not all once. Hisham’s family had no idea whether or not Jaballa was alive or dead. Until 2011, when Gadhafi was killed, Matar could not even return to Libya. The Return is about what happened and what he discovered when he finally did.
Matar is an architect by training, and that is apparent in his appreciation of the architectural and urban landscape of the different cities he visits in the book, including Ajdabiyya and Benghazi. He describes himself, in a 2006 interview with The Guardian, as ultimately and aesthete and a sensualist. Much of the anxiety and the suspense in the novel as readers wait to know what the author does about what happened to his father is reinforced by trips he takes to the museum and a deep drowning almost in the paintings he examines, namely Edward Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximillian.
The Return is the first memoir that Hisham Matar has written. His two other books: Anatomy of a Disappearance and In the Country of Men. The Return is his first memoir, but his other books examine politics and estrangement and families torn apart by these things as well. In the Country of Men was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007, shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize and The Guardian First Book Award, and won the 2007 Arab American Book Award for Fiction and the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. It has been translated into twenty-two languages. Anatomy of a Disappearance was a 2012 nominee for the Arab American Book Award for Fiction and the 2011 Encore Award Nominee.
Hisham also writes pieces for both The New Yorker and The Guardian, among others. Some of these pieces are about the “Arab Spring,” Libya and the political situation there, others are short stories, and some are essays about the writing and “silence” of Virginia Woolf, and the effect of a book the title of which and the author of which he has been unable to find and its tremendous effect on him and his writing.
Hisham Matar and his wife, Diana, a photographer whose work includes the cover and author photographs on the Random House edition of The Return, and who has published photos of the journey that is in The Return for The New Yorker, currently live in London.
Ruwa Alhayek graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with a degree in Near Eastern Studies and certificates in Arabic, Creative Writing, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is a high school literature teacher and currently writing a memoir on growing up as a Jordanian Muslim in America for her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. Find her on Twitter @.