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Column: 'Writing is a way to fight those who want people silenced'

Libyan author Hisham Matar, whose father was ‘disappeared’ by Gaddafi 21 years ago, says writing is a political act – and that the Irish know that better than anyone.

Hisham Matar
Hisham Matar
Image: Diana Matar

Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa was abducted by Gaddafi’s security forces 21 years ago and has been imprisoned ever since. The only contact his family have had is two letters smuggled secretly out of jail, the last in 1995. They do not know whether he is still alive.

Matar, who will appear at the West Cork Literary Festival tomorrow, is now based in the UK.

FIVE MEMBERS OF my immediate family were put in prison for a very long time. My father was kidnapped in March 1990, and taken to Libya from where the family was in Egypt. My paternal uncle, and another of my paternal cousins too. It’s been two decades, plus. We currently have no new information about my father.

But in one of the letters that reached us from prison, he asked me directly ‘Are you still writing poems?’ And I remember my heart almost stopped at that moment, because I didn’t know what would come next. I wasn’t sure whether it would be ‘I hope that you’ve grown out of such trivial things.’ But actually the next line was ‘I hope so’. And for him to say that from that place, after he had explained his abduction and his torture and the dark reality that he was in – it has meant a great deal to me. Because he was saying that, even in these times, writing matters.

Writing I think by nature is rebellious. Even if a writer isn’t interested in anything to do with politics, even if you want to try and completely ignore what’s taking place in society. Even without intending to it undermines totalitarian power, because writers by nature are interested in conflicting empathies. They’re constantly wanting to remind you that the same room looks very different from different points of view.

Dictators don’t like that. Dictatorship is a reality which is very concerned with imposing a singular vision, which is intolerant of any other possibilities. It’s even intolerant of interpretation. In the truest sense of the word, it’s fundamental. So it makes perfect sense for any fundamentalist view of life that it would want to silence the writer.

‘How do we want to live?’

One writer whose work seems incredibly supportive, whose work helps me navigate the situation that I’m in, is Seamus Heaney. His work often asks the question ‘How can you be an artist in a time when you’re being asked to take a stand politically?’ And it’s very difficult to find an equivalent in England or America, because they haven’t gone through these very difficult situations. In the Anglophone world, I feel closest to Irish writers. There is a place that I can go to very quickly with an Irish writer. There’s a realism there, an awareness of reality that is far more intimate than that of most writers that I know. Because you’ve been through these troubles – they’re not theoretical, they’re not abstract.

I think the level of violence in Libya is changing the country. And it will take time for us to know how Libya has changed. Much as I admire the bravery of these men who are fighting – and I think they’re absolutely heroic – I think the violence is damaging. You have this situation where swathes of people, who have never carried guns before, have been carrying guns constantly for the last four months. How does that change a country, a society? I fear this will be the last legacy of Gaddafi.

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But the most extraordinary thing that has happened in Libya is not what most of the reporters have been covering, which is the attempt to remove a very violent dictatorship. It is that for the first time, Libyans are asking themselves questions like ‘What does it mean to be a people? What does it mean to be a society? How do we want to live?’

Before the uprising, these were seen as very theoretical, indulgent questions. And suddenly now they’re being asked by everybody, in a very practical way. In the same tone as you would ask somebody ‘How many sugars do you take in your tea?’

I think once that starts, you can’t really stop it.

As told to Michael Freeman. Hisham Matar will appear at the West Cork Literary Festival on Monday July 4, in conversation with Conor O’Clery. His latest novel, Anatomy Of A Disappearance, is published by Penguin.


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