In The Return, Libyan novelist Hisham Matar (In the Country of Men) tells the harrowing story of his search for his father, Jaballa Matar. Early in Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, Jaballa served as a U.N. diplomat, but he was soon accused of criticizing Qaddafi and forced to flee to Cairo with his family. In 1990, while Matar was at university in London, Jaballa was kidnapped by Egyptian secret police and sent to Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.
Matar’s narrative roams through time, moving from his 2012 visit to see family in Tripoli and Benghazi after Qaddafi’s downfall (Matar’s first visit in 33 years), to the distant past—when his grandfather fought against the brutal Italian occupation of Libya. He recounts his efforts to gather scraps of information, meeting with former prisoners who might have seen Jaballa.
At times, the memoir reads like a spy novel: In the 1980s, Qaddafi’s spies kept tabs not only on Jaballa but also on family members, following Matar’s brother when he was at boarding school. Decades later, Matar connected with Qaddafi’s “reformist” son Seif, who’d promised him an answer about what had happened to Jaballa. Seif put Matar through a series of phone calls and clandestine meetings in London hotels, mixing threats and compliments, meetings that ultimately proved fruitless.
The Return beautifully chronicles the vagaries of life as an exile and the grief of wondering about a father’s suffering. Yes, Matar’s memoir is sometimes bleak in describing the Qaddafi regime’s decades of bizarre repressive actions. But it also offers a portrait of a loving family and a needed window into Libya, not only its troubles but also its beauty, and the many kindnesses Matar encountered there.