In these past few days something fundamental has shifted. I can detect it in my body, the way my back feels light. I haven’t looked at my face in the mirror, but I imagine that old sadness in the eyes is different now. Moammar Kadafi, who has haunted Libya for 41 years, is still there, but history has superseded him; it is impossible now to imagine he will be leading Libya for long.
For 32 years, ever since my family left Libya, I have been looking over my shoulder. I recall how once on landing at Heathrow, after having spent most of the flight teasing my dear father about the new color of his hair, I heard a man waiting in the arrivals area whisper to the one beside him: “So how does this Jaballa Matar look like, anyway?” The accent was Libyan.
I never teased my father again when he colored his hair or put on the terrible dark shades he often wore on family holidays in Europe. I didn’t tease him either when he asked me to stand back while he checked to see whether the car was wired.
In Egypt, where we lived in exile, we had round-the-clock armed guards. They sat outside the door, followed us everywhere we went. It became second nature to always assume that our conversations — over the telephone, in the house, anywhere — were recorded. We never lost the knowledge that due to my father’s outspoken opposition to the Kadafi dictatorship, our lives were lived in the audience of the Libyan or Egyptian secret services. We suspected that every servant in our house, the very hands that made our beds and cooked our meals, belonged to the Egyptian Mukhabarat.
We knew that these guards the Egyptian government imposed on us were not there to protect us but to monitor our lives. After 10 years of this, in 1990, when it became convenient and profitable for the Egyptian regime to hand my father over to the Libyans, the same men who were guarding us kidnapped my father. Then they began to threaten us to keep quiet. “If you speak, it would harm Mr. Jaballa,” they would say.
The Egyptians led us to believe that my father was being held in Egypt. Three years later, a letter arrived. It was smuggled out of Abu Salim, the notorious political prison in Tripoli. It was written in my father’s hand, and it explained that he had been flown to Libya the day after he was taken. The letter revealed the truth, yet it restricted our tongues even more. In it, my father asked that we tell no one: “That would send me into a bottomless abyss. I would rather die under torture than reveal the names of those who helped deliver this letter.”
Eventually, saying nothing became unbearable, and I spoke out. After my novel, “In the Country of Men,” about life under Kadafi in Libya, came out in 2006, I became an open critic of the Libyan dictatorship. This caused deep anxiety for my family. It was deemed no longer safe for me to visit Egypt.
For the past five years I have not been able to visit the city where my family and childhood friends live. Several Libyan friends and relatives would not contact me when they visited London. I entered a second exile. Then Libyan officials began sending me messages asking me to stop. They offered me bribes. And when that didn’t work, the veiled threats started.
After every article, television or radio interview in which I criticized the Libyan government or called the dictator a dictator — a crime punishable by death in Libya — I would walk around for days feeling the weight of the regime’s gaze on my back, all the while telling myself to stop being paranoid.
Whenever a Libyan tells a taxi driver in New York, London, Paris or Cairo what his nationality is, the driver almost always say: “Oh, yes, Kadafi.”
“No, not Kadafi, I don’t come from Kadafi, I come from Libya,” I always say.
I could sense myself, particularly over the last decade, growing hopeless. I began to wonder whether Kadafi had succeeded in killing the Libyan spirit. I could feel my heart hardening toward my own country. I sheltered a quiet and perverse dislike for my own people; perverse because hatred of one’s own amounts to hatred of the self. At times, in Libyan gatherings, this would momentarily lift and I would find myself completely in love with all things Libyan. Vacillating between these extremes has often left me empty and weary.
I am 40 years old. I haven’t known a Libya without Kadafi. These days, witnessing the fall of the dictatorship and, more important, the rise of the Libyan people, I am realizing that up to now my country has been overwhelmingly a source of fear, pain and embarrassment. Now it is a source of joy and pride.
Despite its close temporal and geographical relationship to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the Libyan revolution is, in some ways, unique. This is particularly satisfying to witness because Kadafi’s project has always been a narcissist’s campaign, focused primarily on remaking his people in his own image. Now we can see that he failed, and that the human spirit will always seek the light.
The Libyans dancing between the sea and the courthouse in Benghazi, holding hands, swaying as they sing, “We will remain here, until the pain vanishes,” are rediscovering all that is beautiful about Libya: our long resistance to fascism — Mussolini’s and Kadafi’s — our love of moderation, our Mediterranean openness to the world, our humor and our song.
The last time we heard from my father was in 1995. I don’t know what Kadafi did to him, but I know the dictator has not succeeded in killing the Libyan spirit.
By Hisham Matar Matar, the author of In the Country of Men and the forthcoming novel Anatomy of a Disappearance.