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  • Written by Hisham Matar
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  • Written by Hisham Matar
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On Sale: January 30, 2007
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-440-33664-8
Published by : The Dial Press Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Reader Reviews


Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman’s days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father’s constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother’s increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn’t he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie?

Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand—where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father’s cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend’s father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television.

In the Country of Men is a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare. But above all, it is a debut of rare insight and literary grace.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star. And it was rising now, this star, as faithful as ever, chasing away the blessed breeze. It was almost morning.

The window in her bedroom was wide open, the glue tree outside it silent, its green shy in the early light. She hadn't fallen asleep until the sky was gray with dawn. And even then I was so rattled I couldn't leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette and continue begging me, as she had been doing only minutes before, not to tell, not to tell.

Baba never found out about Mama's illness; she only fell ill when he was away on business. It was as if, when the world was empty of him, she and I remained as stupid reminders, empty pages that had to be filled with the memory of how they had come to be married.

I sat watching her beautiful face, her chest rise and fall with breath, unable to leave her side, hearing the things she had just told me swim and repeat in my head.

Eventually I left her and went to bed.

When she woke up she came to me. I felt her weight sink beside me, then her fingers in my hair. The sound of her fingernails on my scalp reminded me of once when I was unlucky. I had thrown a date in my mouth before splitting it open, only discovering it was infested with ants when their small shell bodies crackled beneath my teeth. I lay there silent, pretending to be asleep, listening to her breath disturbed by tears.

During breakfast I tried to say as little as possible. My silence made her nervous. She talked about what we might have for lunch. She asked if I would like some jam or honey. I said no, but she went to the fridge and got some anyway. Then, as was usual on the mornings after she had been ill, she took me on a drive to pull me out of my silence, to return me to myself again.

Waiting for the car to warm up, she turned on the radio, skipped through the dial and didn't stop until she heard the beautiful voice of Abd al-Basit Abd al-Sammad. I was glad because, as everyone knows, one must refrain from speaking and listen humbly to the Koran when it is read.

Just before we turned into Gergarish Street, the street that follows the sea, Bahloul the beggar appeared out of nowhere. Mama hit the brakes and said ya satir. He wandered over to her side, walking slowly, clasping his dirty hands tightly to his stomach, his lips quivering. "Hello, Bahloul," Mama said, rummaging in her purse. "I see you, I see you," he said, and although these were the words Bahloul most often uttered, this time I thought what an idiot Bahloul is and wished he would just vanish. I watched him in the side mirror standing in the middle of the street, clutching the money Mama had given him to his chest like a man who has just caught a butterfly.

She took me downtown to the sesame man in the market by Martyrs' Square, the square that looked on to the sea, the square where a sculpture of Septimius Severus, the Roman emperor born all those years ago in Lepcis, proudly stood. She bought me as many sesame sticks as I wanted, each wrapped in white wax paper twisted at either end. I refused to let her put them in her bag. On such mornings I was always stubborn. "But I have some more shopping to do," she said. "You're bound to drop them like this." "No," I said, curling my eyebrows, "I'll wait for you outside," and walked off angrily, not caring if I lost her or became lost from her in the big city. "Listen," she called after me, attracting people's attention. "Wait for me by Septimius Severus."

There was a large café on one side that spilled out on to the passageway. Men, some faces I recognized from before, sat playing dominoes and cards. Their eyes were on Mama. I wondered if her dress shouldn't be looser.

As I walked away from her I felt my power over her recede; I began to feel sorry and sad how on such mornings she was always generous and embarrassed and shy, as if she had walked out naked. I wanted to run to her, to hold her hand, latch on to her dress as she shopped and dealt with the world, a world full of men and the greed of men. I forced myself not to look back and focused instead on the shops set within arched bays on either side of the covered passageway. Black silk scarves billowed gently above one, columns of stacked red caps stood as tall as men outside another. The ceiling was made with dark strips of fabric. The white blades of light that pierced through the occasional gaps illuminated the swimming dust and shone still and beautiful on the arches and floor, but darted like sparkles on the heads and down the bodies of the passersby, making the shadows seem much darker than they were.

Outside, the square was flooded with sunlight. The ground was almost white with brightness, making the dark shoes and figures crossing it look like things floating above the world. I wished I had left the sesame sticks with her. Small needles were now pricking my arms. I told myself off for being stubborn and for letting her buy me so many. I looked at them in my arms and felt no appetite for them.

I leaned against the cool marble pedestal of Septimius Severus. The Roman emperor stood above me, his silver-studded belt curving below his belly, pointing his arm toward the sea, "Urging Libya to look toward Rome," was how Ustath Rashid described the pose. Ustath Rashid taught art history at el-Fateh University and was my best friend Kareem's father. I remembered our Guide standing in one of his military uniforms like this, waving his arm as the tanks passed in front of him on Revolution Day.

I turned toward the sea, the shining turquoise sea beyond the square. It seemed like a giant blue monster rising at the edge of the world. "Grrr," I growled, then wondered if anyone had heard me. I kicked my heel against the pedestal several times. I stared at the ground, into the heat and brightness that made me want to sleep with my eyes open. But then, not looking for but falling directly on my target, I spotted Baba.

He was standing on the edge of the pavement in a street opposite the square, looking both ways for traffic, arching forward as if he was about to fall. Before he stepped on to the road he motioned with his hand then snapped his fingers twice. It was a gesture that I knew. Sometimes he would wave to me like that, as if to say, "Come on, come on," then snap his fingers, "Hey, wake up." Behind him appeared Nasser, Baba's office clerk, carrying a small shiny black typewriter beneath his arm, struggling to keep up. Baba was already crossing the street, walking toward me. For a moment I thought he might be bringing Nasser to Septimius Severus, to teach him all the things he had taught me about the Roman emperor, Lepcis Magna and Rome. For Baba regarded Nasser as a younger brother; he often said so himself.

"Baba?" I whispered.

Two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes. The sky, the sun and the sea were painted by God in colors we could all point at and say the sea is turquoise, the sun banana, the sky blue. Sunglasses are terrible, I thought, because they change all of this and keep those who wear them at a distance. At that moment I remembered how, only a couple of days ago, he had kissed us good-bye. "May God bring you back safely," Mama told him, "and make your trip profitable." I had kissed his hand like he taught me to. He had leaned down and whispered in my ear, "Take care of your mother, you are the man of the house now," and grinned at me in the way people do when they think they have paid you a compliment. But look now, look; walking where I could touch him, here where we should be together. My heart quickened. He was coming closer. Maybe he means me, I thought. It was impossible to see his eyes.

I watched him walk in that familiar way–his head pointing up slightly, his polished leather shoes flicking ahead with every step–hoping he would call my name, wave his hand, snap his fingers. I swear if he had I would have leaped into his arms. When he was right there, close enough that if I extended my arm I could touch him, I held my breath and my ears filled with silence. I watched his solemn expression–an expression I admired and feared–caught the scent-edge of his cologne, felt the air swell round him as he walked past. He was immediately followed by Nasser, carrying the black shiny typewriter under one arm. I wished I was him, following Baba like a shadow. They entered one of the buildings overlooking the square. It was a white building with green shutters. Green was the color of the revolution, but you rarely saw shutters painted in it.

"Didn't I tell you to wait by the sculpture?" I heard Mama say from behind me. I looked back and saw that I had strayed far from Septimius Severus.

I felt sick, anxious that I had somehow done the wrong thing. Baba wasn't on a business trip, but here, in Tripoli, where we should be together. I could have reached out and caught him from where he was heading; why had I not acted?

I sat in the car while she loaded the shopping, still holding on to the sesame sticks. I looked up at the building Baba and Nasser had entered. A window on the top floor shuddered, then swung open. Baba appeared through it. He gazed at the square, no longer wearing the sunglasses, leaning with his hands on the sill like a leader waiting for the clapping and chanting to stop. He hung a small red towel on the clothesline and disappeared inside.

On the way home I was more silent than before, and this time there was no effort in it. As soon as we left Martyrs' Square Mama began craning her neck toward the rearview mirror. Stopping at the next traffic light, she whispered a prayer to herself. A car stopped so close beside us I could have touched the driver's cheek. Four men dressed in dark safari suits sat looking at us. At first I didn't recognize them, then I remembered. I remembered so suddenly I felt my heart jump. They were the same Revolutionary Committee men who had come a week before and taken Ustath Rashid.

Mama looked ahead, her back a few centimeters away from the backrest, her fists tight around the steering wheel. She released one hand, brought it to my knee and sternly whispered, "Face forward."

When the traffic light turned green, the car beside us didn't move. Everyone knows you mustn't overtake a Revolutionary Committee car, and if you have to, then you must do it discreetly, without showing any pleasure in it. A few cars, unaware of who was parked beside us, began to sound their horns. Mama drove off slowly, looking more at the rearview mirror than the road ahead. Then she said, "They are following us; don't look back." I stared at my bare knees and said the same prayer over and over. I felt the sweat gather between my palms and the wax-paper wrapping of the sesame sticks. It wasn't until we were almost home that Mama said, "OK, they are gone," then mumbled to herself, "Nothing better to do than give us an escort, the rotten rats."

My heart eased and my back grew taller. The prayer left my lips.

The innocent, Sheikh Mustafa, the imam of our local mosque, had told me, have no cause to fear; only the guilty live in fear.

I didn't help her carry the shopping into the house as was usual. I went straight to my room and dropped the sesame sticks on the bed, shaking the blood back into my arms. I grabbed my picture book on Lepcis Magna. Ten days before I had visited the ancient city for the first and, as it turned out, last time. Images of the deserted city of ruins by the sea still lingered vividly in my mind. I longed to return to it.

I didn't come out until I had to: after she had prepared lunch and set the table and called my name.

When she tore the bread, she handed me a piece; and I, noticing she hadn't had any salad, passed her the salad bowl. Midway through the meal she got up and turned on the radio. She left it on a man talking about farming the desert. I got up, said, "Bless your hands," and went to my room. "I will take a nap," she said after me. My silence made her say things she didn't need to say, she always took a nap in the afternoons, everyone did, everyone except me. I never could nap.

I waited in my room until she had finished washing the dishes and putting away the food, until I was certain she had gone to sleep, then I came out.

I was walking around the house looking for something to do when the telephone rang. I ran to it before it could wake her up. It was Baba. On hearing his voice my heart quickened. I thought he must be calling so soon after I had seen him to explain why he hadn't greeted me.

"Where are you?"

"Abroad. Let me speak to your mother."

"Where abroad?"

"Abroad," he repeated, as if it was obvious where that was. "I'll be home tomorrow."

"I miss you."

"Me too. Call your mother."

"She's asleep. Shall I wake her up?"

"Just let her know I'll be home tomorrow, about lunch-time."

I didn't want the conversation to end so I said, "We were followed today by that same white car that took Ustath Rashid. We were side by side at the traffic light and I saw their faces. I was so close I could have touched the driver's cheek and I wasn't frightened. Not at all. Not even a little, I wasn't."

"I'll see you tomorrow," he said and hung up.

I stood for a while beside the telephone and listened to the thick silence that seemed to descend on our house during those hours in the afternoon, a silence edged by the humming of the fridge in the kitchen and the ticking of the clock in the hallway.

I went to watch Mama sleep. I sat beside her, checking first that her chest was rising and falling with breath. I remembered the words she had told me the night before, "We are two halves of the same soul, two open pages of the same book," words that felt like a gift I didn't want.

Table of Contents

“This is a wonderful coming-of-age story. I had a very hard time putting this book down, I wanted to know what happens next. This book opened a window on a country and a time I knew very little about and I felt as if I had learned something about both when I finished this book. I hope to see more from Hisham Matar, I think he has a great deal more to say.”—Susan M., Tulsa, OK

In The Country Of Men stole my breath. I couldn't put it down. So real and enthralling. I haven't had this good of a read in along time.”—Wanda F., Mebane, NC

"This book is a great read! Mr. Matar is truly gifted! I can't wait for his next book! Recommended reading for everyone!" I really enjoy it!”—Renee H., Davenport, IO

“The haunting harsh voice of reality screams of fear and uncertainty for nine year old Suleiman. Faced with atrocities no child should ever see or know of he, like everyone else, must find a way to some how survive. This book is so beautifully written that the prose compels you to read on further and further into the story, no matter how disturbing it becomes. In the end one cannot forget that this is not just a story. Only the characters are fictional, but the events, the torture, the lack of human rights, all of it is true not only in 1979 Libya but here and now.”—Maryellen G., Miami, FL

“This quick-paced novel offers its readers a glimpse behind the curtain of secrecy that shrouded Libya just after the September revolution and the ascendancy of Mohmar Qadaffi. Seen through the eyes of a young boy that has been steeped in the propaganda of the new regime, the reader experiences the confusion that arises when his friends and neighbors are targeted as traitors and the fear when the spotlight turns to his own family is palpable. Hisham Matar delivers and engrossing story with an emotional impact on the reader.“—Robin K., Signal Mountain, TN

“This is a beautiful, sad, and thought provoking tale of a young boy, Suleiman, coming of age in the brutal dictatorship of Qaddafi's Lybia. I especially like the abundant images which are sometimes achingly beautiful illustrations of the confusion and suffering of a traditional religious culture growing into–and being forced into–the modern world. I also like the hot, stuffy, slow mood which reflects the stifling fear and bitterness Suleiman's family feels living under traditional and political oppression. Finally, I like Suleiman's and his mother's emotional complexity, wrestling with the frustrations and promises of the old and new worlds.”—Jean F., Hallsboro, NC

“For Suleiman el-Dewani, living with his parents in 1979 Libya, the summer of his ninth year is pivotal, ultimately shaping the course of his life. Over the summer, Suleiman bears witness in very personal ways to what happens when ordinary men have the courage of their political convictions and how sometimes, they are willing to pay the ultimate price. Along the way, he also learns the true meanings of friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice. Gracefully written, and touchingly told.”—Darlene M., Toronto, ON, Canada

“Simply written, the story of nine-year-old Suleiman as he lives through a time of betrayal and horror in 1970s Libya is very interesting. While the politics aren't explained fully, the author still portrays a realistic portrait of tough times through a child's eyes. A poignant tale in a wonderful debut.”—Nicole K., Marietta, OH
Hisham Matar|Author Q&A

About Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar - In the Country of Men

Photo © Diana Matar

Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood in Tripoli and Cairo. He lives in London and is currently at work on his second novel.

Author Q&A

In the Country of Men loosely mirrors some of the events that have taken place in your life. Given this fact, when and how did the idea of writing it begin to take shape?

When I first began writing In the Country of Men all I had was the voice of the protagonist. He intrigued me and my desire to want to know him and his world became almost compulsive. It is by far much more interesting and entertaining to write and read work that is a product of the imagination rather than a list of remembered events. Some works of fiction read like lists, events that have happened and therefore hold little surprise for the author, who ought to be constantly on his toes for the next possibility. This is why I had no interest in writing an autobiographical account of my childhood.

Most of the main characters are men, aside from perhaps the novel’s most luminous figure, Suleiman’s mother. Explain the significance behind the book’s title and how you came to choose it.

The book revolves around the complex and intense relationship between the protagonist and his young mother. The two often seem guests in a world decided and shaped by men.

Despite her “illness” and supposed inferiority, Suleiman’s mother is actually the rock of the family and the one who must keep it afloat while her husband is detained. What inspired you to create such a complex character? Can we as readers learn something from her actions?

She is certainly a paradox. I haven't met two people who agree on her. Some say she is a heroic and courageous figure, others claim she is a less than capable mother. A character happens through the writing. The process is not too unlike dancing with a stranger in the dark: you take your chances. You follow their lead. And when the moment is right, when you have gathered enough courage and audacity, you attempt to whisper a name into their ear. Sometimes they respond. Nothing in my work is written with the intention to instruct or teach.

Despite the fact that he cares deeply for them, Suleiman’s father risks the lives of his wife and son by becoming active in the political underground
essentially putting politics above his family. Suleiman’s mother does quite the opposite. At one point, she appeals to her neighbor (a government official) in order to secure her husband’s freedom and her son’s safety. Might you elaborate on this contrast?

I don't know to what degree I ought to engage in judging the actions of my characters, let alone elaborating on them. I am interested in their existence, in their being—what we call life—and so see no need to measure their actions morally or otherwise.

Part of what makes In the Country of Men so fascinating is that it’s written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, the age you were when you left Libya. How does Suleiman’s naiveté and struggle to understand what’s going on around him shape the flow and impact of his story?

Making Suleiman the same age as I was when I had left Libya helped me remember that time in Libya. Children live with an intensity most adults take for granted. The present to them is all. It makes perfect sense, for instance, why a child ought to be devastated when his toy breaks. The lack of hindsight makes them both reckless and wary. In some ways, childhood is a sort of mystical experience; perhaps the most refined one we are likely to ever experience.

After winning three games in a row against Kareem in front of the other neighborhood kids, Suleiman turns against his friend and betrays his confidence, despite his respect and love for Kareem and the fact that Kareem had always treated him as an equal. Is this not representative of something deeply distressing about human naturethe ability to turn against each other, despite past loyalties?

I am not sure about that. The way Suleiman behaved toward his friend Kareem seemed credible; it did not seem acceptable that he ought to suffer all the pressures he suffers without being corrupted in some way.

One of the most intense and powerful scenes in your novel is, of course, the one where Ustath Rashid is executed in the National Basketball Stadium in front of a frenzied, animal-like mob, all screaming for his execution as a traitor. You write, “Something was absent in the stadium, something that could no longer be relied on.” What was that “something,” and what do you see is the reason for its absence? Isn’t this “something” absent in much of today’s world as well?

I am often mistaken for my protagonist . . . Those were Suleiman’s words. As for what I think is missing in our world today, I would say: Nothing; we have everything, but in the wrong quantities: Too much pain and suffering, and not enough of those most noble of intellectual faculties: Compassion and Tolerance.

In the last few chapters, Suleiman looks back on his life and attempts to make sense of what happened to him and how it shaped who he is as a person. Why did you choose to include this section, and what does his change in perspective say about his character and his feelings for his country?

Suleiman’s motivation for telling his story is rather unclear in the beginning. It is only toward the end that his reason for ‘recalling’ the past is gradually unveiled. He has become so far removed from the past, exiled from the time and the place of his early beginnings, and so in his telling there is the hope that he could ‘return’ if even in his mind.

Toward the end of In the Country of Men, you write, "Nationalism is as thin as a threadperhaps that's why it's so anxiously guarded." You were born in New York City and spent your childhood in Tripoli and Cairo. Now, you live in London. Do you feel a particular affinity toward any of these places over the others? Would you ever consider moving back to Tripoli or Cairo? How does this quote relate to your choices in life?

I remember reading Dr Johnson’s famous words that went something like this, ‘Nationalism is the last hiding place for a scoundrel.’ So I decided to have Suleiman agree with Dr Johnson. I am attached in different ways to all the countries I lived in, but my attachment to Libya is much more urgent. Sometimes I wake up with it in my head. And in my writing this book I was trying to wean myself of the country I had left and haven’t been able to return to for over 28 years now. You can say I was trying to cure myself of my Libya. I failed, of course.

In what ways did your childhood lend itself to writing this novel and creating Suleiman’s voice?

A book is never written only in the time that it actually takes to write it. So, indeed, I have been thinking about these ideas, not necessarily for a work of fiction, for some time. Not so much ‘thinking’ in the hard and stern way, as I find that sort of thinking mostly unhelpful when it comes to writing, but carrying: Carrying it as faithfully as one knows how.

In the end, what made you choose to write a work of fiction rather than an autobiography?

I enjoy the pleasure of inventing characters and their circumstances on the page. They remain mysterious even after the work is complete; in some ways even more mysterious. It’s magic.

In 1990, your father, a dissident living in Cairo, was kidnapped and taken back to Tripoli where he was subsequently tortured and imprisoned. Other members of your family and friends have been tortured or killed as well. Is it true that you have not heard from your father since 1995? How did these events and this uncertainty help shape In the Country of Men?

Yes, it is true that I haven’t heard from or about Father since 1995. I don’t know to what extent this has influenced my novel. The State is forever intruding in the lives of Suleiman and his family. One of the most difficult passages to write was the return of the father after he had been tortured.

What would you like your readers to take away from their experience with In the Country of Men?

Libya is a silent and silenced country. Somewhere between the covers of my book is a Libya that speaks. But, most of all, I hope anyone who reads my novel is entertained and perhaps even nudged a little.

Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? Might you have a few favorite books to recommend to your readers?

I am currently reading Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow, his novel in three parts.

Praise | Awards


"A poetic and powerful account ... resonant with the details of a Libyan childhood.”—Wall Street Journal

“Graceful.... Quietly, but with the insistence of a tolling bell, Matar lays bare for Suleiman both public and private worlds of overlapping male power, role models, standards and styles. At its intimate center, the novel calibrates the boy's shifting, decreasingly innocent perspective as he himself becomes implicated by cruelty and betrayal.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Matar is a careful, controlled writer. His restraint—the spaces and the light between his words —make reading his work a physical as well as an emotional experience.”—Los Angeles Times

“Moving ... complex .... [Readers will] be haunted by Suleiman, his fate and his eventual awakening to the complexities of adult relationships.”—Seattle Times

“Matar writes in a voice that shifts gracefully between the adult exile looking back and the young boy experiencing these events through his limited, confused point of view.... This sad, beautiful novel captures the universal tragedy of children caught in their parents' terrors.”—Washington Post Book World

“A remarkably perceptive and affecting portrait of a young boy's premature political awakening.... [Matar] expertly builds an atmosphere of palpable tension, and though this novel never delves directly into politics, the menacing pall cast by political tyranny looms over the proceedings.”—Miami Herald


WINNER 2007 Commonwealth Writers' Prize of Europe and South Asia
WINNER 2007 New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year
NOMINEE 2008 National Book Critics Circle Awards
WINNER 2007 Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

Taking us to a time and place rarely glimpsed in fiction, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men captures life in Libya in the wake of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s revolution. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy named Suleiman, we watch a family struggle for survival in a climate of deadly political suspicion. Against a backdrop of innocent childhood rituals—playing games with his best friends, learning his country’s history on visits to the ruins surrounding Tripoli—Suleiman is also awakened to dangers he cannot comprehend. When his father is brutally interrogated and his best friend’s father disappears, Suleiman arrives at a crossroads that will shatter his understanding of home and homelands.

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of In the Country of Men. We hope they will enrich your experience of this powerful novel.

Discussion Guides

1. What is the effect of reading about this episode in history through a child’s point of view? What clarity does it bring? In what ways do a child’s impulses muddy the truth?

2. What does Suleiman learn about the roles of men and women as his mother continually reminds him of her arranged marriage? How have his impressions of gender been shaped by this knowledge? What determines whether she feels safe or victimized in her marriage?

3. How would you characterize Muammar al-Qaddafi’s political rhetoric as it is captured in the novel? How was he able to overthrow a monarch without offering any promise of democracy? What makes fiction an ideal format for depicting these headlines?

4. How does Suleiman perceive his mother’s alcoholism? What distinctions exist between experiencing this addiction in the West and facing it in a locale where religious law forbids drinking?

5. Discuss the title of the novel: In the Country of Men. Do the women in Suleiman’s life have any true power, and if so, from where is it derived? What does he come to understand about the power hierarchies of Libyan men, and the reasons his father lost his social rank?

6. What had you previously known about Muammar al-Qaddafi and the effects of Italian colonization on Libya? As a supplement to your reading of In the Country of Men, discuss articles tracing Qaddafi’s unusual story, from being suspected of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, to his recent denunciation of the 9/11 terrorists and the U.S. State Department’s May 2006 removal of Libya from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Could the novel’s characters ever have predicted such an outcome?

7. What does the story of Moosa’s useless Polish tires (chapter seven) indicate about economics and entrepreneurship at that time? How did the citizens’ economic power crumble so swiftly, to the point that they were swindled out of their savings through the currency scheme described in chapter twenty-four?

8. Did Suleiman’s perception of Bahloul change between his early memories (particularly in chapter ten) to the incident when Bahloul nearly drowned, just before Suleiman’s departure for Cairo?

9. In chapter ten, what persuasive tools does Sharief use to win the cooperation of children? What is Suleiman’s understanding of the events he sees on television, culminating in the execution of Ustath Rashid? When is he able to reconcile the innocent images of noble men—such as the small gifts he would receive after his father traveled for business—with the horrific ones that dominate his mind in the novel’s later chapters?

10. What were your impressions of Suleiman’s place within his circle of friends? What was it like to see Osama used as an ordinary name for an ordinary little boy? How had Suleiman’s feelings toward his friends changed when he was reunited with them years later?

11. How would you respond to the “what-if” thoughts Suleiman expresses toward the end of chapter twenty-four? What might have become of him, of his father, of his beloved Siham, if he had never emigrated?

12. Discuss the notion of living as an expatriate. How did Suleiman cope with the knowledge that he could not safely go home again? How do such circumstances affect identity and sense of self?

13. How did Suleiman’s religious training shape his character and his understanding of the world?

14. How has Suleiman’s opinion of his mother changed by the time he reaches the novel’s closing scenes?

15. Discuss the notion of storytelling woven throughout the book. How are the characters influenced by Scheherazade and A Thousand and One Nights? How would you characterize the storytelling style of Suleiman’s mother? How does a book—Baba’s lone, dangerous tome saved from the fire—drive the plot of Hisham Matar’s book?

Teacher's Guide


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Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men is a strikingly balanced novel. While set within the complicated and highly charged political landscape of Libya in the late ‘70s (the setting of the author’s own early childhood), the story’s narrator is a young boy still preoccupied with games, just beginning to open his eyes to the possibility of love, still considering —and misinterpreting—what it means to be a man. By constructing the story around this strange interplay of innocence and corruption, the author is able to open up a dialogue about duality, addressing both the light and dark elements of humanity and exploring an impressive range of themes such as freedom and identity, justice and injustice, loyalty and betrayal, exile and identity, addiction and the nature of truth.

While the following guide provides suggestions for addressing the historical and political elements of the novel, it also provides a means to examine the story from a variety of other viewpoints. In considering Matar’s work, readers of all backgrounds should quickly realize that, while they may not have been previously acquainted with facets of Libyan history such as the rule of the Qaddafi revolutionary regime, there is no need for apprehension. While politics and history do often fuel the dramatic action of the story, the universal themes, simple structure, and classic style of In the Country of Men make it a truly enjoyable, almost effortless read.


In the Country of Men begins with a simple declaration: “I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away.” It is a simple start to a story of startling depth. Through the eyes of young Suleiman, we experience a child’s often misguided attempts to make sense of the adult world. Suleiman’s mother is an alcoholic, his father is being hunted by the Libyan revolutionary regime, and neighbors may disappear at any time and appear on television for interrogation and public execution. The title of the story is particularly telling, as the novel raises questions about what it means to be a man, what is involved in humanity, and how much of one’s identity is tied to one’s country. The characters are outsiders, doing the best they can to uphold their beliefs and survive. While the setting of the novel—the turbulent Libya of 1979, ruled by the terror-inducing Qaddafi regime—certainly propels the narrative, the novel is ultimately about universal issues: human faults and triumphs, the resilience of the human spirit, the dynamic of relationships between parent and child, friend and neighbor, a country and its citizens.

One of the most striking scenes in the book occurs when Suleiman’s mother and Moosa burn Baba’s books. A defiant Suleiman, unable to comprehend the motives behind the destruction of his father’s prized books, picks up a copy of Democracy Now and hides it in his room. There it resides, immensely powerful and immensely dangerous. Surely one of Matar’s great achievements is his ability to illuminate the power of the written word, to reveal the adventure found in expression. It is a searing reminder of the power of education—the power of an idea, which may be overlooked by those who possess what seem like limitless and inherent freedoms.


Hisham Matar was born in New York in 1970 to Libyan parents. He lived in America for the first three years of his life while his father worked for the Libyan delegation to the United Nations. His family then returned to Libya, where Matar spent the early part of his childhood. When the author was nine years old, his family fled to Egypt amid accusations that his father was in opposition to the Libyan revolutionary regime. Matar completed his schooling there, and as a teenager, moved to London, where he earned a degree in architecture. In 1990, while the author was in England, his father went to answer the door at his Cairo home and never reappeared. Several years later, Matar’s family received two letters from his father, which revealed that he had been taken by the Egyptian secret police, turned over to the Libyan revolutionary regime, and jailed in Tripoli. Matar has not received any further correspondence from his father since these letters, written over a decade ago.

In 2000, Matar began writing his first novel, In the Country of Men. The book was published in 2006 to critical acclaim and was short-listed for the ’06 Guardian First Book Award and the ’06 Man Booker Prize. In 2007, Matar was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize of Europe and South Asia. In the Country of Men continues to be printed in numerous countries worldwide and will be translated into more than twenty languages.


In the Country of Men addresses universal themes such as freedom and imprisonment, justice and injustice, exile and identity, addiction, the experience of adolescence, and the power of the written word. These themes can be discussed generally or under a variety of subject headings, including history and cultural studies, philosophy, psychology, and literature. Use the following suggestions as a jumping-off point for teaching the novel in your class.

Students of history or cultural studies might first examine the history of Libya, focusing on the revolutionary regime of the 1970s, as depicted in the novel. Compare and contrast this regime to other forms of government. How does America relate to Libya today? What has changed? How do the political events represented in the book compare to those of other cultures? Review examples of exile throughout history. Examine the treatment of women as represented in the novel.

Philosophy students should engage in discussions of ethics using examples from the novel. Look at instances of loyalty and betrayal, violence, freedom and imprisonment, exile and its effects. Examine the nature of truth, making use of the novel’s point of view. Examine the characters’ roles from the standpoint of existentialist philosophy.

The novel presents endless material for those studying psychology. Discuss issues of identity and gender as they surface in the novel. Consider the behavior of the characters, Suleiman’s experience of adolescence, and addiction as experienced by Suleiman’s mother. How is each character’s behavior influenced by his or her past and by his or her country’s political climate? How do the characters deal with issues of imprisonment, fear, and exile? The novel is very much about relationships. Be sure to examine the relationships between the characters, including parent-child relationships, those of friend and neighbor, the relationship of citizen to country, etc.

Teachers who would like to use the novel in an English class should begin by breaking the novel down into digestible components such as characters, plot, setting, themes, point of view/narrator, structure, imagery/symbolism. Examine examples of imagery and myth in the novel. Consider their significance and universal appeal. Consider the book within the history of literature. Consider examples of the power of the written word within the novel. How do the various characters experience literature? What influence does it have on them? How is it utilized in a political context? Be sure to discuss the book-burning scene and the history of banned books. What is that makes the written word powerful?

For younger readers, it might be useful to ask students to focus on the “common issues” in the novel— issues of humanity that transcend the boundaries of culture and time. This commonality is particularly important for teachers to emphasize as young readers approach global literature with unfamiliar settings and a foreign historical or political context.

This guide provides suggestions for further reading — fiction as well as non-fiction, books that share stylistic similarities as well as thematic similarities. Some focus on the topic of exile or imprisonment. Some books are told from a child’s point of view and some simply share the historical perspective of In the Country of Men.

More mature students might consider the tie between the novel and contemporary politics and cultural conditions, focusing on human rights issues. For such students, you might share with them Hisham Matar’s op-ed piece “Seeing What We Want to See in Qaddafi,” which appeared in the New York Times and can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/05/opinion/05matar.html. Students who wish to consider the novel as a semi-autobiographical work might wish to find out more about the author’s real-life experiences. In the following article, located at http://news.amnesty.org/index/ENGMDE198122003 Matar writes about the effect that the disappearance of his father had on him.


1)Why do you think that the author chose the title In the Country of Men for this book? What questions are raised about the concepts of country, manhood and humanity? How does the title tie in with the themes of the novel and the position of the characters as they struggle to get along in their environment?

2)How does the author use contrasting imagery in the opening passage to set the tone of the book? How does the image of people seeking mercy from the heat reflect the broader condition of the characters?

3)How does Suleiman react to his exile? Is he better off? What do you think he has lost and gained as a result?

4)What forms of imprisonment are depicted in the novel? How do the various characters experience and react to a lack of freedom?

5)What can we infer about the lives of women in Libya during the time period represented in this story?

6)Why does the tale of Scheherazade anger Suleiman’s mother? How does Suleiman’s view of the story differ? Why do you think this is?

7)The author describes a statue of Septimius Severus which points to Rome. Why do you think the author included this statue? What does it symbolize? What about Lepcis Magna? What does it symbolize and why is it important?

8)The novel addresses the issue of loyalty. How do the various characters experience loyalty and betrayal? Discuss some examples. What do you think is the main cause of some of the betrayals that occur?

9)Why do Suleiman’s mother and Moosa burn Baba’s books? Why do you think that Suleiman keeps the book Democracy Now? Why is this dangerous?

10) How does the point of view of the story affect the way that we see the injustices represented in the story? How might this be different if the narrator were an adult?

11) How does Suleiman’s relationship with Kareem change throughout the story?

12) Throughout the novel, Suleiman refers to his mother’s alcoholism as her “illness.” How accurate is this observation? Do you feel it is a reflection of Suleiman’s naivety in youth or a kind of wisdom about her actual condition?

13) Why does Suleiman’s mother refer to the day she married Suleiman’s father as a “black day”?

14) When the students visit Lepcis Magna, Kareem states, “Children are useless in a war.” Do you think this is true? What might the author’s point of view be, based on clues in the novel?

15) In Chapter 3, after Ustah Rashid is taken, there is an exchange between Um Masoud and Baba. The author tells us that “Um Masoud continued to study her fingers, smiling knowingly now as if some old suspicion had finally been confirmed.” What has been confirmed for Um Masoud?

16) In Chapter 5, Moosa says, “It’s our obligation to call injustice by its name.” Suleiman’s mother replies, “Go call it by its name in your country. Here it’s either silence or exile, walk by the wall or leave. Go be a hero elsewhere.” What does she mean? Who is right? How do the different characters in the novel face injustice and what are the consequences?

17) How does the author use color within the novel? What do some colors represent? How do descriptions of color help to develop the mood of the story?

18) In Chapter 9, Kareem tells Suleiman that he is not a man because he has “no word.” What does he mean by this?

19) In Chapter 10, Suleiman is having an inner dialogue. He says, “One’s nature is like a mountain, you can’t change it.” Do you think that he is right? Discuss.

20) Why do you think that Suleiman is violent towards Bahloul?

21) Throughout the novel, Suleiman is constantly revealing his thoughts on what a hero is and what a man is. Discuss some of these descriptions. How realistic is his idea of a hero and a man? Why do you think he has these conceptions? Where do they come from?

22) Moosa says that Libya is his country, although he has lived in Egypt for half of his life. Suleiman’s mother disagrees. She feels that Libya is not his country. Who do you feel is right? Discuss.

23) What profession does Suleiman ultimately choose? Why do you think the author decided to have Suleiman choose this profession?

24) The novel raises questions about identity, citizenship, and what it means to belong. Many of the characters in the novel are outsiders in some way. Who do you feel is an outsider and what makes them seem like an outsider?

25) There are various references to literature and the written word through the story. How do the various characters experience literature? What effect does it have on them? What is it that makes literature powerful?

26) In Chapter 23, Suleiman says, “Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that’s why many feel that it needs to be anxiously guarded.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree?


A dialogue about the people and places listed below is crucial in understanding the world that Suleiman is experiencing. This discussion will provide historical perspective and, therefore, some stability for readers who may not be familiar with the history of Libya. This section also includes other terms, which may not appear directly in the text, but which will be useful in fostering further discussion in looking beyond the book.

Qaddafi (Colonel Qadaffi, The Guide)
Septimius Severus
Lepcis Magni
The Koran/The Q’Uran
coup d’etat
Revolutionary Committee
freedom of speech


1)Examine real-life accounts of exile as well as fictional accounts in world literature. Be sure to discuss the various kinds of exile, including political, self-imposed, addiction etc. What are some of the effects of exile? How does it impact identity? How do the representations of these experiences differ and what do they share in common? Stylistically, how do different people depict their accounts of exile?

2)Study the history of Libya during the 1970s. Discuss rebellion, political dissent, the price of freedom etc. How does the history of Libya relate to that of other cultures? Why is this still significant today?

3)Review the “Tale of Scheherazade” as it appears in the book. Discuss how this tale functions as a myth and an allegory set within a novel, reflecting a broader human experience. Have students write about an injustice as myth or allegory. Discuss what literary devices are utilized in myth and allegory to help readers understand and relate in a broad and timeless way.

4)Use the novel during Banned Books week (last week of September). Review the scene where Suleiman’s mother and Moosa burn Baba’s books. Examine some of the books that have been banned throughout history. Discuss why they may have been banned. How have our perceptions of these books changed today? What makes these books powerful? Open up a broader conversation about the significance of literature, and about how shifts in context (e.g. different cultural perceptions) can affect the way it is understood and valued. Introduce organizations that foster freedom of expression and a commitment to the advancement of literature internationally, such as Amnesty International (www. amnestyusa.org/bannedbooks/), The American Library Association (www.ala.org/bbooks/), and PEN American Center (www.pen.org), and utilize the free resources they provide.


Age of Iron, J.M. Coetzee.
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, J.M. Coetzee.
Hadji Murat, Leo Tolstoy.
Atonement, Ian McEwan.
The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Unknown.
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri.
Tristia, Ovid.
The Rebel, Albert Camus.
Exile and the Kingdom, Albert Camus.
Season of the Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih.
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini.
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels.
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi.
Snow, Orhan Pamuk.
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway.
The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius.
Dubliners, James Joyce.
Demian, Hermann Hesse.
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie.
Home and Exile, Chinua Achebe.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe.
Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Edward Said.
Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, Czeslaw Milosz.
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill.
Love and Exile, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson.
On Liberty, John Stuart Mill.
Second Treatise of Government, John Locke.
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville.
A History of Modern Libya, Dirk Vandewalle.
The Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a. The Arabian Nights), multiple authors.


This guide was produced by Jennifer Banach Palladino, a writer from Connecticut. Jennifer was the main contributor to Bloom’s Guides: The Glass Menagerie, edited by Harold Bloom for Facts on File, Inc. She also recently completed a guide to Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha for DemiDec, Inc., a producer of guides and study materials for the U.S. Academic Decathlon and the World Scholar’s Cup.

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  • In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
  • February 26, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • $16.00
  • 9780385340434

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