My Friends by Hisham Matar: Libya and the pain of exile

Cover image for My Friends by Hisham MatarI know less about Libya than I feel I should, but I do remember the dramatic events on April 17, 1984, when WPC Yvonne Fletcher was fatally shot at a demonstration outside the Libyan Embassy in London throwing a long, dark shadow over relations between our two countries. Hisham Matar’s My Friends follows three Libyan exiles, all of whom were protesting in St James’ Square that day, two already friends, one who will become so.

It turns out it is possible to live without one’s family. All one has to do is endure each day and gradually, minute by minute, brick by brick, time builds a wall.

When Khaled is just fourteen years old, the newsreader for the BBC Arabic World Service reads a short story by Hosam Zowa, a talented young writer studying in Ireland, rather than announcing the news. A thinly disguised protest against the regime, the story will cost the announcer his life. The story sets Khaled on a path to study literature, winning a scholarship to Edinburgh University where he meets Mustapha who persuades him to attend the demo. Both are badly wounded when shots are fired into the crowd. Mustapha restlessly throws himself into a variety of different jobs, while Khaled shuts himself down, wary of any approach, and terrified of putting his family in Libya at risk. Years later, he meets Hosam in a chance encounter, beginning a friendship which will embrace Mustapha. When the Arab Spring erupts, Mustapha becomes part of the rebel force in Libya, while Khaled holds back, surprised when Hosam joins their friend. Decades after they first met, Hosam returns to London on his way to a new life with his family in America.

All the while the hourglass emptied. And with each day we became a little less Arab and a little more Anglo, like a wall gradually losing its colour to the weather.

Matar tells his story of friendship and exile through Khaled as he walks home from what he thinks will be his last goodbye to Hosam, visiting the landmarks of their friendship. Always cautious, his life became circumscribed by his presence at the demonstration, aged eighteen, fearing constant surveillance and knowing that to go home would expose his family to terrible danger. Matar vividly evokes the loneliness of Khaled’s exile contrasting it with Mustapha’s restless inability to settle to anything until he finds common cause with Libya’s 2011 rebel uprising. This is a long, absorbing and eloquent novel, both enlightening and moving in its depiction of a life made narrow by political oppression and fear, even at a distance. I learnt a lot from it and once again felt thankful that, although I deplore the current state of politics in my own country, I’m free to say whatever I like about it.

Viking Books: London 9780241409480 464 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

18 thoughts on “My Friends by Hisham Matar: Libya and the pain of exile”

  1. I do appreciate stories which help me understand life in other parts of the world – particularly those suffering oppression. So I’m delighted that my library has it on order. I’m first in the queue!

  2. I met Matar at the very first Penguin event I ever got invited to, and he was brilliant to talk to. His first novel was just being published and I really enjoyed it. Somehow, I’ve not managed to keep up with his work, but this sounds excellent.

  3. I’ve had Anatomy of a Disappearance in the TBR for years and you’ve definitely encouraged me to finally get to it – this sounds a wonderful novel so I should definitely explore the author further.

  4. He’s a good writer. I remember being captivated by an abridged version of A Month in Siena when it was featured on Radio 4’s Book of the Week a few years ago. In fact, I think Front Row will be reviewing this new novel tomorrow, so you might want to listen in.

    1. Thanks for the heads up, Jacqui. The novel is so good at humanising a situation that may be familiar to many from news coverage, not just in Libya but under any oppressive regime.

  5. Sounds very interesting. Yes, indeed, we have a tendency to forget that, however annoying the day to day might be, we are very fortunate to live in what is still a “free” country.

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