It is 1979, and through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, Suleiman, Tripoli sounds so beautiful. It is a city of fragrances and light, Roman ruins and sunshine, but also one where the prudent display their allegiance to the Benefactor, the Father of the Nation, the Guide of the Libyan Popular Revolution.
"Stopping at the next traffic light, (Mama) 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 recognise 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 (university professor) Ustath Rashid.
But the boy has faith: "The imam... of our local mosque, had told me, have no cause to fear; only the guilty live in fear."
Anyway, he is with his mother and their relationship is close. They are, she says, "Two halves of the same soul, two open pages of the same book..."
But many of the Pages aren't open to Soolma and there is much about her life , and her mysterious illness, that he doesn't understand. Even her own mother's favourite and much-repeated story was not what is seemed: "Scheherazade was a coward who accepted slavery over death."
Her life is shaped by an arranged marriage at 14 to an ancient man fully nine years older than her and of whom she had not been allowed even to see a photograph; she would be taunted by a maid who said the future groom was a ugly, with a big nose.
Fearful that the wedding night would not go as planned, her father had buried a pistol in his pocket: "Blood is going to be spilled either way."
Faraj is a Bedouin who has left the desert behind to become a business man, importing trees from Sweden, and less, successfully, cows from Scotland: "Where they are from the sun has no heat and barely any light."
"So you want to convince us you've been to Scotland?"
"No, I saw it in a film. I felt a chill just watching it."
Tripoli is a city of secrets - "Don't tell Moosa, nothing every stays in that man's mouth" - but Suleiman is not good with secrets, and the naivety of youth makes him an unreliable narrator
He sees life vividly, but life is not always what it seems.
Like her two sons, Um Masoud was fat. Her buttocks were the size of watermelons. Although I never tried it, of course, I was certain I could balance a glass of water on one of them."
For Um Masoud's husband Ustath Jafer, was "an Antenna, a man of the Mokhabarat, able to put people behind the sun," and as Soolma will come to realise "informing on your fellow citzens is Libya's national sport."
The regime is brutal, and dissent is dangerous. A few students speak our and are hung; "The foolish dreamers!" says Mama.
"Here it's either silence or exile, walk by the wall or leave. Go be a hero elsewhere."
This a country where the defenders of the revoution gather crowds into the National Basketball Stadium, where a noose hangs from the backboard of a net, and a death sentence is carried out on live televison.
"In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child craving concern..."
This a book about growing up, about dawning realisations of the adult world, about the distance between father and son. "How much of him is there in me? Can you become a man without becoming your father?"
It is also a book about betrayal, and the languid beauty of its vivid and warm imagery and language makes the intrusion of brutality all the more shocking.
Highy recommended. I won't be disappointed of In the Country of Men turns out to be the best novel I read in 2011.
- In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar (2006) read on Kindle.