In the early summer of 2003, a few months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I arrived at the door of a pockmarked building in Baghdad where many of the military and intelligence files of Saddam Hussein’s government were stored. The street was full of dust, and Iraqis of all ages were streaming in and out, some of them clutching folders. A group of men was standing near the door in authoritative poses, and older women were yelling at them, pleading for information. I was new to the country, and a little baffled at first that these scraps of yellowing paper had provoked so much passion and excitement. It did not take me long to figure out why. For all the Iraqis publicly executed under Saddam, countless more had disappeared into his archipelago of dungeons. Their families had submitted to a familiar pattern: years of soul-sapping hope and dread, with regime officials cynically demanding money in exchange for information about the disappeared that they never supplied. Some of these people told me they would have given almost anything for the peace of mind conveyed by a genuine death certificate.
This is the emotional terrain of Hisham Matar, a Libyan British writer whose career has revolved around the drama of forced disappearance under dictatorship. His two novels, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), are both disguised memoirs based on the 1990 abduction of his father, the Libyan dissident Jaballa Matar, by Egyptian intelligence agents in Cairo. The Egyptians turned the elder Matar over to the security services of Libya’s vicious ruler, Muammar al-Qaddafi; he then entered the ranks of the disappeared. His family never knew where he was being held; by the mid-1990s, they were no longer certain if he was even alive. Capturing Jaballa Matar was a significant feat for the Libyan regime: he had been a leading figure in the opposition, using the considerable wealth he’d built as a businessman to organize and outside the country that aimed to overthrow Qaddafi. In 1979, his family had left Libya for Egypt with him, and soon afterward, his sons had been sent to the even safer remove of European boarding schools.
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