On this day forty years ago, a twenty-seven year old colonel named Muammar al-Gaddafi overthrew King Idris of Libya in a bloodless coup. It seems to me that coverage of Gaddafi is broadly limited to two topics: his social antics (e.g. the tent he set up in the garden of the Hotel Marigny, his all-female bodyguard corps, his ridiculous outfits, and so on) and the Lockerbie bombing. One rarely hears about all the political prisoners who have been rotting in his jails for several decades.
A couple of years ago, the novelist Hisham Matar wrote a very moving piece about his father, Jaballa Matar, who was allegedly kidnapped by Egyptian security forces in March 1990 and then rendered to Libya. He has not been seen in nineteen years, and has not been heard from in ten.
How does one remain free from becoming a symbol or a victim? How do we remain whole and free from hate, yet truthful to our memory?
Life attempts to teach us about loss: that one can still find peace in the finality of death. And yet, my loss gives no peace. My father is not incarcerated, yet he is not free; he is not dead, yet he is not alive either. My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete.
I was always told to expect to lose my father. Many Libyan political dissidents have been assassinated or kidnapped. But now I know that I had no comprehension of the danger he was in. If I had, I would have held on to him with all I could, or tried harder to persuade him not to engage in political dissent, perhaps. Regret is the cruellest companion for those of us who are left behind.
I did try to persuade him to leave his political work, because I loved my father more than I loved my country; or, to put it another way, I had learned by then to live without my country, but not without my father.
When Father was taken, the world did feel empty. For the first couple of years, our ship was lost, then we recovered our bearings and learnt that the speed by which one resumes living is no indication of the depth of one’s grief.
You can read the full essay here. More recently, the Guardian asked Matar about the release of the terminally-ill Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. “I think of [my father] listening to the celebrations of the prison guards at the news of al-Megrahi’s return,” he wrote. “The prisoners might have been given presents to mark the occasion. Then I think of al-Megrahi’s children welcoming him home.”