'Our friendships are our fate': Novelist Hisham Matar on revolution and relationships
Updated January 19, 2024 at 11:58 AM ET
Family relationships and romantic relationships carry a certain set of norms and expectations about loyalty and fidelity. But when it comes to friendships ... things become nebulous, even unreliable.
"Friendship is promiscuous," says novelist Hisham Matar. You can have many friends at once – and you enter into friendships without knowing how long they will endure. "It might last months. It might last a lifetime ...Friendships are made collaboratively, they're works in progress."
Matar explores friendship – and male friendship in particular – in his new novel, My Friends. The entirety of the book unfolds during a late-night walk across London. As the story begins, the book's protagonist, a middle-aged Libyan man named Khaled, has just bid farewell to his old friend Hosam Zowa at St. Pancras Station. In their train-station goodbyes, decades of friendship forged in shared exile from their homeland has reached its conclusion.
Zowa has returned from the frontlines of the Libyan revolution - and its bloody aftermath - a changed man. He now wishes to leave a lifetime of resistance behind, departing London and his friends for the imagined tabula rasa of California, described in the novel as the "ever, ever after."
On Khaled's long walk home from Hosam's departure, he tells the story of their relationship — everything from how they once met as young men, to the loves and books they shared, and most importantly, the changing and inevitable seasons of friendships.
Art imitates life and childhood TV memories
In real life, novelist Hisham Matar's father was a former bureaucrat turned critic who was imprisoned by the Muammar Gaddafi regime that ruled Libya until the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. Matar grew up in exile in Britain. The trauma, legacy, and private dimensions of persecution and displacement haunt both his fiction and nonfiction. His first novel, In the Country of Men, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2007 and his memoir of his father's disappearance, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, was awarded a 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
My Friends shares those concerns, but as Matar describes, what he really wanted to craft in this third novel – his longest – was a big, dramatic story that would sweep readers away, and also manage to examine something as intimate and private as a friendship.
The dramatic heart of My Friends is based on the real-life events of April 17, 1984, when a gunman in London opened fire on protesters from inside the Libyan Embassy in St. James Square. As Matar recalls, 11 Libyan protesters were injured and a British police officer named Yvonne Fletcher was killed. Britain severed diplomatic ties with Libya for years following the incident.
Matar was 13 when he saw the news on TV and he says the violence and chaos of that day marked him both as a young man, and as a writer. In My Friends he propels his three central characters into that real-life maelstrom. How they are shaped by that day for the decades to come, in profoundly different ways, is the story of the novel.
Friendships forged and failed in the Arab Spring
Matar had been an outspoken critic of the Gaddafi regime long before the revolution that led to its collapse in 2011. As the Arab Spring unfolded, Matar used his public profile to provide analysis and commentary for the international press.
Fellow British Egyptian activist and actor Khalid Abadalla says "It's impossible to be from our region and not to have been deeply and profoundly affected by what happened in 2011, and all the more so if you are from a family that has paid the price of your politics." Abdalla (who stars in the current season of The Crown) voiced both the audiobooks of Matar's previous two novels and also presented his two memoirs The Return and A Month in Siena on the BBC.
Although Abdalla is Egyptian, not Libyan, he says like Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, the uprisings across Arab capitals from Tunis and Tripoli to Cairo and Damascus splintered families and friendships. He personally joined the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"The friendships I made and the friendships that were broken during that period were profound." Abdalla says that on both a personal and professional level, Matar's books have become a home for him in which to process that time. "It feels like somewhere I want to be and somewhere that helps me know me better than I know myself and to know others, and the space between us.
"The Arab Spring was an event that I was deeply embroiled in and I couldn't have written a novel like this twelve years ago when I first had the idea to write it because everything was so close and so heated. I needed time," Matar says. The novel began with its eventual opening page, one that Matar says he carried with him for years like a first musical note. It opens with the sentence: "It is, of course, impossible to be certain of what is contained in anyone's chest."
Matar says more than politics or revolution, he was interested in exploring questions of sensibility and the distance between individuals who thought they knew each other.
"The experience of being embroiled in the Arab Spring gave me a perspective on how — where people end up after several years is less to do with questions of ideology and even questions of ethics or politics, but it's much more to do with questions of personal temperament." Matar says within the expanse of the novel, differences in temperament can be teased out and be explored with the depth they deserve.
"Somebody is enlivened by arguments, someone else believes that arguments convince no one. Right? So these questions of temperament form how people play out," he says. "When we're inside a novel, we know a lot about what human temperament is, the quality of silence of someone ... how people think."
Embracing the pride and pain of our human inheritance
Throughout his career, Matar's writing has been praised by critics for its quiet and subtle emotional precision. Matar's narrators and protagonists like Khaled in My Friends often ponder the meaning of books, poetry, and paintings in the midst of narrative proceedings. The solitary nocturnal walk across London that courses through My Friends becomes a befitting literary device for such contemplation.
Fellow Arab novelist and friend, the Egyptian-born writer Ahdaf Soueif describes Matar as a writer's writer and "very much the real thing." She says each book is attempting something both important and delicate. "You're inside the character's sensibility from their head to their heart..." Soueif says. "You just want to keep time with Hisham and ... reach the end safely because it's such a precarious undertaking that each character is going through."
Matar says he wrote most of the novel during lockdown in London. It's as much a love letter to his adopted home city as it is to his Libyan heritage. His writing has been praised around the world for both its erudition and expansive applicability to a shared human experience. London in My Friends is presented as a companion and extension of life in Benghazi, and his own influences and references range from classical Arabic poetry to Italian painting.
Matar describes his un-bordered collection of inspirations and concerns as a deep, private passion – and one he seeks to impart to his readers and his students.
I have in my blood – we all do – the noble and the fallen. Our ancestors are murderers and people of exceptional generosity and brilliance. The fact that both Mussolini and Virginia Woolf are literally my brothers and sisters is a complicated fact about being a human being.
"There's much value in holding fast to our affiliations, the country we're from, the family we're from, the culture and language," he says. But he also thinks that loyalty to one's "own" misses the richness and complexity of our human inheritance – he says just being alive fills him with joy, pride, pain and shame.
"I have in my blood — we all do — the noble and the fallen," Matar says. "Our ancestors are murderers and people of exceptional generosity and brilliance. The fact that both Mussolini and Virginia Woolf are literally my brothers and sisters is a complicated fact about being a human being."
And though it may not be comfortable to engage with that reality, Matar says it is always interesting.
"The way to engage with that is to really engage ... with the grand sweep of our culture," he says. "To pick up a Japanese novel and not only think of myself as reading a Japanese novel but think of myself as reading a novel by one of my brothers or sisters. It has really enriched my life."
Audio story produced by Fatima Al-Kassab and Isabella Gomez Sarmiento and edited by Rose Friedman. Web story produced by Beth Novey and edited by Rose Friedman.
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