It’s 2012 and Hisham Matar waits anxiously with his wife and mother in the departures lounge of Cairo International airport. They are bound for Libya. It has been thirty three years since they last set foot in their home country; then Hisham was just eight years old. Forced into exile by the Libyan regime, the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi in the protests that erupted as part of the Arab Spring opened up the possibility of return. But the journey home is bittersweet for the Matar family; there is an absent member of the unit. Hisham’s father, Jaballa Matar, was swallowed into one of the regime’s many brutal prisons twenty-two years ago and they have not seen him since.
Jaballa Matar was a leading figure of the opposition at a time when critics of Gadhafi’s regime were hanged in public squares and those in exile hunted down in places as far flung as train stations in Rome and cafes in Greece. Jaballa was tracked down in Egypt in 1990, kidnapped from the family’s Cairo flat by the Egyptian secret service and delivered to Gadhafi in Libya. His family believed he was being held in a secret location in Egypt until letters from Jaballa reached them a few years after his kidnap. The letters had been smuggled out of Libya’s notorious Abu Salim prison, known as the “The Last Stop” to many.
In 1996, however, communication ceases. For his youngest son Hisham, a 19 year old student in London at the time of Jaballa’s disappearance, this sparks a decades-long search to uncover the fate of his father. Over the years he discovers fragments of information; the discovery of a massacre of 1,270 Abu Salim inmates in 1996 could explain the silence, but then a former prisoner claims to have seen Jaballa as late as 2002. The Return charts this exhausting battle for answers, a roller coaster of hope and fear. In 2010, the British government agrees to seek information about his father’s whereabouts and then Hisham makes contact with Saif al-Islam, Gadhafi’s son, who promises him information. At one point, the doors of Abu Salim are prized open by rebels while Hisham is on the end of a telephone, but Jaballa is nowhere to be seen. All this culminates in his return journey to Libya, an event which bookends Hisham’s novel.
The return to Libya is a moment of huge significance for Hisham, now a well-respected author. He writes: “This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was then. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill I had worked so hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love.” As the plane descends to touch down, he sees the Libyan landscape he has spent years romanticising; the green hills, the reddish yellow land which he says is the colour of healed skin and the sea of his childhood. He says, “I continued to think of every sea, no matter how beautiful, as an imposter. Now catching these first glimpses of the country, I thought that, if anything, it was more luminous than I remember. The fact that it had existed all this time, that it remained as it was all these years, that I was able to recognize it, felt like an exchange, a call and its echo, a mutual expression of recognition.”
On seeing his birthplace again, he poignantly writes, “Perhaps I will finally be released.” The uncertainty of his father’s fate has haunted the family, with the search for the truth becoming an obsession for Hisham, infused in his every waking moment. Jaballa is the “the Absent-Present”, as Hisham’s mother puts it, “complicating the boundary between life and death”. “I envy the finality of funerals,” he writes. “I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.” By returning he hopes to free himself from the many questions that continue to constrain his life.
With the help of uncles and cousin who also found themselves in Abu Salim he pieces together the jigsaw of his father’s years in captivity. Uncle Mahmoud tells the tale of an elderly man in the same cell block who every night, when the prison fell silent, recites poetry late into the night. He later discovers it is Jaballa Matar. But the peculiar exchange between the two men that leads to the discovery seems to leave Hisham with more questions than it does answers. But not all his discoveries end in questioning. During a reading in Benghazi a friend of his fathers gives him a bound volume of a student magazine featuring short stories penned by Jaballa when he was an undergraduate. “They were,” he writes, “a gift sent back through time, opening a window on to the landscape of the young man who was to become my father.”
As the book draws to an end, it seems Hisham may never have the answers he searches for. But in the process of his journey, he manages to find some sort of peace. “For a quarter of a century now, hope has been seeping out of me,” he writes. “Now I can say, I am almost free of it”.