Why Non-Arabs Should Read Hisham Matar’s “The Return”

3 August, 2017


Jordan Elgrably


This is not so much a review as an appre­ci­a­tion. My cho­sen title sug­gests that few could fail to ben­e­fit from the human­iza­tion of the “oth­er”? Do you remem­ber the last time you saw a movie or read a book and iden­ti­fied with a pro­tag­o­nist osten­si­bly very dif­fer­ent from your­self? Escap­ing from the nar­row prism of your own con­scious­ness, you became utter­ly empath­ic, imag­in­ing that the chal­lenges and hard­ships faced by that pro­tag­o­nist were your own. You became that per­son. Empa­thy at this lev­el stretch­es the spir­it; it also is a prac­ti­cal anti­dote for depres­sion, because get­ting out­side your­self, you feel larg­er than your ego. You real­ize that you are not your feel­ings, but some­thing much greater.

Hav­ing made this obser­va­tion, isn’t it unfor­tu­nate that Jews and Arabs (to choose only one con­flict­ed rela­tion­ship) are taught to dis­trust each oth­er? Nowhere is this more the case than in Israel and Pales­tine, where Arabs con­sid­er the Jews a set­tler colony that has con­fis­cat­ed what used to be Pales­tine, and where Israelis learn from an ear­ly age that Arabs are ene­mies of the state. 

But Jews in the Unit­ed States also learn to be wary of Arabs. This was true long before 9/11 and is the result of stereo­typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of Arabs as ter­ror­ists pro­lif­er­at­ed in film, tele­vi­sion and news media. It may also be true that Amer­i­can Arabs con­sid­er Jews to be mem­bers of a priv­i­leged class of peo­ple in the U.S., due to their promi­nence in mul­ti­ple fields.  They also can­not help but remark Amer­i­ca’s unwa­ver­ing sup­port for Israel (thanks in no small part to the lob­by­ing of AIPAC).

This mutu­al dis­trust has only been exac­er­bat­ed by our wars in the Mid­dle East, our treach­er­ous friend­ships with Sau­di Ara­bia and Israel (both coun­tries have spied on us and killed Amer­i­cans), and the anti-Mus­lim rhetoric that became com­mon cur­ren­cy dur­ing Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial campaign.

You can see how easy it is to become entrenched in a nar­row view of the world by iden­ti­fy­ing strong­ly with one’s own peo­ple. That is why any expe­ri­ence that allows you to expand your con­scious­ness and step out­side that purview is an oppor­tu­ni­ty not to be missed. And that is why I rec­om­mend that you read The Return.

The inter­na­tion­al Libyan nov­el­ist, Hisham Matar, pub­lished this mem­oir about his return to Libya after the 2011 rev­o­lu­tion, more than 10 years after his father Jabal­la was dis­ap­peared by Qadaf­fi’s hench­men. I call Matar “inter­na­tion­al” because although he was born in New York while his father was a diplo­mat there, he has also lived many years of his life in Cairo and Lon­don. Despite the suc­cess of his nov­els and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions in Eng­lish (trans­lat­ed into many oth­er lan­guages besides), he still thinks of him­self as an exile, and it’s unclear whether he will ever feel com­plete­ly at home any­where he goes.

The Return has noth­ing to do with Israel and Pales­tine, and indeed, makes no com­ment on the Arab-Jew­ish rift. The book is at once very polit­i­cal as it con­demns despot­ic regimes in Libya and Egypt for exam­ple, but also apo­lit­i­cal in that it is entire­ly tak­en up with a son’s love for his father, and his search to dis­cov­er the truth about his demise. Hisham Matar’s nar­ra­tive is that of a thought­ful young man, a writer, who rumi­nates on the nature of his rela­tion­ships with his moth­er, father, broth­er Zaid and his many rel­a­tives, some of whom he tries to lib­er­ate from Qaddafi’s hell­ish prison, Abu Salim.

At the end of the day, The Return’s great­est accom­plish­ment is that it human­izes its author and his fam­i­ly, and all those Libyans opposed to Qaddafi’s bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship (with some exam­i­na­tion of Egyp­t’s respon­si­bil­i­ty for Matar’s father’s dis­ap­pear­ance). It fol­lows the under­dog as he strug­gles against the oppres­sion and indeed the ter­ror­ism of the state. It is my con­tention that hav­ing read this book, you will become at the very least more aware of the ways in which Arab lives resem­ble your own, and (one can only hope), more empath­ic in the process.

The Return very much leaves you with the feel­ing that we are all of us in this world togeth­er, and we must strive to defend human rights and call for enlight­en­ment wher­ev­er we find darkness.


Author Hisham Matar with one of his translators, Muhammed Abd-Einaby.
Hisham Matar and his Ara­bic trans­la­tor, Muhammed Abd Elnaby.

exileHisham MatarLibyaQaddafi

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.