ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A new book called "The Return" is about one man's trip back to Libya for the first time in decades. The author spoke with our colleague Kelly McEvers.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hisham Matar spent some of his childhood in Libya, but then his father became a dissident, working against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The family eventually left Libya and moved to Cairo, but even in exile, Gadhafi's men could track you down.
HISHAM MATAR: If you said the wrong thing about someone in company that you weren't sure of, people could disappear. So this sense that there was a ghost in every gathering - you know, a potential transporter of what is being said - is something that all dictatorships instill in their - in their people.
MCEVERS: In 1990, Hisham Matar's father, Jaballa Matar, did disappear. At first, the family was told he was being held by Egyptian intelligence.
MATAR: But then we received a letter after a couple of years that was written in my father's hand, smuggled out of Abu Salim Prison, which is the political prison in Tripoli that is often described as the last stop - a place where political prisoners are sent to be forgotten.
MCEVERS: What did it say?
MATAR: Well, it described how the day after he was kidnapped, he was already on a plane to Libya and all the details - the vivid details of the prison life and so on.
MCEVERS: And at one point, you got a tape.
MATAR: Yeah, with the first letter.
MCEVERS: What was on the tape?
MATAR: It was an audio letter. It was his voice, speaking to directly to us, describing how he was betrayed and arrested and handed over to the Libyans. But then, also, he addresses each one of us directly. I mean, I've only been able to listen to it five times...
MATAR: ...Over the last 25 years, so, you know...
MCEVERS: What did he say to you when he addressed you directly?
MATAR: Well, one of the things he said is - he said, are you still writing poems? I hope you are.
MCEVERS: There's also - there's some sort of cry or something at the end of the tape. Is that right?
MATAR: Yes. I mean, I don't really - it's just there are some things that, paradoxically, I can write about, but I can't talk about. And maybe I write about them because I can't talk about them. And one of them is the ending of that tape. It's just very difficult for me to be able to tell you the sort of effect it has had on me.
MCEVERS: That's OK.
MATAR: But in the book, I - hopefully, in the book, I do it properly.
MCEVERS: You do. It's just interesting that - I mean, the reason I - to go through some of the steps in the narrative - and, of course, we're not going to give the whole thing away - is that your family story is, in so many ways, the story of Libya.
MATAR: Yes, because the country itself has been silenced. When a dictatorship imprisons someone or makes them disappear, it is actually a very strategic move. We forget that. It's not as senseless as it seems.
MATAR: You know, and it's a - it's a way to silence someone, but also it's a way to silence their family, as well, out of fear, and society, by extension. And so over this very long four-decade period of that sort of atmosphere, a lot of things are not said - are not sayable (ph). So, you know, one of the things that I found very interesting in working on the book is how you could bring them out.
MCEVERS: One of the moments, of course, where people are able to finally have a voice is the uprising, the revolution in 2011. Your brother goes back to Libya at that time. Why didn't you go?
MATAR: I forget now the exact circumstances.
MCEVERS: Fair enough.
MATAR: But I felt - you know, I felt really - I really wasn't sure whether I wanted to go back. I remember, at some point, thinking maybe I don't ever go back, but I didn't want this sentimentalized sort of idealized version of the past. I wanted the mess of the present. I wanted to engage with it.
MCEVERS: I mean, the frame of this book, of course, is your return. It's called "The Return." And at one point, you think that you're going to go to Abu Salim Prison.
MCEVERS: But then you decide, no, you don't want to do that. And your wife is a photographer, actually, and you say you can't think of any other time when you forbade your wife from doing something.
MCEVERS: And I'm wondering if you could read that passage.
MATAR: I could not bear the thought of someone I love being in that place. That was the reason I gave Diana. And the truth was that I lacked the strength to go to Abu Salim. I worried that if I found myself in those cells I had heard about, imagined and dreamt about for years, dark places where I had several times wanted to be so as to finally be reunited with my father, that if I found myself in that place where his smell and times and spirit lingered, for they must linger, I might be forever undone.
MCEVERS: Right there. Thank you. You know, so much of this book, "The Return," is about searching for pieces and parts of your father. And you already knew some things about him before you went and what had happened to him and things you thought you knew before you went, but what did you discover while you were in Libya?
MATAR: Well, you know, I discovered that when you're looking for your father, you're also looking for a whole host of other things. But I also found out a lot of things about him. I knew always my father was very passionate about literature, and he dabbled in poetry. But I didn't know that when he was young that he fancied himself as a fiction prose writer and actually co-edited a literary journal and wrote short stories.
MCEVERS: When's the time you heard from him?
MATAR: The last letter was dated October 1995, and then there are several sightings - people who had seen him in prison. All of those stop at the summer of 1996, which is when the massacre in the prison - the same prison he was in, Abu Salim - takes place, where the regime executes 1,270 men in the same day.
MCEVERS: And how have you come to think about that and your father? What do you want to say about what you think has happened to him?
MATAR: Well, I don't - I don't know what precisely happened to my father, but this is the most likely thing - that he died in the - in the massacre. But, you know, I mean, look, I'm 45. I lost my father when I was 19.
MATAR: So the majority of my life has been under this cloud. And I have been full of the intention to find out what happened. And I believe it to be as it is with every person who has suffered a disappearance, whether it's in Argentina or in Iraq or anywhere in the world - it is absolutely my right to know.
But I also discovered that my father is far more available to me than I thought he was - that in other words, yes, it will absolutely give me a sense of dignity to know exactly what happened to him. It's important, but really nothing can take away, add, subtract from not only my feelings towards him, but his presence in my - in my consciousness.
MCEVERS: Hisham Matar, thank you so much.
MATAR: My pleasure.
SHAPIRO: That's Hisham Matar speaking with our co-host Kelly McEvers about his book "The Return." It's out now.
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