My Friends by Hisham Matar - review by John Burnside

John Burnside

Rebels in Arms

My Friends


Viking 458pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Towards the beginning of My Friends, two Libyan men come together in London, possibly for the last time. As they prepare to part (the older of the two, Hosam, is about to emigrate to California; the younger, Khaled, will remain in the city where he has lived in exile his entire adult life), Khaled remembers a remark his companion made many months earlier, when the hopes of the Arab Spring were still tangible: ‘“We are in a tide,” he had said … when he was trying to convince me to return to Benghazi with him, “in it and of it. As foolish to think we are free of history as it would be of gravity.”’ 

For years, going back to his childhood, the presence of history has haunted Khaled. As a promising eighteen-year-old with a highly prized scholarship to study abroad, he was shocked by his normally even-tempered father’s near-desperate parting demand that he avoid politics at all costs: ‘“Don’t be lured in,” he said, the words emanating from his very core … The pupils of his eyes turned small and dark and slowly, in a barely audible tone, he said, “Don’t. Be. Lured. In.”’

This warning is reinforced by the first person Khaled meets at Edinburgh University, a fellow student from the beach resort of Zuwara whose only intention is to enjoy a few years abroad, as far from his dull hometown as possible: ‘“You see,” he said, “I have resigned myself to the fact that I live in a world of unreasonable men and the only reasonable thing to do in this situation is, best we can, avoid their schemes.”’ Initially, Khaled is inclined to agree with this proposition: unreasonable men come in many guises, but few were as ruthless as those employed by the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to imprison, torture and assassinate dissenters, at home and abroad, during his bloody rule. Besides, at this point, his only reason for being in Edinburgh is to study the literature he loves (the ‘friends’ of the title refers as much to dead writers, to Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson and the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al Sayyab, as to any of Khaled’s contemporaries). 

His life’s course changes, however, when he meets Mustafa, another Libyan student, who persuades him to participate in a demonstration outside the Libyan embassy on 17 April 1984 – a relatively small gathering that irrevocably plunges both men into the maelstrom of history when someone inside the embassy opens fire on the protesters, wounding eleven demonstrators and killing a young policewoman. Matar conveys the shock of this moment beautifully, lingering on the innocent details of a first London outing, where the two rather callow boys play tourist and plan a Chinese meal in Soho before heading out to show their faces at the protest (‘a couple of minutes, do our duty and get the hell out of there’). What they do not realise is that ‘a couple of minutes’ is enough to change their lives forever, binding them to one another in a difficult friendship, as well as to many years of exile. 

My Friends is a tour de force in its treatment of history. Matar sidesteps the more obvious temptations of the epic subject matter to home in on the everyday, intimate moments that make up the wider sweep of time, moments that give history texture and warmth and flavour – and in so doing reveals that there are alternatives to the schemes of the unreasonable beyond acquiescence on the one hand and violent opposition on the other. Central to these is the work of building and sustaining not only the kinds of male bonds that Khaled, Mustafa and, later, Hosam create among themselves, but also family ties and romantic relationships through long afternoons and evenings of conviviality, shared meals and the searching, sometimes playful conversations that make us human. As the novel progresses, Matar explores every facet of love and friendship, from shared interests and mutual support to pity, jealousy and grudging respect. In the process, he reveals the power friendship has to sustain us in a world where unreasonable men appear to thrive. At the same time, he reminds us of how easy it is to take for granted the minor traditions and rites that make for a meaningful quotidian life – as in the wonderful passage, full of humour and tenderness, where Hosam, now back home in Libya, describes a family gathering which, because he has been ‘away’ for so long, he enters as a near-stranger and which ends with him rediscovering his place in a world he had almost lost. 

It is this careful observation of intimacy amid the trials of, first, a terrifying dictatorship and, later, a bloody revolution that marks My Friends as a masterpiece of historical narrative to set alongside, say, Doctor Zhivago or Lampedusa’s The Leopard. But what lingers most after Khaled’s tale is done is the vital and moving depiction of conviviality that he gradually pieces together, like an intricate philosophical jigsaw puzzle, on the night-long walk through London that informs his narrative. Recalling his youthful desire for independence and the moment when history turned that wish into a curse, he notes that ‘it is dependence that a sane mind should seek; to depend on others and be in turn dependable’. Then, towards the end of the book, that thought is amplified during a fleeting phone conversation with Mustafa, now part of the revolutionary struggle against Gaddafi. Hearing a new vigour in his friend’s voice, it takes Khaled a moment to understand that this tone comes from a special quality that he had not appreciated before: ‘He sounded strong, accompanied; that was the word: accompanied.’

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