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NOTE TO TEACHERS

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Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men is a strikingly balanced novel. While set within the complicated and highly charged political landscape of Libya in the late ‘70s (the setting of the author’s own early childhood), the story’s narrator is a young boy still preoccupied with games, just beginning to open his eyes to the possibility of love, still considering —and misinterpreting—what it means to be a man. By constructing the story around this strange interplay of innocence and corruption, the author is able to open up a dialogue about duality, addressing both the light and dark elements of humanity and exploring an impressive range of themes such as freedom and identity, justice and injustice, loyalty and betrayal, exile and identity, addiction and the nature of truth.

While the following guide provides suggestions for addressing the historical and political elements of the novel, it also provides a means to examine the story from a variety of other viewpoints. In considering Matar’s work, readers of all backgrounds should quickly realize that, while they may not have been previously acquainted with facets of Libyan history such as the rule of the Qaddafi revolutionary regime, there is no need for apprehension. While politics and history do often fuel the dramatic action of the story, the universal themes, simple structure, and classic style of In the Country of Men make it a truly enjoyable, almost effortless read.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

In the Country of Men begins with a simple declaration: “I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away.” It is a simple start to a story of startling depth. Through the eyes of young Suleiman, we experience a child’s often misguided attempts to make sense of the adult world. Suleiman’s mother is an alcoholic, his father is being hunted by the Libyan revolutionary regime, and neighbors may disappear at any time and appear on television for interrogation and public execution. The title of the story is particularly telling, as the novel raises questions about what it means to be a man, what is involved in humanity, and how much of one’s identity is tied to one’s country. The characters are outsiders, doing the best they can to uphold their beliefs and survive. While the setting of the novel—the turbulent Libya of 1979, ruled by the terror-inducing Qaddafi regime—certainly propels the narrative, the novel is ultimately about universal issues: human faults and triumphs, the resilience of the human spirit, the dynamic of relationships between parent and child, friend and neighbor, a country and its citizens.

One of the most striking scenes in the book occurs when Suleiman’s mother and Moosa burn Baba’s books. A defiant Suleiman, unable to comprehend the motives behind the destruction of his father’s prized books, picks up a copy of Democracy Now and hides it in his room. There it resides, immensely powerful and immensely dangerous. Surely one of Matar’s great achievements is his ability to illuminate the power of the written word, to reveal the adventure found in expression. It is a searing reminder of the power of education—the power of an idea, which may be overlooked by those who possess what seem like limitless and inherent freedoms.



ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Hisham Matar was born in New York in 1970 to Libyan parents. He lived in America for the first three years of his life while his father worked for the Libyan delegation to the United Nations. His family then returned to Libya, where Matar spent the early part of his childhood. When the author was nine years old, his family fled to Egypt amid accusations that his father was in opposition to the Libyan revolutionary regime. Matar completed his schooling there, and as a teenager, moved to London, where he earned a degree in architecture. In 1990, while the author was in England, his father went to answer the door at his Cairo home and never reappeared. Several years later, Matar’s family received two letters from his father, which revealed that he had been taken by the Egyptian secret police, turned over to the Libyan revolutionary regime, and jailed in Tripoli. Matar has not received any further correspondence from his father since these letters, written over a decade ago.

In 2000, Matar began writing his first novel, In the Country of Men. The book was published in 2006 to critical acclaim and was short-listed for the ’06 Guardian First Book Award and the ’06 Man Booker Prize. In 2007, Matar was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize of Europe and South Asia. In the Country of Men continues to be printed in numerous countries worldwide and will be translated into more than twenty languages.

TEACHING IDEAS

In the Country of Men addresses universal themes such as freedom and imprisonment, justice and injustice, exile and identity, addiction, the experience of adolescence, and the power of the written word. These themes can be discussed generally or under a variety of subject headings, including history and cultural studies, philosophy, psychology, and literature. Use the following suggestions as a jumping-off point for teaching the novel in your class.

Students of history or cultural studies might first examine the history of Libya, focusing on the revolutionary regime of the 1970s, as depicted in the novel. Compare and contrast this regime to other forms of government. How does America relate to Libya today? What has changed? How do the political events represented in the book compare to those of other cultures? Review examples of exile throughout history. Examine the treatment of women as represented in the novel.



Philosophy students should engage in discussions of ethics using examples from the novel. Look at instances of loyalty and betrayal, violence, freedom and imprisonment, exile and its effects. Examine the nature of truth, making use of the novel’s point of view. Examine the characters’ roles from the standpoint of existentialist philosophy.

The novel presents endless material for those studying psychology. Discuss issues of identity and gender as they surface in the novel. Consider the behavior of the characters, Suleiman’s experience of adolescence, and addiction as experienced by Suleiman’s mother. How is each character’s behavior influenced by his or her past and by his or her country’s political climate? How do the characters deal with issues of imprisonment, fear, and exile? The novel is very much about relationships. Be sure to examine the relationships between the characters, including parent-child relationships, those of friend and neighbor, the relationship of citizen to country, etc.

Teachers who would like to use the novel in an English class should begin by breaking the novel down into digestible components such as characters, plot, setting, themes, point of view/narrator, structure, imagery/symbolism. Examine examples of imagery and myth in the novel. Consider their significance and universal appeal. Consider the book within the history of literature. Consider examples of the power of the written word within the novel. How do the various characters experience literature? What influence does it have on them? How is it utilized in a political context? Be sure to discuss the book-burning scene and the history of banned books. What is that makes the written word powerful?

For younger readers, it might be useful to ask students to focus on the “common issues” in the novel— issues of humanity that transcend the boundaries of culture and time. This commonality is particularly important for teachers to emphasize as young readers approach global literature with unfamiliar settings and a foreign historical or political context.

This guide provides suggestions for further reading — fiction as well as non-fiction, books that share stylistic similarities as well as thematic similarities. Some focus on the topic of exile or imprisonment. Some books are told from a child’s point of view and some simply share the historical perspective of In the Country of Men.

More mature students might consider the tie between the novel and contemporary politics and cultural conditions, focusing on human rights issues. For such students, you might share with them Hisham Matar’s op-ed piece “Seeing What We Want to See in Qaddafi,” which appeared in the New York Times and can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/05/opinion/05matar.html. Students who wish to consider the novel as a semi-autobiographical work might wish to find out more about the author’s real-life experiences. In the following article, located at http://news.amnesty.org/index/ENGMDE198122003 Matar writes about the effect that the disappearance of his father had on him.



DISCUSSION AND WRITING

1)Why do you think that the author chose the title In the Country of Men for this book? What questions are raised about the concepts of country, manhood and humanity? How does the title tie in with the themes of the novel and the position of the characters as they struggle to get along in their environment?

2)How does the author use contrasting imagery in the opening passage to set the tone of the book? How does the image of people seeking mercy from the heat reflect the broader condition of the characters?

3)How does Suleiman react to his exile? Is he better off? What do you think he has lost and gained as a result?

4)What forms of imprisonment are depicted in the novel? How do the various characters experience and react to a lack of freedom?

5)What can we infer about the lives of women in Libya during the time period represented in this story?

6)Why does the tale of Scheherazade anger Suleiman’s mother? How does Suleiman’s view of the story differ? Why do you think this is?

7)The author describes a statue of Septimius Severus which points to Rome. Why do you think the author included this statue? What does it symbolize? What about Lepcis Magna? What does it symbolize and why is it important?

8)The novel addresses the issue of loyalty. How do the various characters experience loyalty and betrayal? Discuss some examples. What do you think is the main cause of some of the betrayals that occur?

9)Why do Suleiman’s mother and Moosa burn Baba’s books? Why do you think that Suleiman keeps the book Democracy Now? Why is this dangerous?

10) How does the point of view of the story affect the way that we see the injustices represented in the story? How might this be different if the narrator were an adult?

11) How does Suleiman’s relationship with Kareem change throughout the story?

12) Throughout the novel, Suleiman refers to his mother’s alcoholism as her “illness.” How accurate is this observation? Do you feel it is a reflection of Suleiman’s naivety in youth or a kind of wisdom about her actual condition?

13) Why does Suleiman’s mother refer to the day she married Suleiman’s father as a “black day”?

14) When the students visit Lepcis Magna, Kareem states, “Children are useless in a war.” Do you think this is true? What might the author’s point of view be, based on clues in the novel?

15) In Chapter 3, after Ustah Rashid is taken, there is an exchange between Um Masoud and Baba. The author tells us that “Um Masoud continued to study her fingers, smiling knowingly now as if some old suspicion had finally been confirmed.” What has been confirmed for Um Masoud?

16) In Chapter 5, Moosa says, “It’s our obligation to call injustice by its name.” Suleiman’s mother replies, “Go call it by its name in your country. Here it’s either silence or exile, walk by the wall or leave. Go be a hero elsewhere.” What does she mean? Who is right? How do the different characters in the novel face injustice and what are the consequences?

17) How does the author use color within the novel? What do some colors represent? How do descriptions of color help to develop the mood of the story?

18) In Chapter 9, Kareem tells Suleiman that he is not a man because he has “no word.” What does he mean by this?

19) In Chapter 10, Suleiman is having an inner dialogue. He says, “One’s nature is like a mountain, you can’t change it.” Do you think that he is right? Discuss.

20) Why do you think that Suleiman is violent towards Bahloul?

21) Throughout the novel, Suleiman is constantly revealing his thoughts on what a hero is and what a man is. Discuss some of these descriptions. How realistic is his idea of a hero and a man? Why do you think he has these conceptions? Where do they come from?

22) Moosa says that Libya is his country, although he has lived in Egypt for half of his life. Suleiman’s mother disagrees. She feels that Libya is not his country. Who do you feel is right? Discuss.

23) What profession does Suleiman ultimately choose? Why do you think the author decided to have Suleiman choose this profession?

24) The novel raises questions about identity, citizenship, and what it means to belong. Many of the characters in the novel are outsiders in some way. Who do you feel is an outsider and what makes them seem like an outsider?

25) There are various references to literature and the written word through the story. How do the various characters experience literature? What effect does it have on them? What is it that makes literature powerful?

26) In Chapter 23, Suleiman says, “Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that’s why many feel that it needs to be anxiously guarded.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree?

VOCABULARY

A dialogue about the people and places listed below is crucial in understanding the world that Suleiman is experiencing. This discussion will provide historical perspective and, therefore, some stability for readers who may not be familiar with the history of Libya. This section also includes other terms, which may not appear directly in the text, but which will be useful in fostering further discussion in looking beyond the book.


Qaddafi (Colonel Qadaffi, The Guide)
Septimius Severus
Lepcis Magni
The Koran/The Q’Uran
Tripoli
Cairo
coup d’etat
Revolutionary Committee
propaganda
freedom of speech
El-Fateh

BEYOND THE BOOK

1)Examine real-life accounts of exile as well as fictional accounts in world literature. Be sure to discuss the various kinds of exile, including political, self-imposed, addiction etc. What are some of the effects of exile? How does it impact identity? How do the representations of these experiences differ and what do they share in common? Stylistically, how do different people depict their accounts of exile?

2)Study the history of Libya during the 1970s. Discuss rebellion, political dissent, the price of freedom etc. How does the history of Libya relate to that of other cultures? Why is this still significant today?

3)Review the “Tale of Scheherazade” as it appears in the book. Discuss how this tale functions as a myth and an allegory set within a novel, reflecting a broader human experience. Have students write about an injustice as myth or allegory. Discuss what literary devices are utilized in myth and allegory to help readers understand and relate in a broad and timeless way.

4)Use the novel during Banned Books week (last week of September). Review the scene where Suleiman’s mother and Moosa burn Baba’s books. Examine some of the books that have been banned throughout history. Discuss why they may have been banned. How have our perceptions of these books changed today? What makes these books powerful? Open up a broader conversation about the significance of literature, and about how shifts in context (e.g. different cultural perceptions) can affect the way it is understood and valued. Introduce organizations that foster freedom of expression and a commitment to the advancement of literature internationally, such as Amnesty International (www. amnestyusa.org/bannedbooks/), The American Library Association (www.ala.org/bbooks/), and PEN American Center (www.pen.org), and utilize the free resources they provide.




about this guide

Taking us to a time and place rarely glimpsed in fiction, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men captures life in Libya in the wake of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s revolution. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy named Suleiman, we watch a family struggle for survival in a climate of deadly political suspicion. Against a backdrop of innocent childhood rituals—playing games with his best friends, learning his country’s history on visits to the ruins surrounding Tripoli—Suleiman is also awakened to dangers he cannot comprehend. When his father is brutally interrogated and his best friend’s father disappears, Suleiman arrives at a crossroads that will shatter his understanding of home and homelands.

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of In the Country of Men. We hope they will enrich your experience of this powerful novel.


for discussion

1. What is the effect of reading about this episode in history through a child’s point of view? What clarity does it bring? In what ways do a child’s impulses muddy the truth?

2. What does Suleiman learn about the roles of men and women as his mother continually reminds him of her arranged marriage? How have his impressions of gender been shaped by this knowledge? What determines whether she feels safe or victimized in her marriage?

3. How would you characterize Muammar al-Qaddafi’s political rhetoric as it is captured in the novel? How was he able to overthrow a monarch without offering any promise of democracy? What makes fiction an ideal format for depicting these headlines?

4. How does Suleiman perceive his mother’s alcoholism? What distinctions exist between experiencing this addiction in the West and facing it in a locale where religious law forbids drinking?

5. Discuss the title of the novel: In the Country of Men. Do the women in Suleiman’s life have any true power, and if so, from where is it derived? What does he come to understand about the power hierarchies of Libyan men, and the reasons his father lost his social rank?

6. What had you previously known about Muammar al-Qaddafi and the effects of Italian colonization on Libya? As a supplement to your reading of In the Country of Men, discuss articles tracing Qaddafi’s unusual story, from being suspected of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, to his recent denunciation of the 9/11 terrorists and the U.S. State Department’s May 2006 removal of Libya from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Could the novel’s characters ever have predicted such an outcome?

7. What does the story of Moosa’s useless Polish tires (chapter seven) indicate about economics and entrepreneurship at that time? How did the citizens’ economic power crumble so swiftly, to the point that they were swindled out of their savings through the currency scheme described in chapter twenty-four?

8. Did Suleiman’s perception of Bahloul change between his early memories (particularly in chapter ten) to the incident when Bahloul nearly drowned, just before Suleiman’s departure for Cairo?

9. In chapter ten, what persuasive tools does Sharief use to win the cooperation of children? What is Suleiman’s understanding of the events he sees on television, culminating in the execution of Ustath Rashid? When is he able to reconcile the innocent images of noble men—such as the small gifts he would receive after his father traveled for business—with the horrific ones that dominate his mind in the novel’s later chapters?

10. What were your impressions of Suleiman’s place within his circle of friends? What was it like to see Osama used as an ordinary name for an ordinary little boy? How had Suleiman’s feelings toward his friends changed when he was reunited with them years later?

11. How would you respond to the “what-if” thoughts Suleiman expresses toward the end of chapter twenty-four? What might have become of him, of his father, of his beloved Siham, if he had never emigrated?

12. Discuss the notion of living as an expatriate. How did Suleiman cope with the knowledge that he could not safely go home again? How do such circumstances affect identity and sense of self?

13. How did Suleiman’s religious training shape his character and his understanding of the world?

14. How has Suleiman’s opinion of his mother changed by the time he reaches the novel’s closing scenes?

15. Discuss the notion of storytelling woven throughout the book. How are the characters influenced by Scheherazade and A Thousand and One Nights? How would you characterize the storytelling style of Suleiman’s mother? How does a book—Baba’s lone, dangerous tome saved from the fire—drive the plot of Hisham Matar’s book?



Reflection questions

1) The title refers to a "Country of Men."  What social spaces are available for the various non-"men" (boys, women, emasculated male characters) in the novel?  What is the effect (on you, and potentially on your students) of reading this story from the point of view of a child narrator?

2) Hisham Matar grew up in Tripoli and Cairo but now lives in England and writes in English. Who do you think is the intended audience for this novel?  What experiences or everyday realities does Matar need to "translate" for his non-Libyan or non-Arab readers?

3) A well-written book is a kind of machine for producing its own best reader. What background knowledge (e.g., about psychology, history,politics, culture) does this novel assume you already have? What knowledge does it impart?  How does it do this?

4) What sources of information (background, context) do you think would be helpful for you to support discussion, understanding, or teaching of the novel

  1. The primary perspective through which this story is told is that of a nine-year old boy, Suleiman. Through his eyes, you get a glimpse inside Libyan society during a period of upheaval and the rise of the Qaddafi regime in the 1970s. When those outside the Middle East (e.g., in the “West”) are asked to think about and understand this region in monolithic terms (e.g., “the Middle East,” or “the Islamic World”), we depend on the perspectives of many different kinds of experts. What is the value of gaining a perspective on the complexities of this region that is (a) fictional and (b) that of a child? How has reading In the Country of Men challenged and changed your perspectives on this region and its cultures?

  2. The title of the book, In the Country of Men, is nowhere mentioned specifically in the book. However, throughout the novel, we see Suleiman observing and imagining the lives of men (and older boys) all around him; we also see him asking himself what it means to be a man, and trying (with tragic consequences) to be a good, heroic man in the way he understands. At then end of the novel, how does he reflect on these ideals and the way in which they have shaped him? More broadly, to what extent are your ideals of what it means to be a good person shaped by ideals of what it means to be a good woman, or a good man? How are our ideals gendered?

  3. Because Suleiman is a young boy and an only child, whose father is absent throughout most of the story, the person most near to him most of the time is his mother, Najwa. But because of his youth, and perhaps also because as a boy he is focused on being a man, he has little understanding of his mother’s situation. As readers seeing Najwa through the child’s eyes, we are thus in a similar situation in our understanding of his mother. It is only at the end of the book—in the last paragraph—that Najwa really comes into view, as the now-adult Suleiman sees her for the first time as a woman in her own right. How has his understanding of her situation and history changed? How does your understanding of her change as you see her through Suleiman’s childhood and adult perspectives?

  4. At one point, Suleiman thinks, “We drift through allegiances, those we are born into and those we are claimed by, always estranging ourselves.” How do you see this process shape Suleiman’s life as a boy perhaps too young to understand the allegiances that he is born into and that claim him? How does he begin to reflect on this at the end of the book, from more of an adult perspective on his life? In relation to Suleiman’s story, what are the primary “allegiances” that you were born into and that claimed you? How do you understand yourself in relation to those processes now? What do we need to do in order to move beyond “drifting through allegiances”?

  5. In this novel, Najwa both mentions and criticizes the literary-mythic character of Scheherazade. Find a good reference source and read a bit about Scheherazade. How does her story relate to Najwa’s life story?

Reflection questions

1) The title refers to a "Country of Men."  What social spaces are available for the various non-"men" (boys, women, emasculated male characters) in the novel?  What is the effect (on you, and potentially on your students) of reading this story from the point of view of a child narrator?

2) Hisham Matar grew up in Tripoli and Cairo but now lives in England and writes in English. Who do you think is the intended audience for this novel?  What experiences or everyday realities does Matar need to "translate" for his non-Libyan or non-Arab readers?

3) A well-written book is a kind of machine for producing its own best reader. What background knowledge (e.g., about psychology, history,politics, culture) does this novel assume you already have? What knowledge does it impart?  How does it do this?

4) What sources of information (background, context) do you think would be helpful for you to support discussion, understanding, or teaching of the novel

  1. The primary perspective through which this story is told is that of a nine-year old boy, Suleiman. Through his eyes, you get a glimpse inside Libyan society during a period of upheaval and the rise of the Qaddafi regime in the 1970s. When those outside the Middle East (e.g., in the “West”) are asked to think about and understand this region in monolithic terms (e.g., “the Middle East,” or “the Islamic World”), we depend on the perspectives of many different kinds of experts. What is the value of gaining a perspective on the complexities of this region that is (a) fictional and (b) that of a child? How has reading In the Country of Men challenged and changed your perspectives on this region and its cultures?

  2. The title of the book, In the Country of Men, is nowhere mentioned specifically in the book. However, throughout the novel, we see Suleiman observing and imagining the lives of men (and older boys) all around him; we also see him asking himself what it means to be a man, and trying (with tragic consequences) to be a good, heroic man in the way he understands. At then end of the novel, how does he reflect on these ideals and the way in which they have shaped him? More broadly, to what extent are your ideals of what it means to be a good person shaped by ideals of what it means to be a good woman, or a good man? How are our ideals gendered?

  3. Because Suleiman is a young boy and an only child, whose father is absent throughout most of the story, the person most near to him most of the time is his mother, Najwa. But because of his youth, and perhaps also because as a boy he is focused on being a man, he has little understanding of his mother’s situation. As readers seeing Najwa through the child’s eyes, we are thus in a similar situation in our understanding of his mother. It is only at the end of the book—in the last paragraph—that Najwa really comes into view, as the now-adult Suleiman sees her for the first time as a woman in her own right. How has his understanding of her situation and history changed? How does your understanding of her change as you see her through Suleiman’s childhood and adult perspectives?

  4. At one point, Suleiman thinks, “We drift through allegiances, those we are born into and those we are claimed by, always estranging ourselves.” How do you see this process shape Suleiman’s life as a boy perhaps too young to understand the allegiances that he is born into and that claim him? How does he begin to reflect on this at the end of the book, from more of an adult perspective on his life? In relation to Suleiman’s story, what are the primary “allegiances” that you were born into and that claimed you? How do you understand yourself in relation to those processes now? What do we need to do in order to move beyond “drifting through allegiances”?

  5. In this novel, Najwa both mentions and criticizes the literary-mythic character of Scheherazade. Find a good reference source and read a bit about Scheherazade. How does her story relate to Najwa’s life story?


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