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LIBYA: The Return > As You Read - What are you thinking about the book?

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message 1: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
Our traditional ongoing question - what are you thinking as you read The Return? What sticks out to you?


message 2: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
A lot of stuff stuck out to me, obviously, but one of the things was just how well Matar winds his relationship with his father and his relationship with a missing father through every aspect of the book - I couldn't doubt for an instant how it affected every moment of his life. There's a particular quote that stood out to me - "Pain shrinks the heart. This, I believe, is part of the intention. You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination. When Qaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in." (p 213) Although like all of our books, The Return is depressing and horrifying at many points, I thought Matar's storytelling was masterful.


message 3: by Claire (new)

Claire | 96 comments I was noticing some similarities between this book and the one we read on Syria. For example, one thing that especially stood out to me was the use of technology and social media: the way that the sister of Izzo (killed during the resistance against Qaddafi) was obsessed with posting pictures of him on Facebook, kind of like Yazbek was coordinating her resistance on Facebook and was having her homepage monitored by the Assad regime. On the one hand, it seems so familiar to use these technologies, yet the idea of posting mourning pictures of your brother with Kalashnikovs seems so foreign as well. I'm not sure exactly why this small detail stood out to me; perhaps it also reminded me of what I've been reading about the refugee crisis, how a cell phone (along with water) is the most valuable thing to bring on a treacherous journey when every small weight is a burden.

Also, just in general, I really liked this book and it made me think hard about a lot of things I haven't experienced: what it feels like to be in exile, to not really know where you're *from*, to have to grow up with a fake identity, to be in fear of assassination even as a child, how to grieve over someone when you don't actually know if and when they died. It also did a great job evoking the setting (the different scent and lighting, the Libyan sea, Benghazi, etc.) so you really felt that you were there. And I learned some history I was unaware of, for example the extent of colonial horrors perpetrated by the Italians even before Mussolini (concentration camps, genocide) and the British dealings with Qaddafi. The fact that people like Matar and his father could persevere in spite of such a history of constant horrors (and threat of assassination) and still be able to write beautiful books and poetry, visit art exhibits, philosophize, etc., is truly remarkable.


message 4: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
The Italian colonialism stuck out to me too - on the one hand because it's been a constant theme in the books we've read, and on the other because I didn't have the *smallest* idea that there had been concentration camps & genocide. It was interesting to think about how Matar's family has a long history of resistance, and how it was the whole family that was targeted by the regime, not just the Matar's father as the leader.

Another thing that struck me about this, is that despite the obvious trauma and injustice of what happened to Matar's family, they were clearly a pretty privileged upper class - and I think so was Satrapi's family in Persepolis, and Yazbek's in A Woman in the Crossfire. I don't think that diminishes what happened to them, or the hugely important stories that they tell, but it does make me think about who *gets* to tell the stories.

Also, I think this might just be my favorite of the books we've read so far. It's kind of the ideal of what I wanted for this club, I learned a lot from it about Libya, past and present (although obviously just the basics) and it was just *so* well written.


message 5: by Claire (new)

Claire | 96 comments Thanks Cait, that's a really important point about paying attention to who gets to tell the stories. I was thinking about that too when he was describing how rich his father was.

Also my favorite book we've read for this book club, in fact one of my favorite books I've read so far this year! It definitely deserved a Pulitzer. I'm probably going to purchase a copy to keep in my library and re-read.


message 6: by Cait (last edited Jun 19, 2017 06:46AM) (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
Another thing that I forgot to talk about was how Matar dicusssed UK officials, like Tony Blair, legitimizing Qaddafi and his inner circle. I think that deserves some thought because you know it's not just a problem in this case, but with many dictators that have the cash to make it worth it for the UK, US, etc. to turn a blind eye. And that's not even including those situations, like what I read about in My Invented Country, where the US actually put the dictator in power in the first place! What a cognitive dissonance for Matar to have to speak to someone who is responsible for murders, torture, and all sorts of unspeakable acts over coffee, to see them meeting with high level officials and being awarded degrees.

Edit: Claire, I see you mentioned this! Sometimes I wonder why I'm not aware of a lot of the international news - then I remember that 1) I wasn't paying much attention until the last couple of years, 2) You have to actively seek out these stories because the media would rather sell you fabric softener, 3) There are usually interested parties actively blocking truth.


message 7: by Becki (new)

Becki Iverson | 81 comments You ladies raised all the points that have struck me! The class thing in particular - the other books may have been upper middle class but The Return features a family that is clearly straight up wealthy and I think it's really interesting how differently their story plays out (and how some things of course are the same). It especially struck me that the family makes the choices they do - I mean they didn't have to be agitators, they could have chosen to enjoy their wealth and privilege and been relatively safe - but they go out of their way to do what they think is right, even though it costs him his father.

The colonialism struck me here too. I didn't know much about Libya, and I did know about concentration camps in other countries (the story of Namibia is beyond horrific), but I didn't realize how late in the game Libya was colonized and how that may have changed the way it worked out.

Also agree with how well this was written - Matar's prose is so engaging and informational without being too dry. This book is less than 250 pages long but packs in SO much in that short time. I found (like the rest of these books) that I had to really read this slowly, much more slowly than I normally do, to try to wrap my brain around the mountains of information he has in here. I'm also totally fascinated by Libyan history now, I'd love to read more!


message 8: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
Also, did you guys catch the part where Matar talked about the 'book festival' that Qaddafi threw, which he used to find, imprison, and torture Libyan authors? That's something that I actually learned about while I was trying to find options for us to read - I was surprised because it was actually a lot harder to find Libyan books than it had been for other countries, and especially ones that had been translated, but then I found an article about that and was like OH. It's hard to find books because Qaddafi literally imprisoned an entire generation of authors and truth tellers, which not only impacted them, but instilled a lot of fear and took away their chance to cultivate other authors and truth tellers in coming generations. Matar talks a little more about the 'power of fiction' and what Qaddafi did in this article from NPR.


message 9: by Becki (new)

Becki Iverson | 81 comments That did strike me! Amazing how one person can have such an outsized effect on an entire culture or region, isn't it?

And I forgot to mention above that I agree about the endorsement from the west and how problematic that is for citizens fighting for freedoms in countries with dictatorships and other troubling governments. I think about that a LOT with our current administration and how they are changing America's policies, and in what ways that is really "spending" our political capital in a highly negative way. And on the flip side, the missed opportunities - the aid Qaddafi provided to other African nations that the West didn't, for example, leading even Nelson Mandela to turn a blind eye to some of his atrocities. Colonialism and racism runs so deep even today with the way that aid policies are drawn and administered, and it's something that really needs to be fixed if we're ever going to help lift people out of poverty and de-incentivize some of these dictatorial political systems.


message 10: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
That's a good point about how not only endorsements, but also missed opportunities to actually assist with problems and develop relationships, allows dictators to entrench themselves further.


message 11: by Claire (new)

Claire | 96 comments Thanks for the link Cait! Yes, the push back against authors is important to keep in mind. Especially because while he downplayed his own bravery by focusing on his father, we should remember the extent to which Matar is himself a revolutionary by taking the risk to push back and write these things, even if he wasn't in the army like Izzo. One thing that stood out to me was when he mentioned that it is hard to find a book just on Libyan history. It made me appreciate how much we have learned about it from him.

And I agree, the necessary collaboration with enemies (to get his relatives released and find out more about his father) was chilling. There was a great quote about this (can't find it precisely at the moment) about how compared to other nations, Libyans seem particularly intertwined between oppressor and oppressed.


message 12: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
Apparently I'm not done thinking about this, even though the discussion is technically over. I'm thinking more and more about the impact colonialism has had EVERYWHERE.

Like Claire did, I noted the part where Matar said how difficult it is to find books on Libyan history by a Libyan - and I thought about how the same is true for so many groups and countries. I remember noting the same thing in Sweet and Sour Milk, when they talked about how they were taught that Somalia had no history, because they had no buildings like Italy (again, with the Italian colonization - which I'm ashamed to say I didn't even know was a thing - I always associated colonization with the UK, France, Spain, the US... for some reason not Italy). And it's the same thing I've found when researching books for this group, because there always seem to be more books by white people with no skin in the game than there are by people who are from the countries we're focused on.

Also, because I'm reading the Round House by Louise Erdrich, who is an Ojibwe author who writes fiction about Native Americans (which I highly recommend), I'm thinking again about the concentration camps and the concerted effort, world-wide, to steal land and systematically wipe out the original owners - ranging from physically murdering huge numbers, to imprisonment in camps and reservations, to erasing history, language, and religion - from the Bedouin in Libya to the Ojibwe and Dakota in Minnesota.


message 13: by Becki (new)

Becki Iverson | 81 comments Agree with all of that Cait. And how sad that it continues today (in different forms) with police violence, corrupt lending policies by the IMF and other large groups, cripplingly poor organization of foreign aid that keeps countries dependent rather than independent, imminent domain and so many other horrific practices. Colonialism has shifted forms (just as slavery has) but hasn't gone away. There's so much work to be done.


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