Hisham Matar tells a story of friendship and revolution in new novel, ‘My Friends’

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British Libyan writer Hisham Matar returns with a story of friendship and revolution called My Friends, a meditation on how political upheaval shapes the most intimate and private relationships.


Novelist Hisham Matar won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his memoir, “The Return.” He grew up in exile in London, and in that book, he told the story of his journey back to Libya in search of his father, who had been in prison during the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Politics, persecution and resistance are recurring themes in his work, but so are paintings, libraries and friendships. Hisham Matar’s new novel is called “My Friends.” NPR’s Bilal Qureshi has its story. And a warning – this piece contains the sounds of gunfire.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: In April of 1984, protesters assembled outside the Libyan embassy in London. A window opened, and a gunman fired into the crowd.


HISHAM MATAR: Eleven Libyan demonstrators were wounded, and a policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, was killed.

QURESHI: Britain severed diplomatic ties with Libya for years.

MATAR: When this happened, I was about 13, so I was younger than my protagonists. And I remember, Bilal, seeing it on the news, and I remember how it marked me. You know, I remember one of the characters – one of the characters, no, he’s now one of my characters – but one of the real people who had been shot, falling on the ground and calling out for his mother. I remember that really affected me as a 13-year-old. And later on, when I thought I would really, really love to write a big, dramatic novel about something as private and intimate as a friendship. And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have them go through that event that had marked me so much?

QURESHI: In the new novel “My Friends,” Matar’s central character is an international student from Libya named Khaled. He’s visiting London in April of 1984 and finds his life upended by that protest. He’s shot and marked as a dissident, unable to return home.

MATAR: He is thrust into an unchosen life, and the book is really about the ways in which he manages this fate, along with his now-chosen family, his friends.

QURESHI: The novel begins in present-day London in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. Khaled is saying goodbye to one of his closest Libyan friends he now knows he’ll never see again.

MATAR: And in the wake of this powerful farewell, Khaled decides to walk home to Shepherd’s Bush in west London. It takes about – if you walk it straight, about an hour and a half. But he meanders. He goes by places that have meant so much to him, including the square where – St. James’s Square, where the Libyan embassy used to be and where the shooting was. And he really tells – on this nocturnal walk, he tells the history of this friendship, and the whole book is told on that walk.

QURESHI: “My Friends” is Hisham Matar’s third novel. It may seem to have a ripped-from-the-headlines premise, but Matar rejects the idea that he’s written an Arab Spring novel.

MATAR: My book is, of course, about – partly about those things, but I think what it’s really about is about questions of proximity, how, for example, the closer you get to somebody, the more mysterious they seem to be – that, you know, I could be sitting right beside my wife looking at the same painting, and I have no idea what she’s seeing or what it is evoking in her. You know, and this is the person that I know best in my life. So I’ve always found that fascinating – that the closer we get to somebody, the more unknowable they seem to be on some level. I mean, even the way the book opens, it opens with that question – you know, the question of what might be inside somebody’s heart, you know?

QURESHI: Well and I was going to ask you, do you – you have the book with you, right? I was going to ask you…

MATAR: I do, but that first page is in my – you know, it’s in my memory because it was the first thing that I wrote of the book, and I carried it with me for a few years before I wrote the book. It was – that first page was really the first sort of note, you know? And everything came from it. So yeah, I’d happily recited to you. Yeah.

(Reciting) It is, of course, impossible to be certain of what is contained in anyone’s chest, least of all one’s own, or those we know well, perhaps especially those we know best. But as I stand here on the upper level of King’s Cross station, from where I can monitor my old friend Hosam Zowa walking across the concourse, I feel I’m seeing right into him, perceiving him more accurately than ever before, as though all along, during the two decades that we have known one another, our friendship has been a study. And now, ironically, just after we had bid one another farewell, his portrait is finally coming into view.

KHALID ABDALLA: (Reading) His portrait is finally coming into view.

It’s so good. I mean, it’s just amazing. It just immediately feels like home, and it feels like somewhere I want to be and somewhere that helps me know me better than I know myself and know others and that space between us.

QURESHI: Khalid Abdalla is a British Egyptian actor who feels deeply at home in Matar’s words. He voiced the audiobooks of his two previous novels and presented both his memoirs, “A Month In Siena” and “The Return” on the BBC.


ABDALLA: (Reading) In 1973, before I turned 3, my father handed in his resignation from his U.N. job. He said that he and his wife missed home and wanted their two sons to grow up in Libya. This was true, but certainly not the whole story, and I suspect the regime knew it.

It’s impossible to be from our region and not to have been deeply and profoundly affected by what happened in 2011, and all the more so if you are from a family that has paid the price, you know, of your politics.

QURESHI: Like Abdallah and Hisham Matar, novelist Ahdaf Soueif is an Arab artist whose family has paid a price for their politics. She sees a bigger project in Hisham Matar’s books.

AHDAF SOUEIF: They are about a dictatorship and about the resistance to the dictatorship. Or rather, that is the backdrop, the scenery of the book. But what matters in the book is how different people live differently within these circumstances, and how they respond to them, and what the outcome or what the consequences of each response are. And this is really what he’s examining in all the work.

MATAR: So you’re right. It touches on big political events. But for me, the real dramatic event is the drama of the heart, you know – is what happens in the minds and hearts of these characters. This was really, for me, the focus – the human event not the political event.

QURESHI: “My Friends” is Hisham Matar’s longest novel. It uses the span of decades, generations and revolutions to attend to an intimate theme – the change of seasons between friends. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.


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