Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Leading authors campaign for Libyan novelist’s ‘disappeared’ father
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 26 January 2010
A campaign backed by around 250 of the world’s most distinguished writers is demanding that Libya provide information on the whereabouts of Jaballa Matar, a Libyan dissident and former diplomat who was abducted in Cairo 20 years ago and imprisoned in Libya. The Libyan authorities have never even admitted that Jaballa was imprisoned.
Jaballa Matar is the father of the London-based novelist Hisham Matar [pictured], 39, a major literary talent who created a literary sensation when his 2006 debut novel “In the Country of Men” (Viking) was shortlisted for Britain’s premier literary prize, the Man Booker, and for the Guardian First Book Award. The novel has won several prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book award for Europe and South Asia, the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and the Italian Premio Vallombrosa Gregor von Rezzori. It has been translated into 22 languages.
“In the Country of Men” is set in Libya in 1979 and is written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy who witnesses the events unfolding around his dissident father, who is tortured while in prison. The novel is permeated with a sense of absence and loss, and captures the paranoid atmosphere of the time.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband and other government figures have responded with sympathy to the campaign for Hisham’s father. If Libya fails to provide satisfactory answers to the questions the UK is currently raising on Jaballa and other dissidents, and on human rights issues, there could be a freezing of Libya’s efforts to forge an improved relationship with the EU.
In mid-January the 250 writers spearheading the campaign signed a letter from English PEN’s president Lisa Appignanesi and from Hisham, published in The Times daily newspaper of London. The signatories included three winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – JM Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk and Wole Soyinka – and nine winners of the Man Booker prize, among them Margaret Atwood, Kiran Desai and Michael Oondaatje, as well as the current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and her predecessor Sir Andrew Motion.
The letter noted that Jaballa Matar was one of the most prominent Libyan political activists, and had continually called for democracy, the rule of law and justice in Libya. He was kidnapped from his home in Cairo in 1990 and his family has not seen him since.
Two letters from Jaballa to his family were smuggled out of Libya’s political prison, Abu Salim, in 1992 and 1995. They revealed that the Egyptian authorities had held him in Cairo for two days after his abduction, before handing him over to Libyan officials. He had been flown to Tripoli, tortured and subjected to arbitrary detention.
The letter in The Times added that Jaballa was seen in 2002 in a secret political prison in Libya, and that his family, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International believe he is still in that country. But the Libyan government denies all knowledge of the whereabouts of Jaballa and other “disappeared” Libyans, and he is yet to be granted an open trial.
The letter concluded: “We urge the government to use its new relationship with the Libyan government to demand sincere and significant improvements in Libya’s human rights record. We, therefore, ask the Foreign Office whether having regard to the latest Human Rights Watch report, published on Dec. 12, in which Jaballa’s case is documented, it will seek information from the Libyan government about the whereabouts of Jaballa and other political prisoners.”
David Miliband responded with a message posted on the Foreign Office website and in a letter published in The Times saying: “I fully sympathize with Hisham’s situation. I can only imagine how it must feel not to know the fate of your father year after year.” Miliband said Hisham has his full support in his quest to find out what happened to his father and that “Hisham and his family need to know the truth now.”
After receiving the second letter from Jaballa in 1995, his family heard nothing more from him. So when news leaked out in 2002 that the authorities had massacred 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996, the family feared that he was among the dead. The Human Rights Watch report of December, which includes a reported sighting of Jaballa, has brought the family a surge of fresh hope. Hisham wrote in a recent article in the Guardian that he has received a message that someone saw his father in a secret political prison in Tripoli in 2002 and that he is “frail, but well”.
Hisham is now devoting much time to trying to find out what happened to his father. The Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts, who has known Hisham for some 15 years, quotes him as saying his daily routine has completely changed: “I am a novelist until lunchtime and then, from lunch to midnight, work on my father’s case. I was 19 when I last saw him. It has been hard to continue over the years. You block it out and try to get on with life. Boy, I am so thrilled now!”
The Free Jaballa Matar campaign has a Twitter account, a Facebook site and a website at freematar.org. The campaign has support from PEN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Center for Transitional Justice.
There is an uncanny overlap of fact and fiction in the story of Jaballa Matar and the work of his novelist son. Hisham referred in his Guardian article to the second novel, on which he has been working for the past three years. The novel concerns “a man haunted by the absence of his father. He stalks his lovers, lives in his house and wears his clothes. He is a most faithful son.” And now, weeks from finishing the novel, he has learned that his father, who disappeared 20 years ago, may be alive. If Libya fails to provide answers to the questions the British government is posing on Jaballa and other issues, this could impact on the framework agreement Libya has been negotiating with the EU since 2008 with the aim of strengthening political, social, economic, commercial and cultural relations.
When asked in the House of Lords last week whether the framework agreement must be based on meaningful progress in political and human rights reform, Foreign Office Minister Lady Kinnock answered “yes”. She also said that the latest talks with Libya on Jaballa Matar had been held the previous weekend.

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