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"My Friends" | Reviewed by William Winkler

British-Libyan author Hisham Matar was born in New York, where his father was a member of the Libyan delegation to the United Nations. His family returned to Libya when Matar was 3-years-old but because of his father’s opposition to the Qaddafi regime they were forced to flee to Cairo. Matar was studying in London when his father was abducted and returned to Libya, never to be seen again; this is the basis for Matar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning (2017) book “The Return.”

            His newly published novel “My Friends” draws heavily on Matar’s experiences in London. In 1984 officials of the Libyan embassy in London opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing a London police officer and wounding Khaled, the protagonist. Khaled is hospitalized for six weeks. During his stay in the hospital he is befriended by Mustafa, a student from Khaled’s hometown of Benghazi. Their long, close personal relationship forms one of the novel’s story arcs.

            As a teenager in Benghazi, Khaled heard a short story by Hosam Zowa, The Given and the Taken, read on the radio. Khaled was so deeply moved by the story that it haunted him for the next 20 years, prompting him to search for its author without success. When Khaled, seemingly by chance, meets the author in a Paris hotel he forms another friendship which he shares with Mustafa.

            A letter by Khaled published in his university’s newspaper marks him as an adversary to the Qaddafi regime. He, Mustafa, and Hosam live as exiles from their native land, longing to return but unable to do so for fear of retribution by the Libyan government. The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 prompt Mustafa and Hosam to return to Libya where they join the revolution against Qaddafi.

            In all of his years in Europe Khaled maintains a close relationship with his family by mail and telephone, knowing full well that all of his messages are being intercepted and scrutinized by the Libyan government.

            “My Friends” is a book of great introspection, set in Khaled’s mind as he walks from the railroad station, where he has just said goodbye to one of his friends, back to his tiny flat in Shepherd’s Bush. His pondering of the relationship with his friends, his physical separation from his family, and his struggles to build a new life in his years of exile make this a slow but rewarding read, sweetened by the poetic nature of Matar’s prose.

            Buy the Book.


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