Excerpt from In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 256 pages
    Feb 2008, 256 pages

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I watched him walk in that familiar way–his head pointing up slightly, his polished leather shoes flicking ahead with every step–hoping he would call my name, wave his hand, snap his fingers. I swear if he had I would have leaped into his arms. When he was right there, close enough that if I extended my arm I could touch him, I held my breath and my ears filled with silence. I watched his solemn expression–an expression I admired and feared–caught the scent-edge of his cologne, felt the air swell round him as he walked past. He was immediately followed by Nasser, carrying the black shiny typewriter under one arm. I wished I was him, following Baba like a shadow. They entered one of the buildings overlooking the square. It was a white building with green shutters. Green was the color of the revolution, but you rarely saw shutters painted in it.

"Didn't I tell you to wait by the sculpture?" I heard Mama say from behind me. I looked back and saw that I had strayed far from Septimius Severus.

I felt sick, anxious that I had somehow done the wrong thing. Baba wasn't on a business trip, but here, in Tripoli, where we should be together. I could have reached out and caught him from where he was heading; why had I not acted?

I sat in the car while she loaded the shopping, still holding on to the sesame sticks. I looked up at the building Baba and Nasser had entered. A window on the top floor shuddered, then swung open. Baba appeared through it. He gazed at the square, no longer wearing the sunglasses, leaning with his hands on the sill like a leader waiting for the clapping and chanting to stop. He hung a small red towel on the clothesline and disappeared inside.

On the way home I was more silent than before, and this time there was no effort in it. As soon as we left Martyrs' Square Mama began craning her neck toward the rearview mirror. Stopping at the next traffic light, she whispered a prayer to herself. A car stopped so close beside us I could have touched the driver's cheek. Four men dressed in dark safari suits sat looking at us. At first I didn't recognize them, then I remembered. I remembered so suddenly I felt my heart jump. They were the same Revolutionary Committee men who had come a week before and taken Ustath Rashid.

Mama looked ahead, her back a few centimeters away from the backrest, her fists tight around the steering wheel. She released one hand, brought it to my knee and sternly whispered, "Face forward."

When the traffic light turned green, the car beside us didn't move. Everyone knows you mustn't overtake a Revolutionary Committee car, and if you have to, then you must do it discreetly, without showing any pleasure in it. A few cars, unaware of who was parked beside us, began to sound their horns. Mama drove off slowly, looking more at the rearview mirror than the road ahead. Then she said, "They are following us; don't look back." I stared at my bare knees and said the same prayer over and over. I felt the sweat gather between my palms and the wax-paper wrapping of the sesame sticks. It wasn't until we were almost home that Mama said, "OK, they are gone," then mumbled to herself, "Nothing better to do than give us an escort, the rotten rats."

My heart eased and my back grew taller. The prayer left my lips.

The innocent, Sheikh Mustafa, the imam of our local mosque, had told me, have no cause to fear; only the guilty live in fear.

I didn't help her carry the shopping into the house as was usual. I went straight to my room and dropped the sesame sticks on the bed, shaking the blood back into my arms. I grabbed my picture book on Lepcis Magna. Ten days before I had visited the ancient city for the first and, as it turned out, last time. Images of the deserted city of ruins by the sea still lingered vividly in my mind. I longed to return to it.

I didn't come out until I had to: after she had prepared lunch and set the table and called my name.

Excerpted from In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar Copyright © 2007 by Hisham Matar. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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