Beyond the Book: Background information when reading In the Country of Men

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In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

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

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A Short History of Libya

Libya is located on the Mediterranean coast in the North of Africa to the West of Egypt (map).  Much of the country lies within the Sahara Desert but the coastal areas have a Mediterranean climate with arable land in the plateaus.  The earliest known settlers of the area were the Berber people, known as Libyans to the Greeks.  Around the 7th century BC the maritime culture known as Phoenicians or Canaanites colonized the eastern section of the country which they called Cyrenaica; and the Greeks colonized the west, which they called Tripolitania.  Both parts eventually came under the control of the Roman Empire until the Empire's decline, after which the area was invaded by Arab Forces (7th century AD).  Then, from the 16th century until World War I, both Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were nominally part of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1911, following the outbreak of hostilities between Italy and the Ottoman Empire, Italy occupied Tripoli.  Italian sovereignty was recognized in 1912, although fighting continued.  In 1934, Italy united Tripolitania and Cyrenaica into the colony of Libya. 

After the fall of Tripoli in 1943, the area came under Allied administration. In 1951, Libya gained its independence following a UN vote and became a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris, formerly Emir of Cyrenaica (who had led the Libyan resistance to the Italian occupation between the two World Wars).  Seven years later oil was discovered, transforming the impoverished country's economy, but most of the wealth stayed in the hands of a few, leading to resentment and unrest. 

In 1969, 27-year-old, Muammar al-Qaddafi deposed the king, assumed the role of colonel, and established a pro-Arabic, anti-Western, anti-Israeli, Islamic republic (97% of the population are Sunni Muslims).  Over the next two decades, Libya increasingly distanced itself from the West and was accused of committing mass acts of state sponsored terrorism, such as the Berlin discotheque terrorist bombing that killed two American servicemen, in response to which the US launched an aerial bombing attack of selected targets in 1986.  In 1991, two Libyan intelligence agents were indicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, and six other Libyans were put on trial in absentia for the 1989 bombing of UTA Flight 772.

In 2003, Libya started to make dramatic policy changes towards the West, announcing its decision to stop building weapons of mass destruction and pay US $3 billion in compensation to the families of Pan Am flight 103 and UTA Flight 772.  In 2006, the US fully restored diplomatic relations with Libya and its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism was lifted.  In 2007, Libya was elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN's Security Council. 

Meanwhile, Libya continues to be ruled by Colonel Qaddafi and continues to have a poor record in the area of human rights.  The judiciary is controlled by the state and there is no right to a fair public trial.  Freedom of speech, press, assembly, association and religion are all restricted and arbitrary arrests and detention without charge or trial remain common.

This article is from the February 21, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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