Libyan-American author on the unrest in Libya

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Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Muammar Gaddafi has been in power more than 30 years and the Libyan leader intends to remain in charge despite a growing revolt. Today, Gaddafi vowed to cleanse Libya of protestors house by house if necessary. Nobody takes his threat lightly. Witnesses say Gaddafi has been using tanks, helicopters, and war planes against his people. Libyan author, Hisham Matar, isn't surprised. His father was a Libyan dissident who was imprisoned in 1990. Matar himself now lives in London. He's been watching the crisis in Libya unfold with alarm.

Hisham Matar: Right now it's becoming, I want to say ridiculous and absurd, but it's also a very dangerous sort of absurdity that's taking place. It's the sort of absurdity that the West got used to with Gaddafi, which is they like to laugh at him and pretend he's basically a ineffective clownish North African dictator, but where actually he's far more serious than that as we see now. So it's absurd, but not in that sense. It's absurd in the kind of dark sense that you know, he's obviously showing how desperate he is. I've never heard Gaddafi look so rattled and so frightened and on edge; and that worries me because he's an incredibly inhumane person, very violent. And so it worries me what he will do to people there.

Mullins: You know, your family has certainly paid the price of the authoritarian rule of Muammar Gaddafi. Do you know if your father now is alive?

Matar: No, I don't know. Several political prisoners have vanished in Libya and nobody really knows where they are. Most people think they have died, they have been killed.

Mullins: Can you remind us why your father was taken in the first place?

Matar: My father was a political dissident who was an advocate for democracy and media, and he was living in Egypt. And in 1990 Egyptian and the secret service personnel took him from home and handed him over to the Libyans. He was taken to Libya and imprisoned. He was tortured. And then after a few years, about three years from the time when he disappeared, he sent, smuggled out a letter from Abu Salim prison in which he detailed everything that happened; that he was actually taken immediately to Libya, tortured, and imprisoned. He kept smuggling letters out. The last one was in '95 and the last sighting of him was in 1996, which is not a very good date because that's the year that the authorities gathered 1,200 political prisoners in the courtyard of that prison and shot them.

Mullins: The letters that he had smuggled out, do you have those?

Matar: I do have them, yes, and they are amazing documents. Not only because of my father's incredible vividness in them, but his ability to kind of remain true to everything; to remain true to the reality, the very harsh reality, and at the same time he's completely there, you know, his humor, all the poems, he quotes from poems that were familiar to us that he loves, and also just an incredible sense of defiance, an incredible sense of a descriptive power about the prison. One of the places he says, 'The cruelty here far exceeds anything that I read about the prison at Basti[? 3:42].' It also said that you know, if he had to do it again he wouldn't change a thing, that actually he regards himself as lucky because he had the chance to stand by what he believes and just be able to face a regime so ruthless and agressive.

Mullins: Hisham, I wonder if you are past the point of wondering if your father may still be alive or if you think, if there's a part of you that watches what's happening right now in Libya and thinking you know, maybe there's good fortune awaiting him if he is alive?

Matar: Yes, absolutely, I mean with all of the accounts I heard of prisons in the East where demonstrators have the largest control, that you know, I heard about prisons being opened and political prisoners being let out. Of course, the first person I think of is my father and the possibility of that.You know, at sometimes when I think about Libya, particularly in the times of 2003 when Gaddafi was embraced by the international community, Tony Blair went there and shook his hands, called him 'our man in North Africa', I kept seeing a man living in a big, beautiful house with lovely high windows, and he's a merchant. And opposite the way there's a small house, and in the small house there's a man who beats his wife. The man in the large house can see the man beat his wife, he sees the poor woman walk out with blue eyes, and he doesn't say anything because he rather fancies selling his merchandise to the man. And that's how it felt to a lot of Libyans, that the world was trading with this man, they were accepting him, they were treating him as a respectable leader while he was oppressing his people. Now, it's that vision, that vision of the man beating his wife, has just taken such a grotesque scale and that it's become an emergency.

Mullins: Hisham Matar, who is the author of the book, "In the Country of Men", a novel about political suppression in Libya.