The Return (Pulitzer Prize Winner)
Early morning, March 2012. My mother, my wife Diana and I were sitting in a row of seats that were bolted to the tiled floor of a lounge in Cairo International Airport. Flight 835 for Benghazi, a voice announced, was due to depart on time. Every now and then, my mother glanced anxiously at me. Diana, too, seemed concerned. She placed a hand on my arm and smiled. I should get up and walk around, I told myself. But my body remained rigid. I had never felt more capable of stillness.
The terminal was nearly empty. There was only one man sitting opposite us. He was overweight, weary-looking, possibly in his mid-fifties. There was something in the way he sat—the locked hands on the lap, the left tilt of the torso—that signaled resignation. Was he Egyptian or Libyan? Was he on a visit to the neighboring country or going home after the revolution? Had he been for or against Qaddafi? Perhaps he was one of those undecided ones who held their reservations close to their chest?
The voice of the announcer returned. It was time to board. I found myself standing at the front of the queue, Diana beside me. She had, on more than one occasion, taken me to the town where she was born, in northern California. I know the plants and the color of the light and the distances where she grew up. Now I was, finally, taking her to my land. She had packed the Hasselblad and the Leica, her two favorite cameras, and a hundred rolls of film. Diana works with great fidelity. Once she gets hold of a thread, she will follow it until the end. Knowing this excited and worried me. I am reluctant to give Libya any more than it has already taken.
Mother was pacing by the windows that looked onto the runway, speaking on her mobile phone. People—mostly men—began to fill the terminal. Diana and I were now standing at the head of a long queue. It bent behind us like a river. I pretended I had forgotten something and pulled her to one side. Returning after all these years was a bad idea, I suddenly thought. My family had left in 1979, thirty-three years earlier. This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was then. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love. Joseph Brodsky was right. So were Nabokov and Conrad. They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured. But Dmitri Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak and Naguib Mahfouz were also right: never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed. You will be like a dead trunk, hard and hollow.
What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?
Back in October 2011, I had considered never returning to Libya. I was in New York, walking up Broadway, the air cold and swift, when the proposition presented itself. It seemed immaculate, a thought my mind had manufactured independently. As in youthful moments of drunkenness, I felt bold and invincible.
I had gone to New York the previous month, at the invitation of Barnard College, to lecture on novels about exile and estrangement. But I had an older connection to the city. My parents had moved to Manhattan in the spring of 1970, when my father was appointed first secretary in the Libyan Mission to the United Nations. I was born that autumn. Three years later, in 1973, we returned to Tripoli. In the years since, I had visited New York maybe four or five times and always briefly. So, although I had just returned to the city of my birth, it was a place I hardly knew.
In the thirty-six years since we left Libya, my family and I had built associations with several surrogate cities: Nairobi, where we went on our escape from Libya, in 1979, and have continued to visit ever since; Cairo, where we settled the following year into indefinite exile; Rome, a vacation spot for us; London, where I went at the age of fifteen for my studies and where for twenty-nine years I have been doggedly trying to make a life for myself; Paris, where, fatigued and annoyed by London, I moved in my early thirties, vowing never to return to England, only to find myself back two years later. In all these cities, I had pictured myself one day calm and living in that faraway island, Manhattan, where I was born. I would imagine a new acquaintance asking me, perhaps at a dinner party, or in a café, or in changing-rooms after a long swim, that old tiresome question “Where are you from?” and I, unfazed and free of the usual agitation, would casually reply, “New York.” In these fantasies, I saw myself taking pleasure from the fact that such a statement would be both true and false, like a magic trick.
That I should move to Manhattan in my fortieth year, as Libya was ripping itself apart, and for this to take place on the 1st of September, the day when, back in 1969, a young captain named Muammar Qaddafi deposed King Idris and many of the significant features of my life—where I live, the language in which I write, the language I am using now to write this—were set in motion: all this made it difficult to escape the idea that there was some kind of divine will at work.
In any political history of Libya, the 1980s represent a particularly lurid chapter. Opponents of the regime were hanged in public squares and sports arenas. Dissidents who fled the country were pursued—some kidnapped or assassinated. The ’80s were also the first time that Libya had an armed and determined resistance to the dictatorship. My father was one of the opposition’s most prominent figures. The organization he belonged to had a training camp in Chad, south of the Libyan border, and several underground cells inside the country. Father’s career in the army, his short tenure as a diplomat, and the private means he had managed to procure in the mid-1970s, when he became a successful businessman—importing products as diverse as Mitsubishi vehicles and Converse sports shoes to the Middle East—made him a dangerous enemy. The dictatorship had tried to buy him off; it had tried to scare him. I remember sitting beside him one afternoon in our flat in Cairo when I was ten or eleven, the weight of his arm on my shoulders. In the chair opposite sat one of the men I called “Uncle”—men who, I somehow knew, were his allies or followers. The word “compromise” was spoken, and Father responded, “I won’t negotiate. Not with criminals.”
Whenever we were in Europe, he carried a gun. Before getting into the car, he would ask us to stand well away. He would go down on his knees and look under the chassis, cup his hands and peek through the windows for any sign of wiring. Men like him had been shot in train stations and cafés, their cars blown up. During the 1980s, when I was still in Cairo, I had read in the newspaper about the death of a renowned Libyan economist. He was stepping off a train at Stazione Termini in Rome when a stranger pressed a pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger. The photograph printed beside the article had the figure of the deceased covered in newspaper sheets, presumably from that day’s paper, which stopped at his ankles, leaving his polished leather shoes pointing up. Another time there was a report of a Libyan student shot in Greece. He was sitting on the terrace of a café in Monastiraki Square in Athens. A scooter stopped and the man sitting behind the driver pointed a gun at the student and fired several shots. A Libyan BBC World Service newsreader was killed in London. In April 1984 a demonstration took place in front of the Libyan Embassy in St. James’s Square. One of the embassy staff pulled up a sash window on the first floor, held out a machine gun, and sprayed the crowd. A policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, was killed and eleven Libyan demonstrators were wounded, some of them critically.
Qaddafi’s campaign to hunt down exiled critics—which was announced by Moussa Koussa, the head of foreign intelligence, at a public rally in the early 1980s—extended to the families of dissidents. My only sibling, Ziad, was fifteen when he went off to boarding school in Switzerland. A few weeks later, mid-way through term, he returned to Cairo. We had all gone to collect him from the airport. When he appeared amongst those spilling out of the arrivals lounge, his face looked paler than I remembered it. A few days earlier, I had seen Mother make several telephone calls, her finger trembling as she spun the dial.
The Swiss school was remote, high up in the Alps. Public transport to the nearest village was in the form of a cable car, which operated for only a few hours in the middle of the day. For two days running, Ziad noticed a car parked on the path outside the school’s main gate. It had in it four men. They had the long hair so typical of members of Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Committees. Late one night, Ziad was called to the school’s office telephone. On the other end of the line, a man said, “I am a friend of your father. You must do exactly what I tell you. You have to leave immediately and take the first train to Basle.”
“Why? What happened?” Ziad asked.
“I can’t tell you now. You must hurry. Take the first train to Basle. I’ll be there and will explain everything.”
“But it’s the middle of the night,” Ziad said.
The man would not offer any further explanations. He simply kept repeating, “Take the first train to Basle.”
“I can’t do that. I don’t know who you are. Please don’t call here again,” Ziad said, and hung up.
The man then called Mother, who then telephoned the school. She told Ziad he needed to leave the school right away and told him what to do.
Ziad woke up his favorite teacher, a young Cambridge graduate who had probably thought it would be fun to go and teach English literature in the Alps, skiing between classes.
“Sir, my father is about to have surgery and asked to see me before going into the operating theater. I need to take the first train to Basle. Would you please drive me to the station?”
The teacher telephoned my mother, and she backed up Ziad’s story. The headmaster had to be woken up. He telephoned Mother and, once he too was satisfied, Ziad’s teacher checked the train timetable. There was a train for Basle in forty minutes. If they hurried, they might make it.
They had to drive past the car; there was no other way out. Ziad pretended to be tying his shoelace as they passed the men. The teacher drove carefully down the twisting mountain road. A few minutes later, headlights appeared behind them. When the teacher said, “I think they are following us,” Ziad pretended not to hear.
At the station, Ziad shot into the concourse and hid in the public toilets. He heard the train roll in. He waited until it had come to a complete stop, counted a few seconds for the passengers to disembark and board, then ran and jumped on the train. The doors shut and the carriages moved. Ziad was sure he had lost them, but then the four men appeared, walking up the aisle. They saw him. One of them smiled at him. They followed him from one carriage to the next, muttering, “Kid, you think you are a man? Then come here and show us.” At the front of the train, Ziad found the conductor chatting to the driver.