Thursday 20 October 2016

The Return by Hisham Matar: Book Notes

The Return by Hisham Matar: Book Note

This week I read Hisham Matar’s The Return (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016). Matar is a novelist of Libyan descent, now in his mid-40s, based in London. The Return is a memoir about his 2012 visit to Benghazi, in Eastern Libya, in the brief period between the overthrow of the dictator Muammar Qadaffi and Libya’s descent into civil war. Matar’s large extended family (he had 130 first cousins) was based in Benghazi and a smaller southern town called Ajdabiya.

Hisham Matar
The purpose of Matar’s visit was to find out what had happened to his father,Jaballa Matar, apparently a democracy activist opposed to Qadaffi. The family had left Libya for Cairo in 1979, where they thought they were safe, but in 1990 Egyptian authorities turned Jaballa over to Libya.  He was probably then incarcerated and tortured in a notorious Tripoli prison called Abu Salim. The family received a few smuggled letters from him until 1996, when the letters stopped. Jaballa was probably killed in a massacre at Abu Salim in 1996. Guards and soldiers took several hours to machine-gun over 1200 prisoners concentrated in six prison courtyards. But Hisham Matar never found out for sure what had happened to his father.

Matar provides some historical background to these events. His description of Italy’s conquest of Libya in the early decades of the twentieth century reminds me of the all the massacres—indeed genocides—by Europeans who conquered Africa. The population of Tripoli fell by one-sixth between 1911 and 1916, as the Italians especially selected “scholars, jurists, wealthy traders and bureaucrats” (p. 32) to murder, exile or imprison. They also established enormous concentration camps in which thousands of starving Libyans were kept in rags. Under Mussolini entire villages were gassed and bombed. Matar’s own grandfather was a tribal resistance leader who for some unknown reason was not assassinated by the Italians. (Matar bases his description of the Italian conquest in part on a book by a Danish journalist, Knud Holboe, who was murdered in Jordan, perhaps by Italian intelligence.)

The sadism practiced by Qadaffi’s regime is also beyond belief. Many family members were unaware until 2002 of the deaths of their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers in the 1996 prison massacre. That year officials came to their doors to ask for the “family books” in which each family officially registered birth, marriages and deaths. A few weeks after taking the books, the officials would return them, saying all was in order. Some families checked the books right away, others not till days or even weeks later. When they did, they discovered that “died of natural causes in 1996” had been written over the names of their imprisoned family members.

One mother made a twelve-hour trip every month to see her son in Abu Salim. After 1996 she never saw him again. But every month, the guards would accept the gifts of food, clothing, and soap that she had brought him, and encourage her to come the next month. Not until she examined the family book after the officials returned it in 2002 did she learn that for six years, she had been making futile trips to visit a dead man and supplying guards with goods that they could sell to surviving prisoners or keep for their own families.

Matar’s memoir is a little disingenuous. He never informs the reader of the name of his father’s oppositional “organization” based in Chad. Nor does he inform the reader of the name of the tribe he came from, based in Benghazi. Jaballa Matar was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, which suggests that he was a non-violent activist for democracy. But it would have been nice to have more concrete political information so that one could follow current events in Libya more clearly.

Nevertheless, if, like me, you know hardly anything about Libya, this book is a good place to start. It exposes how truly dreadful Qaddafi’s regime was, and puts the lie to those who nostalgically remember his “orderly” society in these days of civil war. It also introduces the reader to a family of patriotic scholars, poets, engineers and diplomats, an extended cosmopolitan family still strongly rooted in Arab tradition. But this type of family—nationalistic, patriotic, but still tolerant and learned, is fast being destroyed all over the Middle East.  

Thursday 6 October 2016

White Africans: Is There Such a Thing?

White Africans: Is There Such a Thing?

In the past few days there have been reports in the Canadian and international press about a white farming family that escaped from Zimbabwe to Canada; the father had rights to live here through his grandfather.  Danielle and Mark McKinnon and their three young children fled after various officials and private individuals claimed ownership of their farm. Three years ago, Mark MacKinnon was kidnapped and beaten. They had had enough and decided to leave.

This is just the latest in the sorry tale of expulsions of white farmers from Zimbabwe. While the official myth is that all white owners of large productive farms inherited them from the original British colonists in what was formerly Southern Rhodesia, this is untrue. A substantial proportion of the farmers bought their property legally after independence in 1980.  The government had the right of first refusal on all such sales, and if it decided not to buy, then white (and black) farmers were free to do so.

As it happens, last week I read another tale of white people in Zimbabwe, The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers (published in 2009 by Harmony Books). Rogers’ book is about his white parents, who in 1990 legally bought land near Mutare, Zimbabwe. There they established a backpackers’ resort and also built 16 small chalets for rent. This resort became quite famous and was featured in The Lonely Planet, a guide for inexpensive world travel. Until 2009 Rogers’ parents survived as owners living in their own house, mainly by ignoring what their black African tenants were using their property for; first as a brothel and then as a refuge for illegal diamond traders. I couldn’t discover what happened to them after 2009.

Douglas Rogers
This leads to the question whether white people can be considered indigenous Africans. On one side, Rogers’ ancestors had lived in Africa for 350 years. While nowadays many white Africans take advantage of their residual citizenship rights in places like Ireland, in case they are expelled, Rogers’ parents had no such rights. Nevertheless, at one point his mother was declared effectively stateless. Zimbabwean authorities refused to renew her passport unless she renounced her British and South African citizenship rights. She had no such rights, but she had to visit the South African and British consuls to obtain their certification that she didn’t.

So what does it mean to be indigenous?  We can easily agree that the people who lived in Zimbabwe or South Africa (or Canada or Australia) before Europeans arrived were indigenous to those territories.  But are people who know no other home, who were born and grew up in those countries, and whose ancestors, in many cases, arrived decades or centuries before, also to be considered indigenous? Or does skin color mark you as a permanent outsider?

The legal solution to this problem is to ignore the question of who is indigenous and focus on citizenship rights instead. If a country’s laws says you are a citizen if you are born there or are naturalized there, that should be the end of it.  But some countries allocate citizenship not on the basis of birthplace but of ancestry. You can be born in a country and your parents can be born there too, and still not be a citizen if your most immediate ancestor in that country is from somewhere else. This is the type of law that made it easy for the Nazis to render German Jews stateless in the 1930s, and still makes it difficult for German-born people whose ancestors emigrated from countries such as Turkey to become citizens. 

It seems like Zimbabwe would like to move from citizenship by birthplace to citizenship by ancestry. It’s been applying this criterion not only to white Zimbabweans but to people whose ancestors migrated from places like Malawi. Anything to get rid of people who don’t support Robert Mugabe’s thuggish regime.

The anti-white rhetoric in Zimbabwe under its aged dictator, Robert Mugabe, is outright racist.  As I document in my new book, State Food Crimes, he’s said all sorts of terrible things, stirring populist anger against white people and justifying his campaign of theft of their land. This theft  has resulted in enormous economic upheaval and shortages of food. No matter to Mugabe and his allies: they don’t care.
Robert Mugabe

Populist anger against so-called outsiders is always dangerous, whether it’s Robert Mugabe in Africa or Donald Trump in the United States. In Africa, populist anger against white Africans (and also Asian Africans, in earlier times such as in Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s) has ruined national economies. If populists take power in South Africa and force their indigenous white population to flee, the same thing will happen there.

White Africans are indigenous to Africa. You can’t go on claiming that white people are outsiders because their extremely remote ancestors came from Europe. Calling people “settlers,” despite their birthplaces and despite their legal purchases of land, puts them permanently at risk. Their citizenship rights and their human rights are under constant threat, and the entire society suffers as a result.