The child of an outspoken Libyan dissident on attending boarding school in England.
It was at that time that my housemaster, the only other person beside the headmaster who knew my true identity, began to invite me into his home. He was Welsh, looked like Ted Hughes, and always smelt of cigar smoke. We all had to be in our bedrooms by 10:30 p.m., lights out at 11 p.m. At 10:55 p.m. he would knock on the door and say, in front of my roommate, "Bob, telephone call." Then he would take me into the flat where he and his family lived. We would sit at the kitchen table. His wife would fry me an egg. He never mentioned my real name nor did he mention the subject. He simply afforded me a few minutes every now and again with someone who knew my true identity, someone kind and perceptive enough to notice, in a house of 40-odd boys, when the strain became too much.
The first time I met the Libyan boy, he extended his hand and said, "Marhaba," hello in Arabic, and smiled a smile that was to become familiar to me. We became immediate friends. In fact, we became inseparable. We liked similar things: the music of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, good food, fine clothes, and the sort of girls who liked these things. Whereas on Wednesdays, when we got the afternoons off, most of the other boys went to the pub, he and I would hunt for the best French restaurant. Once he told me he loved me like a brother. I said I did, too. And I meant it, every word.
He had no doubt that I was half-Egyptian, half-American. He hardly ever talked about Libya. I hadn't seen the country for seven years. I wished I could ask him about it. Once, on a group hike through the woods, I absentmindedly began humming a Libyan folk song. He noticed.
"My brother's best friend is Libyan," I said. "Invited us to a wedding once. Always bringing music tapes over. Do you know the tune? Where is it from?" I just kept talking like a fool, all the while my face growing hot.
He believed me, which made me feel even worse about lying.
That special thing began to occur between us, where a friendship comes to resemble a shelter, a house in which one feels safe. I was proud to be his friend, and felt him to be proud of me too. If either of us was in trouble or needed money or an extra pair of fists—like the time when we were cornered by a gang of skinheads—the other was always there. I couldn't stop wondering what it would be like for him to call me by my real name, how it would sound. More than once I came close to telling him. I started to have a recurring dream that I was inside a lift that would stop just short or above the floor; the door would not open.
He got a place at Cardiff University, and I was going to join my brother, who by now was at university in London. My Libyan friend and I met with a group of other students for a farewell drink at a wine bar in the nearby town. It was an exuberant night full of promises that we would stay in touch forever and ever. I knew in my heart that it would be impossible to ever see these people again, particularly my best friend. Just before I was to head for the station, I went to the toilet. When I was washing my hands he walked in, hugged me and said, "Man, I am going to miss you." I remember the shape of his ear, how my eyes focused on it. I said the words as if unintentionally, as if they were spoken by someone else.
"I am Libyan. My name is Hisham Jaballa Matar, the son of Jaballa Matar."
He didn't let go but he shuddered.
"I am sorry I ever lied—"
He shook his head before I could finish. He tried to smile. He had tears in his eyes. We embraced again, rushed back to the bar and ordered another bottle. We all stayed there until the place shut. Neither of us mentioned a word to the others. He never called me Hisham. But it was good to know that now he knew. And I felt grateful for his reaction, for not quizzing me about it, or making me feel worse than I already felt. He would not let me take the train. We were both tearful by then. He insisted, swore on his parents, that he would get me a cab all the way to London. Midway through the journey I had to ask the driver to pull over. I vomited on the side of the motorway. I am sure he too knew that we would not stay in touch. Our friendship was like a plant that could not survive in the open air.
Years later, walking with my fiancee up the busy Euston Road, I saw him coming from the opposite direction, smiling that smile of his. We hugged. I wrote down his number. Not having anything to lean on, he gave me his back. I knew, and I guessed he did too, that I would never call.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.
Hisham Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. His latest novel is Anatomy of a Disappearance.
Photo of Hisham Matar by Daina Matar, 2008.