The child of an outspoken Libyan dissident on attending boarding school in England.
My only brother, Ziad, was 16 when he went off to boarding school in Switzerland. It was his decision. He was attracted by accounts of friends and cousins having a great time in Europe. I wanted to go too, but I was only 12. I missed him terribly. And when he returned, midterm, he was not the same. He landed in Cairo in the evening. We had all gone to the airport to collect him. When he appeared among the line of people spilling out of the arrivals lounge his face was paler than I remembered it.
A few days earlier, I had watched Mother nervously make telephone calls, her fingers trembling as she spun the dial. Ziad was in danger was all I could gather. It wasn't until years later that Ziad told me what happened.
His school was remote, high up on one of the peaks of the Swiss Alps, difficult to find. 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 up the path from the school's main gate. It had in it four men who looked Libyan. They had the long hair so typical of members of Col. Qaddafi's revolutionary committees. Late one night, the payphone in the school hall would not stop ringing. Eventually, someone answered it. It was one of my father's friends, a Libyan dissident living in Switzerland, wanting to speak to Ziad. As soon as Ziad picked up the receiver the man began shouting, telling him to leave immediately. He would not offer any further explanations. Ziad wasn't sure what to make of the call. A couple of minutes later Mother telephoned to tell him the same, but in a gentle and clear tone. Ziad woke up his favorite teacher, the English teacher.
"Sir, my father is about to have a serious surgery and asked to see me before going into the operating theatre. I need to take the first train to Basel. Would you drive me to the station, please?"
The teacher telephoned my mother, and she confirmed that this was indeed the case and that she would very much appreciate it if he could drive her son to the station immediately.
The teacher checked the timetable. There was a train to Basel in 40 minutes. If they hurried, they might make it.
They had to drive past the car; there was no other way out. But it was a moonless night and very dark. Ziad was convinced that the men could not see inside the car. 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 he thanked the teacher and ran to the public toilets down the stairs, beneath the platform. He knew that from there he would be able to hear when the Basel train approached. When he heard steps rushing down the stairs, he did not lock the door to the cubicle he was hiding in but instead left it ajar. He stood on top of the toilet. He heard them pace up and down then leave the bathroom and go up the stairs. A couple of minutes later he heard the train roll in. He waited until it had come to a complete stop and ran up the steps. He joined the passengers walking up the platform. The doors shut and the train moved. Ziad was sure he had lost them. But then the four men appeared, walking up the aisle. They followed him from one carriage to the next. At the front of the train Ziad found the conductor chatting to the driver.
"Those men there are following me," Ziad told them.
The conductor clearly believed him at once and asked him to sit beside him. As soon as Ziad sat down, the four men retreated to the next car. The driver telephoned the police in Basel. When the train arrived Ziad saw men in uniform waiting on the platform, my father's friend, the man who had first telephoned Ziad that night, among them.
Those were dangerous times. It was the early 1980s. The Libyan dictatorship was targeting dissidents abroad. We had recently read in the newspaper about the death of a renowned Libyan economist. He was stepping off a train at Rome's Stazione Termini when a stranger pressed a pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger. A photograph of his dark figure, partly covered in a white sheet, was printed beside the article. His shoes were polished. That detail troubled me. Another time there was a report of a Libyan student shot in a cafe in Athens. I don't recall seeing a photograph, but I tried to imagine how it might have happened. I pictured the student sitting on the terrace of the cafe, a scooter clumsily coming to a stop by the pavement and the man sitting behind the driver pointing a gun at the student and firing. Then a Libyan BBC World Service radio newsreader was killed in London. And, in April 1984, there was the now infamous demonstration in front of the Libyan embassy in St James's Square. One of the embassy staff pushed open a sash window on the first floor, held out a Kalashnikov and sprayed the crowd. Yvonne Fletcher, a policewoman, died, and 11 Libyan demonstrators, mostly students, were wounded.
These events were in the background, but I didn't consciously link them then to my brother's abrupt return from school, his changed face, his silence and altered manner. All I cared about was that he was back. His friends, those boys who I thought were the coolest people in the world, started visiting. He gradually regained his spirits.
My father, determined not to let the dictatorship stop his eldest studying abroad, got Ziad a fake passport. Less than a fortnight after his return, my brother was sent back to Switzerland, to a school in a small provincial Swiss-German town, under a false nationality and name. In hindsight this seems an odd decision, reckless even, but I think my father's single-minded intent to have us be as much as possible unaffected by the regime was only part of the story. From the way those four men in the car behaved, it now seems obvious that the intention was not to harm Ziad, but to frighten my father into silence. When Libyan agents want to kill or kidnap, they don't hang around outside the gates of a Swiss school for days and nights on end.
Soon Ziad was sending letters from the new school telling me what a great time he was having. He wrote lyrics, which I then tried to set to music. When he returned for holidays he and I would sit late into the night. He would tell me stories about his adventures and I would play him songs on the guitar. Even Mother stopped worrying about him.
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.