Libyan writer Hisham Matar's English boarding school experience.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Feb. 26 2011 7:39 AM

Hiding Out

The child of an outspoken Libyan dissident on attending boarding school in England.

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Photo of Hisham Matar, 2008
Hisham Matar

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.

I began asking if I could be sent to boarding school, too. Eventually, my parents yielded, but I had to go under a false identity. Joining Ziad in Switzerland was not an option because that would have made concealing who we were more difficult. I chose a school in England. I was to pretend that my mother was Egyptian and my father American. It was thought that this would explain, to any Arabs in the school, why my Arabic was Egyptian and why my English was American.

My first name was Bob. Ziad chose it because both he and I were fans of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. I was to pretend I was Christian, though not religious. I was to try to forget my name. If someone called Hisham, I was not to turn. I was warned against having a routine, going to the same places too regularly, or leaving my tea unattended in a cafe. Ziad had read in some science magazine about a new poison that needed six months to take effect. If I were poisoned, no one would be able to trace the source.

"Only go to the toilet before you order or when you are done eating," I was told.

The first time I traveled to my new school I took a taxi there from Heathrow. This was a mad thing to do not only because it was unbelievably expensive, but also because the cab driver got horribly lost along the meandering country lanes. He threatened to leave me there, by the side of the road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I wished my suitcase had wheels. I became terribly anxious.

"A taxi driver in Egypt would never do that," I remember telling him.

There was no one around to ask for directions. It was as if I was in an empty country. Then two women on horses appeared. They looked like sisters. The driver pulled up beside them. They smiled. The sight of a London black cab in the depth of the country must have seemed ridiculous. The horses were higher than the cab. I remember their skin glistening and their breaths coming out in thick white clouds. They must have just been on a gallop. The older woman gave the angry driver very precise directions. The younger one looked away, but at one point her eyes met mine.

Eventually we found the school, a Tudor building surrounded by heavy oak trees. My boarding house lay a further three miles away into the thick hills. My room was on the first floor, where the ceiling was very high. It almost never got warm. The view from the tall window was spectacular. It overlooked the grounds, which I later learned had been designed by Capability Brown.

It all seemed surprisingly easy at first. I was Bob and that was that. I even enjoyed the acting, pretending to be of a different nationality and religion. The school I went to was known for its drama, and I threw myself into the stage. I helped build sets, I acted, directed, and, when they found out I could do a bit of writing, they got me to write a sketch a week. I didn't see then the obvious link between this passion and my new reality. I became close to several students, boys and girls, but I never once disclosed my true identity. And I seemed to be fine. I even thought of myself as happy.

At one of the school parties, a girl I was fond of walked across the room and asked whether I would dance with her. We danced through several songs, then stood side by side against the wall. When it was time for us boys to be bussed back to our house, she accompanied me down the long path to the bus. It was completely dark save for the distant lights of the lamp posts. She kissed me, a long slow kiss on the cheek. I still remember her smiling. I could hardly sleep from happiness. But then the following morning, when she ran over to me in the line to the dining room, I pretended not to recognize her. The way she looked at me remains a source of shame and regret.

The year passed and it was wonderful to be home for the whole summer, to eat my mother's food and be called by my real name. Ziad and I seemed closer than we had ever been. Our old friends were almost always in the house. I became less boisterous and talkative the more my departure date grew closer. My Russian aunt gave me a scarf on which she had embroidered my fake initials. My parents made it very clear that I could change my mind, that they would prefer I stayed home, but something in me persisted.

On my return to school one of my friends came to tell me about a new boy.

"He's Arabic," he said.

"Really? Where from?" I asked.

"Libya."

I went to look up the name. His father worked for the Qaddafi regime. I had no doubt he, too, would recognize my family name. Our fathers were on opposite sides of a conflict. I had no doubt he, certainly his father, would see us as enemies. I certainly saw people like his father as opportunists, mercenaries, drinking the blood of the people, stealing the wealth of the country, in short: criminals. I was anxious and angry, frightened and furious, and didn't feel I could tell a soul.

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.