Heroism in Its Variations: Character Analysis for In the Country of Men

Suleiman’s innocence is shown to be the cause of his simplistic view of a hero and why he is unable to recognize instances of heroism displayed not only by those around him but also by himself. Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men explores how the circumstances by which one is surrounded can force extraordinary feats of courage from an individual, and shows that it is these acts that prove heroism can exist within day to day life. Presumably due to the nature of Libya during his upbringing, Suleiman defines a hero as one who is physically brave, not taking into consideration Baba’s defense of his political beliefs, Mama’s submission to the life she is forced to lead as a woman, or his own strength in caring for his mother in the midst of much conflict.

The actions of Baba and the band of men he leads in rebellion against the government can be seen as highly courageous; they are standing in defense of their beliefs against a powerful opponent. This moral courage is demonstrated throughout the novel, and highlights to the audience the many forms that heroism may take. Although Suleiman’s idea of a hero is Baba staggering back to the house, “bleeding beautifully from one eyebrow”, Najwa recognizes the emotional courage required by the men to undertake these actions, declaring to Moosa, “only you and my husband and Nasser and Rashid and the naïve students you are dragging with you are the brave ones left in this country”. By all definitions, a hero is one who stands against countless opponents at any cost to themselves, a description which undoubtedly applies to Baba, who sacrifices is safety and his relationship with his family to a “greater” cause. Moosa too provides descriptions of these men, describing them as the “few who dared, sacrificed for many” and those who “gave their lives for their country”, highlighting to the reader the depth of these men’s commitment to their cause, and the price they were willing to pay. Suleiman, however, is unable to recognize these sacrifices as heroism, clearly in his naivety only willing to apply the term to “the heroes” within films “that used to send us … rejoicing … that the world worked in ways we expected it to work and didn’t falter”. Thus, in this simplistic definition of a hero, the audience can recognize Suleiman’s inability to recognize the heroes that lived outside his imagination, due to the complex forms their courage takes.

Within Suleiman’s narration, Najwa is another prominent example of a character displaying heroic traits, yet largely unrecognized by Suleiman. Forced by circumstances of culture into marriage and motherhood at an extremely young age, Najwa repeatedly exemplifies courage in her submission to the life dictated to her by men. Matar hints at Najwa’s heroic nature in his connection between her and Scheherazade, the heroine of Suleiman’s favorite story, “One Thousand and One Nights”. When describing her imprisonment, Najwa reveals to Suleiman that in thinking of the similarities between her and “that wretched woman”, she “somehow … didn’t feel so alone”. This statement highlights the heroism of all women in their submission to men, and hints that Mama’s story in its similarities to “A Thousand and One Nights” is worthy of making her into a heroine. In accepting the life she must serve, in demonstrating loyalty to her husband, and taking part in a marriage “she had resisted so violently”, Najwa displays unwavering courage, a courage bordering on the heroic and therefore proving heroism does live beyond the covers of books.

Suleiman is yet another character within Matar’s story that continually demonstrates strength of character in dealing with overwhelming adversity. Forced to care for his mother when his father leaves on “business” and she is under the influence of alcohol, Suleiman never “leaves her side” in a desire to protect and shield her. This is despite the undeniably negative influence this act entails, Najwa’s imparting information to Suleiman that “pressed down on [his] chest, so heavy that it seemed impossible to carry on living with them”, demonstrating the selflessness of Suleiman that undoubtedly could be termed “heroism”, Suleiman never considers “look[ing] away” or “relax[ing] the grip of his gaze” from Najwa, who, in recognizing this courage displayed by her son, declares he is her “prince” who will become a “man” and “take [her] away on [his] white horse”. This recognition of the heroic traits within Suleiman’s nature demonstrates to the audience the existence of yet another character who may be termed a hero, not for any physical bravery but rather a mental courage so strong that nothing can break it.

In the Country of Men ultimately highlights to its audience the numerous forms heroism may take. Any character, be that character man, woman or child, may have the ability to demonstrate this courage. Standing for one’s beliefs against overwhelming odds, submitting to situations one has no power to change, or protecting those you love from evil, an all be classed as an ultimate act of heroism.

Libya a Significant Backdrop for Suleiman’s Story

Set against the political turmoil of Libya in the summer of 1979, Hisham Matar’s novel “In the Country of Men” contains characters who are defined by their relationship with Libya and its culture. Although Suleiman’s story is for the most part confined within the setting of his home, Libyan culture and politics nonetheless pervade the atmosphere of the house and indirectly influence all that impacts upon nine-year-old Suleiman. The lack of freedom within Libya translates itself into the physical absences of Suleiman’s father which in turn may be held accountable for the emotional absence of a maternal figure throughout his childhood. The reader may therefore see the extent to which Suleiman’s story is influenced by his connection with Libya.

Suleiman is repeatedly exposed to the deceit, violence, torture and executions that define his country and it may therefore be assumed that the emotional scars left by such experiences influence greatly the manner in which he recounts his story. Using the sun as a symbol for the Mokhabarat, Matar describes the rule of the government as oppressive and merciless. He states that “the sun was everywhere”, involving “every person, animal and ant” in a “desperate search for shade … those … grey patches of mercy”. This blistering and brutal nature of the government is later clearly demonstrated in the public and televised execution of Ustath Rashid, Suleiman’s neighbour and his father’s friend. After watching the horrifically explicit hanging of the father of his best friend, Suleiman demands “what was absent in the Stadium? What didn’t intervene to rescue Ustath Rashid?”. The urgency with which Suleiman questions the justice of this situation highlights the effect that the hanging has upon an emotionally impressionable child; a sickening doubt in what he has so far believed to be right, the integrity of the Libyan government. The shock and recoil that Suleiman experiences is later echoed by his observation that ‘nationalism is as thin as a thread”. The reader is shown that the patriotism which burns within one, such as the “fervour that had once caused [Suleiman] to cry” after a Libyan lost a chess match to a Korean, is easily extinguished, but an “emptiness” is left. Thus, the reader may see how although Suleiman later easily transitioned into living in and becoming part of Egypt, Libya had an irreplaceable influence upon his childhood.

The absence of political freedom within Libya at the time of the narration may be considered the cause of the frequent absences of Baba from the family home, a key event throughout Suleiman’s story. Suleiman is often left to be “the man of the house” during Baba’s “business” trips meaning he is without a consistent male figure to be guided by throughout his maturation. This absence is due to Baba’s involvement in a planned revolt against “the Guide”, leading him to spend time at Martyr’s Square, meaning Suleiman is left “to watch Kareem nuzzle into his father’s side” and “wish that Baba was more like Ustath Rashid”. This wish is emotionally conflicting yet poignant in its demonstration of a bewildered child refused a secure relationship with his father due to the political situation of his country. The emotional effect upon a child of living in such a situation of uncertainty is further highlighted by Matar through his description of Suleiman feeling “sick [and] anxious that [he] had somehow done the wrong thing” upon his discovery that Baba lies about the destination and purpose of his trips. Thus, the reader sees how lies and secrets are often a part of a child’s life living within such a regime, and how the lack of freedom may impact upon the emotional well-being of a child.

These enforced physical absences of Baba’s due to the political situation of Libya are then translated by Matar into the emotional absences of Najwa, Suleiman’s “Mama”. It may be seen that Najwa’s “illness” (drinking) is caused by Baba’s “business” trips, with even Suleiman recognising that “she only fell ill when he was away on business”. The worry Najwa experiences regarding the safety of Baba and the consequences of his actions are shown to drive her to alcoholism, to a freedom which in escaping to, she leaves Suleiman behind. This lack of a stable maternal figure within a nine-year-old’s childhood, indirectly caused by the political situation, is subsequently shown within the novel to have highly negative effects upon the emotional stability of the child. Perhaps the most obviously negative effect Mama’s alcoholism has upon Suleiman is his loss of innocence; an initiation into complex issues such as chastity, the enforced purity of women, and the lust of men; all issues highly important within Libyan culture. Suleiman remembers that at such times, his mother said words “that made [his] cheeks blush and [his] chest so heavy that it seemed impossible to carry on living without spilling them”. These reactions indicate Suleiman’s knowledge of topics that will tarnish and in time steal away his innocence, a knowledge indirectly given to him by the political situation of the country.

“In the Country of Men” explores themes of loyalty and betrayal, particularly in regard to one’s country. Libya is shown to be a prominent influence in the childhood of Suleiman, both directly and indirectly. The absence of political freedom within Libya translates itself in the novel into the physical absences of Suleiman’s father, resulting in the emotional absences of his mother. Thus, the reader may see how the political sate of the nation pervades every corner of Suleiman’s home, influencing all aspects of his life and thus proving to be far more than merely an incidental backdrop for his story.

Emotional Impact of Absence: Troubled Personal Development in ‘In the Country of Men’

The childhood of Suleiman is portrayed as lacking in many elements that should be fundamental to the healthy maturation of an individual. Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men explores how the lack of political justice within Libya translates itself into many forms of absence within the lives of the citizens. Perhaps the most obvious element lacking in the life of Suleiman is a sense of freedom, a void that is experienced by every character within his narration. This can be held accountable for the physical absences of Suleiman’s father, and in turn the emotional absence of a maternal figure throughout his childhood. Each of these absences irrevocably impacts Suleiman’s development in a time of political and domestic instability.

The obvious lack of political freedom and justice within 1979 Libya is shown throughout the novel to be confusing and ultimately destructive to the innocence of nine-year-old Suleiman. Suleiman is repeatedly exposed to the deceit, violence, torture and executions that define his country. It may therefore be assumed that the emotional scars left behind by such experiences undoubtedly impacted the development of his character. Using the sun as a symbol for the Mokhabarat, Matar describes the rule of the government as oppressive and merciless, stating that ‘the sun was everywhere’, involving ‘every person, animal and ant’ in a ‘desperate search for shade … those … grey patches of mercy.’ This blistering and brutal nature of the government is later clearly demonstrated in the publicly televised execution of Suleiman’s neighbour, Uncle Rashid. After watching the horrifically explicit hanging of the father of his closest friend, Suleiman questions ‘what was absent in the Stadium? What didn’t intervene to rescue Ustath Rashid?’. The urgency with which Suleiman questions the justice of this situation highlights the effect that the hanging has upon an emotionally impressionable child; a sickening doubt in what he has so far believed to be right, the autocratic rule of the Mokhabarat. Additionally, in light of this event, how Suleiman views the adults he is dependent on changes, and he is forced to recognise that even they are powerless to halt this evil and are just as vulnerable as he feels himself to be. As Suleiman, Najwa and Moosa witness the execution, Suleiman states of Najwa’s face that he ‘had never seen it like this before’ and later that he ‘had never seen [Moosa] cry before’, highlighting the gradual loss of a complete, innocent dependence upon the infallibility of the adult world. We may therefore see that this loss, in conjunction with the emotional shock that the hanging causes within Suleiman, culminates in the loss of innocent faith in the justice and freedom that should rule a child’s world.

The absence of political freedom within Libya at the time of the narration may be considered the cause of the frequent absences of Baba from the family home, resulting in an emotional estrangement between himself and his son. Suleiman is often left to be ‘the man of the house’ during Baba’s ‘business’ trips, meaning he is without a consistent male figure to be guided by during his maturation. The emotional hunger of Suleiman to be with his father is shown in his expressed desire to be ‘following Baba like a shadow’, the privilege rather of Nasser. This contact is denied, and leaves Suleiman to ‘watch Kareem nuzzle into his father’s side’ and ‘wish that Baba was more like Ustath Rashid’. This wish is emotionally conflicting, yet poignant in its demonstration of a bewildered child refused a secure relationship with his father. Furthermore, Suleiman’s discovery that Baba lies about certain aspects of his absences causes him to feel ‘sick, anxious that [he] had somehow done the wrong thing’, highlighting the confusion of a child who knows something is wrong yet is unable to define what it is. Such confusion ultimately increases the distance between Suleiman and his father and results in an even greater emotional disconnection, and the loss of a reliable paternal figure that should be fundamental to the development of a child.

The physical absences of Baba are translated by Matar into the emotional absences of Mama. It may be seen that Mama’s ‘illness’ (drinking) is caused by Baba’s ‘business’ trips (rebellion against the government), with even Suleiman recognising ‘she only fell ill when he was away on business’. The worry Mama experiences regarding the safety of Baba and the consequences of his actions are shown to drive her to alcoholism, to a freedom which in so escaping to, she leaves Suleiman behind. Perhaps the most obvious effect Mama’s alcoholism has upon Suleiman is his loss of innocence; an initiation into complex issues such as chastity, the imposed purity of women, and the lust of men. Suleiman recounts that when under the influence of alcohol, his mother said words ‘that made [his] cheeks blush and [his] heart shudder’, they ‘pressed down on [his] chest, so heavy that it seemed impossible to carry on living without spilling them.’ These reactions indicate Suleiman’s knowledge of topics that will tarnish and in time steal his innocence, an innocence his mother should have made it her duty to protect with her presence.

In the Country of Men ultimately demonstrates to its audience the many forms that absence may take, and how these in turn are able to affect the emotional state and growth of all those experiencing it. Within the novel, the lack of political freedom is obvious, and can be interpreted as being the root of all other absences within the novel, such as the physical and emotional absences of parental figures in Suleiman’s life. These in turn have highly negative effects upon Suleiman’s development of character, therefore highlighting certain aspects of childhood which are considered fundamental by Matar to the wholesome growth of a child.