Review by Walter Cummins
My Friends is a haunted novel. Haunted by loss of places and people, by distressing memories, by the scars of a physical wound, by stolen possibilities. The frame of the telling is the day Khaled sees Hosam, one of his two best friends, board the Chunnel train from St. Pancreas station in London to Paris, Khaled certain he will never see Hosam again.
The rest of that day Khaled roams the streets of the city, revisiting places central to his many years there and motivating recollections of other cities that have been crucial to him—such as his Libyan birthplace of Benghazi, Paris, where he first met Hosam, and Edinburgh, where he first came to university after he left Libya at eighteen. There he found a fellow student named Mustafa and bonded for their future.
For all of his travels, associations, and events, for all that is seared into his memories, Khaled is an unsettled man, uprooted and lost, living what is effectively an accidental life. His friends have been his grounding, and even they—in spite of all their time together—turn out to be ephemeral.
At Edinburgh University, in a lecture on Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” Professor Walbrook makes an observation that defines the fundamental dilemmas to soon overwhelm Khaled’s life: “Here we have two untranslatable experiences. The first is the friendship, which, like all friendships, one cannot fully describe to anyone else. The second is grief, which again, like all forms of grief, is horrible exactly for how uncommunicable it is.”
The central antagonist that obsesses the three friends is the perverse Libyan dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi, where opponents of the regime are imprisoned and assassinated, even if living abroad, as in London. It is in that city that young Khaled and Mustafi, on what they expect to be a brief trip from Edinburgh, make a casual decision that uproots their existences.
On his walk through London after Hosam leaves, Khaled forces himself to return to the site where, decades before, he and Mustafi chose to participate in a protest across from the Libyan embassy on St. James Square. Men with guns appear at the windows of the building and suddenly begin shooting into the crowd. Both Khaled and Mustafa are wounded, Khaled most gravely, spending weeks in a hospital, his midsection permanently disfigured with scars. This ordeal creates a strong link between the two men, who cannot return to the university in Edinburgh and certainly not to home and family in Libya. Effectively, having lost control over their lives, they are trapped in London. It turns out, as revealed many years later, Hosam too was outside the embassy at the fringe of the protesters but walked away unharmed. The British give Khaled permanent residency, but for his safety he must exist under a false identity.
The April 17, 1984, embassy shooting is a historical event, although Matar, unlike his fictional creations, did not participate. Yet his life was marked by a related personal tragedy he wrote about in both a memoir and through a parallel circumstance in a novel. His father, a Libyan diplomat, disappeared in Cairo and was never found, certainly a Qaddafi victim, the details of his fate never discovered. While none of the characters in My Friends loses a father in that manner, political circumstances alienate them from their families for decades, and people they know or know of are assassinated by the regime.
Hosam, just five years older than Khaled, has been a force in Khaled’s life since Khaled’s teen years when he heard Hosam’s profound short story read by the well-known Libyan voice of Mohammed Mustafa Ramadan on the BBC Arabic World Service. After publishing a story collection, Hosam then stops writing, essentially vanished from the literary scene. Mohammed Mustafa Ramadan, in a London mosque, ends up murdered by two young Libyan agents whose names Hosam tracks down years later as part of his research into Qaddafi assassinations.
Eventually, the three men—Khaled, Hosam, and Mustafa—all have flats in London, where Khaled has been living since his wounding. They meet often at a bar called Cyrano’s for long conversations. While Khaled feels very close to each of the others, Mustafa maintains a distance from Hosam, blaming him for seeming to have abandoned the anti-Qaddafi cause. All that changes when the Arab Spring rebellions break out in the North African Maghreb countries, particularly Libya.
The fight against Qaddafi brings both Hosam and Mustafa back home, where they distinguish themselves as prominent warriors, achieving a personal closeness they lacked in London: “When they met on the battlefield in Libya, they became closer than I could ever be to either one of them.” It’s Khaled who cannot bring himself to return to Libya to join the struggle, not out of cowardness, but more from an inability to make a commitment, to know where he truly belongs, where his life is meant to be.
He functions at the edges, the two friends who sustained him and gave him meaning gone, ultimately out of touch. The woman in his life, Hannah, who married another man because Khaled could not bring himself to ask her, now divorced, is available again. They sleep together, but he cannot stay the night because one of her children will want to crawl into bed with her in the morning. Khaled is not essential to anyone’s life. He lacks a place and a purpose. The old necessity of a false identity denies him his true self.
He understands his essential loss and his inability to explain it fully: “I will never have the words to explain what it is like to be shot, to lose the ability to return home or to give up on everything I expected my life to be, or why it felt as though I had died that day in St. James’s Square and, through some grotesque accident, been reborn into the hapless shoes of an eighteen-year-old castaway, stranded in a foreign city where he knew no one and could be little use to himself, that all he could just about manage was to march through each day, from beginning to end, and then do it again. I did not know how to say such things then, I still do not, and the inarticulacy filled my mouth.”
And yet Hisham Matar in writing My Friends does possess that ability, the articulateness, to convey how it feels to be Khaled, to lose all control, and to enact a life that was not meant to be his.