My Friends: Friendship, family and the pain of exile

My Friends: Friendship, family and the pain of exile
Book Club: Hisham Matar's My Friends is a story of three friends living in political exile, their encounters and how community provides emotional nourishment.
5 min read
06 March, 2024

In his new novel more than a decade ago, Hisham Matar explores themes that have long concerned him: exile, family, and dissidence to the Gaddafi regime in Libya while navigating the often-murky space between freedom and oppression.

My Friends is a story of encounters and how community provides emotional nourishment even when it changes over time.

Khaled, Matar’s protagonist, reminisces about his life as he walks home one evening. His series of flashbacks told over a two-hour stroll into physical London and the metaphorical fog of memory consider comings and goings and how two decisive friends, Mustafa and Hosam, have shaped his character and personal trajectory.

Book Club
Live Story

Khaled, the son of a Benghazi teacher, is haunted by an odd short story he hears on the radio one day with his family.

The reverberation of the story follows him when he leaves Libya for the United Kingdom to study, not only to consider its meaning but also the whereabouts of its enigmatic author, Hosam Zowa.

"Benghazi and London are his twin homes and, in that duality, we recognise a recurring struggle between two parts of himself. One evokes childhood and all its Mediterranean radiance while the other throws him into a world of self-reliance as a sudden refugee"

In Edinburgh, under surveillance from fellow students acting for the regime as snitches, he befriends another student, Mustafa.

Together, Khaled and Mustafa agree to what they don’t know yet to be a life-altering decision. They attend a demonstration in front of the Libyan Embassy in London, which quickly descends into horror.

Based on real-life events which occurred in 1984, individuals fired from the embassy in the direction of protesters, killing Metropolitan Police Officer Yvonne Fletcher.

In the book, Khaled is injured during the shooting, and as a result of his participation, his life takes a turn. He can no longer return to his studies in Scotland anticipating that other Libyans would denounce him and Mustafa and he can no longer return to Libya for fear of retaliation against him or his family.

He must find strength and resolve to rebuild a life as a young adult when his future unexpectedly dissolves.

Matar aptly describes life as a series of events and seemingly spontaneous decisions, which are propelled by the characters’ inner longings, revealed as they face more arduous choices.

There’s a bit of fate in this. Khaled’s dissidence is subdued at first. He does not identify with the Gaddafi informants; his temperament is more introverted than confrontationally incandescent.

His is a quiet form of perseverance and patience as London becomes a place of refuge and the start of a new chapter away from the warmth of his Benghazi home.

Book Club
Live Story

Friendship holds the power to transform and elevate us. It embodies companionship and it also represents an avatar of becoming. Khaled, Mustafa, and later, Hosam, commiserate and their intimacy waxes and wanes over time.

The three of them have built different lives in exile but they exist in the same mould originating in their brutal separation from their homeland. Literature provides solace and binds the three friends, through the lasting influence of that story that Khaled remembers from Benghazi, which acts as a marker of their bygone selves.

My Friends sensitively depicts their relationship as brotherly and tender in their accidental and sometimes changing ways.

Interestingly, Khaled’s romantic infatuations almost mirror his divided soul and attachments. A passionate summer fling with Seham, someone closer to his heritage, leads nowhere, just like Libya to Khaled, and he eventually becomes faithful to his longtime girlfriend Hannah which further serves to demonstrate his acceptance of a life in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the ebullient Rana takes on the role of a surrogate sister. Each of these individuals tests Khaled’s character as someone conflicted with belonging to two places at the same time – a dilemma known by many facing uprootedness.

A critical question that is explored in the book is our attitudes and reactions to injustice and oppression. Characters take different stances on this issue, which is best articulated in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.

The letters exchanged between Hosam and Khaled form a ritual and a promise despite upheavals. Matar weaves habits and routines like a scaffolding that holds Khaled together.

Regular walks summon memory. Café Rendez-vous kindle fading connections. Khaled has rented the same modest apartment for more than thirty years as if unable to step into a new phase.

Book Club
Live Story

Benghazi and London are his twin homes and, in that duality, we recognise a recurring struggle between two parts of himself. One evokes childhood and all its Mediterranean radiance while the other throws him into a world of self-reliance as a sudden refugee. London takes on the role of a witness, in the way that cities confer a blanket anonymity and the charisma of a stage.  

Even the shadows are allotted their places, and London is a city of shadows, a city made of shadows, for people like me who can be here a lifetime yet remain as invisible as ghosts. I see its light and stone, its shut fists and loitering lawns, its hungry mouths and acres of unutterable secrets, a muscle tightening all around me. I am watching my old friend, the distance between us, from within its grip.

My Friends is the author’s third novel. It was foreshadowed in Matar’s previous books such as in his acclaimed memoir, The Return (2016), in which he narrates his journey back to post-revolutionary Libya, retracing his attempts to grapple with the loss of his dissident father kidnapped from Cairo and detained by the Gaddafi regime in 1990.

Then, he had mentioned in passing the 1984 Libyan Embassy shooting in London, planting the seeds of a distinct literary work on the grip that power and politics hold over someone’s individuality.

“It was a book I needed to write: I felt like it was coming out of my veins,” Matar said in a recent interview. What is achieved in My Friends is a thoughtful meditation on life’s travails, comradeship, and the stubborn furrows of time.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis