In Other Words

Muse of the Revolution

A Syrian-American writer finds her voice, with help from Libya's most famous novelist.

I had two New Year's resolutions in 2011: to read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Anna was completed by Jan. 25 -- just when our lives turned into a 24-hour TV marathon tuned to Cairo's Tahrir Square as the world watched a dictator fall in 18 short days. We Syrians knew our country was not Egypt or Tunisia, but when even Libya ignited on Feb. 15, we collectively held our breath with hope. The weeks passed, the uprisings around the Arab world grew larger and more determined, and the seven volumes of Proust slowly collected dust on my nightstand.

Another writer entered my life instead.

I had never heard of Hisham Matar before February 2011. But after reading one of his early op-eds about the Libyan revolution, I immediately downloaded In the Country of Men, his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel about a 9-year-old boy in Tripoli whose father is abducted by Muammar al-Qaddafi's secret police. I finished it in two days. Matar portrayed a Libya that at once cradles the novel's young protagonist, Suleiman, and disillusions him. It was an intimate introduction to a country I knew virtually nothing about, except that its eccentric dictator with his crazy outfits was definitely worse than our own strongman, Bashar al-Assad. I was taken by the fact that such a courageous book, originally published in Britain and now widely translated, had been released back in 2006, when Qaddafi's oppressive regime and police network were still strong.

Matar's personal essays often revolve around an all-too-similar subject: the real-life abduction of his father, Jaballa, a high-ranking Libyan opposition figure who was seized from their family's home in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Qaddafi's notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. "My loss is self-renewing, insistent and incomplete," Matar wrote in one essay, published just after In the Country of Men. "What I want is to know what happened to my father." But Matar's demands remained unanswered: He lost contact with his father in 1996 and never found out what happened to him, even after returning to Libya 16 years later in the months following the revolution that toppled Qaddafi.

In that revolution, Matar found new cause for speaking out. On Feb. 15, 2011, during the very first protest in Libya, citizens demonstrating in Benghazi's streets held up posters of Jaballa Matar and other political prisoners, demanding their release, Matar was told. Over the next few days, demonstrators were shot and killed as they chanted for their rights. "I appeal to Colonel Gaddafi and his security forces," Matar wrote in the Guardian three days later, "for the sake of the mothers, for the sake of those who died, for the sake of Libya, please don't shoot and torture your people." As the revolution progressed, Matar set up a makeshift media office in his London apartment and worked around the clock connecting activists to journalists. When his sources confirmed that regime troops were massing outside Benghazi, preparing to raid the city and potentially kill thousands of Libyans, Matar was one of the voices that called for the international community to help prevent a massacre -- "to assist the uprising and limit the soaring loss of innocent life," as he wrote in the New York Times.

It was a bold appeal and one that most Syrians -- scarred by the U.S. occupation of neighboring Iraq and afraid of inviting imperialism into our country -- still struggle with after two years of regime brutality. Instead, we merely watch as the Syrian army and air force, assisted by Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, continue to bomb our country daily and the bodies continue to pile up -- 100,000 and counting. Today, Matar's pleas for intervention no longer inspire the uncertainty I felt when I originally read his words. He was right to stand up for Libya, and the Syrians who have held back from such blunt demands, whether out of pride or fear or both, have been proved devastatingly wrong.

FOR ME, HISHAM MATAR'S writing became the emblem of the Arab Spring. I read everything he wrote, religiously -- his articles, his second novel, even his Facebook page. His words were powerful and brave. He was my guide to Libya, and then, after March 15, 2011 -- the first day of the Syrian uprisings that would morph into nationwide devastation -- he was one of the reasons I began to write about Syria.

I still remember the exact day when I made my decision: March 20, 2011, as we watched Syrian police attack the city of Daraa. A native of Aleppo, I had left Syria for the United States more than a decade earlier, but my memories of my home country were a heavy burden. I drew a straight line between the massacre in Hama that President Hafez al-Assad had carried out in 1982 and the bloodshed carried out in Daraa by his son Bashar. My parents' generation had been silent under Hafez. Now my generation faced the same choice: speak the truth or turn away. I did not come from a political family and had not been trained as a writer, but in the end, I made a selfish choice: to write, so I could keep a record of my own voice for later, as proof that I was not silent. I did not know then that I would go on to narrate the stories of other Syrians whose voices might be unheard otherwise.

Matar's work was my compass -- a shield of literary courage. In the Country of Men and his other novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, are both political treatises on tyranny and oppression narrated from within the most intimate of settings: a family's home. His storytelling dissects the moments when innocence is lost and family relationships are destroyed because of the brutal, everyday intrusions of a police state -- when a schoolboy lies still in the dark of his dorm room, for instance, wondering about his missing father: "kidnap, abduction, theft?"

The world Matar describes is one we know well as Syrians: what it is like to fear surveillance constantly, never to trust, to be silent when an injustice happens right in front of you. He examines those moments that break you, even as a child: when you first learn that people disappear, are tortured for dissent, are killed for voicing their beliefs. His stories help readers understand why silence becomes the only option for survival and how the absence of the disappeared consumes those left behind: "[T]here is this void," the young Suleiman muses, "this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike."

Over time, Hisham and I became friends -- first virtually, then in person. I took every similarity between us as a sign: the city where we were both born but did not live in long enough to ever be from, the profession we had studied but did not practice, our homelands with similar madmen filling the role of leader while slaughtering thousands. Our countries were parallel lines on the same path. The only difference was that Libya was just a bit closer to the finish line. But this was not a race, we told ourselves; we would all get there eventually. Or so we believed.

At the end of the summer of 2011, Tripoli fell to the rebels. Two months after that, Qaddafi was killed. Libya flipped the page to its post-revolution chapter, while my country transitioned to an even steadier flow of bloodletting. Syrians began to place bets on Assad's fall, always choosing randomly symbolic dates. It would definitely be by the Eid al-Adha holiday in the fall -- or maybe on the national holiday that marks the anniversary of Hafez al-Assad's Nov. 16 military coup. By New Year's 2012 for sure, because it can't go on much longer than that. Right?

Every few weeks, these forecasts shifted another few months into the future. Then the siege of the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs in February 2012 changed everything. The warplanes, urban destruction, escalation of violence, mass exodus of residents, and brutal civilian massacres that followed revealed an evil we could not have imagined. For the first time, I longed for a disheveled dictator with crazy outfits. At least he was dead.

I stayed in touch with Hisham, though less frequently. The revolutions that had bonded us turned out to be asymptotes -- curves that approached each other but would never meet. Instead, we discussed other things: music, architecture, books, and, of course, writing. His spoken and written sentences were often peppered with endearing exclamations of "fantastic!" Hisham loves Proust more than anyone else I know. He insisted to me that there is only one way to read the great French novelist: the way he had, "in one go." Suffering from revolution fatigue, I took his challenge and renewed my resolution at the beginning of this year. Months later and only 185 pages in, the goal seems, once again, impossible.

Hisham never failed to remind me that I was more than just a reflection of the revolution. I knew at some level that he did not completely approve of the way I was going about things -- becoming consumed by the events happening across the world and forgetting the other parts of my life, like the novel I had stopped writing when the revolution began or the hours I had once spent reading purely for pleasure. "I often feel you are trapped," he once told me, "and I want to pluck you out of this entrapment but fail in knowing how." I didn't know either.

I COULDN'T REMEMBER the last time I had bought a magazine, but I couldn't wait to pick up the New Yorker this past April to read Matar's essay on his return trip to Libya in 2012. "The Return" is the unfinished chapter in a personal saga, when Matar finally moves beyond his father's disappearance, from its anatomy to its aftermath. The text is classic Matar, filled with beautiful, short, quiet sentences. Scenes are described by changes in the color of light: shadows like "black claws on the cars," a Libyan landscape the "color of healed skin." There are no surprising or dramatic plot twists. Instead there are portraits of pain and loss: an ill-fitting suit, an elderly prisoner who lost his memory and was found in his Abu Salim cell with a photograph of Jaballa Matar, a heart-wrenching phone call between Hisham in London and a man in Tripoli breaking open rusted cell doors one after the other in search of Jaballa -- a conversation ending with the words, "I am sorry."

As I read the essay, my mind zigzagged back and forth between Libya and Syria. "What do you do," Matar writes of his country, "when you cannot leave and cannot return?" I thought about what it would be like if I could travel back in time to before the Syrian revolution. Back before I had become immune to feeling repulsed at the image of a corpse in any form -- tortured, scorched, decapitated, blown to pieces. Back before knowing what it is like to hear from my brother, then still in the Aleppo countryside, "Today I had a close encounter with a MiG." Back before I had to wonder whether a drafting table I had once slid my T-square against might now carry the body parts of students from my university. Back when my country was still whole.

I had a clear but utterly irrational thought: What if I had never known of Hisham Matar or his father, Jaballa, or his resistance and courage? What if I could be like so many people around me who say, "Syria, it's so sad" -- and then go about their days? I might have sat out the Syrian revolution like my lifelong friends, who look at me now with their pity and "I told you so" smirks. I might also have been spared the firsthand knowledge that having a voice had turned out to be as devastating as being silent.

"Living in hope is a really terrible thing," Hisham said in a 2011 interview. "Certainty is far more desirable than hope." I used to disagree. Now I'm not so sure.

In the most powerful scene in "The Return," Matar recalls kneeling over a metal grille on a New York City sidewalk and weeping for his father, whose all but certain death he had finally accepted. There was no escape from the gray, underground concrete space beneath the grille, "a room, barely high enough for a man to stand and certainly not wide enough for him to lie down." He peered into that dark space so many of us know, where we face our fears, our sorrow, our destiny. The place where hope dies.

"I was done with resistance," he announces in the essay. I did not know how envious I was of those words until I read them. How I longed to be done with the battles, the bloodshed, and everything that we could not stop. I longed to be done with resistance too.

I composed a message to Hisham but erased it three times before sending it. I settled with "When can we talk?" When he called, I began to cry as he said in his gentle voice, "I'm sorry; I'm so terribly sorry." He listened to my incoherent ramblings and did not say "fantastic" once. He seemed happy about my renewed attempt to read In Search of Lost Time, though he abandoned his "only way to read Proust" rule and instead kindly told me, "People approach Proust in different ways." He gave me permission to read again for pleasure, merely to seek beauty in the sentences. In doing so, he unknowingly gave me permission to not be just like him.

HOW DO YOU measure time during a revolution, during a war? The seasons pass, and no one places bets on a date for Assad's fall anymore. Syrian time is measured by massacres and tragedies and the growing number of dead. Remember when it was 2,000? 10,000? 40,000? 70,000? 100,000? Remember?

Jaballa Matar once told his son, "Knowing a book by heart is like carrying a house inside your chest." If he only knew how I -- how Libyans and Syrians and others like me -- carry his son's heavy words in our chests and how they are more than a house. They are entire geographies of belonging and loss. Two long years ago, I used to ask Syrians: Have you read Hisham Matar? I used to press paperback copies of In the Country of Men into people's hands and promise, "It will change your life."

Books may change you, but beware in believing that you can change anything just because of something you read or something you write. Most times, words can't change anything at all. All the truth and the stories and the dead and the time lost can't save Syria. What remains is only the question of whether we can pull ourselves out of those spaces of despair that we constructed out of hope.

Some months ago, my friend Hisham, who has the rare gift of saying much in so few words, messaged me: "Remember my dear that revolutions exist both to save and destroy us." In the name of perpetually living in hope, I had forgotten what he had said until it was too late.

Top image: David Levenson/Getty Images Europe; iStockphoto

2nd image: Aleppo University, Jan. 15, 2013; AFP/Getty Images

In Other Words

The Cookbook Theory of Economics

Why Chinese and Mexican dominate the market.

When was the last time you came home hungry after a long day of work and reached for that Chadian cookbook? Could you even name a dish from Chad? It's not that Chadian food is lousy. Anyone who has had its dish of gently stewed beef with ground peanuts atop rice would agree it's delicious. So why is it that some countries' cuisines are world famous and others are largely unknown? I've eaten splendid food from Honduras to Yemen and many countries in between, though you'd be hard-pressed to find a good Yemeni restaurant in most Western cities, much less a decent cookbook telling you how to prepare mutafayyah -- fish braised in a spicy tomato paste -- or how to master the finer points of making the layered, eggy Yemeni bread mutabaqiah.

Just try looking for foreign cookbooks in any American bookstore: The shelves will be littered with French and Italian fare, East Asian and Indian selections, and a smattering from places south of the equator. The very geography tells a story: Call it the cookbook indicator of economic development.

First consider global cuisines like Mexican or Chinese. You can find a handful of good cookbooks pretty much anywhere these days. It's not just that we're all suckers for guacamole or stir-fry. It's development economics in practice -- a foodie measure of how much these societies have moved toward greater commercialization, large-scale production, and standardization of production processes. Quite simply, it's the recipe for economic progress.

I recall a trip a few years ago to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I was surprised to find that virtually all restaurants were Chinese or Indian. They were excellent, but still I wanted some local food. In a fit of desperation, I paid the maid to make me a Tanzanian dish in the hotel kitchen, a kind of improvised room service, with a large tip attached. I ended up with a sort of porridge that looked quite simple but tasted delicious. As I was enjoying the meal, it occurred to me that writing down the recipe wouldn't do much good, as I wouldn't be able to reproduce it at home. The grain -- perhaps a maize flour or millet -- was unfamiliar, and the rest of the local ingredients were fresher and more delicious than anything I could easily get my hands on at home in Fairfax, Virginia. A recipe like "cook grain; add water and salt" wouldn't get me far, not even with Whole Foods at my disposal. I'm a fan of East African food, but I haven't seen this dish since. Even Google does not yield many useful leads for Tanzanian restaurants in the United States, and Amazon lists just three Tanzanian cookbooks, availability limited. Clearly, Tanzanian cuisine doesn't extend far beyond the country's borders.

Geography and circumstance play a role in this: Countries blessed with good soil and home to stable agrarian societies tend to develop richer and more interesting food culture than nomadic societies from hardscrabble lands. Take China and Turkmenistan, which are roughly similar in GDP per capita but on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to contributions to the world's culinary tradition. We owe kung pao chicken and mapo tofu -- not to mention thousands of other dishes perfected over thousands of years -- to China's natural bounty, culture of trading, and historically prosperous, literate, and farming society. Not being landlocked helps too.

So does textbook development economics. Consider how cooking evolves: It starts in the home and then eventually spreads to restaurants and on to cookbooks, along the way transforming a recipe from oral tradition to commercialized product. In the home, recipes are often transmitted from grandmother to mother, or from father to son, or simply by watching and participating. I've seen this in rural Mexico, for instance, when an older daughter teaches her younger sister how to pat tortillas the right way. When societies get richer, you start to see restaurants, a form of specialization like auto mechanics or tailors (see: Adam Smith on the division of labor). Restaurants require that strangers -- other cooks -- be taught the process. That means simplifying or standardizing ingredients so they're easier to work with and, in many cases, available year-round. This, of course, means writing down the recipe. Once a dish reaches these commercial milestones, cookbooks will follow.

Thai cuisine hit U.S. shores in the late 1960s, thanks to American troops on R&R in Bangkok during the Vietnam War who brought the taste home, and it wasn't long before restaurants followed. Soon, a booming economy and international trade made it a whole lot easier to find galangal and lemongrass, which allowed Thai restaurants to thrive. Today, any major U.S. city has at least a half-dozen places where you can find a decent green chicken curry. And once a cuisine proliferates, people want to be able to cook it at home.

But that doesn't mean the Mexican mole you're preparing in your kitchen, for instance, is necessarily like what you'd get in Oaxaca. Mexican food, as it is cooked in Mexico, still straddles being perfect for cookbooks and not being ready for cookbooks at all, depending on where you are. This reflects a deeper inequality and imbalance in the Mexican economy: In the United States, Americans tend to get a lot more northern Mexican food than southern (blame proximity), as well as food that would be more often found on tables of the wealthy or middle class in, say, Mexico City than in a rural village in Chiapas.

There is a series of 50-plus Spanish-language volumes (with likely more to come) titled Cocina Indígena y Popular (loosely, Common Local Cuisine). These books capture the eclectic and ancient world of Mexican cooking; they attempt to write up the indescribable. One recipe, palo amarillo ("yellow stick"), from the volume on the foods of the Tarahumara people, requires the fruit of a rubber tree and notes that the tree should be an old one and also that its brush can be combined with wool for sewing and knitting. Then we are told that the fruit comes in black and white, that the tree no longer grows in "the canyon" (which canyon is not identified), that the fruit ripens in May, and that the tree's flower has an attractive yellow color. The rest is up to the chef. The takeaway of course is that most actual recipes, at least in their original pre-capitalist forms, aren't very useful.

For a contrasting take on modern, globalized Mexican cuisine, see the excellent books by Rick Bayless, Diana Kennedy, and Marge Poore, among others. If you do exactly what these books tell you, the dishes will be very tasty, even if you still won't be experiencing how most people eat in rural Mexican villages. Virtually all ingredients in these books can be found in a decent Latino grocery store in the United States. But that store won't have half the variety or freshness of what you'd find in a local Mexican market, so these recipes tend to de-emphasize the role of fresh herbs -- or substitute others -- in soups, sauces, and other dishes. And forget finding the fruit of that rubber tree. That's the price of progress, in Mexico and in our cookbooks.

It's true for other cuisines too. In most made-for-Westerners cookbooks, ingredients are transformed by the needs of the new global consumer who is going to make the food. Consider any of Madhur Jaffrey's seminal Indian cookbooks: You'll need to pick up some turmeric, garam masala, and ghee, but she won't ask you to consider which specific kind of cream or milk you're using, even though she would need to do so to make the recipe really accurate in India, where much of the country has not yet entered the age of fully standardized, nationally marketed dairy products and there's a bewildering array of them to choose from, not the globalized few to which a U.S. consumer is accustomed.

Julie Sahni's monumental book, Classic Indian Cooking, clocks in at close to 600 pages, 95 of which are preliminary materials, covering what white poppy seeds are, what "curry" means, and how to squeeze water from Indian cheese. But Indian cookbooks for Indians, the kind I've picked up for $2 apiece on my wanderings through bookshops in Mumbai and Kerala, are intended mostly for Indian women, so the books take this kind of knowledge for granted. Once they stop doing so, we'll know something else about India's economic development -- the point at which young working women no longer have time to learn from grandma the intricacies of making vindaloo or chana. It's the cookbook authors who rescue the recipes that would otherwise be lost or homogenized in the frantic race to modernity.

Cookbooks can also tell us when we've reached some post-modern stage of economic development: It's when cookbooks cease to be useful at all. Consider Susur: A Culinary Life by the brilliant Susur Lee, of Toronto and Singapore fame. His recipe for "Roast Duck Breast and Burdock Root and Duck Leg Confit Crepe with Spiced Caramelized Chestnuts and Goat Cheese" requires 51 ingredients and necessitates referring to six other pages of the cookbook, each of which stipulates still more ingredients. It works best for a coffee table, or as a memento of a restaurant visit -- not for actual cooking. Or look to any of acclaimed Spanish restaurateur Ferran Adrià's books -- the doorstop-sized musings of a chef so brilliant and famous that he actually closed his only restaurant in 2011, like an artist going voluntarily into seclusion until inspiration takes him again. The worst offender, though, may be Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft multi-millionaire and patent troll. His latest whimsy is fine dining, and his six-volume cookbook, Modernist Cuisine, which came out in 2011 and lists for $625, is about as useful as having the instructions to make a superconductor in your home kitchen. It is pretty, though. Indeed, the ultimate luxury is when cookbooks aren't about food production at all.

Cookbooks -- the more practical kind -- also turn out to be good guides to which countries and regions are on the cusp of economic progress. Look at chef Marcus Samuelsson's African cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine, or Naomi Duguid's Burma: Rivers of Flavor, both of which are vast improvements on earlier offerings in their respective regions. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that Africa's economies are booming at near double-digit growth rates or that Myanmar is going through a fundamental economic and political revolution, moving from a closed society to a globalizing developing country.

Soon it will be possible to cook the dishes of the entire world, but only those, alas, that survive the process of commercialization and standardization. I've more or less given up hope of ever finding that unctuous Tanzanian porridge. Meanwhile, if you're looking to see Adam Smith in action, go out and get yourself some Sichuanese peppercorns and some fresh Thai basil -- that's the true wealth of nations.

Photograph by Renée Comet

Styling by Jenn Crovato