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Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar
Hisham Matar in 2011.
Hisham Matar in 2011.
Native name
هشام مطر
Born1970 (age 53–54)
New York City, U.S.
OccupationNovelist, essayist
GenreFiction, Memoir
Notable works
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography (2017)

Hisham Matar (Arabic: هشام مطر) (born 1970)[1] is an American born British-Libyan writer.[2] His memoir of the search for his father, The Return, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography and the 2017 PEN America Jean Stein Book Award.[3] His debut novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.[1] Matar's essays have appeared in the Asharq al-Awsat, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times. His second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published to wide acclaim on 3 March 2011. He lives and writes in London.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Comparative Literature, Asia & Middle East Cultures, and English at Barnard College, Columbia University.[2]

Early life

Hisham Matar was born in New York City, in 1970, the second of two sons. His father, Jaballa Matar, who was considered a political dissident for his opinions on Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's coup in 1969, had to move the family away from Tripoli and was working for the Libyan delegation to the United Nations, in New York, at the time of Matar's birth.

The family moved back to Tripoli, Libya, in 1973, but fled the country again in 1979. Matar was nine when they moved to Cairo, where the family lived in exile,[4][5] and where Matar's father became more vocal against the Gaddafi regime.[6] Matar continued his schooling at Cairo's American school.[7][8]

In 1982, Matar's brother Ziad left for boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Though Matar desperately wanted to join his brother, he had to wait four more years until he too was sixteen. Because of the continued threats by the Libyan dictatorship against their father (as well as a threat to Ziad's safety while he was studying in Switzerland), however, he could not follow his brother to Switzerland. Both boys had to attend the schools under a false identity. Matar chose a school in England and enrolled in 1986.

"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." — Hisham Matar, 2011.[9]

By the time Matar finished his studies, Ziad was a university student in London. Matar decided to pursue his studies in architecture, and later received an MA in Design Futures at Goldsmiths, University of London.

In 1990, while he was still studying in London, his father, Jaballa Matar, was abducted in Cairo. He has been reported missing ever since. In 1996, the family received two letters in his father's handwriting stating that he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police, handed over to the Libyan regime, and imprisoned in the notorious Abu Salim prison in the heart of Tripoli. The letters were the last sign and only thing they had heard from him or about his whereabouts. In 2009, Matar reported that he had received news that his father had been seen alive in 2002, indicating that Jaballa had survived a 1996 massacre of 1200 political prisoners by the Libyan authorities.[10]

"In March 1990, Egyptian secret service agents abducted my father from his home in Cairo. For the first two years they led us to believe that he was being held in Egypt, and told us to keep quiet or else they could not guarantee his safety. In 1992 my father managed to smuggle out a letter. A few months later my mother held it in her hand. His careful handwriting curled tightly on to itself to fit as many words as possible on the single A4 sheet of paper. Words with hardly a space between, above or beneath them. No margins, they run to the brink." —Hisham Matar, 2010.[9]


Hisham Matar has written three novels, two memoirs, and a children's book published in Italian, Il Libro di Dot. He has also written several articles, essays and short stories that have been published on various websites.


In the Country of Men

Matar began writing his first novel, In the Country of Men, in early 2000. In the autumn of 2005, the publishers Penguin International signed him to a two-book deal. In the Country of Men was published in July 2006 and has been translated into 30 languages.[2] ISBN 0-670-91639-0

Anatomy of a Disappearance

Matar's second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, contains a character whose father is taken away by the authorities; while Matar acknowledges the relation to his own father's disappearance, he has stated that the novel is not autobiographical. ISBN 0-670-91651-X

The Return

In 2016, Matar published his memoir The Return.[11] The memoir centers on Matar's return to his native Libya in 2012 to search for the truth behind the 1990 disappearance of his father, a prominent political dissident of the Gaddafi regime.[12] ISBN 0-670-92333-8

Il Libro di Dot

Il Libro di Dot is a children's book released by Matar in 2017. It is his first children's book and was illustrated by Gianluca Buttolo.[13] ISBN 978-8865671924

A Month in Siena

On October 17, 2019, Matar published A Month in Siena. The short book is an affectionate and reflective record of his most recent stay in Siena, Italy and his encounters there with Sienese School artworks.[14] ISBN 9780593129135[15][16]

My Friends

His novel, My Friends, was published in 2024 by Random House in the United States and Viking in the United Kingdom.


This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (December 2019)


Matar has explored themes of loss and exile in his first two novels, as well as in his memoir, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. Matar's writing often borrows from and refers to painting, architecture, and music. Though he has said he cannot remember a time when he wasn't writing, Matar first turned to his interests in music—"And because I had no talent in music," he's said, "I became an architect, and I continued writing. Writing seemed like just the thing you keep doing—like breathing, or walking, or eating."[17]

Hisham Matar on his writing process:[18]

I start with very little: the more fragile, the better. The thread has to feel like it is about to snap. Sometimes I begin with a gesture or, in the case of "Naima," a feeling for a character. I had this feeling for Nuri, the protagonist and narrator. It is like that moment when you rush into the concert hall at the last minute. You find your seat as the lights go down. You have not seen the person sitting beside you, but you have a sense of them, of what they might be like, or of how the music is affecting them, the weight of their silence.

— Hisham Matar, The O. Henry Prize Stories

Awards and honours


  1. ^ a b The Man Booker Prize 2006.
  2. ^ a b c "About". Hisham Matar. Retrieved 2018-02-08.
  3. ^ "The Return". Hisham Matar. Retrieved 2018-02-08.
  4. ^ "Hisham Matar". Penguin UK. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 16 November 2006.
  5. ^ Moss, Stephen (29 June 2006). "Hisham Matar". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 29 June 2006.
  6. ^ Moss, Stephen (2006-06-29). "Stephen Moss: on author Hisham Matar". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  7. ^ Leyshon, Cressida (2011-02-15). "Hisham Matar on Writing and Revolution". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  8. ^ Matar, Hisham (2017-08-28). "A Journalist Abroad Grapples With American Power". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  9. ^ a b "Hisham Matar". The Financial Times. London. 26 February 2011.
  10. ^ "Hisham Matar has just learnt that his father, who disappeared 20 years ago, might be alive", The Guardian, 16 January 2010.
  11. ^ "A memoir of Libya: Tale of a lost father and fatherland". The Economist. 2 July 2016. Retrieved 2 July 2016.
  12. ^ "The Return - Kirkus Review". Kirkus Reviews. April 18, 2016. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  13. ^ "Google Translate". 8 November 2017. Retrieved 2019-12-21.
  14. ^ Smith, P. D. (2019-11-09). "A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar review – art, love and loss". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-12-21.
  15. ^ "A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar: 9780593129135 | Books". Retrieved 2019-12-21.
  16. ^ "Hisham Matar on how the Black Death changed art forever". the Guardian. 2020-06-06. Retrieved 2022-12-02.
  17. ^ WestmontTV (2011-10-14), Lecture: Hisham Matar: In The Country of Men, Oct. 7, 2011, archived from the original on 2021-12-13, retrieved 2018-02-12
  18. ^ "The O. Henry Prize Stories". Retrieved 2018-02-08.
  19. ^ "The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar".
  20. ^ "2017 Jean Stein Winner". PEN American Center. March 28, 2017. Retrieved February 21, 2018.
  21. ^ Schaub, Michael (22 February 2017). "L.A. Times Book Prize finalists include Zadie Smith and Rep. John Lewis; Thomas McGuane will be honored". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2018-02-08.
  22. ^ "Naima"
  23. ^ "2007 Arab American Book Award Winners".
  24. ^ "The Man Booker Award". The Man & Booker groups. Retrieved 10 October 2006.
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Hisham Matar
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