Reconstructing Arab Identity: Breaking with Religion and Community for the Rise of the Individual

By Nevine Abraham
Submitted to Session P6201 (Contemporary Fiction and Film, 2020 Annual Meeting
Arab States;
Arab Studies;
Religion, whether Islam or Christianity, as well as communal pressure exercise daily influence over Arab citizens’ thoughts, language, and actions. Religion shapes their ideas on fatalism and the individual’s existence, while community dictates social norms. Many Arab literary works have highlighted the effect of this dual system on the limitations of Arab citizens’ active role in society and their will to create change under repressive regimes. This abstract aims to analyze Libyan-American novelist, Hisham Matar’s, In the Country of Men, where he subtly pinpoints this correlation through the narrative told by a 9-year-old, Suleiman, who grows up under Gaddafi’s regime in the 1970s, exposed to a belief system espoused by his family, friends, and neighbors, who await God’s salvation to bring justice to citizens, manipulate others under a hierarchy of power, divided between supporters and opponents to the regime, but where also some are ambivalent about dissent and loyalty. The novel traces Suleiman’s upbringing and development, observing the regime’s and society’s fluid and erroneous definitions of treason and heroism, elimination of individuality, and consciousness of the danger associated with an individual’s name.
In this paper, I shall argue that the child’s monologues and implicit use of analogies such as Sheharazade and Shehrayar’s story and slavery, question the fluidity and societal conflation of such key terms as “betrayal,” “traitor,” and “faithful,” and insinuate a longing for authority and revenge vis-à-vis the hegemony of religious beliefs and societal perception of “treason,” “loyalty,” and “faith,” terms molded by the ruling power and used daily by most citizens. He questions his faith in a higher authority, overcomes the hierarchy of power, redefines heroism and treason, and breaks with the culture of submissiveness to fatalism and with an incapacitating social belief system, all in favor of the rise of the individual as an active agent against religion and community.