‘I don’t remember a time when words were not dangerous’

Hisham Matar in The Guardian:

HishamI don’t remember a time when words were not dangerous. But it was around this time, in the late 1970s, when I was a young schoolboy in Tripoli, that the risks had become more real than ever before. There were things I knew my brother and I shouldn’t say unless we were alone with our parents. I don’t remember my mother or father explicitly telling us what not to say. It was simply implied and quickly understood that certain words strung together in a particular order could have grave consequences. Men were locked up for saying the wrong thing or because they were innocently quoted by a child. “Really, your uncle said that? What’s his name?” It was as though a listening, bad-intentioned ghost was now present at every gathering. It brought with it a new silence – wary and suspicious – that was to remain in our lives for many years. Even when I was writing my first novel in a shed in Bedfordshire, beside the River Great Ouse, I could feel the disapproving hot breath of the dictator at my neck. It did not matter that I was writing in English and yet to have a publisher; I was nonetheless writing into and against that silence. But back when I was still a boy, when I only lived in one language, that silence, like black smoke from a new fire, was still growing. Lists, drafted by the authorities, were read on television. They contained the names of those to be questioned. That was how, one afternoon, I heard our name, by which I mean my father’s name, read out. He was abroad. He did not return to Tripoli. A year or so later, we left the country to be reunited with him in Cairo where a new life began: new schools and new teachers.

More here.