A Novel About a Relationship that Begins with a Short Story

Hisham Matar’s My Friends involves tensions between home, family, and exile, as well as revolution and safety.

Eve Glasberg
July 10, 2024

As a young boy growing up in Benghazi, Libya, Khaled hears a short story read aloud on the radio, about a man being eaten alive by a cat. Khaled has the sense that his life has been changed forever by the story. Obsessed by the power of those words—and by their author, Hosam Zowa—Khaled eventually embarks on a journey that takes him far from home, to pursue a life of the mind at the University of Edinburgh.

This is how My Friends, the new novel by Hisham Matar, a professor of English and Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard, begins. While in college, Khaled starts to change. He attends a protest against the Qaddafi regime in London, where he is seriously injured, and unable to leave Britain, much less return to Libya. He cannot tell his mother and father back home what has happened, on tapped phone lines, as it would expose them to danger.

When a chance encounter in a hotel brings Khaled face-to-face with Hosam Zowa, the author of the short story, he begins the deepest friendship of his life. The friendship eventually forces Khaled, as the Arab Spring erupts, to confront tensions between revolution and safety, family and exile, and how to define his own sense of self against those closest to him.

Columbia News caught up with Matar to discuss the book, along with how teaching affects his writing, what he’s reading this summer, and which writers he would love to invite over for a meal.

How did this book come about?

I had written the first paragraph some eight or nine years before and it remained with me, turning in my head, and I carried it in the silence of my thoughts all this time, while writing other books, all the while wondering what it was about, who was the voice speaking, and why it moved me so. I knew it was a novel about friendship. Little else. 

My Friends, a novel by Barnard College Professor Hisham Matar

How does the intersection of teaching and writing affect you?

It agrees with me. Teaching literature has deepened my vocation and made me a better writer, I think. And then there is the incomparable pleasure of being in conversation with bright young people whose faith in books is inspiring. 

How important to the craft of writing is reading?

Hugely. One must read to learn and to avoid pastiche. Most of all, great literature inspires and encourages. 

Can you easily switch between fiction and nonfiction?

I guess I can, although, to be honest, I don’t think of myself switching or needing to adjust. A book comes with its voice and ideas and scope. All I am doing is lending myself to its requirements. 

Summer plans?

Plenty of rest by my favorite sea, my childhood: the Mediterranean. 

Any reading recommendations?

I am going through an Iris Murdoch phase—her novels, A Severed Head and The Sea, the Sea. And that exceptional philosophical work, The Sovereignty of Good

What are you teaching in the fall semester?

I am on sabbatical till the spring. 

Which three writers, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party, and why?

Ivan Turgenev, Joseph Conrad, and Jean Rhys. But then Rhys would probably drink too much, Conrad would be too shy, and Turgenev, what with his excellent manners, would do all he could to tolerate them.