Three men in exile: My Friends, by Hisham Matar, reviewed

Hisham Matar’s third novel is, among its many other virtues, a paean to reading widely; to imagining literature as not, in the narrator Khaled’s words, ‘a field of demarcations’, but as a great river that connects and animates ‘the entire human event’. Reading is how Khaled – exiled from Libya when his part in the anti-Gaddafi demonstration at the country’s embassy in St James’s Square in April 1984 made a return to Benghazi impossible – lays the foundations beneath his precarious life in London. Carrying with him his father’s copy of Abual Ala al Ma’arri’s The Epistle of Forgiveness, an 11th-century  precursor to Dante’s Divine Comedy, he ponders the links

Libya’s crisis exposes the deep divide at the heart of the EU

The European Union already has a lot on its plate. The continuing doom of Brexit, upcoming parliamentary elections, a resurgent and ever strident nationalist movement across the continent and migration to name only a few. But over the last week, Libya can be added to the list. The armed conflict just across the Mediterranean is splitting the EU. Not for the first time, it makes the institution look floundering, divided and unsure of its capacities. Libya has been a basket-case ever since a Nato and Arab-led military coalition helped the country’s rebel brigades kick Gaddafi from power. The North African nation is in reality not a nation at all, but

Putin the peacemaker

When Russia entered the Syrian civil war in September 2015 the then US secretary of defense, Ash Carter, predicted catastrophe for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin was ‘pouring gasoline on the fire’ of the conflict, he said, and his strategy of fighting Isis while backing the Assad regime was ‘doomed to failure’. Two years on, Putin has emerged triumphant and Bashar al-Assad’s future is secure. They will soon declare victory over Isis inside the country. The dismal failure turned out to be our cynical effort to install a Sunni regime in Damascus by adopting the Afghanistan playbook from the 1980s. We would train, fund and arm jihadis, foreign and domestic, in

Diary – 31 August 2017

Boris Johnson is inspecting the guard of honour and we are doing our best not to giggle. The Foreign Secretary is walking down a line of soldiers from the Libyan National Army. The red carpets are blowing over in the breeze. One of the senior officers looks uncannily like Colonel Gaddafi. And the band is playing the worst version of the national anthem I have ever heard. Yet Mr Johnson manages to control his features. Just. For this is the headquarters of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control large swaths of eastern Libya. A thought strikes me. Mr Johnson’s critics accuse him of upsetting allies, lacking foreign policy vision

The Spectator Podcast: Madness in the Med

On this week’s episode, Isabel Hardman is joined by guests to look at the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and how NGOs might be making things worse, rather than better. We also wonder whether Bristol should be ashamed of its past, and discuss binge drinking with Julie Burchill. Fewer than 300 miles off the Libyan coast lies the Italian island of Lampedusa. With a population of just over 6,000, Lampedusa has become the nexus of a migration crisis that has rumbled on for years, with seemingly no resolution in sight. In this week’s magazine, Nicholas Farrell reports from Italy on a crisis that he believes is being compounded by boats run

Nicholas Farrell

Madness in the Med

Following the EU’s deal with Turkey over people smuggling, the issue of migrants trying to cross, and quite often drowning in, the Mediterranean has largely disappeared from the British media. There have been no more images like that of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach after the rubber dinghy in which his family were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos capsized in August 2015. Now, people smugglers and migrants know there is little point in trying to make the crossing from Turkey to Greece because they will only be sent back, in return for the EU taking refugees directly from camps in Turkey. The deal

Hot Spring

Imagine if Kathy Lette — or possibly Julie Burchill — had written a feminist, magic-realist saga that sent four women on a road-trip around the broiling hotspots of the Arab Spring. No, not easy to do — yet the intrepid Turkish journalist and writer Ece Temelkuran has, in this novel, come up with just that sort of pantomime chimera. Temelkuran, an outspoken truth-teller whose fearless reportage has jeopardised both her livelihood and security in Turkey, flings together a quartet of ill-assorted travellers — one of whom resembles the author. She whisks them around the crisis zones of the eastern Mediterranean just as revolutions flare and tyrants tumble. Our four heroines,

The Spectator’s Notes | 29 June 2017

At Guildhall on Tuesday, the Centre for Policy Studies held its Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security. Its title is an implied reproach to the way security is seen by current governments. You couldn’t have a Barack Obama Conference on Security, or a Donald Trump one, because neither cares about the subject. You could, I suppose, have a Theresa May Conference about Security, but that would have nothing to say about international institutions and alliances, the values of democracy, totalitarian ideology, and the needs of global defence. It would concern itself with second-order subjects like the surveillance of terrorist suspects and the state of deportation law. Many have complained that the

High life | 1 June 2017

I feel like an obituary writer, what with Nick Scott, Roger Moore, Alistair Horne — all great buddies — and now my oldest and closest friend, Aleko Goulandris, dead at 90. Mind you, they all had very good lives: plenty of women, lots of fun, accomplishments galore, and many children and grandchildren. And they all reached a certain age — what else can you ask of this ludicrous life of ours? Well, I won’t be writing about the high life this week, but scum life instead. And I’ll tell you why: those innocent young children slaughtered by that Islamist scumbag in Manchester, that’s why. Those sweet young lives deserved better,

Letters | 25 May 2017

NHS in a mess Sir: Max Pemberton is quite right to say that the NHS is close to collapse, but I’m not sure a Royal Commission is the answer (‘This is an emergency’, 20 May). The problems facing the NHS have been obvious for years, and need, as Max points out, a strong politician to take unpopular decisions, not an expensive Royal Commission to decide what the issues are. The other problem with a Royal Commission is that it would draw its membership from senior doctors, retired politicians, and other members of the establishment, some of whom are responsible for the mess in the first place. Dr Chris Nancollas Yorkley,

Ross Clark

Your enemy’s enemy isn’t always your friend when it comes to refugees

For those who argue that Britain should blindly accept refugees, the family history of Salman Abedi must make somewhat uncomfortable reading. Salman was born in Britain in 1994 to a couple who had newly arrived as refugees from Libya. At the time, such people were welcomed with open arms because they were opponents of President Gaddafi, whose embassy staff had killed PC Yvonne Fletcher in London in 1984, who was suspected of commissioning the Lockerbie bomb and who was generally considered to be one of the world’s most evil dictators. On the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, rather little seems to have been asked of Gaddafi’s opponents.

How Libya became a breeding ground for jihadists

In August 2011, I was in Sabratha, the latest city on the road to Tripoli to fall to the rebels. After months of fighting, there was now a clear sense that the endgame was approaching in Libya’s bloody civil war: the trap was closing around Muammar Gaddafi. While admiring an ancient basilica in Sabratha, a Unesco heritage site – built on rich layers of Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine history – an American colleague and I were approached by an armed fighter dressed in combat fatigues. He was Akram Ramadan, from Manchester, who had given up his job as an MOT inspector to join the revolution in the country of his

Letters | 18 May 2017

Libyan solution Sir: Boris Johnson correctly reports glimmers of hope in Libya, but to say its problems can be solved by political will risks falling into the same trap of wishful thinking that has hobbled the international community’s intervention there (‘Libya’s best hope’, 13 May). To fix Libya, its political process must be restructured to incentivise cooperation between its various factions. One thing nearly all Libyans can agree on is that the country’s oil should flow freely, since oil revenues pay for everybody’s fuel, medicine and salaries. In recent years, oil production has been repeatedly blockaded by criminal militias and politicians alike; sometimes by the same people engaged in people-trafficking.

Libya’s best hope

We were in a detention centre for migrants in Tripoli and we came to a big locked door. It was impressively bolted and padlocked. Someone murmured that we didn’t have time to look inside. But I felt somehow obliged to do so. Outside in the sun I had already said hello to about 100 migrants — almost all of them from West Africa: Guinea-Conakry and Nigeria. They were sitting on the concrete in rows, their heads in their hands; the men in one group, and about half a dozen women a little way off. They had been here for months, in some cases, and they wanted to go home. Kwasi

Listen: Pulitzer Prize winner Hisham Matar discusses The Return

Back in October, I spoke to Hisham Matar — who has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography — about his book The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between. When Hisham was 19, his Libyan dissident father was abducted from exile by the Gadaffi regime and disappeared into Tripoli’s most notorious jail. The writer spent 20 years not knowing what had really happened. He talks here about his long struggle to find out, and his first trip back after the regime had fallen…. You can listen to our conversation here: And please subscribe on iTunes to get a new episode every Thursday.

The rescue racket

What is happening in the 300-mile stretch of sea between Sicily and Libya, day in and day out — in other words, what ‘we’ are doing there — is beyond reasonable doubt insane. A sane person would assume that the 181,436 migrants (a new record) who made it by sea to Italy last year had done so under their own steam in flimsy fishing boats and dinghies at least some of the way across the Mediterranean. This, after all, is the message aid agencies and governments put out. In fact, every one of those 181,436 was picked up by EU and non-government aid-agency vessels off the Libyan coast just outside

A scandalous scramble

Empires in the Sun might conjure up romantic visions for some, but this book’s essence is distilled in its subtitle, ‘The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa’. Lawrence James’s panoramic survey of imperial and then neo-colonial subjugation of the African continent between 1830 and 1990 is a timely reminder, if any were needed, of the devastating consequences of chauvinistic nationalism and expansionism. Violence, inflicted on a continent wracked by the slave trade, internal wars and epidemics, is the dominant theme: empire-building is always brutal. France’s conquest and settlement of Algeria, the first European colony in Africa in modern times, sets the scene. Between 1830 and 1875, an estimated 875,000 Algerians

The lying game | 27 October 2016

‘Adam Curtis believed that 200,000 Guardian readers watching BBC2 could change the world. But this was a fantasy. In fact, he had created the televisual equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge with pretentions to narrative coherence…’ You really must watch Ben Woodhams’s brilliant 2011 Adam Curtis-pastiche mini-documentary The Loving Trap, which you’ll find on YouTube. It’s so devastatingly cruel, funny and accurate that when I first saw it I speculated that Curtis would never be able to work again. But this was fantasy. Of course, I knew that Curtis would be back, not least because to be parodied in this way is not an insult but a sure sign

Head ache

Quite how one person is expected to oversee not just radio but also ‘arts, music, learning and children’s departments’ was not made clear by the BBC when it announced the stratospheric rise to power within the corporation of James Purnell as the new director of everything that’s not TV or light entertainment. You may recall that Purnell was once culture minister under the Labour government and in 2013 became head of strategy at the BBC, an appointment that at the time was excused (given Purnell’s lack of programme-making experience) by Tony Hall, the director-general, as ‘of course not editorial’. But this new job is very much in charge of overall

David Cameron is only partly to blame for Libya’s problems

David Cameron is not having the best of weeks and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s highly critical report on his Libya intervention will not improve his mood. When the Chilcot Report came out, Cameron made much of how the National Security Council structure that he had put in place had improved policy making. But the FAC report states that despite the National Security Council, there was still no coherent strategy for the intervention. Indeed, it calls for an inquiry into how the NSC actually makes policy. The Libya intervention might have prevented a massacre in Benghazi. But the chaos in Libya since, the migrant crisis and the increase influence of Islamic