Matars protagonist, the young Suleiman in the novel ‘In the country of men’ is essentially bewildered about what it means to be a man in the Libya of his youths. Receiving conflicting messages about the meaning of true masculinity and various impressions of what it means to be a man in Libya complicates the protagonists perception of true manhood and which is further confounded by the contradicting messages he receives about the form of heroism and betrayal. The young Suleiman is also mystified by the awe he feels towards men in power that he admires deeply as well simultaneously detest, and is perplexed about the patriarchal society which holds men as the head of families. This adult and mature environment greatly puzzles Suleiman about what it truly means to ‘be a man’ and leads the 9 year old to hold many unrealistic and far fetched beliefs.
Suleimans essential role model of manhood, his father Faraj, an underground activist and frequently flying in and out of the country on business trips, greatly contrasts to the father of the protagonists best friend Kareem. Ustath Rashid who tends to show far more love and compassion for Suleiman than his father who only spends time on Fridays during prayer. Other than Ustath Rashid, Moosa, an Egyptian who sympathises with the Libyan underground cause also pays more of the much needed attention to suleiman and is occasionally regarded by Suleiman as his “father”, constantly reading poetry and books to Suleiman creating a bond which seems to be stronger than the bond between Faraj and Suleiman. Regularly receiving different impressions of fatherhood and what a father is like, Suleiman is also faced with the “guide of the nation” being Gaddafi. The Colonel also plays a role in Suleimans perception of a father. Being present in all of Libya, through portraits, television, posters and through the authority of his secret police, Gaddafi considers himself as the father of all Libyans, as he calls the general populace his “sons”.
Further complicating Suleimans perception of a fatherly figure, the contradicting implications of what heroism truly is, increasingly puzzle the 9 year olds mind. The interrogation of Ustath Rashid and his forced confessions shown live on regime television greatly impresses Suleiman after stubbornly saying “no” to Faraj being involved in rebel movements. This display of what Suleiman perceived as heroic is perplexed by the second newscast which shows Ustath Rashid being abused and hanged while begging for his life. Being labelled as a traitor to the nation and Libyan people by the Guides men, government propaganda increasingly forces itself into the childs mindset. Suleiman sees that true men are those who hold power and authority and he thus regards masculinity as interlinked with the notion of strength and oppression, coupled with his mothers drunken recalls of her forced marriage, Suleiman begins to view his father with two different and contradicting conceptions. Unable to determine whether he is a traitor to the nation or simply, just his father Suleiman becomes continually confused and short tempered and desires to be taken seriously and have his questions answered.
Suleiman is repeatedly envious of those who yield power and associates power with masculinity and manliness. This leads Suleiman to associate oppression to a core component of what it means to be a man in Libya, admiring the complete dominance of Sharief due to Suleimans lust for strength and lack of a voice that is obeyed. This also reflects on Suleimans view of his friend Adnan who occasionally plays games with him and the other boys on the street, having to suffer from a rare disease causing excessive bleeding when skin is punctured and the incapable self repairing properties of his cells gives Adnan a rare aura of importance and experience and as described by Suleiman a sense of “authority” which is greatly looked upon. Suleiman “wishes” for a similar illness due to his desire to hold weight in his words and not be treated and called a “kid” by the other boys. Suleiman is generally mystified by those who hold power, be it political, social or private. He views Ustath Jafar as a physical manifestation of power and strength, simultaneously detesting and admiring his sense of authority, Suleiman once again arrives to a state of confusion regarding the balance of strength and manhood.
Suleiman is also perplexed by what he is influenced by his mother, Najwa, to see the oppressive role of men in Libyan society. Being continually bombard by his mothers drunken tales of betrayal by her cousin and her intense dissent of what she calls the “higher council” being the men who hold power and subjected her to a “life of imprisonment”. Suleiman is yet once again thrown into a state of confusion after having to hear and witness things that no child could understand or comprehend an continually mixing together elements of manhood in pair with elements of oppression he is in a state of total cluelessness due to not being able to naturally comprehend such themes and information properly. Being a nine year old child walking in on his parents, Suleiman believes that his father is a danger to his mother, the well-being of the latter which he believes is his responsibility, after thinking to himself that “god sent” him at the right time and moment to “save” his mother from oppression.
Suleimans idea of what a father truly is, is puzzled deeply due to the many different impressions he is given due to a lack of attention by his busy ideological father. This is further complicated by the contradicting messages of heroism and betrayal and the theme of oppression which he views as exclusive to those who are fathers and in important positions. Being given love and affection by what the guide calls out as a traitor, Suleiman ultimately seems to be skewered to the belief that a real father is indeed oppressive and pragmatic.