We’ve survived the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The media reports no shocking new acts of terror. We’ve waved flags, declared both the victims of the attack and those victimized by their response to the catastrophe heros. We’ve stood by while those who lost so much in the wake of 9/11 shed tears. We’ve survived this public ritual, coming away feeling, well, better, I suppose, in some sort of communal way.
The victims of 9/11 are lucky that way. Their loss is marked. We stopped the world for a brief time to give them the solace of our joint recognition of their sorrow. All do not share their good fortune.
I was reminded of this reading a new book by Hisham Matar, Anatomy of a Disappearance, the story of a 14-year-old boy whose father was present in a shared world of hopes and dreams, and then, in an instant, was forever absence. There was no ceremony for this disappearance. Just silent sorrow expected to be borne without a lot of fuss and ado.
"The telephone continued to ring incessantly," Matar writes. The boy’s father was kidnapped you see, swept away from the bed he shared with a woman by abductors suspected of targeting him because he was an outspoken critic of the third-world tyrant who ruled his country. "Then after a few days it grew quiet. Relatives and neighbors who might have filled the chairs in the hall if Father had died were silent in the face of his disappearance.... A great emptiness began to fill the place of my father. It became unbearable to hear his name."
That is what silent, unshared, unrecognized, uncelebrated grief looks like: It is a scar borne quietly, a scream no one hears, a rite of passage unaccompanied by the comforting ritual of a funeral. But the disappeared are every bit as dead to those who remain as those who die a physical death.
Matar is a graceful writer. His first novel, In the Country of Men, was critically acclaimed. His prose are elegant, the characters drawn with simple strokes. He draws freely from his own sense of loss, a sense provoked by the disappearance of his own father, a critic of Moammar Qadaffi who was present one day, and gone the next.
Yet for all that, his latest work has an almost clinical feel to it. Yes, the protagonist lost a father, but he never loses his place in the world. He lives in a privileged bubble, with servants waiting faithfully for him in his expatriate Egypt. When his father remarries after the death of the protagonist’s mother, the teenager is whisked off to an elite English boarding school. He learns that his father has provided for him in his will, leaving a generous sum with instructions that the boy is not to work until at least age 24. To earn full use of the legacy, he must complete a Ph.D., but not in business or political science, where book learning is inferior to experience.
He returns to Cairo, a newly minted Ph.D., to an apartment kept for 11 years by servants loyal to his family. He moves in to the apartment. The dresser drawers are filled with his father’s belongings. The closet in the master bedroom contain his father’s suits. There is still hope, horribly agonizing hope, that his father will reappear. It is a hope the son cannot relinquish.
This is a beautifully written story, but it is not really a story about the complete loss of moorings in the world. A less fortunate child would lose a parent and then go on to lose his place in the world. A father can disappear, and the result can be desolation, the loss of connection to a community, of all that the narrator in Matar’s new novel takes for granted. Matar writes of a civilized sort of loss. It almost seems a contradiction in terms. Father is missing, but his artifacts remain. This is a polite sort of loss, the absence of a provider, but the maintenance of all the provider left behind.
Some losses are complete and therefore savage. A man can disappear without a trace. He can leave nothing behind but questions, no generous will, no means of providing for those he once loved. Those left behind have nothing. The loss of a provider leaves no home to which to return, no servants to care for the bereaved, no loved one to stand in and provide shelter. Such losses are not even accompanied by the sense of closure a public ceremony provides. These are the silent sorts of loss felt by many year-in and year-out. These losses go unrecognized, but remain real.
The ceremonial recognition of the losses associated with 9/11 felt much like Matar’s novel to me: a stylized and almost self-indulgent sort of grief. Those who have experienced the disappearance of a parent, together with the loss of the social world the parent provided, were more alone on 9/11 than on most other days. The celebrants got the lubricant of a stranger’s tears, far more than many receive in response to loss. The private silences of the solitary abandoned are much like the "great emptiness" of which Matar tried to write.
Lest you think this is mere theorizing, let me relay simply this: my father disappeared when I was eight. In his wake, we lost all. There was nothing to remember him by. Even my mother lost her way, and I was sent to live with relatives. No ceremony marked the day I was sent to live with folks I had rarely seen before. I read Matar’s work with a hunger for recognition that went unmet. The read was as unsatisfying as were the ceremonies devoted to 9/11. Some losses define a person, even when they are so idiosyncratic as to escape the notice of the larger world. It was not a lack of patriotism that turned me sour on 9/11; it was something akin to envy that those who lost that day received so much in return.