‘In the Country of Men’ depicts a totalitarian, patriarchal society in which Matar expertly portrays a nine-year-old boys struggle to become a man. Under the Qaddafi dictatorship, manly attributes such as loyalty and dignity are admired. However, Suleiman lives in a total dystopia in which even his decisions can have dire, life-threatening consequences.
There are few undoubtedly ‘good’ characters in the novel, which is riddled with deceit and betrayal. Gender roles are exposed as old fashioned and women are utterly underrepresented throughout the text. Suleiman’s navigation towards adulthood is discombobulating as his adults around him are forced to sacrifice their morals due to their suppressive environment.
Faraj, Suleiman’s father, is his quintessential role model in developing ideals and beliefs on what it is to be a man. As an enigmatic, often absent father, Suleiman “felt closer to him when he was away.” Faraj, as the leader of a dissident group, prioritises his fight for a ‘’better Libya” over his family, teaching Suleiman at a particularly young age to question “can you become a man without becoming your father?” To further reinforce Suleiman’s struggle to be seen as a man, not a child, Faraj upon his departure states “take care of your mother; you are a man of the house now.” Despite Suleiman’s desire for his father’s attention, he feels as though he must protect his mother from Faraj.
This is made apparent to Suleiman when he awakes to see his father on top of his mother in bed and “something about what [he] saw disturbed [him] so deeply.” At the age of nine, Suleiman notices, but does not understand why his mother sleeps on the couch when Faraj is home, he just knows that she does. In Faraj’s absence, a man, Shareif, fills the void he leaves in his wake. Shareif gives Suleiman attention, and by referring to him as “slooma” and offering his fathers “English mints” partially ..