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from the March 2007 issue

The Men over the Hill

I was five years old and had just started school when one of my teachers discovered that I could not make out what was on the blackboard. The boy with whom I shared a desk whispered in my ear, "Your eyes are broken."

During those early years, before the discrepancy was adjusted with spectacles, the sky was without definition, a high pale canvas that by night fell darkly. The sea was a murmuring landscape of color: when loud, it turned gray; when silent, its green turquoises and azure blues became luminous and soft. The columns of lampposts were mostly absent; patterns only appeared at close inspection; the complex variety of each individual grain of sand clinging to the skin of my fingers never ceased to astound me. A person's face only became identifiable when it was within reach. Television was a radio accompanied by a flashing light-box, color and light attempting to signal mood. Until the age of five, I assumed everyone saw the physical world this way.

I remember the library of circular lenses, like an immaculate coin collection handsomely filed in dark wooden compartments, and the click they made every time the optician slotted one into the heavy metal frame, asking, "Better, or worse?" This was how I was inducted into a world where everything has clearly drawn edges that one could point a finger at and say, "There is you, and here is me." I remember the piercing sharpness by which the letters on the optician's wall came through the mist.

The optician said my glasses would not be ready for a week. One afternoon in that last week of blurred faces and indistinct shapes, my friends and I clambered over the fence of the largely vacant complex of al-Madina al-Seyahiya, a guarded compound of holiday homes that stood by the sea in Tripoli near where we lived. We liked to play football on its empty, perfect lawns. The patch of ground we selected for our pitch ascended into low hills before dipping down toward a group of villas. The hills concealed us from view. When the time came to choose sides the usual quarrel broke out over which team would have to take me; by this time I had resigned myself to the fact that I was not a good player. I was always asked to play goalie, and because I rarely saw the ball in time to obstruct it, I spent most of the time fetching, searching for the hazy white blob. We began to play and I was jumping about uncertainly around the net when the ball shot by, so fast that I barely had time to register where it had gone. I turned round and blindly scanned the landscape. "Over the hill," one of the boys said.

When I got to the top of the hill, I could see the shapes of people sitting outside one of the villas. I ran down the slope toward the group, hoping they might help me find the ball. As I got closer I saw that there were two men sitting a meter or so apart on garden chairs. Two large men stood a few paces behind the seated figures. One of the seated men was larger and darker than the other. He beckoned me over. The closer I came, the darker and more forbidding he became. Then I saw the ball; it was right beneath his chair. His size made it hard for him to bend down, but eventually he got hold of the ball and made as if to throw it to me. This made him chuckle. He held the ball out and asked me to come and get it. Just as I was reaching to take it, he quickly threw it behind him and grabbed hold of me. He laughed an awful laugh that showed his fat red tongue. I began to cry. He put me on his knee and patted his heavy palm on my back; with each pat the wicker chair beneath us creaked. There was a suffocating smell of cologne. Suddenly he inflated his cheeks and bulged his eyes at me. You could have fit a date in each of his nostrils. It was at that moment that I recognized the paler man sitting in the other chair. It was our Leader. Even my broken eyes could not have avoided the huge posters on the streets of Tripoli, sometimes covering the entire windowless side of a block of flats. Every day the Colonel looked down at us from his life-size portrait on the classroom wall. Gadhafi was looking at me now, his expression seeming to hover between boredom and disgust. I didn't know what to do with my hands. "What's your name?" the man on whose knee I was seated asked. When I didn't answer, he looked at Gadhafi and said, "How sweet."

I heard one of the boys call my name. The dark man smiled and cupped his hand round his ear, as if he was listening out for their voices. My name was called again. "Hisham," he said, "Your name is Hisham," and he laughed. Colonel Gadhafi attempted a smile. The man behind him, with a Kalashnikov slung over one shoulder, tilted his head and looked benevolently down at me. The Leader ordered the guard to fetch the ball. I grabbed it and ran back up the hill, quickly wiping the tears from my face before reaching the summit and climbing down to our improvised pitch on the other side. When the boys asked what had taken so long, I shrugged and kicked the ball as hard as I could toward the sky.

One afternoon, a few days later, bespectacled now and completely addicted to television, I was watching the news when on the screen appeared the same two middle-aged men I had seen on the day of the football game. They sat side by side like before, this time indoors and without the armed guards. As I gazed at the television I heard the broadcaster say their names: the Leader and Idi Amin. Idi Amin, the man who took my football, sat in his chair, looking at me through the lens of the television set. At that moment I wished I had told the boys that day about the people on the other side of the hill. No one would believe me now.

Copyright 2007 by Hisham Matar. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

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