Susannah Tarbush reviews
by Ibrahim al-Koni
Translated by Elliott Colla
Arabia Books, 2008, pbk, 171pp, £8.99
The challenge of writing the desert
The Libyan Tuareg novelist and short story writer Ibrahim al-Koni , whose work is deeply rooted in his desert origins, is one of the most original and innovative authors writing in Arabic. He has won important literary prizes - including the Mohamed Zefzaf Prize for the Arabic Novel in 2005 and the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature - and his 60 or so books have been translated into some 35 languages. And yet the translation of al-Koni's novels into English has lagged behind that of some other major Arab novelists. It was only in 2001 that the first English translation of an al-Koni novel appeared: The Bleeding of the Stone published by Interlink Publishing of Massachusetts in their World Fiction series. In 2005 the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press published Anubis: A Desert Novel, and The Seven Veils of Seth was issued recently by UK publisher Garnet Publishing.
The choice by the new London-based publisher Arabia Books of al-Koni's Gold Dust as one of its first titles is much to be welcomed - particularly given the excellence of Elliott Colla's translation. Arabia Books is a joint venture of two London publishers, Arcadia Books and Haus Publishing, in close cooperation with AUC Press. AUC Press published Gold Dust in hardback earlier this year, and its reissuing by Arabia Books should help bring it to a new readership.
Al-Koni was born in 1948 near the Libyan desert city of Gadames, learning to read and write Arabic at the age of 12. He studied comparative literature at the Gorky Institute in Moscow, worked as a journalist in Moscow and Warsaw and has since 1993 lived in Switzerland.
In al-Koni's novels, the desert is the terrain in which he explores fundamental themes of human and natural life, temporal and spiritual. His prose, packed with allusions and aphorisms, poses challenges for the translator. Colla, who teaches comparative literature at Brown University, writes in his Afterword to Gold Dust: "Since al-Koni's work is so rooted in a particular world, translation is often not so much an act of finding equivalences as of tearing something from the sense." Not only does al-Koni's Arabic read more like poetry than prose, but "some of the references have little meaning beyond their original context". The text includes Tamasheq (Tuareg) words and customs, pre-Islamic pagan cosmology and classical Sufism.
At the heart of Gold Dust (first published in Arabic in 1990 as al-Tibr) is the relationship between Ukhayyad, son of a tribal chieftain, and his beloved piebald thoroughbred Mahri camel. The relationship is both a physical interdependency and a spiritual communion. At times the camel seems to be a projection of Ukhayyad, his untamed self.
A tribal sheikh tells Ukhayyad: "We always say that the Mahri is the mirror of his rider. If you want to stare into the rider and see what lies hidden within, look to his mount, his thoroughbred . . . Whoever owns a Mahri like this piebald will never complain for want of noble values."
But Ukkayad and his camel pay a price for overstepping limits. The camel's "blind virility" and escapades with she-camels lead him to develop mange. Al-Koni describes with precision the spread over the camel's body of this life-threatening skin disease. Ukhayyad is advised that the only cure is the herb silphium - but this is likely to drive the camel mad. This proves to be the case, and Ukhayyad almost dies when the frenzied camel drags him across the desert. The camel has shed all its skin, and Ukhayyad's nakedness fuses with the camel's raw body. "Flesh met flesh, blood mixed with blood. In the past they had been merely friends. Today, they had been joined by a much stronger tie." The camel then saves the young man's his life when he uses its reins to let himself down a well in an rebirth-like experience.
Ukhayyad has an innocence about him. He does not understand all the rules of the desert culture and tends to be blind to the deviousness of others. His father had wanted him to marry his first cousin so that Ukhayyad rather than one of his father's nephews would inherit leadership of the tribe. But Ukhayaad married instead the beautiful songstress Ayur, a refugee from the drought-stricken south. His father's curse "Marry her and be damned!" lies like a shadow over him. Ukhayyad also sees himself to be cursed because he failed to keep his promise to sacrifice a fat camel at the desert shrine of the ancients where he had prayed for his camel's recovery from mange.
The novel is set at a time when life for the desert dwellers is precarious. In the north there is fighting with the Italians while in the south there is severe famine (at one point a starving Ukayyad cooks and eats his leather sandal). Ukhayyad's alienation from his tribe may seem like freedom, but it leaves him vulnerable to exploitation.
When Ayur's rich trader relative Dudu arrives from the south, Ukhayyad is manipulated into pawning his camel to him. Dudu then makes the return of the skinny and deteriorating camel to Ukhayyad conditional on his divorcing Ayur who, Ukhayyad learns, Dudu had wanted to marry himself.
Matters escalate and Ukhayyad is virtually forced by the shame of his circumstances into becoming a vengeful murderer. Hunted down by the kinsmen of his victim, he takes refuge in the Jebel Hasawna with its rock drawings left by ancient hunters.
Al-Koni's descriptive powers and the urgency of his narrative make Gold Dust a gripping, moving tale that sweeps the reader on towards its tragic conclusion. The novel's republication by Arabia Press bodes well for the concept of this new publishing venture as a vehicle to bring to wider audiences AUC Press's invaluable work in translating and publishing Arabic literature in English.
From Banipal 33 - Autumn/Winter 2008
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