Margaret Obank reviews

Anubis A Desert Novel

by Ibrahim al-Koni

Translated by William M Hutchins

AUC Press, Cairo, 2005

ISBN977 424 887 2, 184pp

The search for the Tuareg desert truth

This is a novel woven from and around Tuareg folklore and set in author Ibrahim al-Koni’s home territory, the Tuareg Libyan desert, where he was born and grew up. The figure of the title, Anubis, is taken from the ancient story of Anubi, the archetypal son of an unknown father who sets out to search for that father. Translator William Hutchins describes in his introduction the identification by al-Koni of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis with the Tuareg folkloric hero Anubi.

Al-Koni follows Anubi’s story and incorporates many other aspects of Tuareg legends including the lost oasis of Targa – from which the name Tuareg is derived – and the body of lost laws of the Tuareg. His Author’s Note explains how he researched the legend, recalling parts told to him as a child and teenager, accumulating others during countless visits across the desert questioning leaders, elders and sages of far-flung Tuareg tribes, and examining ancient recorded versions. His quest seems as interesting as the legend itself. Al-Koni felt that the story echoed his own, and more than that, was a metaphor for the search of “the human tribe” for the truth of life. Eventually he translated the story from his mother tongue, the Berber language of Tamasheq, into Arabic.
The novel therefore has many levels, all attempting to unravel the complexities of obligation and customs that delineate how relationships are made between father and son, mother and son, then brother and sister, and man and woman, and how these relationships can prosper and endure with man living in a changing society.

Anubis and the shadowy priest-type apparitions, spectres, or jinns of both sexes, that appear by his side every so often to keep him on his toes, speak in aphorisms and issue prophecies about the impact of taking this or that action. These maxims direct the path that Anubis should follow, nurture his sense of duty and responsibility, even of guilt, and guide his relation with the world. Anubis struggles to free himself from adhering to the aphorism that “Absence is the destiny of fathers”. His life is a story of initial abandonment of the laws of both the tribe and the desert, leading to suffering and punishment by the elements, then reconciliation with the laws as he appears to become a benign ruler and leader himself, and then to more suffering, as his son starts to follow the selfsame path of searching for the father he does not know.

Anubis alternates between needing and rejecting the solitude that is the essential character of the desert. The desert setting is al-Koni’s strength: its expanse, desolation and mystery is powerfully evoked, particularly in the passage where Anubis gets lost and nearly dies, saving himself by drinking what he discovers afterwards is the urine of a gazelle. His life wandering in the desert and living in the desert oasis is at once a personal story, the legend of a god-like mythical hero, a mystical tale of demons, dreams and metamorphosis, as well as a parable of human civilisation, and more particularly of the urban life that encroaches on the traditions of the desert.

However, Anubis is not an easy read, as much of what one feels could be vivid visual description or crisp philosophical dialogue, seems at arms’ length from the reader due to unwieldy sentences at the beginning of the novel, as well as the use of words that seem out of place, such as “snout” of a camel, “espy”, “hither and yon”, “aswirl”, “snot” and “doll”, while “bagging a victim” has connotations of shooting parties.

That apart, it is well worth the effort and difficult to put down, once started. Al-Koni completes the tale of Anubis with a long list of the mythical hero’s aphorisms which are an fascinating aide-memoire to understanding the thrall of the desert and Anubis’s attitude to women. They include the following: “For the body the desert is a place of exile, whereas for the spirit the desert is a paradise” and “The desert is a homeland that has migrated”. And on man and woman: “For a woman, damage to her body is a defect, but a man’s defect is damage to his mind”; and “Man thinks with his intellect. Woman thinks with her heart. This is the secret of woman’s superiority over man.” In addition to the Aphorisms and the Translator’s and Author’s Notes there is an end glossary of Tuareg terms.

Hopefully William Hutchins will translate more of al-Koni’s many novels into English. First published in Arabic in 2002, Anubis is only his second in English translation. The first, The Bleeding of the Stone (reviewed in Banipal No 19), is in some ways similar to Anubis in that it retells an ancient myth (Cain and Abel), and has a modern message (about man’s destruction of natural resources). Al-Koni has six novels published in French translation and eight in German, the latter by Lenos Verlag in Switzerland where al-Koni has lived since 1993. Anubis deserves a good reception and being made available world-wide for English-speaking readers.

From Banipal 23 - Summer 2005

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