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A Desert Novel by Ahmed Fagih
Quartet, London, 2011. Pbk, 203 pp.
Anatomy of a Disappearance
by Hisham Matar
Viking/Penguin, London, 2011. Hbk, 247 pp.
Art is the Fiction That Tells the Truth
The events of the Arab Revolution of 2011 leave the most sanguine of us giddy. As I write this, even the seemingly perdurable regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi has crumbled. By lovely coincidence, two novels by Libyan writers were published this year from writers who could not be more different in standing, yet both are artists of the first order. Ahmed Fagih, billed by the Guardian as “Libya’s greatest living writer”, has been an established member of the Libyan diplomatic and cultural circles for decades, awarded Libya’s highest medal, the Grand al-Fatah. Hisham Matar’s own Libyan father was abducted in 1995 by Qaddafi’s agents in Cairo, and he has never heard from him since.
Fagih’s Homeless Rats was one of a group of five novels first translated into English in 2000. The decision to republish it likely pre- ceded the current uprising, but it is tempting to seek clues within this exemplary work as to the author’s frame of mind toward the regime. The events in the book may be dated to the early 1970s – shortly after Colonel al-Qaddafi’s 1969 overthrow of King Idris – based on the Libyan uprising against the Italian occupiers some forty years previously, in which several of the elderly protagonists took part. One of the former resistance fighters laments: “What a difference there is between great men like [them] and us today. If there were two like them in Libya now, we wouldn’t be living the way we are.”
Three principal groups occupy this fable: first, a conservative tribe of Bedouins from a village south of Tripoli named Mizda (also the name of the author’s birthplace). Second, a tribe of Eastern Desert Bedouins who, by Mizda standards, have loose morals and disgusting habits: their women are bold, unveiled, and the people eat jerboa meat. Finally, the jerboas themselves: mouse-like, big-eared, springy-legged rodents who are in fact rather cute; in the western world they’re raised as pets. Remarkably, the cover of the book shows a drawing of a giant rat. When you hear Qaddafi describing the rebels as “rats” you understand how pejorative the term is. On the contrary, the jerboas are depicted as a just, pacific nation, advocating non-violent resistance against the rapacious, invading humans. Other animal characters include the hedgehog, lizard and tortoise – wise and observant philosophers residing on the hill above the plateau – and the chameleon, a seer who warns of the final disaster.
Calamities abound. Drought and famine have struck the Mizda, and the tribal elder, Sheikh Hamed Abu Leila, leads his people to the valley of Jandouba where in the past they have helped landowners harvest barley, the tribe’s staple food. But to their horror, every single ear of barley is gone, taken by the jerboas to feed a growing population. When a child digging at play discovers the jerboa granaries, the humans root up and destroy virtually every jerboa home. When the Eastern Bedouins arrive, also seeking succour, the Mizda people are deeply suspicious, and try to hide their largesse, but are finally forced to share the secret, which is to be kept from other tribes who might wander by. Inevitably, romances spring up between the two groups. Perhaps as divine punishment, snakes, wolves, and insects afflict the people. In the final tragedy, a great flood roars down from the mountains, and all the humans’ possessions are lost, including the barley. The people save themselves by scrambling to the high hill – only to find all the jerboas there with them. In the end, as they laugh in great relief: it was the “jerboas’ barley” all along.
The novel cracks along at great speed, full of wonderful ethnographic detail. Each chapter ends on a note of suspense, enlisting the gifted storyteller’s device of “and then . . . and then” to make pages fly by. Only when we come to the end do we recognise, in an existential sense, that we are all homeless – but not all of us are rats.
In Hisham Matar’s novel Anatomy of a Disappearance it is 1971. A boy, Nuri, just 12, becomes infatuated with an English woman twice his age while on holiday with his stern 39- year-old father at a resort in Alexandria, Egypt. His mother – frail and emotionally absent – had died two years earlier, in a probable suicide. The woman, Mona, encourages the boy – at one point she lets him brush her hair as she sits barebreasted. Nuri, the narrator, realizes later that “what I then took for adoration was Mona’s fancy to be adored”. It is the father, Kamal, who marries her, shaping the classical Oedipal triangle. Who is this father, and what does he do? He served as a minister to a king of a Middle Eastern country, until a military coup in late 1950s had the king “dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot”, an event mirroring Iraq’s coup of 1958. The family goes into exile in Paris, then to Cairo, and the father becomes an active dissident. To break up the triangle, Kamal sends his boy to an English board- ing school. Two years later, the father is forcibly abducted, in Geneva, in the middle of the night, from a bed he is sharing with another woman: whore? Mistress? Co-conspirator? The mysteries thicken in a book full of silences and secrets. As an uncle of Nuri advises, carelessly: “Sometimes it’s better not to know”.
The novel is beautifully crafted, both as a mystery and as a lyrical journey of growth for a young man in love with his stepmother. Matar plants landmines to explode in the final collision of secrets. At one point his mother tells how the faithful Egyptian maid, Naima, who dotes on Nuri, came to work for them when only 13: “ ‘I wanted someone young to get used to our ways, to be like a daughter.’ Then she stopped, looked at her fingers, and only when she had glanced up again did I realise that tears had been gathering in her eyes.” The reader goes back to this moment, to be amazed how the detail was so perfectly prescient of yet another secret, another absence.
After the disappearance, Mona and Nuri come together in bed one night, more out of grief and loneliness than in lust. The moment is so delicately and tenderly told as to stand for the entire craft of the novel: “I found that the night had wrapped us even tighter, coiled her bare thigh round my waist and pushed mine up between her legs. Like branches of a tree, each limb found its natural way. And although the shame was powerful, it remained distant. I moved against her and she moved with me.”
Nuri grows into young manhood, takes a PhD in art history (Matar is an architect), grows distant from Mona, and later comes to Geneva to untangle the secrets of the abduction. More landmines explode. Eventually he returns to his parents’ flat in Cairo, where he sleeps in his father’s bed, is served by the old retainers (Naima included), and wears his father’s clothing. But not his raincoat: “He will need a raincoat when he comes back.” As with the thousands other desaparecidos around the world who are never gone, the search for them is unending, the past is never past.
Pundits, bloggers, newsmen, and other haruspicators may try to explain the Arab Revolution. Artists are the true Cassandras whom we ignore at our peril, as Picasso and William Carlos Williams instruct – “Art is a lie that makes us realise truth”; and “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
From Banipal 42 - New Writing from the Emirates
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