Travels with my ungulate
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie ?nds light and shade in the tale of a Tuareg tribesman.
Ibrahim al Koni
Translated by Elliott Colla
American University in Cairo
Ibrahim al Koni's Gold Dust hinges on a gift, a promise and a curse. Set among the Tuareg tribes of the Sahara, against a backdrop of famine and foreign invasion, the novel begins when Ukhayyad, the protagonist, receives a purebred, piebald Mahri camel from the chief of the Ahaggar tribes, to which he traces his noble lineage. But Ukhayyad is a reckless and impetuous young man, uninspired by the prospect of proving himself in battle and therefore unlikely to inherit his father's position in the tribe.
He is more interested in indulging in late-night trysts with the young ladies of a nearby encampment, and he enlists the piebald as co-conspirator. Their relationship, then, is not that of a fighter and his mount but rather of intimate friends bonded by experience. Ukhayyad is excessively fond of the animal, extolling the virtues of his dappled coat and gazelle-like grace to all who will listen. This, of course, ultimately leads both to ruin. Ukhayyad's boasting breeds envy and resentment; his affection for the piebald lays bare a vulnerability that is easily exploited.
Ukhayyad's amorous adventures are aggressively surpassed by those of the piebald. When the mating season comes - signalled by "the day the broom trees burst into bloom with their sad white flowers" - the camel's passions explode. But the animal's virility comes at a cost - an infectious disease that devours the flesh. According to Sheikh Musa, Ukhayyad's wise and solitary confidant, the only cure for the mange is the much-feared fields of Maimoun, where the piebald can graze on the herb silphium. The catch? Silphium restores health but induces madness. When all other alternatives fail, Ukhayyad and the piebald set off for the fields.
Before they arrive in Maimoun, they visit the shrine of Tanit, an ancient goddess of war. There, Ukhayyad makes a desperate pledge: he promises a sacrifice if his piebald is cured. After a harrowing experience - conveyed in a headlong rush of riveting, violent and at times horrific prose - the piebald recovers. But Ukhayyad never makes good on his pledge - a catastrophic mistake. Koni, himself a Tuareg, was born in 1948, and raised in the desert oasis of Ghadames. He learned to read and write in Arabic at the age of 12 and studied comparative literature in Moscow. He has since published more than 30 novels, story collections and critical anthologies. His work has circulated in more than 35 languages. In February, he won the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Book Prize.
Yet Gold Dust is only the third novel of Koni's to be translated into English, following The Bleeding of the Stone and Anubis. There are very few Libyan novelists ensconced in the canon of modern Arabic literature; there are even fewer, from any Arab state, who delve into what Koni describes as "the desert discourse". As a genre, the rise of the novel in the Arab world, as elsewhere, was largely an urban phenomenon, coinciding in both form and content with industrialization. Yet Koni, like Abdelrahman Munif, explores the patterns of nomads, not the rhythms of cities. He also creates a dense mesh of history, religion, sorcery and magic in the process.
This is not to say that Gold Dust is pastoral, archaic or nostalgic. As Ukhayyad digs himself deeper into trouble - he defies his father, who disowns him; he insults his clan, which rejects him - he retreats to a hidden valley below Jebel Hasawna and then to a mountainous cave shaped like a crevice. In the valley, he experiences the desert as a liminal space. "Only the desert can clean the soul," writes Koni. "It enables you to defy the endless open space, challenge the horizon, and explore the emptiness that leads beyond the horizon, beyond the desert void … It was here, only here, in the labyrinths of never-ending desert plains, that the extremes converge - open expanse, horizon, and desolation - to form a firmament that expands outward, toward eternity."
In the valley, Ukhayyad creates meaning from signs that produce a sense of freedom. But the oasis refuses to let him go. When he is roped back into society and the shackles of human relations, Ukhayyad's signs are toppled, their meaning dislodged. He murders a man. He runs. In the end, after noting the ability of mountains to retain - in fact, to write - the world's secrets for the sake of posterity, Ukhayyad seals himself into a cave that resembles, not coincidentally, the site of female fertility. Tanit, whose shrine he betrayed, was also a lunar goddess of motherhood.
Inside, he finds more signs, this time in the form of ancient cave paintings that depict a hunt. Though he struggles with their meaning, he knows then that he will die.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.
Published: April 24, 2008 04:00 AM