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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Ibrahim al-Koni's Gold Dust: of stray camels and hidden valleys

Annie Gagiano - 2009-05-07

Title: Gold Dust
Author: Ibrahim al-Koni
Translator: Elliott Colla
Publisher: American University in Cairo Press
ISBN: 9789774161438
Publication date: April 2008
Pages: 171


Click on the book cover to order your copy of Gold Dust from Kalahari.net.

Ibrahim al-Koni is an acclaimed writer in Arabic, the language in which this entry's text was first published as al-Tibr. The English translation is by Elliott Colla; he includes a brief Afterword (165-70) and a page of Notes. Al-Koni was born and grew up in the desert areas of Libya as a Tuareg; in fact he started learning Arabic only when he was twelve years old. The author has lived in Switzerland since 1993. Despite the cover image, the gold dust of the title is not a reference to the desert sands - indeed, one of the important aspects of the novel is the way in which it complicates and diversifies one's sense of desert terrain, ranging from stony wastes and scrub land to huge mountain ranges and hidden, fertile valleys to the sandy stretches we tend to assume characterise all "real" deserts. The text also provides us with a large number of names of northern African cities, towns, settlements, oases and regions, within but also well outside the borders of Libya, since it evokes the nomadic lifestyle of people ranging across areas where border controls cannot be strictly applied. In this way, we find the narrator and others making references to such places as Kano in northern Nigeria; Timbuktu in Mali; Cyrenaica; Jebel Hasawna; Fez; Tiba; Tamanresset; Aghadès; Zurzatin-Kel Abada; Kufra, Adur and Adrar oases; the Hamada and the Danbaba deserts. To those who trade across these vast areas, such names evoke, if not the everyday or the local, then certainly at least familiar and known circumstances and peoples. The cultural diversity of the arid north of our continent is also touched on by the many incidental references, including Ahaggar tribes; a "famous poetess" of the Kel Abada tribes and also "Amud's war" against French colonial incursion (6); the Ghat smiths and the Ifoghas tribe; certain Tamenrasset "noblewomen" (8); the Maghraghar clan; the Bouseif tribes; the Tifinagh alphabet; Sufi sheiks of the Tiganiya brotherhood and dervishes of Adur oasis. The translator points out that since most modern Arabic literature is urban, the nomadic lifestyle and desert landscapes evoked by al-Koni (here, during the time when Italy was making bitterly resisted inroads from the north) would not be familiar to most readers of that language.

This strikingly unusual novel is the account of an irrevocable commitment, not between two human beings, but between a man and a camel. Ukhayyad, the man, we encounter first in his early adulthood. He is the only son of the sheikh of Amanghasatin and thus directly descended from "the great Akhenukhen, son of the most venerable of the desert tribes" (144), as he proclaims a moment before slaying the rival who humiliated and tricked him - the deed which, towards the end of this narrative, pushes him into exile as a hunted man and booty to the greedy relatives of the deceased. Ukhayyad does not grow up in pampered luxury, however, partly because he has older cousins who stand to inherit the position of sheikh unless he obeys his father and marries a wilting female cousin. It is his refusal to contract this politically astute marriage which alienates his father from him so that when, some years later, he desires paternal blessings for his marriage to a bewitching Moroccan beauty, he receives only the terse message: "Marry her and be damned" (68). Ukhayyad's father will later die a heroic death in upholding a last stand against Italian soldiers, but the son's connection to his father is severed from this point on. (After the father's death, the tribe is scattered far and wide, so that as it happens, the deceased sheikh's nephew inherits but an empty title.)

Not that Ukhayyad had a warmly nurturing childhood, his ailing but strict mother having died when he was a little boy and his father being an insatiable womaniser, divorcing and marrying a large number of other women to the unhappy dismay of his mother, but under the protection of Islamic law and custom. Ukhayyad had an old African slave woman as his nurse and the care of the ascetic but wise and kind Sheikh Musa (a man so deeply spiritual that he has neither possessions nor family). A telling detail about this sheikh's nature and his role in the youngster's life is that when, one dark night, a flashflood surprises their encampment, the sheikh snatches up not only the little boy but also the old nurse and rushes them to safety while most others there are swept away and drowned. An introverted little boy, Ukhayyad receives from the old sheikh (who comes and goes at will) the paternal warmth and wise counsel of which he is otherwise largely deprived.

So cleverly structured is al-Koni's novel that it is only later in the text that one learns of these aspects of Ukhayyad's life, considerably deepening one's understanding of the swaggering young blade that we encounter as the text opens. His constant lauding of his uniquely beautiful thoroughbred camel - known either as "the Mahri" to indicate that this camel's breed is superior and that he is of the most highly valued, ancient stock, or as "the piebald" to describe the highly desirable, unique colouring of his pelt - is (one surmises) the expression of a socially somewhat insecure individual in this highly competitive masculinist culture. The piebald (to which he never gives a name, as would a Westerner) is his badge of rank, his steed and - most importantly - his closest companion. The narrative tone of this text might be characterised as sardonically compassionate, for the text opens with the tale of one of the several occasions on which the Mahri is the cause of immense public humiliation for his owner.

The graceful piebald - often likened to a gazelle, however unlikely such a comparison may seem to a non-Tuareg reader - was given to Ukhayyad by the chief of the Ahaggar tribes when it was still a young colt and evidently this young creature immediately crept deep into its young owner's affections. The song he sings to celebrate this noble creature is (revealingly) a "bewitching" but "sad ballad", like those sung by camel riders "like charms against loneliness ... whenever they travel across waterless deserts" (6).

Unknown to Ukhayyad at this time are the several terrible journeys he will yet undertake with and for the lovely creature - and the fact that, in making the Mahri his main and most beloved companion, he will cut himself off from other and more usual forms of companionship. He may relish possession of his enviably beautiful and rare piebald, but his all too obvious commitment to the lovely creature makes him vulnerable to manipulation exactly because of its evident intensity. Nor will he ever ride the piebald into heroic battle and be the revered hero his father becomes by the manner of his death, even though he sings in praise of the beast when he invokes the "thoroughbreds dressed for war" and the "riders who never miss their mark" who featured in Amud's famous resistance against the French (6).

Al-Koni's narrative opens with several amusing anecdotes concerning Ukhayyad's youthful foolishness as exposed through his faith in his Mahri, but the tone gradually deepens to depict the cruel ironies of fate. By means of the privileged observation tower of reading, the novel makes clear how profoundly honourable Ukhayyad is; how loyal and well-meaning and how free of base greed or ugly, violent inclinations. Indeed, he is a profoundly spiritual and thoughtful person, even something of an ascetic if one looks beyond the superficially show-off inclinations to which his ownership of the Mahri at first inclines him. Yet he is so private a man and goes through so much with and exclusively for his beloved piebald that his endurance, courage and fidelity are not publicly recognised qualities; hence, when he is tricked into seeming baseness of conduct, Ukhayyad has only the drastic and ultimately self-defeating act of murder of his betrayer to counter the opprobrium which he has always so deeply dreaded. He cannot ultimately attain the freedom of ascetics like sheikh Musa, rumoured to have come "from the western ends of the desert, from Fez, the land of teachers and scholars of Islamic law" (19). His love of the piebald, selfless as it is, is still a sign of his unbreakable worldly commitment to recognition of his aristocratic standing and runs parallel to his enduring desire to be seen to embody noble values.

The first and amusing demonstration that the above desires will end up making him the broken plaything of fate occurs when he engages a famous poetess to compose an ode to the Mahri. She points out to Ukhayyad that the piebald first needs to demonstrate certain abilities, at least by taking part (to acclaim) in the dancing festivals in which camels can participate with their riders. The reader gets the impression that the Mahri is simply not well enough trained, since Ukhayyad places all the emphasis on borrowing gorgeous trappings to dress up the creature for the occasion. In the event, the piebald breaks rank and the "dance" ends in chaos as the creature goes wild when Ukhayyad tries to discipline it and bring it back into formation. Thoroughly disgraced when it all ends with public hysteria and serious damage, Ukhayyad thrown to the ground when the berserk camel is brought down, the worst comes when the poetess composes, instead of the camel's praises, verses openly mocking the shameful display of animal indiscipline and failure of control by the rider. On another occasion, when Ukhayyad goes on one of his habitual flirtatious visits to a lovely daughter of the "noble clan" inhabiting the valley of Maghargar (12), the rutting piebald becomes embroiled in a vicious fight with a rival male camel over a female beast and the commotion causes the revelation of his own clandestine visit. Too sophisticated to rebuke a fellow aristocrat, the local sheikh has the piebald entrapped in order to have him forcibly impregnate several of his she-camels and so get the benefit of the rare piebald strain!

This second humiliation is followed by something much more serious. In his relentless pursuit of female camels on heat, the piebald contracts mange - that incurable and slow but eventually fatal as well as disfiguring disease of the skin. Even Ukhayyad's father tells him that he must now give up the beast, but the young man cannot bear the thought and tries one remedy after another, all to no avail.

The riskiest and most dangerous cure is the one most likely to succeed. It is outlined to him by his old friend sheikh Musa. Ukhayyad must take the piebald to the faraway fields of Maimoun, the only place where a fabled plant, silphium, can be found. It is the only known true cure for mange, but it will also cause insanity, as Ukhayyad well knows. But when all other treatments have failed, he takes the Mahri there.

On their way to Maimoun they come across an ancient pre-Islamic shrine inscribed with strange symbols, particularly the isosceles triangle. The mysterious, powerful and worn stone image of the god so impresses Ukhayyad that he forces the camel to kneel, prostrates himself and promises this unknown god the future sacrifice of a fattened camel should the god lend his powers to allow the healing of Ukhayyad's stricken Mahri. The next day they find Maimoun, and Ukhayyad sets the piebald grazing on the designated plant, firmly hobbling his legs and remaining on guard to watch over the sick beast. Touchingly, after scolding the camel for his foolish susceptibility to female attractions ("the most dangerous trap males can fall into," sheikh Musa had taught him), Ukhayyad tells the piebald:

Good God - it was I who raised you to become so heedless! Your mother didn't get to enjoy seeing you as an adult when the great chief brought you to me. But tell me, by God, how am I supposed to enlighten your mind if I myself, no less than you, need someone to enlighten me? Living blindfolded is our lot, and only traps can teach us wisdom. How reckless we are! (21)

The depths of suffering resulting from the treatment, test and prove Ukhayyad's love for his Mahri to dreadful extremes. The following, dramatic section of the narrative relates this rite of endurance which seals the loyalty between the man and the beast. For on the third afternoon, the silphium plant begins to boil with unendurable, maddening pain in the camel's belly. Ukhayyad attempts to calm the creature with his creed (so badly needed by himself!) insisting on "Patience, patience. Life is but patience", yet the Mahri can only howl out his heartbreaking pain in his cry of "Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a" which, "like a needle, ... buried itself in Ukhayyad's heart" (35). Had Ukhayyad not tied himself to the Mahri, he could never have held on to it as it breaks free of the bindings and rushes blindly into the wilds.

After days of being dragged over stones, through thorny shrubs, up and down mountainsides and across sandy wastes by the maddened camel, Ukhayyad regains consciousness in a battered body - "his head [feeling] as if it had been smashed open, his arms and legs as if their skin had been peeled off with a knife" (43). The camel is at rest nearby, its entire body bloody because the outer, mangy skin has been stripped off. Now Ukhayyad needs water if he is not to die, not having (as a camel does) any fluid stored in his body. Hence he ties himself on to the camel's back and requests the creature to take him to the nearest (but still very far off) well even further to the south. Their bloods mingle as his bloody body lies on top of the animal's bloody back, but eventually he comes to for a second time, now near a well with water in it - but no bucket. A third time he ties himself to the Mahri as with his last strength, and relying on the creature to pull him out to safety, he climbs and then falls into the well. During this moment of extremity Ukhayyad passes into the liminal zone located between life and death: "He saw himself as he fell from his mother's womb into the chasm. He heard the trilling of the she-jinn on Jebel Hasawna. He saw the shadows of the houris in paradise" (51).

The Mahri having pulled the unconscious Ukhayyad out of the well, some herders chance to come by and complete his return to life by their wise nursing. He then goes back to his people, on tenterhooks as to whether the piebald will regain its original colouring as well as its health. Again it is sheikh Musa who advises him. The camel, he says, needs to be purified by gelding if he is to regain his treasured dappled colouring. Though he at first cannot bear the thought, Ukhayyad eventually arranges for this to be done - but in his absence. Even though Ukhayyad attempts before this act to warn and explain to the creature and tries to make it up to him afterwards, it is (we learn) because of this humiliation that the Mahri had misbehaved so badly in the dancing area that he incurred the poetess's mockery ("His color is spotted, but his mind is rotted", 63)!

Ukhayyad does recall his debt to the unknown god of the desert and purchases a camel he wants to get fatted up for the promised sacrifice, but a new and all-absorbing development in his life obscures the memory of this duty.

A group of Moroccan refugees from Aïr have arrived and made camp near them, including a young woman so beautiful, charming, vital and talented that he asks her to marry him. Ayur's "songs of longing and agony ... made him burn"; she "knew more poems by heart than she had hairs on her head" (68). He is stunned by his father's bitter taunt and overt rejection when he asks for his blessing on the marriage, having forgotten all about the sheikh's earlier anger at his own unfilial refusal to get married to the woman his father had designated for him in order to secure the sheikhdom. Undaunted, Ukhayyad accepts the familial severance and departs for "the lower valleys that lay on the outskirts of the Fezzan oases" (74) rather than for his wife's birthplace, Aïr. Among the oases, Ukhayyad and Ayur's son is born.

When news comes concerning the European colonial invaders, Ukhayyad decides to join the resistance, but before he can get there, further news comes that indigenous resistance in the Hamada desert has been crushed, that his father is dead and his tribe scattered to the four winds.

At this time a relative of Ayur's called Dudu - a wealthy trader - comes to visit them for some days. It is this Dudu who will prove to be Ukhayyad's nemesis.

Initially, the visitor behaves in the most proper of ways. He is even (generously and sensitively in view of his host's pride and touchy sense of honour) found to have left them a bag each of barley and of dates, for the war against the invaders combined with a terrible drought has reduced them to a state coming ever more dangerously near to starvation. But the sacks are stolen two days later, the thief leaving the triangle sign of the desert god in the sand above the store as an eerie reminder of Ukhayyad's unredeemed promise. A soothsayer whom he consults, a blind old woman from Tiba, gives him the name of the deity - Tanit, the powerful and still widely worshipped desert goddess. Even his wife Ayur has the goddess's triangular symbol tattooed on her belly. Now Ukhayyad realises that Tanit's sign is everywhere around him - on men's forearms; on gun barrels; even embroidered into clothes. He is guilt-stricken, but in their present state of poverty he cannot afford to buy a fat camel to fulfil his promise to the goddess; in fact his family does not have enough to eat.

With the anxiety of a man who has never before broken a promise or left it unfulfilled, and with Ayur increasingly resentful and contemptuous at his inability to provide for her and their son, the marriage rapidly begins to sour. In time-honoured fashion, Ukhayyad pins the blame on "this woman who had brought calamity on the piebald" (79), for he is (inadmissibly to himself) aware that to hang on to so valuable a possession when he could with its price return his family to relative prosperity is aberrant behaviour. He even dreams that the soothsayer from Tiba (who has, he learns the next day, left the oasis) instructs him to slaughter the piebald itself. In a later dream the old woman says it is not she, but Tanit herself who is demanding that he sacrifice the Mahri.

Nearby, a family killing/ suicide pact occurs - they could no longer face the starvation. Things are getting to so desperate a pass that Ukhayyad goes and begs a peasant for "three, maybe four" dates (87). His child declining and his wife increasingly embittered, it is at this desperate time that Ayur's kinsman Dudu returns on another visit. Thinking himself an inspired man, Ukhayyad decides to pawn his Mahri to Dudu with the intention of ransoming the valuable beast once the war subsides and he can regain some prosperity.

Ukhayyad attempts to explain to the piebald that this will be a merely temporary separation between them and that they both need to be patient because "Patience is life", but the Mahri objects: "Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a" (93).

Over and over, and increasingly desperately, the piebald breaks free of his captivity at Dudu's place and returns to Ukhayyad, clearly unable to endure their being parted. Even if touched and embarrassed, Ukhayyad dutifully sends the camel back, but his resentment against the weight of familial responsibilities - a wife and a son - that have forced him to the point of hurting his beloved Mahri rapidly intensifies. Nevertheless, the next development takes his breath away: Dudu by a messenger sends him the astounding offer that he will "give the piebald back to you on the condition that you divorce his kinswoman" (105). Dumbfounded, Ukhayyad can initially only ask: "What's the one thing got to do with the other?" (106), followed by an onset of fury that makes him (futilely, in view of how powerful and well protected a man Dudu is) threaten to go and shoot Dudu down. The old herder who brought Dudu's message then reveals the secret explanation to Ukhayyad: Dudu and Ayur are cousins who loved each other in childhood but were forced apart by circumstances in later years (their fathers fell out); nevertheless Dudu never stopped loving and wanting to get married to Ayur himself. Dudu has even thought of including in the bargain the offer to allow Ukhayyad to take back his son once old enough, but would bring him up under his own protection. Now Ukhayyad recalls how Dudu had drawn Tanit's symbol in the sand when they had sat talking. Yet he is furious at the man's audacity and the insult to his honour; now the wife and child he had begun to resent as burdens hobbling his freedom are once again recognised as his beloved spouse and offspring.

Ukhayyad again sends the piebald back in proud rejection of Dudu's offer. Yet the beast, with increasing signs of its unbearable emotional suffering and consequent physical deterioration, once again breaks out and returns to him. Ukhayyad decides to take the beast back in person this time. He attempts to leave it after finally checking on it, but the piebald's unmistakable cry of pain, "Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a", undoes his resolve to leave it. Now it seems the basest of betrayals to trade this noble, selflessly loyal creature - "the only sincere friend he had in the world" - for "that noose of a woman, doll of a boy, and [the] illusion of shame" (116). Ukhayyad even attempts to shoot the piebald, but although the creature seems bravely willing to offer him its life, it is its calm courage and demonstration of enduring devotion to him that drives him to the fatal decision - he will obtain a writ of divorce and give up his wife and child to Dudu in order to be reunited with the camel. As he takes the document to Dudu, the man persuades him against his wishes to accept a bag of gold dust (the title reference at last) even though he has not the least interest in it, believing, as his tribe does, that gold is cursed. But Ukhayyad yields when Dudu insists, taking the gold.

Subsequently Ukhayyad takes the Mahri into the desert with him. In "[t]he fertile southern pastures below Jebel Hasawna" (128) they go into one particular, almost hidden, fertile valley. While Ukhayyad lives in a cave on the mountain slope, the camel grazes on the rich pasturage and regains its health and beauty. To Ukhayyad this is the beginning of the happiest and purest part of his life. He lives like some mystical hermit, entirely untroubled by the solitude and discovering a marvellous desert food source - truffles. "The truffles were like a reward for all his patience and suffering", yet "the real compensation", he discovers, lies "in the pure presence of God that can be found only in the quiet emptiness of infinite wilderness" (128). He decides that "inhabitants of oases were nothing but slaves" (130-31), since no serenity is possible for those shackled to the many everyday, worldly matters that concern those who live ordinary, settled, social lives.

One day, however, a stranger searching for his stray camels chances to find Ukhayyad's hidden valley. As they sit chatting that night, the man drops a reference to a notorious person whose "story is on everyone's tongue" because he "sold his wife and child for a handful of gold dust" (134). Ukhayyad goes cold with shock at this slander which can only, he knows, refer to his acceptance of Dudu's gold after redeeming the piebald for the writ of divorce from his wife. All too likely, Dudu is himself the source of this terribly distorted version of Ukhayyad's conduct. "The noose went back to being a beloved wife. The doll became, once more, his progeny and heir to his mantle" (134).

At this moment Ukhayyad loses the spiritual freedom he had so cherished and a huge burden of shock and shame descends upon him. A childhood nightmare starts recurring, night after night. In its dread-inducing grip he sees himself trapped in a crumbling, pitch-dark building with no opening, through whose passages he is also being eerily and relentlessly pursued by an unseen but (he senses) deadly presence. "Was it human or jinn? Angel or devil?" (137). He cannot make it out in the gloom.

Without any memory of how he made the journey, Ukhayyad arrives at the oasis where he used to live with his wife and child, finding that preparations are underway for a wedding. Surmising that it would be Dudu preparing to get married to Ayur, Ukhayyad tracks him down to where he is taking his bath, all by himself in the local spring. Finding Dudu unexpectedly feeble in the exposure of his nakedness, Ukhayyad feels an upsurge of contempt for the man who had so intimidated and so cunningly manipulated him. Unspeaking, the two men stare at each other for a long time until at last Ukhayyad shoots his rival dead. As Dudu sinks beneath the waters of the spring, Ukhayyad pulls out the bag of gold dust and pours it out over the corpse and into the blood-reddened water, proclaiming it a gift from the piebald.

Even though Ukhayyad, unseen, immediately flees into the desert, he knows his chances of escaping capture and execution are slim indeed. Dudu's kinsmen will, according to local law and custom, be unable to inherit his great wealth until they avenge his death.

Ukhayyad reaches Jebel Hasawna and sends the piebald away, ensconcing himself in a hidden cave. Not long afterwards, his pursuers arrive. Initially he escapes detection as a moufflon (a legendary mountain goat) is captured in his stead, but he knows he will eventually be found. What actually happens is that Dudu's kinsmen track down the Mahri, bring it to the area where they know Ukhayyad to be hiding, and start torturing the piebald so that the man, unable to allow the beloved camel to suffer in his stead, emerges from his shelter and gives himself up to them. They decide to kill him in the same cruel way that "Tanis took revenge on her wicked co-wife" (163), by tying two of his limbs on each side to two camels that, when whipped, tear his body apart. After this, they behead him with the stroke of a sword. In the moment of his death, Ukhayyad is at last shown the identity of the being that had haunted him in the nightmare house - when it is utterly too late.

Al-Koni maintains the spell of his narrative by not offering any explanation or solution to this mystery. Is the haunting presence fate? Is it Tanit (or Tanis, as Dudu's kinsmen call her) punishing his failure to fulfil his promise? Or is it the vengeance due for his aberrant preference for a creature over a human wife? Or did he betray the serenity and moral independence he had achieved in his desert retreat by a worldly concern with his reputation? Is the whole text perhaps a coded representation of homosexual love, anathema in Muslim culture and incurring the worst punishment? The reader is not offered any clear-cut answers, or even hints, to allow choice of the "correct" answer. The powerful spell woven by the narration lingers on beyond its end because of this. As a moving and utterly convincing evocation of a good man's ruin brought about by a profound and noble love that is not encouraged in his society, the novel succeeds - but perhaps more so if we accept the piebald as a camel rather than a symbol and respect the author's moving and brilliant depiction of a lifestyle in which men and camels live in a symbiotic relationship quite unlike the type of urban or even modern rural existence with which most of us are familiar. Even in the industrialised world, after all, do some human beings achieve lifelong, mystical bonds with the other creatures with whom we still share the world, however unequally.