Of Rats and Men, Fiction from the Libyan desert
Jenny Gustafson - 06/12/2011
The lines speak about Libya, a place from where we’ve gotten used to receive, almost daily during the last months, disturbing news about strife, fear, and insecurity. No doubt the ridding of the dictator came with many tragedies. But, the sentences above do not describe what was happening during spring and summer, they are taken from one of the first chapters of Libyan author Ahmed Fagih’s book Homeless Rats.
And, they don’t speak about human suffering. The paragraph is about an ant colony in the Libyan desert. One day, the ants wake up to feel the earth tremble: an army of human beings are invading their land. The intruding giants are a bedouin tribe led by Sheikh Hamed, traveling east to find food during a year when all barley fields have gone barren. Their hopes are set on Jandouba, whose people always welcomed Sheikh Hamed’s tribe during droughts and famines in the past. But, when they arrive, they find all barley heads reaped, although the fields seem mysteriously untouched.
Gaddafi too spoke of rats
The book, first issued in Arabic under the name فئران بلا جحور as part of the famous Novels of Hilal (روايات الهلال) series in 2000, was translated into English and published by Quartet Books in September. The English edition makes this gem available to a large global audience, who is not exactly spoiled with translated fiction from Libya. And, the timeliness couldn’t be more current. Within the same month that Homeless Rats came out, Gaddafi made the last of a number of agitating speeches where he likened his fellow Libyans to – rats.
An oasis storyteller
Reading the book at this point in time is more than a fictitious adventure. Fagih does what news reporters and political analysts impossibly can: he paints a vibrant portrait of Libyan society. Born in the oasis village of Mizda south of Tripoli, Fagih is a storyteller with a rare voice. He speaks about Libya through its people, its wide deserts, its rural folk tales and the rich variety of cultural traditions. Besides authoring novels, Fagih is also a short-story writer, dramatist and columnist who has contributed widely to Libyan culture and media. Several of his works have earned an international recognition, among them the plays Gazelles and Evening Visitor , his trilogy Gardens of the Night and the novel The Valley of Ashes .
Past or present?
Homeless Rats is set during the years following World War II, but it evokes a sense of timelessness and the feeling that the book’s wildlife-versus-human battles captures also what the Libyans have been going through during the last months. When Fagih describes the ant community being under the attack, getting trapped, and scared away as refugees, thoughts wander to present-day Libya. Libyans have suffered in this exact way, both under Gaddafi’s dictatorship and during this year’s fighting. The story reminds of the refugees who fled to Tunisia or Egypt, those who drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, the families who had street battles outside their houses, and those who lost their homes and belongings. And, it recalls of a Libyan people who are now faced with the same task as the ants – how to rebuild their society.
The barley mystery
But it is not only Jandouba’s ants who get disrupted by the humans. The sense of a common danger unites ants, beetles, spiders, worms, scarabs, grasshoppers, and hedgehogs. The only animals who see joy in the human invasion are the moths, who sing and dance as the bedouins lit their fires in the dark. The book’s lead role, however, is played by Jandouba’s hardworking and sociable rodent inhabitants: the jerboas. The jerboas’ relationship with the humans take on an existential character when Sheikh Hamed’s people discover the lost barley stashed in tunnels below the ground. It was them who had cleared the fields from barley heads, in a collective effort to make provisions for the coming winter.
This is the starting point for a struggle over food, land, and resources. Who has the right to the barley; the starving bedouins who had travelled across the desert to feed their children, or the jerboas who had meticulously stashed it in neat piles under the hot sand? The dilemma becomes even more intricate as a truck, carrying a group of bedouins from the eastern tribes, one day appears on the horizon.
Homeless Rats is rich with reflections and social commentary. Through the Mizda tribe’s quest for survival, Fagih speaks about the hardships of food scarcity. He lets Sheikh Hamed recall a memory of a family who had entombed themselves in their house; blocking the door and the windows with mud and then laid down on the floor awaiting death, so as not having to beg. He shares the grievances of the tribe leader when he is left with no option but to kill his camel – a dear companion who years earlier had saved his life when lost in a sandstorm – to provide for his tribe. Sheikh Hamed, writes Fagih, did not take part in the feast, unable to bring himself to eat the flesh of the camel who had been faithful to him until death.
The beauty with Homeless Rats is how it connects the past to the present. Fagih’s saga of life in the Libyan desert does what good reads do: it touches upon the essence of a place. And the place, Jandouba, is not only the scene of a fictitious dispute over barley, but also of a battle in 1913 between colonising Italians and thousands of locals without any modern military hardware. This Jandouba tale of bedouins and jerboas struggling for survival comes at a perfect occasion. What better time to speak about courage and bravery in Libya?
This article is published with the courtesy of Mashallah news, Babelmed’s media partner.