"It was only when he started praying that the male goats decided to butt one another right there in front of him."
I tell you, that's a fine first line. It's the kind of first line that draws the reader in, and summarizes the issues of the book: the distractions that arise as the protagonist, Asouf, focuses on God, distractions that are really all that life is made up of, for in the end, it is all the small things we face that determine our short existence on this planet. Asouf's focus thus is not so much on God, as on the desert, which he lives in, and is part of. It brings into question what it is that Asouf worships most of all.
This is an excellently written novel, and one of the few out there in English written by Middle Easterners, from a truly Middle Eastern point of view. Al Koni presents many interweaving themes, heavy on the symbolism, constant flash-backs and foreshadowing premonitions, bringing up a deep concordance with the Latin Pedro Paramo, though not quite as confusing. At times a bit too gruesome, but always very moving, very magical, very real.
And the language Al Koni writes with! Poetic prose. Vivid imagery. I saw what Al Koni described, and had to go over the words again and again, to relive the moments. "The mighty waddan was still now. He saw him raise that great head, crowned with the legendary horns, and face the mysterious thread that heralded dawn. The faint, divine glow within which the secret of life forever dwells anew."
A lot of this magic comes from the novel being steeped in folk Islam, that type of Islam imbued with many folk religious practices, practiced by the majority of Muslims around the world, but considered heretical by Islamic religious hierarchy. This thus becomes an excellent novel to understand the mind of a folk Muslim, particularly a North African- not because it gives a litany of different folk practices, but rather because the novel shows the thinking of one aware of the excluded middle of the supernatural, that between the ethical and the great God above, the movements of the supernatural that pragmatically effect the here and now. The beasts of the desert have spirits, and a greater awareness than humans. The jinn (genies) must be placated and considered before making decisions- and here, in this particular desert, they stand tall above all, seeing everything in their pictures on the rock walls. And transformation from one form to another is possible- not because it is believed, but because it is seen, and believing is seeing.
Bleeding of the Stone is also a novel of contextual environmentalism. As Al Koni builds up the stories, we receive a picture of a land wasted, a land destroyed, because the people have chosen ways removed from their soul, from the desert, and have become possessed. His use of metaphor is strong, with one of the main characters, Cain, son of Adam, representing a vast people's choice to turn from proper management and care for the desert, while Asouf chooses the right because he is part of the desert. It's a return to the constant feel of the Arab that the desert is where the true values come from, and yet the Bedouin is simultaneously revered and despised. But of course, the Lybian could not have destroyed the land, without the prominent help of a symbolic American. The archetypal Lybian can escape the Italians, but it is the American who does the real damage.
Most of all, this is a novel of redemption. Of how it is possible to restore a land, but only through the blood of one of it's own, yet one who is from beyond the desert as well, one become incarnated into a creature of the desert. It is surprising how strongly Al Koni relies on Christian metaphors- not only quoting constantly from the Taurat and Injil (Old and New Testaments), as well as the Qur'an, but focusing explicitly on the metaphor of Christ's crucifixion as placation of death, and reversal of destruction in order to bring life, that rivers might again flow in the desert. In the end, this becomes a profound novel of redemptive analogy.