Tuareg author, Ibrahim al-Koni, writes of a rare world within Arabic literature: the nomadic life. The translator of al-Koni`s, `Gold Dust,` Elliott Colla writes that, "The Arabic novel has always been dominated by stories of the city." The ever changing dunes, endless baked plateau lands, and stark, barren mountains of southern Libya provide the backdrop to`Gold Dust,' a novel very similar in make-up to his great debut novel, "The Bleeding of the Stone."
Both works focus on the lives of lonely, misanthropic outcasts who suffer indignity and worse in order to protect their natural environments. In `Bleeding,' Asouf is the shy loner whom his father warns to stay clear of his fellow man. Instead, Asouf finds his place among the sacred Barbary sheep, moufflon, and sacrifices himself in order to protect them.
The protagonist of `Gold Dust,' Ukkayyad, shares a similar distaste for his fellow man. Yet, whereas Asouf pursues a life of solitude out of fear, Ukhayyad becomes a misanthrope out of bitter disappointment. Born to a noble family, Ukhayyad is ostracized from his father from the start. He marries a girl not to his father`s pleasing and so begins a journey of exile.
What the sacred Moufflon sheep was to Asouf, a purebred camel, a `Mahri,' is to Ukhayyad. From the moment he receives the Mahri, Ukhayyad is smitten. The novel bounces, twists, and turns through Ukhayyad`s adventures with his camel companion. The Mahri shames Ukhayyad in a camel race and the two flee in disgrace. Both Ukhayyad and Mahri soon become entangled in affairs with the fairer sex. The Mahri catches a nasty case of mange from his amorous adventures, while Ukhayyad falls in love. Ukhayyad soon marries and thus earns his father`s opprobrium, "Marry her and be damned." Soon a son arrives and then a merciless drought plagues the young family. Ukhayyad must choose between his `duty` to wife and son and his `love` for his camel. At his wife`s urging, Ukhayyad pawns his companion for food and soon regrets it. He hungers for the free life he had with his camel.
When the wealthy trader holding the Mahri offers Ukhayyad a sinister deal, disaster is not far off. The trader promises to relinquish the Mahri in return for Ukhayyad`s young and comely wife. Caught in this horrible dilemma, Ukhayyad sacrifices his family for the return of his friend. Yet, things don`t go so smoothly. The trader has spread a lie about Ukhayyad selling his wife and son for a mere pinch of gold dust. Noble-birthed Ukhayyad realizes such a slander will mark him as an outcast forever, a man without honor, a punishment worse than death in this nomadic culture. For Ukhayyad, revenge and permanent exile are his only options.
"Gold Dust' meanders from adventure to misadventure with no apparent destination. A structured plot and sequential order to things are lacking. Characters appear out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. The underlying causes of Ukhayyad`s predicaments are often difficult to unveil. Yet, as with Asouf in `The Bleeding of the Stone,' Ukhayyad is the sole thread to be followed. The other characters serve as incidental foils to Ukhayyad`s struggles. Despite such ramblings, the novel does redeem itself with a dramatic and rather unexpected ending.
The message here is simple and cynical: man is wolf to his fellow man. (to paraphrase Janusz Bardach). Al-Koni`s vision is as unsparing as it is intriguing. Only in apartness and exile from others, can humans find a modicum of peace and freedom. And what one loses in community, one gains in a deepened attachment to the natural world and to its denizens. For those attuned to such a message or at least willing to examine it, Al-Koni`s novels open up a brave new world.