By Ibrahim al Koni
Translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins
University of Texas Press, 2010
Published in Arabic as al-Dumya
Beirut, al-Muassas al-Arabiya Li-I-Dirasat wa-I-Nashr, 1998
Towards the end of Ibrahim al-Koni’s recently translated novel The Puppet, a character is exiled from a Bedouin settlement and abandoned in the desert. After a night spent staring at the sky and looking for omens, the exile sets off to find his way to safety: “He did not change course the way careless people would. Instead he chose the same direction he had selected the day before, because setting a new course is an error the desert will not forgive… . In the desert those who think they have been granted enormous knowledge and who therefore debate and resist will perish… . The other group, those who surrender control to the wasteland and seek the desert’s protection against the desert, survives.”
The Puppet is the middle installment of a trilogy that chronicles a Bedouin community’s turn towards sedentary life and its concomitant moral decline. The puppet of the title is Aghulli, who is chosen to rule the tribe, but is ceaselessly manipulated and betrayed by its noblemen and traders. In his introduction, translator William M. Hutchins traces the foundations and concerns of al Koni’s work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun’s ideas about cyclical social change. It should be said that the trilogy is equally reminiscent of the Saudi novelist Abdul-Rahman Mounif’s Cities of Salt series, which chronicles the disorienting social transformations brought about by the discovery of oil.
The Arab novel is to an overwhelming degree the product of an urban, middle-class experience, and it has largely focused on this milieu in its lifetime. The desert and the Bedouin have featured mostly, if at all, as symbolic figures (a few notable recent exceptions include the Egyptian writers Hamdi Abu Golayyel and Miral El-Tahawy). In this context, al-Koni has probably produced the largest, most admired body of work in Arabic with a focus on the desert and its itinerant inhabitants.
Unfortunately, The Puppet does not give readers a full sense of al-Koni’s talents. At his best, al-Koni, who has published some sixty novels and is of Bedouin provenance himself (he was born in 1948 in Ghadames, an oasis in western Libya), creates magical but very particular worlds, places where every tree and animal has life, mystery, and power; where natural phenomena carry urgent messages; and where heroes face difficult, often impossible, choices between freedom and the claims of society.
The Puppet lacks the marvel and originality of, for example, The Bleeding of the Stone — one of al-Koni’s best works, beautifully translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (Interlink Books, 2002). In that book, al-Koni spectacularly conjures the shepherd Asouf’s secluded sort of paradise, on the outer edges of history and organized religion (pagan, magical, and Islamic beliefs mix in Asouf’s world). Al-Koni portrays a life led in a state of constant proximity to the natural world — whether in kinship or in struggle — and how both exhilarating and frightening it can be. And even as the book veers towards the mystical and the surreal (featuring intra-species curses and bonds, reincarnations and transformations), it remains utterly gripping.
The problem with The Puppet, on the other hand, is the schematic way in which the writer plots the tribe’s moral downfall into the muck of commerce and politics. There is no suspense over the direction of events, and no effort to make the characters anything but archetypes (the greedy, scheming merchant; the blind, stalwart leader; the passionate young lover, et cetera). Al-Koni’s point — that the tribe is better off in its pure, traditional nomadic state — veers toward the trite and anachronistic (for one thing it’s hard to sympathize with tribal noblemen who keep referring to everyone else as “the rabble”).
There are some notable passages, though, such as the powerful opening sequence in which a “she-jinni” threatens the village with her disturbing siren call: “Mystics were inflamed by the sweetest forms of longing, and tears flooded all eyes. The oasis shook, cavaliers reeled, and hearts felt drained. Some became so intoxicated that they fell from the roofs of their homes. In musically induced ecstasy, men and women began writhing in ditches. Some were so overcome by grief that they drew their swords and stabbed themselves. Another group lost their minds; they sang a little and then went insane.”
Or this description, which transfers the ambiguities of an unresolved conversation onto the scene around it: “They retraced their steps silently, their feet sinking into the muddy mires. A muffled sound rose behind them: a mocking, suppressed laugh, a sob of lament, or a phrase so choked in a throat that it emerged as an indistinct cry.
All sounds resemble each other when muffled.
All opposites seem concordant when a matter is confused.
But still, throughout the book, characters get mired in long, abstruse discussions, in language that is at times absurdly stilted. It’s hard to know how much of the fault here lies with the original and how much with the translation. But Hutchins, who has translated Naguib Mahfouz and other works by al-Koni, seems unwilling to break down and rearrange the syntax of the Arabic original in a way that would render it into fluid, graceful English. Too often, sentences are over-long, clumsy, or downright unintelligible. Here is the hero heading off to do some solitary thinking: “He set off alone to hunt for the voices of the Unknown, to pray for stillness’ assistance in calling to mind eternity’s whispers, while here in the oasis the din abrogated inspiration and cast prophecy into the abysses of chaos. Here the nugatory absorbed detestable voices to annul the sign that the stratagems had devised to lead him and to assist him in a matter he had not himself chosen.”
Al-Koni has fared better at the hands of Elliot Colla, who translated Gold Dust, a powerful, tragic story centered on the bond between a man and the piebald camel of which he is inordinately proud. (In that book’s opening pages, the hero rides his mount across the desert, talking to and teasing him. “Leaning forward, spitting, and chewing at his bridle in his joyous rush, the thoroughbred would respond: ‘Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a.’ And Ukhayyad would laugh and slap him”). As it happens, Colla’s translation of another of al-Koni’s novels — The Animists, reportedly his masterpiece — is forthcoming from the American University in Cairo Press in June of this year. Here’s hoping it will make for a more fitting, less stilted, introduction to the vibrant and shifting landscape of al-Koni’s fiction than The Puppet.