Exiled in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, figurative Nazis in Albert Camus’s The Plague and instruments of torture in Nineteen Eighty-Four, rats are the bêtes noires of Western literature. This makes their portrayal as victims in the Libyan writer Ahmed Fagih’s new novel so intriguing.
The rodents that scuttle through this work are long-legged desert rats or jerboas. The story opens with the image of the sun shooting arrows of fire down on the desert valley of Jandouba, as these anthropomorphous creatures fret over the recent arrival of a Bedouin caravan. The Bedouin, led by Sheik Hamed, have left their drought-stricken village of Mizda in search of food and have come to Jandouba to harvest the barley for local landowners, receiving half the crop in return.
Fagih neatly sketches the daily rhythms of Bedouin life: rituals of prayer, patriarchy, domesticity and politics, all of which are soon challenged when they learn that the precious crop has already been harvested. Starvation looms until the Sheik’s infant grandson discovers by chance that the barley has been buried underground by the jerboas. This prayed-for miracle sets up the tension between Fate - ‘there is no will but God’s will’ - and coincidence that runs through the narrative.
The jerboas’ stores of corn are pillaged, and they are rendered homeless in the process; then a second tribe of Bedouin arrives whose diet includes roasted jerboa. An escalating tit-for-tat ensues: humans are bitten by snakes; bugs are wiped out by insecticide. A sage-like spiny-tailed lizard advises the other creatures: ‘We all strive after one aim. The aim of self-preservation.’ Only the non-human predators are portrayed as living in harmony with each other, a whimsy far removed from Tennyson’s ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’.
Just as the animals view humans as a source of destruction, so the traditional tribe views the new arrivals prejudicially. The second tribe espouses a more liberal version of Islam. The women move about freely unveiled among the men. And, most shockingly of all for the Sheik, their leader - the charismatic oracle Rabiha - is female. For him, these ‘gypsy’ women pose an existential threat: ‘Let everyone stay within his limits … associating with these people [will] corrupt us and open the door to sin.’ His younger tribe members, however, soon find themselves attracted to their wild dances and exotic jewellery. Warily, they begin to share resources, but two intertribal marriages lead to violence. Only a devastating flood puts paid to the Sheik’s unsustainable traditionalist world-view.
The translation, done by the author in conjunction with the Egyptian Soraya Allam, is marred by clichéd and repetitive metaphors. Tautologies abound - ‘a mood of depression and gloom’ and ‘plentiful, bountiful livelihood’ - though none of these flaws overly detracts from an engagingly paced narrative. Homeless Rats reads like an adult fable and can appear simplistic despite its wide moral purview of ecological balance, self-preservation, moderate Islam and the role women can play in society. But the daring at its core is impressive.
‘The daring at its core is impressive’
—Homeless Rats, reviewed in the TLS
‘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?’
—Review of Homeless Rats by Ahmed Fagih
‘A delightfully straightforward, nostalgic tale of Libya in times gone by.’