This deceptively simple tale by one of Libya’s foremost novelists has the power and qualities of a myth, blending elements of magical realism, mysticism and politics. The story concerns Asouf, a Bedouin herder living alone with his goats in the mountainous desert of southern Libya. He is also the custodian of the ancient rock paintings which tell of the bond between humans and the wildlife of the area. Asouf is the only person who knows of the whereabouts of the waddan, a breed of sheep long thought extinct and famed both for its ferocity and the quality of its meat.
When a pair of hunters, who have already been instrumental in the slaughter of the desert gazelle population, turn up and demand that Asouf guide them to the waddan, he is forced to choose between his human kinship and his spiritual ties with the waddan.
Although set in a very specific time and place – the Libyan desert in the first half of the 20th century – this story has resonance far beyond its limited span. It encompasses Sufism and philosophy, obsession and addiction, human sacrifice and blood guilt. It is also a perfectly turned ecological fable, describing the environmental disaster brought to the desert creatures by men with Land Rovers and rapid-firing rifles.
Ibrahim al-Koni’s feel for the desert landscape and the tenuous but tenacious place humans have in it is matchless. This is the first of his writing to appear in English and I would certainly look forward to future translations of work from this intriguing and talented writer.Peter Whittaker
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