Reviewed by William Dobson
I’d never heard of Ahmed Fagih before I picked up his latest novel, Homeless Rats, depsite the fact that The Guardian described him as ‘Libya’s greatest writer.’ While that accolade is open to conjecture, he is certainly the most prolific of his generation, author of 18 books, including novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction essays.
However, having finished Homeless Rats, I’m really keen to read more of his work. The book follows the fortunes and, indeed, misfortunes of a tribe of Bedouins who travel to Jandouba from their home of Mizda, a town in the north west of Libya, just south of Tripoli, where, incidentally, Fahig himself was born. They go in search of relief from drought which has ravaged their livelihood for the previous three years. While the book predominantly focuses on the humans, including a family from the eastern part of Libya whose traditions and morals differ greatly from the more reserved protagonists, we are also subject to the plight of the other inhabitants of the area. These include the feisty jerboas; the conscientious ants; the sage of the plain, a spiny tailed lizard; his closest friend, the hedgehog; as well as the clairvoyant chameleon to name just a few.
The animals are all personified and the book is clearly allegorical. Fagih manages to pull this off, allowing the story to be enjoyed equally on more than one level. When I was younger I loved reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, viewing them as simple children’s stories. However, in my late teens I reread them and found a second, much deeper meaning and I loved them just as much. This is a quality which can be attributed to Homeless Rats.
While a lot of the themes dealt with here are probably inappropriate for a younger audience, the writing is beautifully simple, evocative and, well, incredibly nice and easy to read complementing a good storyline. My knowledge of Libyan history and politics is limited to a rough outline of Gaddafi’s rise to power and subsequent rule, filled in slightly by information garnered from following the current situation in the country, so I’m sure that there are various allusions which passed me by. However, this certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Still, there are some obvious themes which present themselves and are dealt with expertly, perhaps most significantly the jerboas predicament of whether to flee their homeland in the face of better equipped aggressors or to remain and fight. This idea can be used as a metaphor for any number of Middle Eastern situations. Furthermore, there is also conflict between the more traditional lifestyle of the nomad and all the difficulties that entails compared to the temptation to leave and seek a different life in the cities. A strong Muslim overtone runs throughout the story, but Fagih manages to be neither evangelical nor judgemental, remaining neutral throughout.
This is a really interesting read, a powerful and topical tale, which deals with very grown-up themes while almost masquerading itself as a sweet and innocent children’s story. It is a fascinating imagination of how the symbiosis of desert life might work and it is wonderful to come across a well-written piece of literature from a rare viewpoint and location. Fagih skilfully transports the reader to the barren Libyan desert through his economical yet vivid descriptions of the landscape and its inhabitants.