The Libyan Desert is one of the hottest and driest places on earth. Life there is a constant battle for survival as temperatures during the day climb to extreme degrees. Sandstorms and dust storms are common, and you do not want to be outside when the sirocco is blowing. The desert itself rarely experiences any rain, and when it does finally arrive, there is a new danger in the form of flash floods. You’d think nothing could survive in such an environment, but actually the desert is full of life.
Deserts are anything but barren, but the plants and creatures there need to work very hard to survive and thrive. It doesn’t matter whether you are an ant looking to support your colony, a jerboa hoarding grain in underground tunnels, or a human with a family and tribe to support. The resources needed are the same. Except humans are at the top of the food chain, which is a lesson the Jerboas of Jandouba are forced to learn the hard way in Ahmed Fagih’s Homeless Rats.
Desert Survival Depends on Barley
“No people lived in this patch of desert – the heat was intolerable. It was the home of animals and insects.”
Jandouba is a valley known for its golden fields of barley. In generations past, the Bedouin tribe of Mizda would travel there during times of drought and famine knowing that a warm welcome was waiting for them from the people who lived there. Knowing this, after three-years of drought, Sheikh Hamed Abu Leila decided to convince his tribe to make the perilous journey once again. Except this time things were different – the barley was gone.
Where had the barley gone? Well apparently, Jandouba valley had other residents, and these included the long-legged Jerboas. When harvest season arrived, these hardworking creatures gathered together, and in just a few days gathered all the ears of barley and stored them underground in their burrows. When the starving humans from Mizda arrived and discovered the empty valley, they had no clue what happened. They will need to figure things out fast before they die from hunger.
Homeless rats is set in post-colonial Libya. It tells the story of the tribe of Mizda who do eventually manage to overcome their immediate life and death issues. As they adjust to their new surroundings, they will also be forced to consider wider social issues that govern their day to day lives. These include marriage promises, individualism in a tribal setting, the role of women, and encounters with those who think differently.
We also get to witness these events from the perspective of the animal residents of Jandouba whose way of life is overturned by the giant invading humans. The Jerboas worked very hard to collect the grain. They also have families to support, and for them life is also a constant battle for survival – against snakes. The Bedouin of Mizda have absolute zero awareness of any of this of course, but that doesn’t make the clash any less real – or at least that’s how the Jerboas view it.
“However violent, however turbulent the flood might seem, it came from the rain of which they’d constantly dreamed, for which they’d always longed, to revive the land, cause the plants to sprout and bring them food and bounty.”
Before he was overthrown, Muammar Gadaffi in a famous televised speech called those who protested against him “rats”. It’s an apt nickname when you think of the Jerboas, also known as desert rats. Like the Jerboas, the Libyans have adapted to live in very harsh surroundings, and their way of life has evolved accordingly. Homeless Rats is a parable of Libya, and I was fascinated by the commentary it offered.
For example, I learned from this book that there are differences in mentality between Eastern tribes and Western tribes (which kind of mirror the sides in the current civil war). Various factors, including ease of movement between Libya and Egypt led to the development of various pockets of liberalism. These Eastern tribes were viewed by their Western brethren as foreign, and very possibly immoral. In the book we get to witness this culture clash when circumstances introduce a new tribe into the valley.
This is just one of the many ways in which I got to experience Libya from this book. I also got to immerse myself in cultural practices, tribal customs, ceremonies, and the colonial and post-colonial history of the country. These were all introduced through a wide range of fascinating and fleshed out characters who provided a wide representation of the various perspectives this country’s people have to offer – and that also includes the animals.
The non-human residents of Jandouba valley were very human in their outlook and behavior. From the rash young Jerboas who wanted to declare open war against the invaders, to the wise hedgehog and spiny-tailed lizard who counsel patience. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many chapters told from the animal perspective. Most of the book focuses on the Mizda Bedouins. Personally, I would have preferred a more even balance; however, the book itself was still very very good.
An Excellent Book
This book is one of the best books I have read so far in this year’s Sefer HaOmer (close tie with Familiar Things). I devoured this book in less than a day, and enjoyed every minute. The characters are compelling, and the setting is rich. The life and death stakes of living in the desert were made very clear, but so were the rewards that this type of lifestyle offered. It was a splendid experience.
The Omer today is splendor in splendor, and this is exactly what this book has to offer. Homeless Rats offers the reader the very harsh beauty of the desert, a wealth of simplicity, and an important lesson in celebrating happiness wherever you can find it, even if it is with a member of a tribe who you completely disagree with, or a force of nature from which you need to get out of the way. When everything is scarce, everything you have increases in value, making it all the more beautiful in the beholder’s eyes. “Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has.”
About the Author
No biographical information was provided in the book or on Amazon, and Fagih does not have a website. The following information was taken from Wikipedia
Ahmed Ibrahim al-Fagih (Arabic: أحمد إبراهيم الفقيه ’áħmad ‘Ibrāhīm al-faqīh) (December 28, 1942 – April 30, 2019) was a Libyan novelist, playwright, essayist, journalist and diplomat. He began writing short stories at an early age publishing them in Libyan newspapers and magazines. He gained recognition in 1965 when his first collection of short stories There Is No Water in the Sea (Arabic: البحر لا ماء فيه) won him the highest award sponsored by the Royal Commission of Fine Arts in Libya. Fagih wrote more many books in of different genres, including short stories, novels, plays, essays, among them Gazelles (play), Evening Visitor (play), Gardens of the Night Trilogy (novels), The Valley of Ashes (novel), and his 12-volume epic novel Maps of the Soul, which had its first three volumes translated into English and published by DARF Publishers in UK in 2014.
Fagih held several diplomatic posts representing Libya, in London, Athens, Bucharest and Cairo. He lived and worked between Cairo and Tripoli.