Fagih gives his jerboas a voice as they react to the attacks of the humans on their subterranean homes and plan their counter-attacks (at one point they form suicide squads). The jerboas are not the only animals to be allocated speaking roles. Fagih skillfully builds a complex of social relations among animals including dogs, ants and other insects, and the feared snakes and scorpions. A hedgehog and a spiny-tailed lizard – “two wise, ascetic friends” – observe events from a distance on an elevated plateau, and are joined by an ancient tortoise to offer advice to other species.
“Homeless Rats” was first published in Arabic more than 10 years ago. But the novel’s desert battles, alliances, war crimes, emergency meetings, tribalism and waves of refugees resonate curiously with the current war raging in Libya. Even the title of the book has a new timeliness, given Gaddafi’s propensity in his ranting speeches to denounce his enemies among his own people as “rats” and “cockroaches”.
Quartet’s publishing relationship with Fagih goes back to 1995 when it published in one volume, entitled “Gardens of the Night”, the English translation of his celebrated trilogy of novels – “I Shall Offer Another City”, “These are the Borders of My Kingdom”, and “A Tunnel Lit by One Woman”.
Quartet’s Palestinian Chairman Naim Attallah told Saudi Gazette that when he got the manuscript of “Homeless Rats” in translation, “I had to be persuaded to read it as the subject was not one that I would normally publish. However the conflict between humans and homeless rats both in search of food, and in a battle for survival, struck a fascinating chord with me. Once I started reading it I could not stop; I was virtually mesmerized until the end.”
Attallah’s enthusiasm for “Homeless Rats” was shared by the book’s editor at Quartet, Anna Stothard, herself the author of two novels including the recently-published “The Pink Hotel”. Oddly for a work in translation, no translator’s name or publication details of the original Arabic appear in the book.
Early on in the novel, a group of 40 humans move in a caravan with camels, donkeys, and dogs from the drought-stricken town of Mizdah to the nearest fertile area, Jandouba, four days trek away. It is custom of the people of Mizdah to harvest barley in the valley of Jandouba, where they are on good terms with the locals. But when they arrive they are in for a shock. The fields may appear to be full of golden waving barley, but on closer inspection the travelers discover that jerboas have stripped all the grain from the plants.
The head of the caravan, Sheikh Hamed Abu Leila, slaughters his beloved camel and shares it among the group for a last feast. The people of the caravan face possible death from starvation. Relief comes when they discover that the jerboas have not eaten the barley but have stored it in their underground burrows. The people begin to destroy the burrows to remove the barley and the battle between humans and jerboas begins.
Matters are complicated further when a truck arrives bearing the Jibreel family from the East. They camp nearby and the Mizdah people are desperate that they should not learn the secret of the barley hidden in the jerboas’ burrows. There is discord between the culture of the people from Mizdah and the Eastern women, who scandalize with their uncovered faces and public dancing. And disastrously for the jerboas, the Easterners, unlike the people from Mizdah, kill and eat jerboas.
Fagih was himself born in Mizdah, in 1942. He emerged as a pioneering Libyan writer in the 1960s and became a prolific novelist, short story writer, dramatist and columnist. His work often draws on his intimate knowledge of life in a rural setting and on the tradition of fable and folk tales. He is often inspired by the animal world; a recent example is his story “The Lobsters” which appears for the first time in Engish translation, by Maia Tabet, in the special feature on Libyan fiction in the latest issue of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature.
“Homeless Rats” is set in the years after the Second World War, when the British administered the region. One legacy of the war is minefields; the people from the East tell of how clearing the mines has claimed the lives of many men from their tribe. Memories of the Italian occupation of Libya are vivid. One old man from Mizdah proudly recalls fighting in the great battle of Jandouba, in which the famous resistance leader Suleiman Al-Barouni had overall command. Burhan, a healer and preacher from Mizdah, recalls the nine years he spent working on the estate of a wealthy Countess for nine years and the tremendous wealth he witnessed there.
In “Homeless Rats” Fagih’s talent for storytelling, and his descriptive powers and humor, are much in evidence. The novel has plenty of twists, and various sub-plots and love stories including Burhan’s falling for Rabiha, a beautiful widow from the East. The novel has a vigorous momentum, although it is occasionally slowed by over-explanation of the plot or characters’ reasoning.
Fagih gives a rich picture of the desert region and its natural history. He writes: “Where there had been no shadow before, the wormwood and the harmel, the gorse and the shwaal, and the thorny branches of the nabk trees now cast large shadows.”
The novel has an ecological aspect, and points to the destructive effect of disturbing the organic relationship between the humans and animals. The media coverage of the Libyan conflict over the past four months has made many outside Libya realize how little they have known about the country and its geography, people, history and politics, let alone its literature. “Homeless Rats” introduces the reader to a sweep of Libyan geography and landscape and conveys a detailed portrait of a traditional way of life.
Three further novels by Fagih are due to be published in English translation by another London publisher, Darf Publishers, before long. The novels, to be published in one volume, are the first three of the Fagih’s sequence of 12 historical novels entitled “Maps of the Soul”. These novels in translation will help fill in some of the gaps in the knowledge of Libyan history.
— Saudi Gazette