In the Sahara Desert, Ukhayyad, the son of a powerful tribal leader, receives a camel as a gift. The Mahri camel is not an ordinary breed. It is beautiful, unique. Ukhayyad develops an endearment towards the animal which only grows and runs parallel with his coming-of-age. Gold Dust, its English edition recently republished, follows their bond, as events quickly trouble their tranquillity.
A vain young man, Ukhayyad is first drawn to the thoroughbred’s appearance and physical distinction. “Have any of you ever seen a piebald Mahri before?” he asks everyone he sees. The camel is his anthropomorphic companion, ultimately his pride. He refers to it as a brother, sometimes. A romantic tenderness is apparent when Ukhayyad speaks to his camel, interpreting its expressions and connecting with a touch. Their relation is symbiotic. His life will be shaken when secrets are shared, when people get in the way and attempt to harm his Mahri camel.
Author Ibrahim al-Koni, born in the Sahara, calls together his familiar corners of the vast area—Kano, Timbuktu, Tamarasset, Adrar, Hamada, Ghadames, among others all along the salt routes. The desert can be barren but isn’t always. It is seasonal. We follow Ukhayyad through lush oases and arid hills, through times of near famine and hunts for wild truffles. It is a nomadic world of superstition, barter, caravans, and humble sustenance. Money is a disruptor to age-old customs.
The novel invokes Sufism, pre-Islamic cultures and details their lingering power—a recurrent theme throughout al-Koni’s literary endeavors. Mystical figures, sheikhs and soothsayers advise, threaten, influence. Ukhayyad recalls vivid dreams, encounters the manifestation of the pagan goddess Tanit and condemns the violation of sacred laws. Men cohabit with jinns and taboos. Ukhayyad will brave his fears to cure his beloved camel. When he introduces one other character, his Tuareg veil, part of the traditional turban outfit protecting one’s nose and mouth from desert storms, is both a garment and a metaphor for the dissimulation of heart and intentions. The author’s original footnotes explaining culture and context have unfortunately disappeared from the English translation.
In the background, there is a scramble for power with incursions from the French and Italians. Ukhayyad becomes displaced by war. These events remain regretfully peripheral to the novel; one would have liked to better understand the dynamics of survival and alliances. The centrality of the man-animal relation excludes any other which would have been interesting to explore, such as the difficult father-son one, husband-wife, or the wider overlap between the environment and nomadic societies. These are touched upon, but only glimpsed.
The traditional society Ukhayyad belongs to is undoubtedly vertical and patriarchal. There are dominant tribes and the others, tribesmen and slaves, tribal leaders and members, men and women. Codes are not easily bended. The women of Gold Dust can be wives in a (often) polygamous household, young girls whose honor dictates they be married, or African slaves forcibly taken as tribute and concubines. But we don’t know their experiences or perspectives.
Originally written in 1990, the misogynist prose now feels somewhat antiquated. References to females as burdens overpopulate the story, as well as the protagonist’s thoughts and decisions: women are scapegoats for mistakes, and failures. The physical pain experienced by the camel (due to mange) leans to a moral torment and a need for cleansing. Cleansing turns to expiation and involves radical remedies—all because of females of any species. While understanding this may indeed reflect local beliefs and customs, it makes for a trying read. Reading the novel three decades later, one wishes for more character development and examination of the female point of view in a story with overwhelmingly phallocentric plots and analogies.
Until the end which offers a welcomed dose of complexity, it is a slow-paced novel. The protagonist’s fate questions the consequence of attachment, happiness, pride, and what men ultimately value. “Patience is life,” Ukhayyad lectures his camel.
Ibrahim al-Koni is a prolific and recognized author. Having published over 80 books, he won the Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature, the Arabic Novel Award, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015. Gold Dust is primarily testimony to the author’s origins. Al-Koni is a native of Ghadames, where the opening and later scenes are set, and belongs to the higher echelon of Tuareg society. Now living in Spain, al-Koni’s respect to his roots permeates through the story and his body of work. This novel sits under this lens, benefiting from his insider knowledge which also can, regretfully, confine.
Translated by Elliott Colla, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University (USA), Gold Dust is a tale of fragile fortune—albeit rather one-dimensional despite the formidable premise. The novel is best read in the context of a historical testament and to dive in al-Koni’s rich bibliography.