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A- : involuted but impressive Saharan epic
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The Fetishists is a Saharan novel; its world is one of desert and oases -- and, as such, literally elemental.
Setting -- the locale, and the conditions there -- is an omnipresence, pervading and determining almost everything.
Fundamental to the story is the Qibli wind, "the desert's cruelest enemy", great sandy winds blowing from the desert-south, which continue unabated for much of the narrative.
(Indeed, the novel's opening chapter is titled and dedicated to: 'The Qibli Wind'.)
If the Qibli keeps blowing like this, we'll soon observe the creation of a great sea of sand in the central Sahara -- exactly the way our ancient ancestors saw the formation of two mighty seas of sand to the desert's east and west.The Qibli covers everything, relentlessly, threatening to essentially obliterate it, but the greatest immediate threat it poses is to the most vital local resource, as from the first: "it began to bury the well". A well -- a water-source -- is the essential and focal point of any community in this terrain. It is also: "a tribe's secret source of power but also their Achilles' heel". Tradition has it that wells are located in secret places, and their whereabouts kept secret from travelers, but the well at the heart of The Fetishists is in a central, known position -- bringing out conflict over it into the open.
The Fetishists is, in the most general terms, a novel that pits traditional nomadic life against a more commercial, settled culture. At its most basic, the conflict plays out simply in terms of topography -- the well at its center, and the (attempted) building of a protective wall -- and then city -- around it, to keep the sand at bay. The wall extends beyond the mere well, however:
"The sultan," he said, "claims that Waw will not survive without a wall and that walls are the armor of cities. Without a wall, there would be no difference between Waw and the oases of Targa. Cities are forified by their walls; oases are open to the desert on all four sides."The nomadic tribe has pitched their tents on the plain of Idinen; newcomers come, and ask permission to settle nearby. The leader of the nomadic tribe, Adda, notes that: "we're a people who can't tolerate settling in one place and who do not care to be tied to the earth" -- and wonders whether the newcomers can adhere to the same law of the land. Their representative assures him:
"The guest's law is dictated by the host. Your law comes into effect among us today."Construction continues; walls grow. A city rises -- Waw -- and becomes, in this "desolate wasteland", a commercial hub between the great trading cities, caravans and merchants stopping here, shops opening, commerce growing: "Waw's resurrection and the opening of the golden age for the central desert". It is: "constructed according to Timbuktu's plan" -- the "gold capital" that it aspires to emulate and replace (though Timbuktu has fallen from the heights of its glory in the meantime, sold out by: "Oragh, who had the heart of a Fetishist and whose eyes delighted only in the gleam of gold dust; he traded Timbuktu for gold").
The place is called 'Waw', but it is not the only one: Waw is a name for both actual and idealized places. This newly-constructed city is: "a new Waw on the desert continent to replace the old Waw, which had been lost or which the first ancestor had forfeited with a rash deed" -- but it, too, can only aspire to 'Waw-dom': true Waw is less a place than an ideal, an ideal state, a paradise (and, indeed, also the original paradise). It is the be-all that man strives for -- and, for example:
When a man among us is unable to discover Waw, we see him rush immediately to find a woman and bury his defeat in her embrace. Despair of ever finding Waw is the main motivation behind men's passion for women. Men naturally refuse to acknowledge this reality and tell themselves it's a fantasy and an old wive's tale.As one character laments:
For a long time we have despaired of finding Waw, and this is the cruelest eventuality a desert dweller can confront. We haven't discovered it in the desert nor have we been able to find it in our hearts. So what meaning do our lives have ?This striving for the ideal(ized) Waw -- and the realities of the worldly, (artificially) constructed Waws -- contain many of the other conflicts addressed in the novel, specifically between the pure, spiritual -- an uncorrupted Islam -- and the commercial and profane. The gleam of gold seduces, and it is here the greatest danger is seen, in those that value the material over the spiritual. They are lumped together as: Fetishists -- defined here by one character:
The true Fetishist is the fellow who puts his faith in cash rather than God and substitutes a love of gold in his heart for God.(As translator Hutchins explains regarding the translation of the title -- al-Majus, translated more literally in the French ('Les Mages') and German ('Die Magier') versions of the title --: "Since the term is used pejoratively in this novel it has here been translated as "Fetishists".")
So also the difference between the nomads and the settlers crystalizes around this, as Anay, who has: "made himself sultan over the plain", is criticized:
If we had wanted to settle on the land, we could have done so seven thousand years ago. If we had intended to kneel inside solid walls, we would have built cities more beautiful than Timbuktu -- genuine cities comparable only to the real Waw, not the counterfeit Waw he wants to lure us into so he can imprison us there like slaves. That Fetishist. He's a Fetishist !Anay, meanwhile, argues:
Here, with your own eyes, you can see that my life hasn't changed in any way [...] I have merely traded the tent of tribal leaders [...] for a stone dwelling, a stone tent like those the sultans of our ancient capital, Timbuktu, customarily inhabited. Is there anything wrong with that ?The nomadic tribe, and their leader, Adda, are unsettled by the new Waw and everything it represents -- beginning, simply, with its immobility; for them, seeking, moving, are not only second nature but a necessity: "Yearning is the Saharan's primeval destiny" -- manifesting itself in a constant restlessness. And:
Herein lies the desert dweller's predicament -- the problematic struggle between celestial and terrestrial in his very being.The new Waw, however, is entirely earth-bound -- offering a great deal, but ultimately devoid of the essential spiritual element: empty fetishism. The standpoints of the two central factions are not so much diametrically opposed as they are completely and fundamentally different and irreconcilable world-views -- summed up in one exchange:
"This was dead land and we have resurrected it as Waw. We have opened it to trade and given life to it."The Fetishists is divided into four parts, and a total of twenty-eight-chapters (11/3/11/3), each focused on a specific character, phenomenon, or incident -- though with many of the stories, specifically around the new Waw, overlapping across many of the chapters. Chapters are also further subdivided into generally short sections, which helps pace the dense narrative and makes it easier to follow what is going on.
While in its broadest outlines the novel proceeds chronologically, chronicling the settlement(s) that become the new Waw, the rise of the commercial center, and then (spoiler) ultimately its destruction, the presentation is considerably more complex. So, for example, an early chapter on 'The Sufi Shaykh' describes how a so-called jurist -- described in the helpful-in-keeping-track-of-all-these-characters list of characters-appendix as: "a jihadi Sufi reformer posing as a legal scholar" -- previously took advantage of the nomadic tribe, forcing them to change their ways, leading to catastrophe, and to leader Adda going into exile. Only halfway through the novel then, to start part three, is there a chapter on 'The Leader', Adda, which fills in the character's history before his ignominious fall, as well as chronicling the details of his return -- though he has been a presence for much of the rest of the narrative already, presented back in the role of leader he had reassumed.
Significant stories that feature across much of the novel involve Tenere, the beautiful princess-daughter of Timbuktu sultan Oragh (and hence niece of new Waw sultan Aday), including her being torn between the two men vying for her, Udad and Okha. A diviner had insisted that the only way to appease "Amnay, God of the Qibli", involves a human sacrifice -- and that the good old-fashioned common virgin just won't do any longer: "if you wish to be secure from the Qibli's insanity, you must agree to upgrade the current oblations", meaning a noblewoman must be sacrificed. Oragh wants to protect his daughter from that fate, and so he resists; of course, the Qibli keeps on blowing .....
As to the two men in love with her, eventually Udad takes on a challenge, wagering with Okha for Tenere -- risking: "his life by violating the sanctity of the supernatural mountain and defying its taboo", as he takes up the challenge to climb the sacred Idinen. (Idinen/Jabal Idinin is an actual mountain in south-western Libya.) Apparently climbing up is not the big problem; it's getting down. Udad is warned by a dervish:
The exalted slab overlooks the tunnel of dark recesses. Anyone who reaches the slab and catches sight of the secret tunnel will lose himself and never be able to return to his fellow creatures in the same incarnation.Udad isn't dissuaded, and his adventures scaling the mountain make for a vivid, exciting side-story in the novel.
Elsewhere, there is murder and death -- and quick-rush-to-judgment judge Baba, who is a firm proponent of an-eye-for-an-eye justice, despite his career starting out in spectacularly ironic fashion;
Shortly after the Sultan of Shinqit appointed him judge and he had pronounced his first verdict -- of amputation against a miserable highwayman -- he had lost his own hand in the same manner, thanks to that same highwayman. Destiny's mockery had not stopped there; the wretched convict had repeated the judge's slogan he himself had used in pronouncing the verdict: "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."Singularly ineffective as a judge -- what goes around comes around around him repeatedly -- he nevertheless stuck to his attitude, and washed up in Waw, rushing to judgment there too.
Elements of the supernatural also feature in the novel, the magical and divine straddling real and fictional worlds. History -- actual, near-by (such as about Timbuktu) as well as more distant and mythical -- are also woven into and presented in the narrative. Among the side chapters is one on 'The Veil', a brief and very vivid retelling of Mandam's (Adam's) expulsion from Waw (Paradise) -- with scenes such as:
He grew tense and his muscles trembled feverishly. The serpent advanced and extended between his legs. It slipped and slithered till it sank between her oval thighs.The Fetishists repeatedly has its characters confronted with false promises, claims, and idols, and wrong paths are frequently taken; the truth, and true path, proves hard to ascertain, and humans will act humanly. As, early on, the exchange about the jurist who had fooled the nomadic tribe suggests, the characters are also philosophical about much of what happens, and their fates:
"He was an adventurer who claimed to be a member of the Qadiriya. He promised to liberate our souls from the devil's sovereignty. We entrusted our souls to him and allowed him to teach us the principles of religion. Then he acted corruptly, corrupted others, behaved deviously, and subjugated us."An understanding of nature is vital to survival in this Saharan setting, and al-Koni makes it central to the stories. As one character observes:
Only livestock and dolts treat the desert's phenomena as meaningless occurrences. Sages find significance, an allusion, and a firebrand in them.Certainly, al-Koni invests them with these -- beginning with the seemingly relentless wind-onslaught that is the Qibli.
From the perspective of the locals, the issue is black and white, an either/or choice between the spiritual-true or poisoning commercial:
Our sages -- the herdsman -- say the Qibli from the plain will never recede until the plain's inhabitants cease exchanging gold.One way or another, the new Waw proves fake, flawed, and ultimately too weak; it is overrun and falls. In taking the long view, al-Koni heaps one more shovel on the grave in the brief mention of the site's afterlife:
For more than a century, Waw's ruins towered over the plain. They were considered ill-omened by veteran travelers who assumed that phantoms and jinn haunted the rubble. Then the famous floods of 1913 washed away all the structures, leaving not even one stone resting atop another.(This mention is, aside from the observation that Timbuktu had fallen from its former glory (roughly dating the early parts of the story to around 1800), is the only one that places the story in conventional history, as al-Koni emphasizes the timeless aspects of desert-life, as indeed desert traditions and beliefs have long remained much the same.)
The Fetishists is a complex book. The mostly very short chapter sub-sections, and indeed the individual chapters, are straightforward enough and often stand alone very well as episodes or stories -- though throughout names and the identities of the characters can be confusing, from the multiple characters who have the same position (sultan, for example) to characters referred to in different ways.
The novel as a whole is more unwieldy, the pieces not necessarily fitting directly together, as there are chapters that cover different parts, times, and characters. Some -- indeed, many -- characters' backgrounds is only filled in at greater length long after they have been introduced, a technique that works reasonably well but can leave the reader feeling quite at sea earlier on.
The Fetishists does reward the (considerable) effort. This is a grand epic, rooted in an impressively evoked otherworldly locale -- a sense intensified all the more so because much of the tension in the novel arises from the pull between the otherworldly (spiritual) and the worldly (and specifically commercial). Al-Koni does not make it easy for the readers, but there's method and justification to his drawn-out and slowly unfolding elaboration -- and for all its length The Fetishists is never boring.
This is a strange but, yes, magnificent novel, and certainly worthwhile.
- M.A.Orthofer, 10 January 2019
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Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni (إبراهيم الكوني) was born in 1948.
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