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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gold Dust

Ibrahim al-Koni

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To purchase Gold Dust

Title: Gold Dust
Author: Ibrahim al-Koni
Genre: Novel
Written: 1990 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Gold Dust - US
Gold Dust - UK
Gold Dust - Canada
Gold Dust - India
Goldstaub - Deutschland
Polvere d'oro - Italia
  • Arabic title: التبر
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Elliott Colla

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Our Assessment:

B+ : evocative novel of desert-life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Banipal . Fall-Winter/2008 Susannah Tarbush
The Independent . 5/9/2008 Boyd Tonkin
The National . 24/4/2008 K.Wilson-Goldie

  From the Reviews:
  • "Al-Koni's descriptive powers and the urgency of his narrative make Gold Dust a gripping, moving tale that sweeps the reader on towards its tragic conclusion." - Susannah Tarbush, Banipal

  • "Imagine Cormac McCarthy's savage lyricism in a Paul Bowles desert landscape and you begin to enter the bleakly beautiful world of this mesmerising, fable-like novel." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Koni, like Abdelrahman Munif, explores the patterns of nomads, not the rhythms of cities. He also creates a dense mesh of history, religion, sorcery and magic in the process. This is not to say that Gold Dust is pastoral, archaic or nostalgic." - Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, The National

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gold Dust is the story of Ukhayyad, a Tuareg Saharan nomad whose closest companion remains always the piebald Mahri camel -- a noble thoroughbred -- that he receives when he reaches manhood and that is his pride and joy. With a will of its own -- "Camels do not forget wrongs" --, the remarkable beast -- "He's a human being in camel's skin" -- is also a source of embarrassment and humiliation, but Ukhayyad remains true to the animal, and he to him.
       Ukhayyad marries and has a son, and when times grow desperate he succumbs and pawns his camel, thinking he would be able to redeem him soon enough. The two are certainly meant to be together, with the camel repeatedly escaping his new master and returning to Ukhayyad. Eventually, the new owner offers a devil's pact that would allow them to be reunited, and Ukhayyad ultimately gives in, destroying the life he had built for himself and leaving him on the run with his beloved companion.
       From when the camel is stricken with a terrible mange -- leaving him spending hours "chasing angels whose flight shimmered in the mirages on the horizon" -- to the bitter end when Ukhayyad sacrifices himself to stand beside his camel one last time, the two endure much hardship, yet the camel is also the most glorious being to Ukhayyad. Unwilling to follow in his father's footsteps as a tribal leader he is willing to accept ostracism and isolation, as long as he has his faithful companion. Family life offers a new promise and beginning, but circumstances make it nearly impossible for him to properly provide for them, and the spiral of self-destruction proves inescapable.
       The "glitter spark" that Ukhayyad sees in the merchant's eyes when he pawns his camel is part of the evil that undoes Ukhayyad: later it is said that he succumbed and: "sold his wife and child for a handful of gold dust". His eyes are opened:

     In that single instant, he forgot all about the burdens sons inherit from their fathers -- the nooses that choke, the dolls that bring ruin, and the empty, empty illusions. The things of the world began to take on their old meanings again. The noose went back to being a beloved wife. The doll became, once more, his progeny and heirs to his mantle. The sham illusion became, once again, shame -- actual shame.
       But fate proves inescapable; at least he meets it with his beloved camel.
       Al-Koni's story is no romantic man-and-animal tale, but the deep bonds between man, animal, and nature are beautifully presented here. Where Ukhayyad fails, of course, is in his connections with other people: he proves not to really be a part of his tribe, and even marriage proves only to be a temporarily stabilizing force. He can not fully embrace this sort of life, only finding himself truly happy when he is with his camel, and generally when he is alone with it in the wild desert outdoors.
The prize was in the pure presence of God that can be found only in the quiet emptiness of infinite wilderness.
       Saharan life is also very well evoked in Gold Dust -- again, less that of community, but of man (and beast) against the elements. So also, especially, its hardships:
     Without water, miracles cannot take place in the desert. Even when a miracle does occur, the absence of water erases it, transforming it into mere illusion. Without water, the whole world becomes a fantasy. What good is it to have your health back if you lack water ? Life draws near, but so does death.
       Character-development is certainly not al-Koni's strongpoint : even the characters who dominate the narrative remain ciphers, and even such significant figures as Ukhayyad's father, wife, and son remain almost completely unknown. Overriding passions easily drown out most everything else, and there are few exchanges that are in any way revealing (indeed, there are few real verbal exchanges, and practically nothing that amounts to a conversation); it's not surprising that the closest bond in the book -- between camel and Ukhayyad -- is one where communication is, of course, not really verbal.
       If, in its failure to elaborate on background and character and motivation, Gold Dust does not satisfy some expectations it is nevertheless a powerful and quite affecting work.
       (A Translator's Afterword provides some helpful background, as well as a some of al-Koni's footnotes in "summarized or expanded form"; Colla explains he did not want to "burden the text with footnotes" -- despite the fact that al-Koni apparently did so in the original .....)

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2011

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Gold Dust: Reviews: Other books by Ibrahim al-Koni under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni (إبراهيم الكوني) was born in 1948.

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