Susannah Tarbush reviews The Fetishists: The Tuareg Epic by Ibrahim al-Koni Translated by William M Hutchins

University of Texas Press (Series: CMES, Modern Middle East Literatures in Translation), 2018
ISBN: 9781477317891. Pbk, 568 pages, $30.00 / £23.99. Kindle: $7.96/ £22.79

Savouring the taste of life

In his author’s note to the translation of this monumental work, the Libyan Tuareg novelist Ibrahim al-Koni recounts the extraordinary real-life incident that inspired the novel. His older brother had bet another man that whoever succeeded in scaling a certain tall cliff face in the Tadrart mountain range in Libya would win one hundred camels. “That person actually won the bet; once he reached the top of the cliff, though, he could not climb back down and perished on the crag. He won a hundred camels, but lost his life.”
Al-Koni cites the New Testament: “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matthew 16:26). These lines are also the epigraph to the chapter “The Wager” in The Fetishists. The New Testament reference is typical of the wide literary and philosophical and religious allusions which occur throughout the novel.
In The Fetishists it is the love of two rivals for the Sultan of Timbuktu’s daughter Princess Tenere that leads to a wager. She has been unable to choose between the two suitors: “Her freedom led to her falling in love with Okha’s nobility, grandeur, and dedication to ceremony at the same time that she loved Udad’s heart and fondness for singing and the mountains.”
An intermediary conveys the wager from Okha to Udad: “If you can climb up Idinen and stand on its top vertical slab, he will relinquish the princess.” Udad accepts the bet. His name means Barbary ram, and he is known for his climbing skills. But Idinen will be difficult to ascend. Referred to by the Tuaregs as “the Mountain of the Unknown and the Jinn”, it is reputed to be both haunted and sacred
A crowd gathers to watch Udad start his long ascent. Al-Koni gives a thrilling, minutely detailed account of the days Udad spends climbing. We enter his thoughts and reflections as he ponders the mysterious Tifinagh lettering and paintings left by ancestors on the walls of caves, and sees visions of the sacred Barbary ram Amghar.
Al-Koni’s writing is transcendental and mystical: Udad embraces the slab and “his senses dissolved into the slab’s senses, melted into the rock’s arms, united with the beloved, with the celestial, supernatural stone. As he approached paradise, intoxication spread through his organs. This inebriation pervaded him. He had never experienced or savoured such euphoria before.” But after he starts to think about Tenere things change: “the rock had rejected him the moment a woman entered his heart”. There is celebration among the people below when they know he has reached the summit.“ The jinni has climbed to the land of the jinn.” But Udad’s success leads to Okha’s self-initiated destruction. As for Udad, he now faces a perilous descent.

Ibrahim al-Koni photo by Samuel Shimon

Al-Koni was born in 1948 near the Libyan city of Ghadames and was brought up in the tradition of the Tuareg, learning to read and write Arabic at 12. He studied comparative literature at the Gorky Institute and then worked as a journalist in Moscow and Warsaw. He has lived in Switzerland since 1993.
His writing is deeply rooted in his Tuareg background. An astonishingly prolific author, he had by 2007 written more than 80 books – novels, short stories, poems and aphorisms – and received numerous awards. His works are translated into some 35 languages and he was in 2015 a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, a sign of his global stature.
A steady stream of English translations of al-Koni’s work has appeared this century. And yet it is only now that al-Majus has appeared in English, in William M Hutchins’s translation, despite the fact that it is regarded as his masterpiece. The German translation by Hartmut Fähndrich Die Magier – Das Epos der Tuareg (Lenos Verlag) appeared as long ago as 2002, and Philippe Vigreux’s French translation Les Mages (Editions Phébus) was published in 2005.The appearance of The Fetishists in English fills a long-felt gap.
The French and German titles are close to the Arabic original, al-Majus. So why is the English version entitled The Fetishists? In his translator’s note Hutchins explains that al-Majus “literally means the Magi or Magicians, in other words, the Zoroastrians . . . From a Muslim point of view, and especially from a Sufi one, Zoroastrians are the Other”. In al-Koni’s novel, however, the Other is not the Zoroastrians but adherents of traditional West African folk religions. “The Bambara and other Bantu characters in al-Majus are the Other – both because they are polytheists or ‘animists’ (rather than monotheists) and because they practice settled agriculture.” Since the term al-Majus is used pejoratively in the novel, it has been translated as “Fetishists”.
“Fetishist” also has a second, neo-Marxist use related to Marx’s discussion of “commodity fetishism”. In his French translation of al-Majus, Philippe Vigreux says Al-Koni has explained that “al-Majus” denotes both African Fetishists and anyone who substitutes a cult of gold for worship of God. Commodity fetishism could also extend to petroleum – “black gold”.
Taboos over fetishism and the use of gold are a recurring theme in The Fetishists. Towards the end of the novel, after the destruction of the splendid new city of Waw, the diviner Idikran strangles the Sultan of Waw, Tenere’s uncle Anay. “You didn’t realize that gold dust destroys a fortress,” says the diviner. “No creature who has adopted it for a god escapes destruction. You overlooked the fact, poor wretch, as many before you have, that anyone who believes in gold dust and worships it blasphemes against monotheism and the Holy Quran. Sultan of Gold Dust, which of us is the true Fetishist?”
Anay was estranged from his brother Oragh the Sultan of Timbuktu. He built Waw as a rival to Timbuktu which had long been the gold capital. The concept of Waw recurs in al-Koni’s works: it is the lost oasis, a paradise, of the Tuareg people.
Oragh’s status in Timbuktu has been weakened by the Fetishist Bambara. The Bambara paramount chief plans to choose a high-bred virgin to present as a human sacrifice to the Fetishist god of the winds, Amnay. Terrified that Tenere will be the sacrifice, Oragh sends her to safety in the Azjer area where “there are tribes that have not been tempted by the Fetishists’ gods”.
The opening pages of The Fetishists depict the first encounter, by chance, between Udad and Princes Tenere. Udad has been up in the mountains: the novel’s first sentence is: “Anyone who has not breathed mountain air will never savor the taste of life.” Tenere has just arrived in the area with the caravan transporting her to safety. The first chapter is entitled “The Qibli Wind”. The Qibli is the south wind from the desert, and is a quasi-character in the novel.
Al-Koni has a tremendous gift for description and his poetic prose, dazzlingly translated by William Hutchins, is mesmerising. The Fetishists is vast in scope, covering more than 550 pages, and has a complex structure with multiple storylines and a narrative that is organised in a non-chronological fashion. Reading it is a totally immersive experience, and is aided by an invaluable guide in the appendix to 53 of the novel’s characters, and a glossary of around 150 terms from Tuareg culture, history, religion and geography.
The book consists of two volumes, written over the course a year from December 1989. Each volume is divided into two parts, and there are in all 27 chapters, each preceded an epigraph. The epigraphs come from a variety of sources reflecting al-Koni’s erudition and wide reading: they include the Old and New Testaments, the Qur’an, Herodotus, Tuareg legends, classical Arab authors, Erich Fromm, Thomas Mann, Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Book of the Dead and August Toschi’s Ornithology of Libya.
Hutchins has over the years built up a reputation as one of the most prolific and respected of Arabic literary translators. He was joint winner of the 2013 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, for his translation of A Land Without Jasmine (Garnet Publishing, 2012) by Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal. His translation of The Fetishists is currently among the 16 titles entered for the 2019 prize.
The writer-translator relationship between al-Koni and Hutchins has borne much fruit. Hutchins won the National Translation Award (NTA) in 2015 for his “stunning” translation of al-Koni’s novel The New Waw; Saharan Oasis (The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, 2014). The NTA is awarded annually by American Literary Translators Association (ALTA).
The New Waw is the first title in al-Koni’s Oasis Trilogy, and The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin also published Hutchins’s translations of the other two books in the trilogy: The Puppet (2010) and The Scarecrow (2015). In addition, Hutchins has translated al-Koni’s The Seven Veils of Seth (Garnet Publishing, 2008) and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press, 2014).
Banipal has reviewed translations of several of al-Koni’s novels. Anubis was reviewed in Banipal 23, Summer 2005, Bleeding of the Stone (Arris Books, 2004), translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley), in Banipal 19, Spring 2004, and Gold Dust (Arabia Books, 2008), translated by Elliott Colla, in issue 33, Autumn/Winter 2008.
The epigraph at the beginning of The Fetishists is from Goethe’s From my Life: Poetry and Truth: “Every nation, if it wants any prestige, must possess an epic, though not necessarily in the form of an epic poem.” Al-Koni has certainly succeeded in writing a magnificent Tuareg epic in The Fetishists, and one that a reader is likely to return to again and again.

first Published in Banipal 66 Autumn/Winter 2019

republished here with agreement