There's a tendency among Western people to romanticize that which seems exotic to them. Whether the yogic practices of India, philosophies of the Far East, or the spirituality of Native Americans, it doesn't seem to matter. They imbue them with all sorts of mystical qualities, that may or may not have anything to do with the original practices, and believe they have found the secret to living a better life.
Of course they also conveniently ignore the fact that so much of what they think of as answers are practices that have evolved through centuries of living under specific conditions and which might not have any practical application in another environment.
It's only been in the last decade or so the nomadic people of the North Sahara Desert in Africa have come to the attention of people in the West. The Tuareg pre-date the introduction of Islam and speak a Berber language, Tamasheq, related to ancient Egyptian, with an equally ancient alphabet and script known as Tifinagh. Pastoral nomads, primarily herds people who relied on their flocks for survival, they currently are spread out over a territory that includes Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria.
Since the early 1960's they have been involved in sporadic uprisings against the various governments in the region in an attempt to preserve the land so integral to grazing their nomadic lifestyle. However, only since former rebels have formed musical groups like Tinariwen, has the world at large taken any notice of their situation or the people themselves.
While the bands might sing about their culture and traditions, they do so in Tamasheq, which means the majority of their audience really aren't hearing what they are singing about or gaining any insights into the world they come from. Anyway, for the most part, the bands are making music for their own people, not for foreign consumption, which means the lyrics are only going to be truly understood by those already steeped in that culture. Therefore, while it's true they are getting out the message to the rest of the world about their struggle to survive, we actually know very little about them - their stories, their cultures or their traditions.
So when I was contacted by Garnet Publishing asking if I would be interested in reviewing The Seven Veils Of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni, I said yes, in the hopes it would fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the people the work was about. I knew absolutely nothing about the author, but according to the blurb on the back of the book al-Koni is an award winning writer in the Arab world, and has published over fifty novels, short stories, poems and aphorisms, all of which have been inspired by the desert. Therefore, even though he's lived pretty far removed from any desert in Switzerland since 1993, it sounded like he not only could write well, but also wrote specifically about his people.
Well it turned both assumptions were true, as not only is he a wonderful writer (here's as good as time as any for a tip of the hat to William M. Hutchins who somehow translated it from Arabic into English without making it sound "English" or "American") who writes about his people, but he does so with such imagination and infectious joy for his subject, that you can't help being caught up in the story even if you're not quite sure what's going on all the time.
The Seth of the title is in fact the ancient Egyptian god who killed his brother Osiris, the god of agriculture, in order to seize his throne and has come down to us through history as a villain. However, Seth also turns out to be the god of the desert and a benevolent champion for desert dwelling types like the Tuareg.
The story takes place in an oasis where a permanent settlement of Tuareg has taken root and established a thriving community that includes a busy market place, a fool, a diviner (or prophet), a headman, and a heroic warrior. As an oasis they are used to visitors, but not one quite as disconcerting as Isan. First, unlike most he eschews the company of camels and rides in on the back of a female donkey, a jenny. He then refuses any and all offers of hospitality, including a welcoming dinner, and strangest of all he chooses to dwell in a crypt in the graveyard. None of the town's notable are sure what to make of him - save for the Fool who after meeting Isan advices the town's elders to kill him before they have chance to regret not doing so.
The seven veils of the title refer to the various names or ways in which Seth is referred to, and as the novel progresses, Isan is at various times referred to by each one, though most often as either "the jenny master" or "the strategist". Even more beguiling is his obvious disdain for anyone living in one place. No matter what arguments a person might make against the nomadic life he's always able to turn them around and show what they consider negative aspects of the life are actually necessities for the development of self-awareness. It's while he's having one of these arguments we learn another of his names, Wantahet, a character in Tuareg mythology who promised the people deliverance, but delivered them to the abyss.
So who is Isan, and what is he promising? He claims that hell, the abyss, is a type of deliverance as at times we have to burn the body to root out disease, and it's obvious he considers the settled life wrong. Yet, he's also a master at turning words on their head to the point where he makes his contravention of traditional laws and customs appear like he's complying with them.
In Isan al-Koni has created a character who is the epitome of the trickster, and like his brethren and sisters around the world his contrary nature wrecks havoc where ever he travels. Yet, what is the lesson he is teaching - or is there even a lesson at all? Is his purpose to make those he meets question what they have accepted as normal? Is being a nomad really the answer to all questions and the proper way to live - or does he only espouse it because he's the god of the desert and this is all part of a "strategy" in his battle to keep the throne of heaven and his war against Osiris' son Horus?
Although Isan is the main character and we spend a great deal of our time with him, like everybody else who meets him we still can't be sure about his motivations. While in some ways the various characters Isan interacts with are representatives of their title (Fool, Merchant, Warrior, Prophet etc.) and the roles they play in their society, al-Koni ensures they aren't just types. In almost each case we learn more about them, and in fact, in some ways, end up knowing them better than Isan, through the back stories and histories the author has created for them.
Therefore we not only see them as personifications of types representing a way of looking at the world or a certain place in society, we also see the real human behind that mask. In their discussions and arguments with Isan he challenges what they stand for and in doing so shows just how arbitrary the laws, the ones that dictate their behaviour and they use to help differentiate between right and wrong, they espouse as sacrosanct really are by using the ones they quote as proof he is wrong, as support for what he advocates.
How would you react if one of your people's traditional gods all of a sudden showed up in your town and began turning you lives upside down by questioning everything you have been using to govern your behaviour? With Isan al-Koni has created a veritable stick to shove into the bee hive of the oasis and the results are thoughtful, funny and occasionally tragic.
Not only is the story a pleasure to read, it also gives the reader something of an introduction to the life of the Tuareg. It's hard to tell exactly where reality and fantasy separate sometimes, but than again sometimes its in the fantastic we find the most truth. If you've enjoyed the music that comes from this region it might be time for you to look behind those purple robes they wear on stage and get to know the people a little better, and this book provides you with that opportunity.
(Originally posted April 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.