The first short story in Banipal 40: Libyan Fiction is a work by Omar el-Kiddi (trans. Robin Moger) titled “The wonderful short life of the dog Ramadan.”
I must admit I read it a bit impatiently, thinking it would turn into some easy moral tale wherein the refugee dog represents, in a straightforward way, the Libyan refugee in Europe. And yes, there are those echoes, and the story does function as social criticism. But in the end I had to believe that the dog Ramadan was also a…dog. Yes, he’s an anthropomorphicized animal—it’s an anthrophile’s world—but there’s also a dogginess in him.
El-Kiddi’s enjoyable story is almost certainly, in part, a response to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” about an American man who travels to Africa to shoot a lion. Hemingway’s story is notable in nerdy creative-writing circles for “humanizing” the lion, and stepping briefly into its point of view.
In El-Kiddi’s story, humans don’t shoot the dog; indeed, in their weird way, they cherish this single rescued animal. The story is multi-leveled and at times humorous. It does not, as I’d feared, close down too easily or quickly around its ideas. But I wouldn’t have tied it to other animals in Libyan literature if not for Omar Abulqasim Alkikli’s anthro-metaphoric “Leap” (trans. Elliott Colla), Mohammed al-Arishiya’s mythico-literary “The Snake Catcher,” Mohammed al-Asfar’s coming-of-age-mythico-literary “The Hoopoe,” and of course the excerpted Ibrahim al-Koni: all in Banipal 40.
Al-Koni, the most prominent of the Arabic-writing authors in the issue, has a long relationship with animal characters. His prescient explorations of the fragile bonds between human, animal, and environment are rarely found in contemporary ficiton. Particularly in his Bleeding of the Stone and Gold Dust, the animals feel not just like devices of storytelling or thought-experiment, but like living creatures. Yes, al-Koni’s work is mythico-literary (and not “magical realist,” as Colla points out) but the animals are not just metaphors, or at least no more than the humans.
More on animals in Libyan fiction:
Ahmed al-Fagih‘s beautifully written/translated “Lobsters,” in Banipal40, doesn’t try to access to point of view of lobsters—which would be quite a feat. But a reader reminds me that in 2009, Egypt’s Dar El Shorouk released a special fiction collection of al-Fagih’s dedicated to animals entitled: In Criticism of Human Beings and in Praise of Animals and Insects. You can find a good deal of al-Fagih’s work available for free on his website, although you will have to step around the photos of him taken with the “Libyan leader.”