6 Great Desert Narratives That Don’t Involve the RAF or TE Lawrence

Robert Allison is right: The desert is a fertile ground for novelists: “Not only in the otherworldliness of the landscape but also for its capacity to act as an existential sounding board for characters; such vast expanses of emptiness naturally encouraging introspection and reflection.” Yet his list of the “top 10 novels of desert war” focuses oddly on English-language narratives:

al-koni_gold_dustCertainly, there are few authors or scholars who know enough about writings in and around the Sahara, Arabian, Gobi, Kalahari, Patagonian, Great Victoria, Syrian, and Great Basin deserts — not to mention the imaginary deserts that populate speculative fiction — to work up a credible “top 10”.

But considering the Sahara and the Arabian are the world’s two largest  — unless you count Antarctica, which has inspired predictably few war stories — one would expect at least a cursory inspection of Arabic literature. Indeed, as you know, the desert has long been an inspiration for Arabic poetics. Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma`arri’s (d. 1057) beautiful “Rain Cloud,” for instance.

There’s no war in that particular poem, but as Maysa Abou-Youssef Hayward remarks in “Communities at the margins: Arab poetry of the desert,” war and the desert have frequently been twinned in Arabic verse. Many more can be found in Poems for the Millennium: The University of California ook of North African Literature, ed. Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour.

But Allison isn’t talking poetry. The books on his list are novels filled with acts of derring-do by Brits in the Sahara, an American in Mosul (not a desert, cough cough), and TE Lawrence. Nary a non-English-language book in the bunch — not even something from Camus or J. M. G. Le Clézio.

A few suggestions for Allison’s list:

1) The Cities of Salt Quintet quintet, by Abdelrahman Munif, trans. Peter Theroux, begins in the desert oasis of Wadi al-Uyoun, which is disrupted by the arrival of Western oilmen. As Edward Said noted, this quintet is perhaps the “only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country.”

Indeed, isn’t it time for someone to bring out all five works of the quintet in a new edition? Meanwhile: Read an excerpt from the Cities of Salt quintet, trans. Peter Theroux

2) Men in the Sun and 3) All That’s Left to You, Ghassan Kanafani, trans. Hilary Kilpatrick and May Jayyusi and Jeremy Reed respectively. The desert is a trope that has come to reflect Palestinians’ exile (Jabra Ibrahim Jabra referred to it frequently). Kanafani’s works often rely on the desert — exiles wander in it, it burns them up. For instance, read Kanafani’s The Slave Fort.”

4) Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, trans. Elliott Colla, and 5) Bleeding of the Stone, trans. May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley.

Although al-Koni, who was born in the south Libyan desert near Gadamés, has wandered much, he often says that the desert remains his starting point. He has said, of that landscape, that “the law of the desert that we bear emblazoned in our hearts demands that we remain constantly on the move. We must move on because life is a constant journey, and the places we visit are nothing but oases.” Al-Koni brings something genuinely new to the exploration of human interaction with the natural world and human-animal relations.

6) Mohammed Dib’s Le desert sans detour

Dib has frequently referred to the desert — and sometimes an icy, equally barren landscape — as a background to the Algerian (colonial) experience. Le desert sans detour has not been translated into English, although you can find his The Savage Night, trans. C. Dickson. Also read “Bloodred Dew,” trans. Dickson.

This is a list assembled in haste: I’m sure you can add more. Please do. And a friend notes that Allison’s list is also rather lacking in women — although I see mine is, too.

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4 comments

  1. Tahar Djaout: L’invention du désert (not translated into English) (Algerian)
    Ibrahim Al-Koni: أنوبيس (Anubis)
    Moussa Ould Ebnou: Barzakh (Mauritanian, written in French; no English translation)

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    • Anubis, of course. And really al-Koni’s whole ouvre — with few exceptions. Thanks for the other suggestions! I will look for them.

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  2. Thank you for this list – I have a few new titles for my to-read!

    What about Leo Africanus by Amin Maalouf? It’s not entirely set in the desert, but those scenes of traveling across the Sahara in a merchant caravan, hiding out in a cave to avoid a storm…those really stick with me.
    -Allison

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