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‚Äô 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 Cl√©zio.

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 Gadam√©s, 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.

4 thoughts on “6 Great Desert Narratives That Don’t Involve the RAF or TE Lawrence

  1. Tahar Djaout: L’invention du d√©sert (not translated into English) (Algerian)
    Ibrahim Al-Koni: ō£ŔÜŔąō®Ŕäō≥ (Anubis)
    Moussa Ould Ebnou: Barzakh (Mauritanian, written in French; no English translation)

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

  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.

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