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Gold Dust

Gold Dust

Ibrahim al-Koni
Translated by Elliott Colla
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15m7h3j
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  • Book Info
    Gold Dust
    Book Description:

    Rejected by his tribe and hunted by the kin of the man he killed, Ukhayyad and his thoroughbred camel flee across the desolate Tuareg deserts of the Sahara. Between bloody wars against the Italians in the north and famine raging in the south, Ukhayyad rides for the remote rock caves of Jebel Hasawna. There, he says farewell to the mount who has been his companion through thirst, disease, lust, and loneliness. Alone in the desert, haunted by the prophetic cave paintings of ancient hunting scenes and the cries of jinn in the night, Ukhayyad awaits the arrival of his pursuers and their insatiable hunger for blood and gold. Gold Dust is a classic story of the brotherhood between man and beast, the thread of companionship that is all the difference between life and death in the desert. It is a story of the fight to endure in a world of limitless and waterless wastes, and a parable of the struggle to survive in the most dangerous landscape of all: human society.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-069-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. 1
    (pp. 5-7)

    When Ukhayyad received the camel as a gift from the chief of the Ahaggar tribes, he was still a young colt. Back then, on moonlit nights, Ukhayyad liked to brag about the thoroughbred camel to the other young men of the tribe, taking pleasure in posing questions to himself and then answering them.

    “Have any of you ever seen a piebald Mahri before?”

    “Never!”

    “Have you ever seen a thoroughbred so graceful, so light of foot and so well proportioned?”

    “Not until now.”

    “Have you ever seen a Mahri who could compete with him in pride, fierceness, and loyalty?”

    “Not...

  2. 2
    (pp. 8-11)

    Before entering the ring, Ukhayyad wanted to fit out the camel in style. He borrowed most of the necessities, from the saddle and saddlecloth to the bridle, reins, bag, and even the whip. His old dressings were pale and dull-colored, bleached by the sun and unfit for adorning a Mahri that was preparing to dance in front of women, swaying back and forth to the rhythm and melody of music.

    He spent an entire day fitting out his equipage. The saddle had been crafted by the cleverest of the Ghat smiths. The dressing was an embroidered kilim rug brought from...

  3. 3
    (pp. 12-16)

    That was not the first time.

    The camel had entangled Ukhayyad in far worse humiliations many times before. In the past, he had been in the habit of embarking on late night romantic forays into the nearby encampments. He would saddle up the camel after sunset and depart for his lover’s camp, to arrive only after midnight. He would tether the thoroughbred in the nearest valley and then steal through the shadows to the ladies’ tents. There, he would flirt and chat all night, stealing kisses until the first light broke on the horizon of the desert. Then he would...

  4. 4
    (pp. 17-24)

    The camel continued his adventures in desert pastures where she-camels roamed loose. But eventually his blind virility cost him. One day he returned, the spark of mischief extinguished from his large eyes, his bottom lip drooping. He stood on the open desert, still and silent, casting a sad gaze across a horizon that danced and flickered with tongues of a celestial mirage.

    Ukhayyad noticed the camel’s sullenness, but for some days did not discover the reason. He was inspecting the camel’s lustrous coat, checking for ticks and pulling out a lote thorn from his speckled skin. There, on his hide,...

  5. 5
    (pp. 25-27)

    While traveling through the various encampments, Ukhayyad acquired some thick salve from the Bouseif tribes. He sheared the piebald’s fleece and massaged the blackened skin with it three times a day. This soon made the skin supple. But the blackness continued to consume the camel’s body, creeping ever lower, wrapping around the belly and eating at the legs. Another man knowledgeable in animal diseases arrived with a caravan of merchants from Aïr. He gave Ukhayyad a dark ointment in a small vial and told him he had distilled it from herbs. Ukhayyad applied the medication until it ran out. A...

  6. 6
    (pp. 28-31)

    At the entrance to where the two mountains faced one another, in an open waste that stretched on forever, stood the shrine of the Magus, tucked into the folds of a lonely hillside. In the past, the tomb had had frequent visitors, even religious teachers and scholars. No one had considered it an idolatrous object. Everyone agreed that it belonged to a Muslim from Arabia who had been witness to the early Islamic conquests, a companion of the Prophet who had died of thirst in the desert while fighting on behalf of God’s religion. Nomads of the desert sought out...

  7. 7
    (pp. 32-42)

    Thick purple clouds hung above the fields of Maimoun cleaving to the peaks of the mountains, then receding into the endless desert void. While each mountain rose separately out of the surrounding desolation, together they effected a wall that split the desert in two. Across the spaces between the lone summits rolled a sea of rich, red soil, where grew patches of grass and wild flowers whose sweet odor filled the air. It was the end of spring, but the sun was not yet overpowering. Ukhayyad gathered a good number of desert truffles and killed a snake with his stick....

  8. 8
    (pp. 43-48)

    Ukhayyad turned over and over in the sand, unconscious of where or who he was. He was roused only by the bright rays of the late afternoon sun. He came back to life, waking, though without waking, regaining consciousness, though not knowing who or where he was or how he got there. He lay on his stomach for some time, feeling nothing. His limbs were numb, as if they had been wrenched from his body. As he awoke, his body and head began to ache—his head as if it had been smashed open, his arms and legs as if...

  9. 9
    (pp. 49-51)

    With the first fall, Ukhayyad found himself perched between consciousness and oblivion, in that interval between life and death. Using his teeth, he reattached his hand to the tail so quickly that he never left his semi-conscious state. Being in this no man’s land between heaven and hell inspired him to return to the trick he had used before. He tumbled and got back up over and over. He fell into a daze and, parched, licked at the urine when it trickled down the camel’s thigh. It had been divine inspiration to tie his hand to the camel’s tail.

    He...

  10. 10
    (pp. 52-56)

    When the herders brought their camels to the well, they found the young man’s emaciated, bloody body stretched out naked beneath its edge. His foot was still fastened to the tail of a thoroughbred Mahri that looked as if he had been skinned alive. The camel stood over his head, using his body to shield him from the scorching sun. They carried him into the shade of a nearby lote tree. Under that thick canopy crown, they dunked his head into a bucket and poured water over him. An old herder hastened to light a fire and heat a kettle...

  11. 11
    (pp. 57-62)

    The harm you’ve caused us was enough,” Ukhayyad said when he and the camel were off by themselves again in the pasture. “Women cause nothing but headaches, don’t they?” By now, the camel’s new skin had toughened, and his wounds had mended. The ghastly redness had disappeared. But the camel’s coat had yet to grow back. When the Mahri did not comment on his proposition, the young men continued: “Sheikh Musa says the root cause must be removed. Splendor is no easy thing to attain, everything demands its own sacrifice. You won’t be in pain for long. We will do...

  12. 12
    (pp. 63-65)

    But the piebald had not forgiven him. The humiliation in the dancing arena was a sign that he had not. Had Ukhayyad misjudged things? Camels do not forget wrongs. They are like slaves—and you had better watch out if you mistreat them.

    Instead of celebrating him, that damned poetess had composed a nasty ode skewering the camel. “His color is spotted, but his mind is rotted,” was how it began. Within two days, echoes of the poem had traveled throughout the entire encampment. He would cut out that wretched woman’s tongue and give her a taste of his whip....

  13. 13
    (pp. 66-71)

    Marry her and be damned.”

    This was the message Ukhayyad’s father sent him through Sheikh Musa. He had not expected this sort of response, and it filled his eyes with a cloud of rage. Sheikh Musa tried to warn him. “Gently,” he said as he shook his finger. “Fathers may speak to sons however they like, but a son cannot answer his father in kind.” Ukhayyad swallowed his anger and rose to hide his humiliation in the desert.

    The reason for all this was that an Eve had joined the tribe to help herd the skinny she-goats. The gorgeous girl...

  14. 14
    (pp. 72-73)

    Sheikh Musa had mediated between father and son during their first falling out. At that time, Ukhayyad’s father had wanted his sons to inherit the title of chief, to keep it from falling into the hands of outsiders. The man was determined to marry his son to his sister’s daughter. The girl was sister to a nephew, Mukhammed, who was preparing to take over as chief. In a message Musa delivered to Ukhayyad, the father emphasized that this was their one chance to secure the title within their household. For if his sister’s daughter married Ukhayyad and they produced a...

  15. 15
    (pp. 74-77)

    So it was that his father disowned him. The man told Sheikh Musa, “Tell that idiot son of mine that the Tuareg are smart to pass things down on the mother’s side. Tell him to take his girl and go back to the land of sorcerers—go back to Kano and Timbuktu!”

    When his father cut him off from his inheritance, Ukhayyad left the tribe. But he did not head for Aïr, the land of sorcerers—the drought there had been driving more and more refugees toward the northern Sahara. Instead, he departed toward the lower valleys that lay on...

  16. 16
    (pp. 78-84)

    Two days later, the sacks were stolen from the cache. In the sand above where they had been stored, a sign had been left for him by the thief—the clear outline of a triangle traced in dry dates. The shape puzzled Ukhayyad and he asked the blind old woman from Tiba to read its hidden meaning. The soothsayer asked, “You said it was a triangle? Did you ever promise something to the goddess Tanit?”

    His head split, and he leaped like someone who had been stabbed. “Tanit?” He remembered his pledge. He recollected the saint and the pyramid-shaped tomb....

  17. 17
    (pp. 85-92)

    Ukhayyad woke up in the night, alarmed.

    He had seen the local soothsayer standing over him, telling him to slaughter the piebald.

    He wiped away the sweat and slipped out of the hut. A pale moon peeked timidly in the sky. In the magnificent silence of the oasis, the night-time singing of crickets could be heard in the palm grove. He walked about the open desert and thought: this soothsayer from Tiba must be a ghoul. What he had seen was not a real dream, but a ghost who wanted to eat the piebald’s flesh. Who would dare to eat...

  18. 18
    (pp. 93-98)

    Before leaving, Ukhayyad went off to be alone with the Mahri. In the morning, he prepared himself for their private ritual. He went to the grove and begged for a handful of green alfalfa to bribe the camel with at evening. “As you can see, no sooner do we escape from one trap than we fall into another,” he told the camel. “Still, be patient. Didn’t you and I agree to be patient? Patience is life—we learned that together long ago.”

    He patted the animal’s neck, and the piebald stopped its chewing. “Sometimes in this world, friends are split...

  19. 19
    (pp. 99-104)

    Less than a month later, the piebald returned again and the same herder came looking for him.

    The third time he came back, Ukhayyad asked the faqih to write an amulet that would protect the camel from harm. After hearing the man’s story, the faqih said, “This camel will not forget, and I do not know how to erase memories. You need someone else.”

    The black slaves told him to go see one of the African magicians. But the soothsayer from Tiba, the one who had left shortly before the famine, had been the last witch in the oasis. And...

  20. 20
    (pp. 105-109)

    You hear the strangest things from the mouths of strangers. “I knew this was going to happen,” Dudu told him at the outset. “I saw it in your eyes. I saw it in his eyes.”

    “The hardship we shared transformed us from two creatures into one. I hope you can understand when I say that he and I should not be apart from one another.”

    “Why didn’t you say sowhen the hunger began to gnawat you?”

    “It’s in a father’s nature to lose his mind when he hears his son cry. And now the matter rests in your hands. Don’t...

  21. 21
    (pp. 110-115)

    The piebald caught up with Ukhayyad less than a week after he returned to the oasis. This time the camel arrived in a much worse state. Ukhayyad had never seen him in this condition before. He had become so emaciated his ribs stuck out. His eyes were sunken in hollow sockets. His forelegs were covered with deep gashes, the wounds of palm rope, the coarsest kind of rope there is. They had rebranded the camel on his left shank as well, changing the ‘+’ brand of his tribe to ‘11+,’ the mark used by the tribes of Aïr.

    This was...

  22. 22
    (pp. 116-117)

    As the dreams of night scatter with the glowing embers of dawn, Ukhayyad’s resolve vanished as soon as he saw Dudu wrapped in his blue cloak, standing in the doorway. At that moment, he realized that a person is who he is because of what he drinks in his mother’s milk. He knew it would be difficult to remove the noose, the toy, and the illusion from his head, unless he were to suddenly become another person altogether. “As a person is prisoner to his body, so too he is hostage to his worldly possessions,” Sheikh Musa often liked to...

  23. 23
    (pp. 118-127)

    And now here he was, surprising Ukhayyad again.

    The camel arrived, weak with fresh wounds, conveying a new message from Dudu. It was a cruel proposal, composed simply of wounds and new misery. This wretched skeleton was a warning, a sign, and it filled Ukhayyad with dread. The desert had taught him to fear this secret language, for it conveyed hidden truth, and it never signified in jest. The language of hidden, divine truth can kill.

    Did the foreigner want to murder the piebald, or was this just a new stage of his heartless blackmail? Did he mean to extract...

  24. 24
    (pp. 128-132)

    In the fertile southern pastures below Jebel Hasawna, the piebald recovered his vigor.

    One low-lying valley in particular had received the rains of passing clouds at the end of last spring. None of the experienced herders had gone there, because the rains had arrived so late. After leaving Adrar for the northern desert, Ukhayyad had stumbled upon this valley. He had decided to stay put there. Leaving the camel in the green pasture he took refuge in a cave on the western slopes.

    He decided to settle here, not only because the place was a reward from God, a green...

  25. 25
    (pp. 133-135)

    One day, one of the deep desert herdsmen stumbled into Ukhayyad’s paradise. The man rode in at nightfall on a stout, disheveled camel. He tethered the beast in the field and called out, “Praise God!” three times before greeting Ukhayyad. He said he was looking for his lost camels. He also said that Ukhayyad must be a saint beloved of God, since he had been blessed above all others with such pasturage—especially with the other parts of the desert world suffering from such drought.

    Ukhayyad invited him to share tea. “It’s best if you say nothing about this to...

  26. 26
    (pp. 136-141)

    For three consecutive nights he dreamed of the same decrepit house.

    He did not actually sleep. The burning that filled his heart left no room for slumber. But with the glow of each new dawn, he managed to drift off for a short spell. And there, in his sleep, he saw the wretched ruins. Though he knew this fitful sleep would be fleeting, his wanderings through the wrecked dwelling would last the whole night.

    The dream was not new.

    In his childhood, it had tortured him again and again, returning to torment him during the first years of his youth....

  27. 27
    (pp. 142-145)

    He had no idea how he made the journey, nor how he arrived at the oasis. Nor did he recall how many nights he spent on the road, nor whether he stopped to sleep, or whether he had journeyed day and night without interruption.

    Just south of the oasis, in the open space beside the palm groves next to the hut he had once lived in, he spied a group of veiled men tending to slender Mahris. Was this a wedding procession? Had Ukhayyad arrived on the wedding night?

    He followed the path that wended around the green thicket of...

  28. 28
    (pp. 146-150)

    Ukhayyad flew toward the desert. His aim was to reach Jebel Hasawna in whose caves he would find refuge. He spent the first night after the incident out in the open wilderness. There, the vision that had abandoned him now returned. It was the same dream—with the same dark phantom that concealed itself in the folds of the shadows and in the debris-strewn rooms. It was the same decrepit house, still sealed securely though without windows and doors, and despite the fact that it was crumbling apart. The house was like a closed circle. And all the while, he...

  29. 29
    (pp. 151-154)

    Ukhayyad retreated into the most rugged part of the region. There he took refuge in an unusual cave. It was actually more a cleft that crept all the way up the wall of stone to the mountain’s summit. He avoided the lower caves, since they would be the first place the mercenary herders would look. The desert of the Hamada was now surrounded—from the north, the Italians sought to rush in, and from south, the tribes of Aïr sought to violate its pristine wastes. He was trapped. Even God’s vast wilderness could be transformed into a prison—one more...

  30. 30
    (pp. 155-158)

    They arrived two days later.

    Ukhayyad heard their chatter at dawn and thought it was just the murmurings of jinn. These spectral voices are well known on Jebel Hasawna. All who have ever stopped for the night beside the mountain are familiar with them. All who have ever passed through the mountain’s foothills at night also know them well. Cowards dread passing through this mountain range—supposing, like fools, that jinn are more wicked than men!Yet, for his part, Ukhayyad had never known anything more pernicious than humans. Fearful men are best off fearing men. He who supposes people are...

  31. 31
    (pp. 159-160)

    In his crypt, Ukhayyad chewed on a few dates, all the while tortured by the aroma of the meat roasting outside. Throughout the night, the smell had risen up to the summit of the mountain and then wafted down through the crevices in the stone. Eventually, it seeped into Ukhayyad’s hiding place and saturated the still air.

    At the end of the night, he heard one of the men relieving himself at the door to his hiding place. Like a jinn, the man talked to himself, “I still haven’t tasted my moufflon. My moufflon got away. They don’t believe I...

  32. 32
    (pp. 161-164)

    He heard the uproar on the slope as they surrounded and overwhelmed him. Loud shouts went up. Still, some time passed before Ukhayyad heard his howl of distress, “Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a.”

    What were they doing? The camel’s bellowing returned, even louder than before and now the echoes reverberated back and forth across the mountain peak. Only then did the stench of burning flesh hit his nostrils.

    Now Ukhayyad understood—they were scorching the camel’s skin with hot irons. Burning the animal’s flesh, they seared Ukhayyad’s heart. Hawks cannot be caught unless you disturb their nests. And these men knew where Ukhayyad’s nest...

  33. Translator’s Afterword
    (pp. 165-170)

    Gold Dust takes place in a world of contrasts—desolate rock plateaus, lush oases, and far-flung pastures abounding in mythical flora and fauna, all surrounded by endless wastes traversed solely by camel herders, dervishes, and the occasional caravan. The focus of this novel is not the desert itself, but rather the lives of desert dwellers as they struggle against forces beyond their control. In an echo of Ibn Khaldun’s great treatise on human society, al-Muqaddima, time in Gold Dust moves in cycles rather than lines. Indeed, the desert is not timeless but seasonal—with wet seasons of abundance and flourish,...