Libyan writer and diplomat Ahmed Ibrahim Fagih’s Homeless Rats is a quasi-fantastic historical novel that offers considerable insight into Libyan culture and geography, in particular that of the Western Jebel Nafusa, which played a key role in Gaddafi’s ouster. The plot revolves around the efforts of members of a displaced tribe from the town of Mizda (Fagih’s birthplace) to cope with severe drought in the late 1940s, just before Libya’s Independence in 1951, and well before the discovery of oil in 1959. Several Mizdawi families move south to a location known for its barley fields, only to discover that the grain they have been seeking has been consumed by a ravenous community of jerboas, long-legged rats. The story is told primarily from the perspective of its human protagonists, with occasional anthropomorphizing of the jerboas and other desert-dwellers, including ants, asps, spiny lizards, and tortoises, each of which has a different view of the ravages wrought by humans.
Although Fagih’s use of fantastic elements echoes other writers of his generation, such as Sadiq Neihoum and Ibrahim al-Koni, the book has more in common with Fagih’s previous work, particularly Huqool al Rimaad [Fields of Ashes], and the short story “The Locusts,” also set in Mizda. Indeed, the characters of “The Locusts” make cameo appearances in the novel. Fagih wrote the first chapters of Homeless Rats in the late sixties , and worked on the novel for close to twenty years, ultimately publishing portions of it in the noted Libyan literary monthly al-Ruwwad. The completed book manuscript was finally published in 2000 by Egypt’s Dar al-Hilal, and in 2011 in Sorayya Allam's English translation by Quartet Press in the UK.
Replete with the heroic battles, revolutionaries, and tribal disputes of the past, the novel is uncannily evocative of more recent events. Because many of the themes of Libyan history—and literature—repeat themselves, readers must remind themselves of the time in which the book is set. One example of such historical ambiguity: “What a difference there is, between great men like that and us today. If there were two like them in Libya now, we wouldn't be living the way we are.” (And another: despite its echo of Gaddafi’s famous references to “Greasy Rats” in his “Zenga Zenga” speech of February 2011, the book’s title was chosen long before.)
Fagih is mildly subversive in his descriptions of taboo subjects, including the sexual misadventures of a retarded boy, the mixing of the sexes, the virtues of dogs as companions, and the role of religion in Libyan society. There are jabs against corruption and misuse of funds, and the regressive nature of tribalism, a far more pervasive force in 1940s Libyan politics and society than it is today. One theme that resonates particularly strongly with current events is that of the divisions and differences in mentality between those of Libya’s East and West (roughly, the Tripoli-Benghazi divide), many of which are counterintuitive. The climax of the book comes midway through: just as the “lost tribe” finds a solution to its predicament, another destitute group, this one from the East, stumbles onto their secret.
While the East has traditionally been the seat of the Senussi, an ascetic Sufi tradition that at one point covered much of North Africa, various factors, including the ease of movement between Egypt and Libya, coastal influences, and the disruption of World War II, allowed for the development of pockets of liberalism. The ways in which Westerners see the Easterners as foreign, impenetrable, almost immoral provides an excellent window into the complex tapestry of Libyan tribal politics.
Although dusk was falling, the people of Mizda saw at once, to their profound curiosity, that the number of females was double the number of males . . . even more astonishing was the way the women mixed with the men without veiling their faces or wearing scarves over their heads. Strings of glass shone in their hair, around their necks and on their bosoms. Such a state of affairs could exist only if the men were the women’s brothers. Otherwise they'd be acting against every tradition and custom of decency and morality by which the people of Mizda abided, ordained as these were by the faith of Islam.
The narrative is full of interesting and arcane historical references, including the 1923 battle of Jandouba in which two locals (ultimately, unsuccessfully) held that town against the Italian occupying forces, and commentary on the attitudes of Southern Libyans to successive foreign administrators, from the Italians, to the British after them. “A few years before, many people from Mizda had gone to Tripoli in search for work and had come back regretting they’d ever set out. Those who’d stayed had lived abject lives, either as servants in the houses of Italians or as beggars outside the mosques.” The underlying message, which resonates well in present-day Libya, is one of connectivity of all things—individuals to people, people to animals and the environment—and the advantages of unity in the face of adversity. When Fagih reveals a romantic attraction between the strong-willed female Eastern tribal chief and the Western imam, it seems like both a somewhat unexpected and natural consequence of what came before.
One of the joys of Fagih’s writing is a certain extemporaneous feel, as if the whole yarn were being made up on the spot by a master storyteller, with plotlines twisting and turning in reaction to audience response or his own whims (notwithstanding the fact that Fagih agonized over its construction for several decades). The approach produces a bit of collateral weak character development but one must see it in the context of the whole. Fagih employs a variety of devices to keep the reader in suspense, as events round out the profiles of the protagonists. The woodcutter Abdel Aaly considers Burhan an imposter, “a man who calls himself the religious scholar of Mizda.” Although this could be interpreted as a jab at the (modern-day) “Islamists,” the “imam” does prove to be something else altogether. Side dialogues from the jerboas and their kin contribute to the somewhat magical quality of the whole—another example of the superstitions and augurs that permeate rural Libya to this day—and add a bit of perspective to the complaints of humans, who, of course, see themselves at the center of everything.
Perhaps more so than with other Libyan writers, I find Fagih's work loses some of its richness in translation, and the action lags for a time about two-thirds of the way in. These two quibbles notwithstanding, Homeless Rats is an engaging story, amazingly prescient for a work that was competed four years before the 2011 revolution, and an excellent introduction to Libya and to the work of a man The Guardian calls Libya’s “greatest living writer.” Given the themes of redemption and unity, it is perhaps not idle to suggest that it be distributed to members of the Transitional Government and the armed militias currently wrangling for power in Tripoli.