Book Review: Ahmed Fagih's "Homeless Rats"

by - 11:15

Published in Arabic in 2000, with the English version released in 2011, Homeless Rats by Libyan author Ahmed Fagih in a nutshell is about a battle in the desert between humans and rats. Yet, saying it like that makes it seem so simplistic, when it really isn't.

Set in Libya, it follows the lives of a Bedouin tribe forced to leave their home in Jandouba after years of drought to start a new life in a place called Mizdah. While it focuses a lot on the lives of these humans, as well as another group of humans (a family with a way of life less traditional and moral than the Bedouins) who also migrate to this land, it also introduces the voices of the jerboas - larger rats living in the Libyan desert. These jerboas are indeed the homeless rats this novel is named after, and we hear directly from them the effects of being made homeless by the humans. Although the jerboas are the main animal characters, other animals we get to hear include the wise hedgehog and lizard, a chameleon with the ability to predict the future, ants, insects, dogs, snakes, and scorpions. 

After reading I had to find out more about Ahmed Fagih, and I read on the tanjara that:
"Fagih was himself born in Mizdah, in 1942. He emerged as a pioneering Libyan writer in the 1960s and ... his work often draws on his intimate knowledge of life in a rural setting and on the tradition of fable and folk tales. He is often inspired by the animal world; a recent example is his story 'Lobsters' which appears for the first time in Engish translation, by Maia Tabet, in the special feature on Libyan fiction in the latest issue of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature. Fagih says the novel was inspired by his own experience in the late 1940s at the age of around six when he took part in an endeavour to dig into jerboa burrows of rats so as to retrieve wheat and barley kernels that the jerboas had hidden there. 'It is very telling of the hardships the Libyan people went through in those very difficult years,' Fagih says. He describes the novel as 'a tribute to my home town of Mizdah'".
And what a tribute! Homeless Rats was such an interesting tale, and it was so beautifully written. Not knowing much about Libya, I loved being transported to desert life there and getting a glimpse into some of its history, geography and people. It was possibly one of the most enjoyable novels I have read this year, not only for its vivid portrayal of desert life in Libya,  but also for being a story symbolic of real human struggle. I also have to say, I really did feel sad about the jerboas being made homeless.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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