Many today experience a strong disconnect between their daily lives and the natural world which surrounds them. In The Actual True Story of Ahmed & Zarga, Mauritanian author Mohamedou Ould Slahi—with editorial assistance from Larry Siems—offers a fablelike perspective on humans’ relationships with the environment through a journey into West African Bedouin culture. Well-known for his Guantánamo Diary, which documented his experience being held in the military prison without charge, this is Slahi’s debut novel. Inspired by his father’s stories and his own experience growing up among Mauritanian camel herders, Slahi tells a captivating tale of one man’s search for his prized camel and his reckoning with tradition, duty faith, and death along the way.
The story is offered by an unnamed narrator who recounts the legend of Ahmed, a venerable ancestor of the Imadoor tribe, and his search for his lost camel, Zarga. Recovering Zarga is a duty at the heart of Ahmed’s nomadic vocation. As Ahmed says, “…the key to being a successful camel herder is…living in complete harmony with the herd, as a member of its family.” Ahmed sets off on an odyssey into the unforgiving desert, where Ahmed encounters malicious spirits, helpful nomads, and even a mythical tribe of cannibals. Ahmed’s journey leads him to question the very boundaries of life, death, and faith.
The relationship between humans and the environment forms an integral thread throughout the narrative. Ahmed’s relationship with animals, with the desert, and with the unseen worlds of spirits informs each step of his journey. In this world, humans and animals share an intimate language and understanding which informs daily life, “…Ahmed knew his herd better than he knew the fingers of his hands, and he felt them as he would feel his human family…Although he did not speak their language, Ahmed generally knew what was in the minds of his camels.” In this world, humans and animals share deep emotional bonds, “Ahmed and Laamesh shared many good memories, and bad ones as well. They knew and respected each other.” As a nomad, Ahmed is consistently aware of the desert, both its gifts and its tremendous power. For Ahmed, the desert is the source of a nomad’s life. Ahmed’s journey is also informed by his relationship with the supernatural realm, here rooted in Islamic cosmology. From what he has learned from his tribe, he knows how to deal with the malevolent spirits he encounters on his journey. This novel does an astounding job of decentering the human narrator, placing humans in a wider network of relationships between creatures, places, and spirits.
Underlying this intimate relationship between humans and the environment is a sense of worsening climate crisis, in which the nomadic way of life is threatened. We learn in the second chapter that, “[t]his year was especially dry; one could hardly speak of rain at all. To Ahmed, it was a clear sign that the day of judgement was coming…” This is contrasted in the narrative with the lush greenery known to Imadoor’s ancestors. While these themes are introduced in the first few pages, they are not explored further throughout the novel, leaving the reader wanting a fuller integration of this thematic exploration of climatic concern into the narrative development.
One remarkable aspect of this novel is its natural integration of the Mauritanian and Islamic customs, stories, and traditions which pervade this world. Mauritanian sayings and beliefs are presented throughout and guide the narrative, such as, “[t]he darkest part of a night is the beginning, because…small demons try to cover the stars to scare humans and animals.” Ahmed and Laamesh both travel with amulets which protect them from the evil eye. At the heart of this novel, and of Mauritanian nomadic culture, is the tradition of oral transmission. The novel is a recounting of an oral tradition by the narrator’s Aunt Aicha, a rumored descendent of the famed storyteller Shahrazad. The narrative is also infused with various lines of poetry, songs, and Qur’anic verses which were memorized by Ahmed, placing the protagonist’s oral inheritance as the guiding wisdom and protection on his journey. This is a refreshing, practitioner’s depiction of Muslim worlds and characters. While Slahi employs technical terms throughout, a helpful glossary ensures readers unfamiliar with these traditions are never overwhelmed.
This novel contributes to the welcome expansion of the Anglophone canon to include indigenous authors writing about their own traditions and contexts. As a work that offers a Mauritanian and Islamic perspective on the relationship between humans and the environment, this novel offers an exciting contribution which is rarely represented in contemporary American literature.
Publisher: Ohio University Press – Modern African Writing Series
Publication Date: February 23, 2021
Reviewed by Peter Dziedzic