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Mohammed Dib: L’invention du désert [The Invention of the Desert]

Reading this novel makes you wonder why it wasn’t translated into English and makes you sad that he died at such an early age. There is no major plot in this novel – only history and perceptions. The unnamed narrator is asked by a publisher to write a history of the Almoravids, which leads him to write about both the Almoravids and Almohads, as it was the Almohads who brought the Almoravids down.

There are two strands to the novel. The first is the story of Ibn Tumart, founder of the Almohads. We follow the story of this ascetic man, who seeks to make his part of the world (primarily modern-day Morocco) more religious and pure. He tries at first by preaching and then resorts to war. He nearly succeeds but loses the final battle and goes off to die, leaving his successor, ‘Abd al-Mu’min, to finish the work and destroy the Almoravids. Djaout and his narrator are clearly in full sympathy with the Almohads.

Fine though this part of the novel, it is the other strand that makes this novel so interesting. It is about the wanderings of the narrator, as he travels around the Muslim world, learning about the Almoravids, the Almohads and Ibn Tumart, focusing on the latter, as it was he that led to the downfall of the Almoravids. As the title of the novel implies, it is the deserts that inspire him, fascinate and haunt him. Deserts are part of his culture, they are in his blood and, even though some of them mystify him – the deserts in Yemen are a case in point – he can’t let them go. Intertwining his research into the Almoravids and the Almohads with his musings on deserts, his thoughts back to his childhood and young adulthood in Algeria and his current life, including the “desert” of Paris, the narrator paints a wonderful portrait of a life far different from the European life he is now leading, a life coloured by deserts.

Publishing history

First published in French by Seuil 1987
No English translation