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Moussa Ould Ebnou: Barzakh

If you read Ebnou’s previous book – and you almost certainly did not, for who would read a Mauritanian science fiction novel? – you will find this book even stranger. It is also a science fiction book but also a historical novel. Barzakh is, in Islamic theology, the interval between death and resurrection, very approximately equivalent to the Christian purgatory, though Ebnou uses it as a physical place. The novel starts with members of the Institute for the Archaeology of Human Thought digging up seventeen skeletons buried somewhere in the desert. We then jump immediately to a thousand years previously.

Gara is a teenager living in what is now Mauritania. He is abruptly woken in the middle of the night by his father, as the salt merchants have come and they have to hurry to make sure that they get some salt. Unusually, Gara’s father does not have gold or slaves to trade for the salt but tells Gara to nicely ask one of the merchant for salt and say that they will pay him twice as much when he comes back next year. He approaches a man who starts measuring up the salt but Gara grabs the salt and runs. He is caught and immediately becomes the man’s slave. His father is nowhere to be seen. For the rest of the first part of the book, Gara becomes this man’s slave and has to accompany the caravan to its next destination. Ebnou gives us a wonderful account of the journey, with poetic descriptions of the desert, the stars and the people in the caravan. We learn of the man who is worried that his wife is being unfaithful to him while he is away and the methods he dreams up both for discovering whether she has a lover and what he will do about it if she has. His solutions are not the obvious ones. We also meet some of the inhabitants of the desert, such as the woman of the tribe where a sign of beauty is extensive pubic hair and wants the caravan leader to cover her public hair with his long beard! Gara sufferers, both physically (walking barefoot and the long walks) and also wondering why his father has abandoned him.

The caravan passes through Ghana (nothing to do with modern-day Ghana) before arriving at the city of Aoudaghost. Gara is, of course, amazed by the cities but finds that, once they are at Aoudaghost, he is to be sold. There are no buyers for a long time till, finally, he is bought. His new owner is a devout Muslim and he has to learn Arabic and the Koran and, eventually, becomes known for his religious knowledge. He then meets a Berber woman, Vala, and they start an affair and she becomes pregnant though, when they go to her grandmother for him to have his hand read, he is warned that his son will kill him. It is Vala that persuades him to join a slave revolt. However, there is considerable discussion among the slaves about whether and under what terms a revolt conforms to the precepts of the Koran. The revolt is betrayed and Gara is captured. Again he is taken off in a caravan but he is so tired of his life as a slave that, even out in the desert, he manages to steal some water and escape. He has just been three days without water, when we are finally into the realm of science fiction.

At this point, Al Khadir come to him and promises to release him from his life of torment and transport him a thousand years into the future. Gara wakes up, not remembering anything except the existence of Al-Khadir. He is with a group of archaeologists who are looking for the long since lost city of Aoudaghost. Improbably, the leader of the expedition is called Ghostbuster (Ebnou uses the English word) and his lover is called Vala. She does look a bit like his Vala. But soon he finds things are as bad as they were, as he has to slave for Vala, he is caught up in Moorish resistance to the French occupation and Ghostbuster is pushing him. Again, he calls on Al Khadir who warns him that his will be the last time. And this time he is well into the future (i.e. our future) where Earth is just a dumping ground for planetary waste and he lands at one of the areas for waste dumping, naturally enough in the desert he knows. Again he meets Vala and this time he lands in a country called the Democratic Republic of Barzakh and, in his dream, he realises that the president is his son.

This is a very strange book, mixing Mauritanian history, Islamic traditions, science fiction, a concern for ecology (the term is used early on) and a sound gift for story telling. It is a fascinating story and Ebnou keeps us gripped. While we might guess the general parameters of the ending, the specific ending is certainly not predictable. However, it is a very original work and it is a pity that it is unlikely to be available in English.

Publishing history

First published in 1994 by Editions L’Harmattan
No English translation