In Anubis, Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni reconstructs ancient mythology about the Tuareg—his ancestral tribe—as adapted from legends regarding Anubis, the Egyptian god of the deceased, who was born an illegitimate child. The resulting novel launches its protagonist on an unmapped journey through the merciless Sahara Desert in search of the father he does not know. His mission takes on a metaphysical dimension as he matures in the arid wilderness and becomes a father himself, only to learn that fate is cyclical.
The Tuareg are a nomadic people of North Africa, renowned for the deep blue veils worn by the men and the matrilineal organization of their tribe. In Arabic, Tuareg translates as “abandoned by God”, evoking the determined fate of the Tuareg to wander the Sahara desert without establishing roots. The origins of the Tuareg cannot be historically verified, though they are possibly related to the Berber ethnic group of North Africa. Thus, they have the liberty of incorporating the folklore of other peoples into their heritage, such as that of the ancient Egyptians. That the Tuareg, themselves, identify their tribe as Imuhagh which means “free men” illustrates their defiance of the characterizations that outsiders have made about their way of life. The final section of Anubis is comprised of several pages of tribal proverbs. “Time is that unknown entity that we always kill by talking but that always kills us by its deeds,” reads one such saying. When read as a collection, they invoke the hard-won wisdom that has enabled the Tuareg to persevere timelessly.
The premise of Anubis seems promising enough, focusing on a young man’s quest to find his father, whom he identifies from childhood as “the shadow squatting by the tent post[…]” However, the protagonist, who remains nameless though he takes on multiple personae throughout the novel, is never clearly developed outside of this solitary effort. Conversely, he possesses an air of narcissism regarding his journey and seldom demonstrates concern for those around him. For example, the first time he ventures out into the desert to locate his father, his mother fears for him so greatly that she offers herself to be slaughtered as a sacrifice in order to ensure his safe return. Her martyrdom on his behalf does nothing to deter him from setting out into the desert a second time and he entertains no lasting remorse about her desperate actions, despite having fond memories of her teaching him and caring for him as a child. At a later point, the protagonist takes refuge amongst the wild animals of the sand dunes, adopting as his mother a hybrid creature with “curving horns like those of a Barbary ram […and the] body […] of a gazelle, although of huge proportions.” In the aftermath of a fire, he craves meat and partakes of the burnt flesh of an animal, only to realize immediately afterwards that it is the body of the creature who has nurtured and protected him as she would her own lamb. “Then I realized that I had poisoned my body with ‘“evil,”’ since I had devoured my mother’s flesh, which had been molded together with my father’s.” Thus, the protagonist’s main concern is the effect his actions will have on his own body and spirit, rather than the harm he has unwittingly caused others.
Anubis has its greatest success when it juxtaposes life in a comfortable oasis that can easily sate every human need against the austerity of living in the desert. As settlers flock to the lush oasis discovered by the protagonist, the need for law and governance becomes apparent, paving the way for corruption and violence. The protagonist is banished from the oasis by those he once believed to be his kinsmen and returns to the desert. “I returned to my solitude where its passages received me and brought home to me the true nature of my situation.” Though the desolate terrain is treacherous, it is no more so than humankind and perhaps more honest in its intentions. Thus, even in his imaginings of how the Tuareg came into being, al-Koni depicts their forefather as an outcast amongst his own tribe, unable to lay claim to a homeland other than the Sahara that he is destined to wander.
 A discrepancy exists in that the Bradshaw Foundation resource translates Imuhagh to mean “free men” whereas the glossary at the end of Anubis translates it as “dispossessed, plundered, lost, and noble.” The difference in meaning is significant enough to warrant this annotation, especially since the Anubis translation evokes a similar meaning as the Arabic translation for Tuareg.
1. “The Tuareg of the African Sahara: The Nomadic Inhabitants of North Africa.” Bradshaw Foundation. Bradshaw Foundation. Web. 9 Jan. 2018.
2. Hutchins, William M. (2014). Translator’s Note. In Ibrahim Al-Koni, Anubis: A Desert Novel (pp. vii-xi). Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.