Remember when I said recently that Transit was going to be my favourite book of the year? Here we are a little while later with another contender. Put down whatever you are doing and read Ahmed Fagih’s Maps of the Soul right now.
The story, set in Libya in the 1930s, begins with one of the most affecting opening scenes I have ever read. It grabs you and does not let go for a moment. Without giving too much away, an otherwise nameless ‘you’ is waiting under a hot sun to be brutally executed by another:
Why did you care about fending off fear when your end was nigh, when you knew that once the electricity that provided you with energy and life was cut off, perpetual darkness would follow?
Of course, that second-person ‘you’ makes it very difficult to look away. You are right there in that ‘you’, feeling the heat beating down as you wait for the knife…
In the second chapter the tale flashes back some time to show us that ‘you’ is Othman al-Sheikh, a boy from a far off village forced to leave for Tripoli after being caught in an indiscretion. He flounders at first, sleeping rough and contemplating a career of begging, before beginning to find his way and make connections across the city that will see him admitted to the palaces and high society now controlled by the Italian Governor-General Balbo.
Whirling through the streets of Tripoli, shedding innocence and qualms as he goes, still Othman manages to never quite lose his moral compass, while all around are misplacing theirs. He joins the occupier’s army as one of few volunteers and is unapologetic and enthusiastic in his beatings of other recruits, eyes firmly fixed on a promotion.
Nevertheless, you would not eat blood dipped in the blood of your own countrymen. You prayed that God would not let the situation deteriorate to the point that Libyans would be used against Libyans.
He joins the Fascist party to try to get out of being sent to Abyssinia, is taught to drive by the most Italian of Italian characters ever encountered on the page and gets tasked with showing Balbo around the hidden parts of the old city his official motorcade could never reach. But it is the women of Maps of the Soul who centre Othman’s world, from the saintly Thuraya, who marries another man before Othman can make his move:
She was the brilliant essence of all happiness and comfort in the world, and at the same time of every sorrow, deprivation, and grief.
And who contrasts with:
Nuriya, whose dearest hope was to be able to pursue her profession officially, without being hounded or blackmailed…
Before he encounters the schemes of Houriya, the most beautiful of the Governor-General’s mistresses (and ‘your’ boss!):
You were attracted to her by something that spoke to you in a language that no one but you could discern.
From arriving in the city by truck, knowing no one, Othman comes to realise that:
Every person belongs to a place and a circle of friends and acquaintances.
And for all that he at times feels lost and unsure, making his way in a world with the competing demands of the Italians and his compatriots:
You didn’t have any other homeland, and it was more than being stone, tree and earth, it was people, hearts, and emotions.
But just as he begins to rely on these connections, history and events conspire against him.
The call to prayer awoke memories of the relationships, images, and events that tied you to the city you would leave… you wondered if this was your final farewell to this muezzin’s call to prayer, or to these people, or the vast deserts of your homeland and its scattered oases, like green stains on the red maze of sand. You wondered if your bones’ final resting place would be some distant, dark mountain, and if this was the last contact you would have with your friends and family…
As it is the 1930s in North Africa, the reader might suspect that Othman is in for quite a time of it before he meets that final resting place. Maps of the Soul is, not unlike Anna Seghers’ story of the refugees in Marseille, Transit, a tale of place – finding one’s place, growing into it – as well as the mistakes and missteps we make along the path and the good luck and good hearts we encounter as we go. It is beautifully written and captivating, pulling the reader in and along with the tastes, sights and even the smells of a city that is being forcibly modernised by the latest in a long line of invaders, intent on making their mark, similar to those of the Ancient Romans that Balbo finds on his illicit stroll.
No one could escape his fate or what the angels had written upon his brow, as the saying went among mothers and grandmothers.
Maps of the Soul is the first three parts of what eventually became a 12 part story. I can’t wait to read the other nine, when they become available – hint, hint, Darf Publishers, PLEASE – to see what Othman makes of his fate.