cover image The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga

The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga

Mohamedou Ould Slahi with Larry Siems. Ohio Univ, $22.95 (172p) ISBN 978-0-8214-2438-4

A Bedouin nomad grapples with visions of the dead and the advent of French colonialism after WWI in Slahi’s vivid and fablelike debut novel (following the memoir Guantánamo Diary). The present-day narrator recounts a story that allegedly came from a descendant of the legendary storyteller Sheherazade, about Mauritanian camel herder Ahmed Ould Abdallahi, who sets out in the Sahara to find his prized camel, Zarga. Along the way, Ahmed encounters many dangers, including desert vipers and cannibals, along with instances of Bedouin hospitality, contextualized by the narrator’s explanations of tribal relationships with the new French authorities. As the camel is crucial to his livelihood, Ahmed risks everything, driven by his Muslim faith and apparitions of such people as a long-dead Bedouin seer, whose powers of prediction are enhanced by French telescopes. While he’s gone, his family receives a false report of his death, and by the end, the narrator reveals why Ahmed’s story has endured through the generations. Flashes of wry humor (a character’s futile attempts to sharpen a knife are likened to “trying to convince a Yemeni to change his opinion by force”) offer a welcome counterbalance to Ahmed’s daily prayers and religious songs. This modern-day folktale of human endurance is worth a look. Agent: Rachel Vogel, Dunow, Carson & Lerner Literary. (Feb.)