In his 422-page debut novel, Tareq Bakari uses the word “buck” more than 50 times, about once every eight pages. I know because I counted them, along with the 15 graphic sexual encounters that his “goat-stud” of a protagonist has with four smitten women during the long-winded IPAF-nominated story.
Awdad, or “Buck, the wild goat,” as they call him in Tamazghit, leaves his heroines breathless but his readers queasy at the gratuitousness and banality of such unwarranted sexual display. Never has a novelist written with such awe of the virility of his protagonist, and never has a protagonist embraced such a generous gift with so little acknowledgment. Like everything else that takes place around him, Awdad is the passive recipient of immense tragedies that are only offset by legendary sexual powers that matter very little to him.
But Numedia isn’t just about a heterosexual Moroccan man with legendary sex powers, it’s about a heterosexual Moroccan man with legendary sex powers who is mercilessly chased by a blue-eyed, blond French writer, who in her final infatuation destroys the object of her desire. Yes, in 2016, a 28-year-old writer has based the entire premise of a novel around the sexual fixation of a white woman on a Moroccan man of Berber heritage. Not only that, but he does the unspeakable, comparing them to Shahrayar and Scheherazade and repeatedly calling his protagonist “the last of the studs.” The issue is not just that our stud, quite expectedly, channels all his rage and frustration (at everything, from politics to religion) into angry sex, but how it is framed — “the desire that loomed behind her blond imperialist hair,” for example. Edward Said must be turning in his grave.
The sex-filled tragedy, which is set against the backdrop of the Anti-Atlas (or Little Atlas) mountains, in the arid south-west regions around Taroudant, charts the life, which is really nothing more than a series of unfortunate events, of orphaned Awdad. He is rejected by one foster family after another until he finally makes something out of himself, only to betray his true love and his best friend and end up being chased and “poisoned” by his “blond, imperialist temptress.” The novel consists of fragments from Julia’s notes and Awdad’s recollections, but you really can’t tell the difference because they are narrated in the exact same authorial voice.
In the tedious monologues of self-pity that consume Bakari’s protagonist (“to grow up like stray dogs, thrown about by people and streets, for life to tie you to its tail, and drag you along the paths of sorrows and adversity”), there are hints of something more meaningful than the self-indulgent prose suggests, but they come to nothing. Bakari’s novel is published at a point when Berber culture and language are slowly, starting a decade ago, being recognized as a legitimate component of the Maghreb countries’ historical and cultural narratives (specifically Algeria and Morocco). There is potential in any attempt to contemplate what kind of societies our generation envisions from amid the slow demise of the post-colonial state. Berbers were consistently marginalized by Maghrebi political elites throughout the independence struggles, and the gradual change in how Berber communities are being perceived and how their language and culture is finally being recognized deserves a literary engagement that goes beyond a touristic sojourn of an orphaned outsider and his sex-crazed bitches.
Here comes the other significant problem in the novel: The women are presented as nothing more than accessories or rather extensions to the protagonist’s fantasies. Sexual fantasies, to be precise. As in almost every other novel on the IPAF shortlist for the past three years, all the women are either frustrated poets, helplessly fragile and doomed to death, or maliciously evil temptresses. There’s nothing inbetween, and in both instances they can do nothing beyond give in to the sexual bliss male characters promise. I wonder if Bakari consulted any in-depth surveys about female sexuality in the Arab world, or asked his own partners what would turn women into frenzied sexual beasts that writhe and moan in miserable agony, one scene after the other.
Bakari’s simple plot device is that Awdad decides to buy a hotel in the village he grew up in, and through this touristic lens we get to explore the region’s history and heritage. He uses the folk tales of the settlements surrounding the mountains to create a setting that is both timeless and primitive. There are dialogues and quotes in French, but there are no quotes or dialogue in Tamazight (although our hero speaks it fluently). Awdad’s Berber love interest, Numedia (named after the ancient Berber kingdom), is mute. She actually writes in the sand: “Make use of my forced silence, and let me be, not as I am, but as you desire me to be.” There can surely be no greater literary violence than creating a character that has no voice, and whose sole function is to serve as a tabula rasa for all the subjective desires of the male ego. Even as Berber culture is getting the visibility that it deserves, it is either demonized as primitive and brutal, or, worse, as mute and unintelligible.
Bakari’s greatest challenge lies in creating a tragic hero whose pathos is narcissistic and petty. There is no catharsis for Awdad — there’s not even the ennobling effect of sorrow or the gravity of loss. None of the terrible misfortunes he laments so monotonously redeem him in our eyes, or even in the eyes of the other characters. He remains deified as a legendary goat-stud or vilified as an accursed bastard. No matter how many women he loves and no matter who loves him, somehow he remains beyond the grace of God or redemption, and as readers, we are left wondering why.
A quick comparison to a book on last year’s IPAF shortlist, Hammour Ziada’s The Longing of the Dervish, reveals where Bakari’s novel spectacularly fails. Ziada created a tragic hero against an immensely complex historical and social landscape, and he also fell for the oriental fantasy of black slave and white missionary, but at least he didn’t drag us, for over 400 pages, into internal monologues of self-pity and megalomania. Ziada’s Bikhit, also an orphan from an ethnic minority, finds love to be a redeeming, transcendental force beyond other forces far too powerful for him. In Bakari’s novel there are no redeeming forces in this world — not compassion, not friendship, not faith, not love, nothing. We’re left with Awdad’s paranoia-fuelled nightmares that all the world is out to get him because, tragically, he’s an orphan. Even imperialist blond women want to exploit his sexual powers and his tragedies — and he passively subscribes to all these sorrows and adversities, because he “was doomed ever since he was found by that shepherd.”
Even more problematic is the fact that, like Ziada, Bakari touches upon the terrifying impact the rise of the Islamism had on Moroccan society (Awdad loses his best friend to extremist groups), and while this could have served as a pivotal point of moral contention in the story, it gets lost among all the sex and whining. There is no comparison between Awdad’s vision of a progressive secular society (it’s only briefly mentioned that Morocco’s Left was helplessly idealistic in facing the repressive regime and the serpentine, vicious Islamists at the same time) or one created by an enlightened religiosity and the vision the Islamists are proposing (Bakari hints that this sounds grim and terrible). There is some fleeting moral outrage, but no substantial intellectual engagement or reflection on contemporary reality. Everything is watered down as it dissolves into the great tragedy of being virile Awdad.
Bakari’s prose lacks the sophisticated brilliance of his compatriot, Ahmed al-Madini, also shortlisted last year for his novel The Willow Passage. Madani, a veteran novelist and more classically inclined, revels in a dense, taut and rich style. In contrast, the sentences meted out by Bakari, who majored in Arabic literature, tend to be half-cliché and take themselves too seriously. Perfectly matched to its protagonist, the prose is at once bombastic and pathetic, and it employs bizarre typographic devices (“Nu..me..dia..!”), repeatedly re-uses its figures of speech (“Awdad, the stud-goat”), and uses obvious metaphors (using a nosebleed to symbolize life draining Awdad).
Although the novel takes place among the harsh and mysterious mountains of the Atlas, which makes for an intriguing setting, it does not make good use of the rich history and culture of its Berber inhabitants. At a point when most Arab peoples are facing the end of the Arab nationalist, post-colonial state and the necessity of envisaging a freeer and more just society, Numedia doesn’t do much to meet the expectations it raises. Besides the zoophilic resonance between the stud-goat and the mountains, Bakari’s novel speaks of very little beyond megalomaniac virility and heterosexual melancholy.