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What We Are Reading Today: Two Cheers for Higher Education by Steven Brint

CHICAGO: Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, literary giant Ibrahim Al-Koni’s novel “Gold Dust” tells the moving tale of Ukhayyad and his thoroughbred camel as the pair struggle to survive in the Tuareg deserts of the Sahara.

The novel, first printed 30 years ago in Arabic, has been brilliantly translated into English by Elliot Colla and reprinted by Hoopoe.

This classic tale of friendship takes place between famine in the south, Italian invaders in the north, and the tragedies of life that both Ukhayyad and his camel learn to navigate, but not without sacrifice.

Ukhayyad, a member of the Amanghasatin tribe, is gifted a rare Mahri piebald camel, “a stock of thoroughbred camels dating back to a fabled Omani race of noble steeds.”

Boy and camel grow up in an ever-changing and evolving North African world. Ukhayyad spares no expense when it comes to his companion, and the bond between the two is almost spiritual. Sheikh Musa, a scholar from Fez, tells him that animals are superior to humans and make the best friends.

Both Ukhayyad and the camel’s lives are shaped by the other. A tribesman tells Ukhayyad: “The Mahri is the mirror of his rider. If you want to stare into the rider and see what lies hidden within, look to his mount, his thoroughbred.”

Al-Koni’s brilliance lies in his knowledge of the desert and its tribes as well as its abundant and sometimes barren valleys.

He writes of the ancient Phoenician structures, the pagan gods and goddesses whose legends haunt the sand, and the ancient cave paintings in Libya’s Tadrart Acacus.

In more than 80 published works, Al-Koni has also written of the Sahara where he spent his youth.

Ukhayyad is young and thoughtful, though impulsive. He has faith in God and the ancient lessons of the desert, as well as the wisdom of Sheikh Musa who tells him that “perfection belongs to God alone. Carelessness blossoms with youth, but wisdom and knowledge do not take its place until the onslaught of old age and infirmity.”

With these lessons, the young Tuareg fights to survive in the harsh desert environment, where life constantly hangs in the balance.