Moon and Henna Tree

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By: Ahmed Toufiq

Translated By: Roger Allen

Moon and Henna Tree. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2013. 276 pp. Pbk: $24.95. ISBN: 978-0292748248.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Issa Boullata, PhD

McGill University

Montreal, Canada

The author of this novel, Ahmed Toufiq, is the Minister of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs for Morocco, and former director of the National Library. He has published several works on pre-modern Moroccan history and edited many religious and historical texts in this field. As a novelist, he brings to his fiction a rich knowledge of pre-modern Moroccan society.

In this novel, he deals with the tribal society of the High Atlas region in pre-modern Morocco and particularly with Husn al-Suq in the mountains, its ruler Hmmu, and his adviser Ibn al-Zara. The main theme of the novel is the abuse of power. Hmmu (dialectal name for Muhammad) is the qaid or ruler of the tribal area and his adviser is Ibn al-Zara, a former slave trader, who manipulates him. Hmmu, like his father ‘Ulla before him, was appointed qaid by the Sultan in Fez, the capital, and continued to keep his father’s adviser Ibn al-Zara, a clever and crafty politician who was very knowledgeable about tribal affairs in the region with its several qaids competing with one another for the power, pleasure, and approval of the Sultan who appointed them.

The novel does not have a narrative plot as is usual in most novels, but it much plotting and intrigue in the service of political power and predominance. Ibn al-Zara’s schemes include having his master marry al-Salima, the daughter of Shaykh Wald al-Shahba’, the qaid of the plains in order to bring that competing area into the orbit of Hmmu’s power as qaid of the mountains. But al-Salima gives birth to a girl, not the male heir that Hmmu hoped for; so Ibn al-Zara has his master marry Kima, the daughter of Shaykh Ahmad Nayit Ibrayim, qaid of a resisting area in the mountains. The two wives become good friends until Kima dies, bringing their relatives from the mountains and the plains together in concord. This state of affairs makes the tribes of the two areas organize and eventually succeed in assassinating Hmmu—now abandoned by Ibn al-Zara—and removing his tyrannical rule.

Ahmed Toufiq enriches this simple sequence of events with elaborate accounts of the circumstances, the motivations, and the consequences. In so doing, he shows the interactions between characters and describes their feelings and thoughts. As the translator, Roger Allen, says in his Afterword, the reader is given “an incredibly rich picture of the customs and rituals in traditional Moroccan society” (p. 273). This reviewer is also amazed at the details Ahmed Toufiq gives of certain occurrences in the novel, such as the visits of the tribal leaders to the Sultan in Fez, or the detailed description of the jewelry offered for sale to al-Salima before her wedding, or the details given depicting the intricate tattooing at Kima’s wedding. Roger Allen’s translation has painstakingly rendered these scenes—as with the rest of the novel—in beautiful English, successfully accommodating a strangely different culture of pre-modern times.

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