Goat Days, by Benyamin, was by far my most highly anticipated book for some time. I was finally able to get my eager hands on it, and the long wait paid back in full. It’s an English translation of a story written in Malayalam, a language with over 30 million speakers in India.
The story, set in the 1990’s, follows the harrowing journey of Najeeb, from his humble life in his village to forced labor on a goat farm in the sweltering heat and desolation of the Saudi Arabian desert. What drove him to leave his poor yet, in retrospect, idyllic life? The mention of a visa for sale suddenly awakens a “yearning [he] had never experienced before.” This made me think about the thousands of desperate young men and women who make the almost impossible trek through desert and unforgiving seas to reach the shores of hostile Europe. That sentence also reminded me of the fierce debate that rages among the more privileged of their counterparts in the West, some who say “don’t come! it’s not worth dying for! we are outcasts here too.” Or the others who respond, “you can’t possibly understand, why deny for your brother and sisters what you have for yourself?” It’s so complicated, and so sad.. For Najeeb, whole new vistas of fortune and wealth are opened up by the mere thought of working in the Gulf. He must go, for the sake of his unborn child and wife. And so he departs to chase illusions, like the countless poor of the global south who still do to this day. Many of their fates are just as tragic.
Najeeb is essentially kidnapped, enslaved and imprisoned in an earthly hell. He is abused, beaten, starved, overworked and unpaid. His “was a goat’s life.” He smelled like a goat, he slept like a goat and he herded, milked and nurtured them like they were his true family. Najeeb is terribly isolated and lonely as the vastness of sand and sky threaten to swallow him whole. His “arbab,” or boss, he heart-breakingly calls his “savior” because when helpless and hopeless the oppressed, against all reason, still expect some kindness from their oppressors. Najeeb uses the term “Arab” not necessarily in a derogatory manner, but pretty close. The Arab is the one with power, the one whose humanity is recognized, the one who is ruthless and exhibits unending depths of cruelty. This bothered me since it seemed to legitimize the recently popular stereotype that all (especially Muslim) Arabs are 21st century slave masters, but it was also understandable considering Najeebs plight. Yes there is a devastating problem in that part of the world, where grotesque treatment of workers is routine. But is this not a global problem that stems from a range of exploitative socio-political and economic systems? Do Arabs really corner the market on Evil? Hardly. Then, unexpectedly, we find in the story an Arab (and a rich one at that!) who helps Najeeb at the most critical point in his saga of survival. That was definitely refreshing.
So how does Najeeb find the will to survive? Surprisingly it is his profound belief in God. I say surprisingly because I don’t come across many novels that feature religion and spirituality without sarcasm, critique or outright hostility especially when a character undergoes suffering. Of course Najeeb questions God, of course his faith falters at times. But as Najeeb reminds himself repeatedly: “No. I am not going to contest Your judgment. I firmly trust in Your exactness.” His belief in Allah is beautiful and inspiring and keeps him alive. There are many miracles that happen to Najeeb as a result, especially the ending which left me in disbelief.
When I read the author’s note and learned that this was a true story I just could not fathom how anyone could endure such circumstances. But then I reminded myself, like Najeeb, about a little thing called Faith.