Elise Bellin, Librarian of the Islamic Resource Center, wrote this book review as part of an ongoing series that focuses on a range of books within the IRC collection as a service to the community.
Goat Days by Benyamin
We would all like to believe that slavery and its like is all relegated to world history, like the Antebellum South, Ancient Greece, medieval Russia, or any time and place far enough removed to have nothing to do with anyone in the here and now. Unfortunately, as much as we don’t wish to realize it, the truth is that certain forms of slavery and interminable indentured servitude are both still a real hazard for many people around the world and even in our own country. We need look no further than migrant workers in the US, the global sex trade, or child soldiers in war-torn African countries to name but a few.
Goat Days is the fictionalized tale of one such slavery victim. Najeeb, a poor family man from India, has always longed to be a goat herder. Then, with a first child on the way and with a lack of income on the horizon, Najeeb hears about a way to get a work visa to Saudi Arabia, where wealth is supposed to be around every corner. Too bad he doesn’t speak a word of Arabic. On getting his visa and arriving in the Persian Gulf, he trusts the first man he comes in contact with and suddenly finds himself in the middle of nowhere somewhere in the desert, no ID papers or visa, trapped working for no wages in veritable slavery just trying to survive the day to day while herding goats. Be careful what you wish for. As the days pass and his only companion besides the goats, a fellow herder, runs away to leave him alone, we see his eventual devolution as he seems to resemble his herd more and more. It seems the only way to escape this fate is to somehow get himself arrested.
This is a story grim and direct. There is no philosophizing as such, no grand moral story arch, no heroic realization. This is a story just far enough left of the truth to remain a work of fiction. Goat Days may be a fictionalized tale of the slavery of an Indian immigrant in Saudi Arabia, but it is in many ways the story of what thousands of people around the world suffer on a daily basis. According to the author’s note, Najeeb is a real person and much of what happened really has and does occur. We are left with a moral tale without a moral, a hero without a heroic journey (or is it a journey without a hero?). The bare truth, the honesty, and the pain is all that remains. Goat Days is the translation of a tale that became an instant bestseller in India and, despite its well-trodden path of downtrodden migrant, finds a unique voice in its brusk and illusionless manner and relatable protagonist.