Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2005
Issue No. 773
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ferial J Ghazoul

Desert passions

Ferial J Ghazoul journeys in the Tuareg world of novelist Ibrahim al-Koni

In one of the most innovative international conferences the renowned Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni was both discussed and celebrated in the area where he grew up and where his fiction takes place. On 26-29 November, 2005 , scholars and translators of al-Koni met to explore different dimensions of the work of this extraordinary Tuareg writer and to partake in the desert experience which he has so powerfully depicted.

Click to view caption
A Tuareg resting in the Libyan desert

Miracles of regeneration

Born in 1948 in Ghadames Oasis, al-Koni was brought up on the tradition of the Tuaregs, popularly known as the veiled men or the blue men. He learnt Arabic at the age of 12 and went on to study comparative literature at the Gorky Institute in Moscow where he wrote his thesis on Dostoevsky. Mythological elements, spiritual quest and existential questions mingle in the writings of al-Koni who has been hailed as magical realist, Sufi fabulist and poetic novelist.

The occasion of the conference was the prize of desert fiction that was awarded to al-Koni by his own country, after receiving recognition and numerous awards in France, Switzerland and more recently in Asila, Morocco, where he was selected as the Arab Novelist of 2005. The conference took place in the University of Sebha with the participation of scholars who came from four continents, and was accompanied by an exhibit of al-Koni's publications. Al-Koni has been translated into 35 languages and has been published extensively in Russian, German, and French translations. The English-speaking world is just beginning to discover this fabulous writer with the publication of his novel, The Bleeding of the Stone, translated by Lena Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (New York: Interlink, 2002). More recently his work Anubis, dubbed "a desert novel", was translated by William Hutchins (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005), and more translations are planned by the AUC Press in its series of Modern Arabic Literature.

The desert is commonly perceived as a barren place, a wasteland where emptiness reigns. It is often contrasted to cultivated regions and river valleys where the great civilisations of the ancient world -- those of Egypt and Mesopotamia -- rose. Mediaeval legends like the Holy Grail use the barrenness of the wasteland as a metaphor of demoralisation and degradation. Only the knight's quest and search can aspire to reverse such a desolate condition by finding the Grail that holds the blood of the Saviour. Even a progressive philosopher of history like Ibn Khaldun contrasted "primitive" culture (' umran badawi ) to "civilised" culture (' umran hadari ), and saw in the desert community a distinct turbulence whose incursions continually threaten settled areas and sophisticated city life. Thus desert dwellers -- Bedouins, Tuaregs, or nomads in general -- are commonly perceived as primitive and backward. At best they stand for exotic and folkloric charm. What al-Koni accomplishes -- in his more than 50 titles of novels, short stories, and scholarly works -- is a totally different image of the Tuaregs and, by extension, of all desert dwellers. Like Claude Lévi-Strauss, who taught us that the so-called savages are cerebral intellectuals, al-Koni shows us in his fiction the intricacy of Tuareg thought and civilisation whose rich legacy and mythology parallel the cosmologies of other parts of the world.

The Sahara has a civilisation that dates back more than ten thousand years and is studied for its contribution to human development. Acacus Mountain in Libya, famous for its ancient rock paintings, was declared by UNESCO a protected World Heritage site. Some archeologists believe that rock art spread from the central Sahara to Egypt and Ethiopia. The desert, also, has its oasis cities such as Ghat whose old part -- the medina -- goes back to the first century BC. It was fortified in the 12th century AD when it was a crossroad of caravans. As participants in this conference and tour of Tuareg country, the architecture, artefacts and artistic performances we witnessed made the desert that al-Koni inscribes in his work come alive. The desert of Wadi al-Hayat (literally, the Valley of Life) is as voluptuous in its curves as it is intriguing in its vastness marked by sand dunes, resembling in their repetition a natural arabesque. In this part of the Libyan Sahara the Tuaregs offered us their bread taajeelah, baked in the hot sand, and explained the magnificent upright volcanic rocks in the midst of the desert as glorifying god. Personification is not a rhetorical device but a way of life.

Al-Koni's novels are aesthetic renderings of the passions of the desert and of the rich legends and cosmology of his people. An encyclopaedic writer who has digested mythologies of the ancient world and literature of the modern world, al-Koni has both a poetic bent and a mystical inclination. His texts are prose poems woven around a primordial drama. An affinity exists in his novel, The Bleeding of the Stone, between people, animals and physical nature. He raises not only ecological issues but also points to what can be called "desert ethics" and the sanctity of life. His novel, Anubis, is about a quest for an ambiguous father in the desert. Ostensibly about a Tuareg, it is in fact about Everyman. And this is perhaps the genius of Ibrahim al-Koni: he can turn the most local of his characters into a spokesman for humanity. The search for the legend of Anubi (identified by al-Koni as the Ancient Egyptian god Anubis) takes the author to Timbuktu where he finds fragments of the ancient legend written in the Tifinagh alphabet of the Tuareg, which in turn had been copied from Tassili cave inscriptions. The novel ends with Tuareg aphorisms, one of which sums up the philosophy of al-Koni himself: "The world is a body and the desert its spirit."

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