The Sahara Is Not A Boundary

Stacy Hardy is a writer and senior editor at Chimurenga. She is also founding member of Black Ghost Books. Her collection of short fiction, Because the Night, was published by Pocko in 2015.

By Ibrahim al-Koni*. Interlink Pub Group, 2002

I met the news that Ibrahim al-Koni was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize with mixed emotions. Elated that this acclaimed, prolific author was finally being acknowledged outside the Arab world, but wary of the media hype that usually follows such accolades. But al-Koni didn’t win and his shortlisting did little to raise his profile in the West. The scattering of write-ups that appeared in the Anglophone press largely aligned him to the magical realist tradition (“readers of Garcia Marquez and Allende will want to know about al-Koni”), or described his work as fanatical eco-fiction. These labels do little to capture the literary, political and religious depth of his work.

Maybe it’s the complexity of al-Koni’s life and political affiliations that kept, and continue to keep, the media at bay, despite the growing number of translations of his work into English. Born in 1948 in the Nalut District of the Tripolitania region in north-western Libya, al-Koni learned Arabic as a second language – his mother tongue is Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg. As a young man, he was infused with the utopian revolutionary aspirations that chequered Libya’s recent history after the advent of the 1969 al-Fatah revolution and joined Qaddhafi’s government. Aligning himself with Socialist International, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League and the Organisation of African Unity, in the mid-1970s he travelled to Moscow where he learnt Russian, worked as a journalist, and studied philosophy and comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Institute, graduating with an MA thesis on Dostoyevsky. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the subsequent flourishing of criminal capitalism, he moved to Switzerland.

Over the course of his nomadic life, al-Koni has written more than 80 works, including novels, stories and aphorisms, all suffused with a combination of Sufi mysticism, socialism, Tuareg mythology and existentialism. While he refuses the idea of influences (“being influenced does not make writers of us. It is the spirit of having a mission that makes us do what we do, whether we want to or not.”), he cites Ecclesiastes, the Epistles of Saint Paul, the Upanishads, Laozi, the Egyptian priest Anhi, the Sumerian Gilgamesh, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Faulkner, Schopenhauer, Kafka, Knut Hamsun, Laxness, Camus, Asturias, Kawabata, Llosa, and more as “the lighthouses by which we can illuminate a trip that will certainly be nocturnal”.

The geography of his books is equally nomadic and nocturnal, refusing starkly lit division. As his English translator, Elliott Colla, points out in al-Koni’s map, the Sahara is not a boundary or “an isolated backwater”, but rather “a crucial articulating link, distinct but adjoining the Arabo-Berber Maghreb with the African Sahel”. Colla explains: “In placing the Tuareg at the center of his universe – a universe he composes solely in Arabic – he rewrites the places of Arabs and others on the maps.”

In al-Koni’s books, the Arab and Tuareg worlds are not separate, but entangled. What’s more, land is at the centre of the liberation struggle, not as a possession, something to be reclaimed or owned, or saved, but rather as an active force in the perpetual struggle against Western hegemony and imperialism. His novel, The Bleeding of the Stone, is a case in point. It is set in the desert, but here the desert is not really a place. It’s a transcendental, shadow of a place, a time-space maybe, but time-space in the desert is a mythical, nocturnal time, where past, present and future merge into an eternal moment. The desert holds everything, but in disguise, “it is a place with absolute freedom, a lost dimension between life and death”.

In The Bleeding of the Stone the space between nature and history is closed, the voices and the deaths in the desert are made a part of that desert. Moving fluidly through time and with multiple narrative shifts, the story follows Asouf, a solitary Bedouin and the sole keeper of the desert’s secret: where the legendary mouflon, a wild sheep whose meat is highly valued, hides. When two foreign hunters (who have already decimated the once-thriving gazelle population) order Asouf to show them the mouflon, he resists.

But Asouf does not challenge the colonisers alone. He has the desert as his teacher, and as the plot unfolds, it schools him in its trickster tactics and its magic – rippling of the mirages, shifting sands, sudden oasis. In the end, the colonists brutally kill Asouf, beating his head against the edge of a desert rock, but as they leap into the truck and switch on the engine, “great drops of rain” begin to “beat on its windows, washing away, too, the blood of the man crucified on the face of the rock”, washing it back into the sand, the soil, the earth from which it came, into the desert that now waits to swallow and avenge the colonising murders. As al-Koni writes in A Sleepless Eye, his 2014 collection of aphorisms: “In the desert we die in body but live in spirit.”

Al-Koni too has learned from this desert. His books might well be mythical and fantastical, operating in a realm between life and death, but to al-Koni myth is political; it has the capacity to embrace the public, the visionary, dreams, the revolutionary. Sailing past physical and national borders and comfort zones, transgressing the boundaries between man and nature, and protesting with ferocious invention the extinguishment of a people and the colonial brutalisation of the land, his writing performs an assault on the idea that words keep things separate. He writes from the point of impact; from the collision between languages, between forms and ideas, between cultures and religions. Yet despite their jarring encounters, the writing is agile and inventive, from moment to moment gripping, exhilarating; other times it drifts and swells like sand dunes in a desert, cresting and accumulating into a landscape that shifts like wind and words. Al-Koni translates the land, its people, the practice of translation itself, and the pulse of desire for freedom. What emerges is a politically theorised re-encounter.

With his linguistic and visionary commitment, his capacity to imagine what is perforce outside experience and outside language, his ability to conjure entangled time-spaces, and his unyielding commitment to freedom, al-Koni opens new possibilities for writing. His books belong among the great works of African liberation.

*Translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley.

This review appears in Chronic Books Foods, a supplement to the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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