This year’s Egyptian State prize for the novel, awarded to authors who write in the Arabic language, has gone to Ibrahim Al-Koni. As an event attesting to the broad enthusiasm among Arab critics and readers for Al-Koni’s great art, last week’s award was only one moment of recognition among many. By now, Al-Koni has earned as many literary awards as any other living Arab author, and he has done so across the entire breadth of the Arab world, from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike most Arab novelists who still tend to be read as national writers (Egyptians, Lebanese, Iraqis and so on), Al-Koni is one of a few whose reception has effectively transcended the national borders that divide the Arab world.
The irony of this, of course, is that Al-Koni’s mother tongue is Tamasheq (not Arabic) and he writes largely about Twaregs, not Arabs. While it would be a mistake for us to draw a sharp line between these two peoples, for centuries this is precisely what the Arabic literary tradition did. In the accounts of pre-modern North African travelers and geographers, Twareg culture and society is presented as radically other. Indeed, Arab writers tended to draw sharp lines between Arabo-Berber-Muslim culture of the Maghreb, and that of the Twaregs—a people whose political structure is matrilineal and whose conversion to Islam was at times thought to be less than complete and sincere.
Taking the Twareg aspect of Al-Koni’s writing seriously allows us to recognize a radically redrawn map of the world—one in which the Sahara is a full, rather than empty space; one in which the Twareg lie not at the edges, but the center of history. Al-Koni’s novels take place in a desert world that is, despite its desolation, surprisingly rich in the sense that everywhere there are living beings struggling to live. In Al-Koni’s fiction, the meaning of life is always tied to struggle. Thus, Al-Koni’s novels paradoxically suggest that only here—in the harshest corners of the desert waste—does life emerge in its richest sense.
While each of Al-Koni’s novels has a different focus, they invariably sketch a richly detailed Twareg landscape whose heart is located somewhere between Aïr and the Hamada Hamra, Ghadamès and Agadez, Sebha and Tamenrasset. Indeed, it is the Acacus range, Al-Koni’s birthplace, which forms the geographical center of this fictional universe. The inbetweenness of this geography is not accidental, for center of this world is deliberately situated between two diametrically opposing social and philosophical forces. To the South lies a world of myth, magic and superstition. It is the place where the caravans carrying blue cloth, slaves and gold originate. To the North lie the distant Arab cities of the coast and after that the sea—a place associated with mechanized technology and warfare. Truth emanates from neither—rather, it is in the struggle between them, the struggle in the Twareg center, that meaning is to be found.
For ancient geographers like Herodotus and Strabo, the northern verges of the Sahara formed the boundary of the civilized world, while somewhere beyond, in the desert interior, lie the edge of the known world. In modern times, the Sahara has been, and continues to be, conceived of as the clear divide between two separate worlds, Black Africa and the Arabo-Berber Maghreb. The peripheral status of the Sahara is even more unambiguous in the imaginary of the post-independent states of North Africa: it serves as the southern economic and political periphery—underdeveloped and beholden to the interests of the north.
In Al-Koni’s map, this aspect of the geography of the Sahara is turned upside down. Al-Koni’s Sahara is not an isolated backwater, but rather a crucial articulating link, distinct but adjoining the Arabo-Berber Maghreb with the African Sahel. By reversing the traditional poles of core and periphery, Al-Koni’s fictions thus challenge our received understanding of the world. In placing the Twareg at the center of his universe—a universe he composes solely in Arabic—he rewrites the places of Arabs and others on the maps.
Yet, for Al-Koni the Arab and Twareg worlds are not separate but entangled. Indeed, Al-Koni’s work conjures up the very oldest images and themes from the Arabic literary tradition. The oldest poetry of the Arabic tradition—the famed Mu‘allaqat and the poems of the sa‘alik—derive from the struggles of pre-Islamic Bedouin Arabia. Still, though dominant within the poetic tradition, these tropes rarely circulate within the novel tradition. Aside from the work of a few novelists (e.g., Abdurrahman Munif and Miral al-Tahawi), nomadic life has been largely absent from the novelistic imagination in the Arab world. It is partly because the centrality of the nomadic scene to the classical Arabic tradition that Al-Koni’s novels resonate so profoundly with readers steeped in the classical tradition. I still remember the first time I read Al-Koni’s novel al-Tibr: it was like reading scenes from al-Shanfara’s ode (“Lamiyyat al-‘Arab”) readapted in a novel form, rather than verse. Of course, the resonances of Al-Koni’s novels go far beyond the classical Arabic tradition—and include Sufi mysticism, Russian existentialism, American transcendentalism, old world mythology, German romanticism, and more. In this sense, Al-Koni’s aspires, and belongs to world literature in the broadest sense of the world.
Yet Al-Koni’s reception with Arab audiences is particularly significant since it reminds us of one of the oldest strengths of Arabic literature, namely that for its entire history, the Arabic language has served as a universal literary language. Like classical Latin or Greek (but unlike Hebrew or Castillian) the decision to write in Arabic was not necessarily related to “being an Arab” in any narrow ethnic sense. The history of Arabic literature is a testament to this fact—for many of the highest accomplishments of the language have come from non-Arabs: al-Farazdaq, Abu Nuwas, al-Hamadhani, al-Sibawayhi, al-Jurjani, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and countless others. The colonial division of the Arab world, and the territorial and ethnic nationalisms that attended this process, eroded this tradition almost completely. And now, apart from some non-Arab authors from the Arab world (especially those from Berber North Africa and Kurdistan), and the continuing tradition of Muslim communities (particularly in India), Arabic literature has largely come to mean literature written by Arabs and about Arabs in the Arabic language. Al-Koni’s example is to remind us that it need not be so. Martin Heidegger once observed that language is the house of Being. Al-Koni’s fiction reminds us that the home of Arabic is not just expansive, but its doors remain wide open for all to enter.
Elliott Colla is Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is translator of works by Al-Koni, including Gold Dust (AUC Press, 2008), and The Animists.