A Celebration of Ibrahim al-Koni, the Desert, Russian Literature, and ‘Swiss Sufism’

Encouraged by translator/scholar/writer Elliott Colla—who had an interesting short essay about Ibrahim al-Koni in yesterday’s Ahram Online—I thought we’d make this an al-Koni week. Although not an “Arab” writer, al-Koni is one of the giants of contemporary Arabic literature, and has a unique and world-encompassing literary vision.

Nobel Prize Committee: If al-Koni is not on your radar, then the aforementioned radar needs some tuning.

Colla talks about al-Koni’s roots among the Tamasheq-speaking Twareg people, certainly a key part of his literary landscape. Although al-Koni writes in Arabic, studied in Russia, and lives in Switzerland, he is clearly still tied to the Twareg and the desert. Not only do the nomadic life and folklore permeate his novels, but, just last week, he turned over his $100,000 Arab Novel Prize to the Twareg of Mali and Niger.

But al-Koni, as Colla notes, also has links to “Sufi mysticism, Russian existentialism, American transcendentalism, old world mythology, German romanticism, and more.”

In an interesting interview with “Swiss World,” al-Koni said that, despite all his wanderings, the desert remains his starting point:

As is inevitable with one’s birthplace, the desert buries enigmatic signs in the souls of its natives that slumber deep within and one day must awake. The signs that my Great Desert planted within me have made a poet of me, and a seeker after the truth of this world.

The desert, for al-Koni’s work, is both metaphorical—he says it is never simply a geographical phenomenon—and very concrete:

I am talking specifically about the north-west edge of the desert we call the Hammadah al Hamra or ‘red plateau’. More generally, I mean the immense emptiness that stretches endlessly away to the horizon, where it meets that eternally clear sky which equals it in its nakedness. Together they make up one continuous body, the secret of whose intimate embrace I am in fact still searching for.

Al-Koni learned Arabic at age 12, and later went on to study literature in Russia. He tells “Swiss World” that this move was spurred by a love of Dostoevsky and other Russian novelists, and by the opportunity to read a greater breadth of international literature in Russian translation.

Ultimately, however, he was disappointed by the nation’s attitude toward the natural world. From Russia, he moved to Poland, and later to Switzerland. It is the Swiss attitude toward nature, al-Koni said, that has struck him as “a kind of poetry, or let us say into a form of Sufi love, mystical love.”

But how can he continue to write books about the desert while in sight of the Alps?

If it were my mission to speak about the desert qua desert, I would be unable to write even one single letter on the topic. I was driven out of my paradise as a young child, remember. And even if I were a prophet, I would not have managed to write sixty books about it from memory. … So in order to make this beloved of mine present I have had recourse to memory of another kind, what the Sufis, the Islamic mystics, like to call ‘inner memory’ and psychologists refer to as ‘the unconscious’. For which reason the desert that lives in my heart is precisely not the same desert as exists outside my heart.

More on Reading al-Koni in English

>>Bleeding of the Stone (2002), translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley

From a tiny review I wrote:

Yes, all fictional animals are anthropomorphic. But these fictional creatures, in blurring boundaries, speak to urgent issues that exist between humans and non-humans, and between humans and our fragmenting environments. There are few places where human and non-human animals come into contact on something that approaches equal footing. For the most part, we have pavement, we have plastic, we have the upper hand.

Slightly less-tiny review in The New Internationalist

>>Anubis: A Desert Novel (2005), translated by William Hutchins

Review in Banipal by Margaret Obank

>>The Seven Veils of Seth (2008), translated by William Hutchins

Note: I just saw from publisher Garnet, on Twitter: “Amazon Kindle ebook of the prize winner book, Seven Veils of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni is now available. http://amzn.to/dT4uXz”

Review in Blog Critics by Richard Marcus

>>Gold Dust (2008), translated by Elliott Colla.

Notes: This translation was a runner-up for the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation.

One of my favorite passages:

He stretched out over the camel’s back, gluing himself to the wet flesh. The red flesh was sticky to his touch, the blood not yet dry. Ukhayyad’s body, now also naked, fused with the viscous flesh of the Mahri. Flesh met flesh, blood mixed with blood. In the past they had been merely friends. Today, they had been joined by a much stronger tie. Those who become brothers by sharing blood are closer than those who share parentage. A mother might give birth to two boys without their ever becoming brothers. As long as their blood does not mingle, they can never share this deeper bond. Becoming someone’s brother is easier said than done.

Review in Banipal by Susannah Tarbush

>>The Puppet (2010), translated by William Hutchins

From my “top 10” books list:

The Puppet, first published in Arabic in 1998, is populated by a number of folklore-like characters. Among them are: Aghulli, the “sage and leader”; Ahallum, the “warrior hero,” and Chief Merchant, “the man with two veils.” Aghulli is compelled by oasis residents to take over leadership of the tribe. When he tries to enforce the old laws, there are disastrous effects.

Review in Al Masry Al Youm by Ali Abdel Mohsen

Forthcoming al-Koni in English (June 2011):

>>The Animists, by Ibrahim al-Koni, trans. Elliott Colla

AUC Press blurb: In a remote Saharan valley, a mysterious caravan approaches from the south. In its train, it brings gold and slaves but also marvelous, dangerous things—ancient pagan heresies and a scorching, unceasing southern wind. And more. For the first time in desert memory, a caravan has come to settle permanently, to build a city of walls and roofs in a land where men have always lived freely as nomads.

Renowned as Ibrahim al-Koni’s masterpiece, The Animists is an epic story of the many winds sweeping north and south across the Sahara—of the struggles between devils and humankind, worldly traders and Sufi ascetics, monotheists and animists, nomads and city dwellers, life and death. Al-Koni’s depiction of the Saharan crossroads is at its richest in this novel—nowhere else is his portrayal of humanity’s spiritual and existential battles so complex and compelling, nowhere else are his unique storytelling skills so evidently displayed.


  1. You’ve got me hooked. Do you know what the title of The Animists is in Arabic?

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