If there is a single author who should be associated with contemplation of the relationship between humanity and the desert, and the desert and creative writing — post-Ibn Khaldun — it is Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni. He recently spoke with the Louisiana Channel in an interview titled “In the desert we visit death”:
The interview is a fascinating twenty minutes for anyone interested in exploring the desert landscape critically or creatively.
The acclaimed author, whose name has been put forward for the Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in 1948 and raised in Libya’s Fezzan region among nomadic, Tamasheq-speaking Tuareg. It wasn’t until he was twelve that he began to formally study Arabic. He went on to study literature in Russia, after which he moved to Poland, and then finally to Switzerland in 1994.
Although he seems to be settled now, his work remains obsessed with nomadism and the desert landscape, and the relationship between settled and nomadic peoples. From Bleeding of the Stone to Gold Dust to Animists to many of his short stories, his works also explore the human-animal relationship in a fresh, unique way.
Although it’s been many decades since al-Koni has lived in the desert, he continues to make it his narrative home.
“Actually,” al-Koni says in the Louisiana Channel interview, “the desert is not just a desert. It is a symbol of human existence.”
In the interview, Al-Koni returns to his time at the Gorki Institute in Moscow in the early seventies, where he says the prevailing view — courtesy of Georg Lukács — was that the novel was an urban phenomenon.
“He [Lukács] does have a point,” al-Koni says, “because a novel is about relationships. So how can a writer create a novel or an epic in a world outside relationships? This was a great challenge for me.”
I asked myself: Is it true that the novel is an urban art form? I reached a conclusion which completely contracts that theory. The home of the novel is the human being, and not the city. The homeland of the novel is the enigma called ‘humans.’ Wherever there are human beings, there is a novel or even an epic.
Indeed, as al-Koni says, he went on to turn the theory “completely upside-down and write a series of novels about the abstract phenomenon called the desert.”
Another key marker of the desert novel, al-Koni says, is time. Time out in the desert is a mythical, metaphysical time. “Because in a place where there are no relationships — of the kind of conflict that takes place in a town — and where the preconditions of place do not occur, it is natural that time would also disappear.”
So time in the desert is not time in the traditional sense. In the desert, time stands still — it’s eternal. It has no features, no promise. The past, present, and future all take place at the same moment.
Al-Koni calls the desert an untouched treasure, saying that although the prevailing worldview holds that the desert is a void, this is not true. “In reality, the desert has everything.”
Indeed, it remains relatively little-explored by novelists.
To face it, to discover it, constitutes a harsh challenge for those who aspire to penetrate that world. Why? Because it means freedom. Freedom in the sense that Kant talked about. Freedom contradicting nature. We are used to thinking that we humans have a strong presence in nature. But in the desert — no. In the desert, you are excluded from nature. You are in the presence of freedom. What is freedom? It’s death. In the desert, we are close to death. In the desert, we stare death in the eye, and this is a miracle. The desert is the only place where we can visit death and return home safely.
The desert is a whole knowledge that hasn’t yet been discovered, and what I’ve been trying to do is to examine this lost dimension. I always say that the desert is a lost dimension. A lost paradise.
Watch the full interview:
“The Teacher,” trans. Elliott Colla
From The Puppet, trans. William Hutchins
From Gold Dust, trans. Elliott Colla
From The Scarecrow, trans. William Hutchins
On translating Ibrahim al-Koni:
“Al-Koni’s Homes,” by Elliott Colla