Al-Koni’s ‘The New Waw’: The Desert as a Central Character

Ibrahim al-Koni was one of six authors on the Man Booker International’s 2015 finalists’ list, and his New Waw, trans. William Hutchins, is the only novel translated from the Arabic to make the shortlist for the 2015 National Translation Award. Rachael Daum reviews this novel that takes a reader deep into the desert:

By Rachael Daum

al-koni-new-wawThe reader opens the first pages of The New Waw by award-winning author Ibrahim al-Koni, and finds that first she needs to do a little research. Ibrahim al-Koni was educated in Moscow, lives in Switzerland, and writes in Arabic, but his mother tongue is Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg. If you don’t know anything about the Tuareg before picking up this book, like I didn’t, then a quick Google search will have you down a mire of fascinating sources about the matriarchal Saharan people, in which women bare their faces and men swathe theirs in blue veils.

Armed with a little knowledge, the reader is dropped suddenly into the desert of the nomadic Tuareg people, where she is left to wander with the tribe. The story seems simple enough: a new leader of the tribe is chosen against his will — he wishes to be a poet — and he struggles with this decision. Simple enough. However, the story of the novel twists unexpectedly with the nomads, and the reader must follow the trail of the narrative as she would this reluctant leader through the desert.

The narrative follows a number of beautiful themes: the migrating birds which seem to mirror the wandering people, to the point that one old, dying bird strikingly resembles the elderly leader; the deceptive nature of love, which sucks away not only the life of a young poetess, but the leader himself; and the matter of honoring a people’s past when they can have no permanent place to mark the dead. It is this, the problem of permanence in a life of transience, that drives the novel: and it is only in finding the new waw, the mythical oasis, that it can be resolved. After all, says the leader in a vision, “The destiny of the traveler is to submit to the route. The destiny of the nomad is to forget about distance. The sole antidote to distance is forgetfulness.”

The characters in the novel are another interesting challenge. One is tempted in fiction to discuss the relationships between characters, to analyze dialogue; in The New Waw, what is more interesting, perhaps, is to discuss the ebbing and flowing of characters. There are few names in the narrative, and only a few characters who appear throughout the novel to guide the reader through. It is easier to regard the landscape as the only consistent character. The landscape — the desert, sky, and earth — are the only truly steady fixtures in the novel, and the reader finds herself wholly — and appropriately — at their mercy.

The desert “welcomes” its visitors, only to “[flaunt] a promise, of an oasis and a reunion, that would never be fulfilled.” There is cruelty and beauty in this landscape: it speaks to the leader, though the reader will never hear its words — perhaps also appropriately.

In turning to the language of the translation, the reader approaches this book realizing that, perhaps even more so than from other languages, translation from Arabic into English must needs be especially difficult because of the impossibility of equivalents. Hutchins does a brilliant job of casting images into English: the descriptions of the desert are quite simply astonishing. There are times where there are sudden descents into crude English — for example, the words “crony,” “old codger,” and “old coot” occur suddenly and, in the context of the formalized English, rather jarringly.

However, the flitting between tonality and timbre creates an effect like the rippling of the mirage in a desert. The language, as the desert in the novel, and the birds and people, shift swiftly and elegantly between sand, air, water, and dirt. The language, like the mirage, leads a willing reader to the Waw, the oasis — but the reader must do the walking. Al-Koni has a rare gift of leading the reader without giving the whole thing to her, if you will — the reader must find it for herself.

unnamedRachael Daum is a graduate student at Indiana University inflicting Russian literature and language on herself, and vice versa. She is also the Publicity Manager for the American Literary Translators Association, and you can find her @Oopsadaisical.