Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

Desert Ethics, Myths of Nature and Novel Form in the Narratives of Ibrahim Al-Koni

Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

Desert Ethics, Myths of Nature and Novel Form in the Narratives of Ibrahim Al-Koni

Article excerpt

Ibrahim al-Koni needs no introduction in the world of Arabic letters, even though he himself is not an Arab. A Tamasheq speaking Tuareg, born in 1948 in the southern Libyan deserts, he learnt Arabic at the age of twelve and, after a brief career as a journalist in Libya, established himself as an Arabic fiction writer while still a student in Moscow in 1974. In a literary career which has spanned almost four decades, AlKoni has published more novels and anthologies of stories than one could conveniently list and has garnered virtually all the major Arabic literature awards, as well as a state art award in Libya, the country of his birth, and a number of awards in his adopted homeland of Switzerland where he has lived since 1993. Translation into English of key works in the past few years and, more significantly, Al-Koni's shortlisting on the highly prestigious 2015 Man Booker International Prize suggests a presence in world literature in English which soon will rival his reputation in Arabic letters. (1) Al-Koni's literary imagination has been sparked both by the cultures of his origins and the cultures of his artistic, intellectual, spiritual and actual travels. His writing is informed by Tuareg culture with its roots in ancient Egyptian religion, by the early Christianity of North Africa, by Arab-Islamic oral and literary tradition and spirituality, the Romanticism of Europe and its offshoots in American Transcendentalism, and Russian literature. While his work has been translated into more than 30 world languages, the first English translations of two of his novels Anubis (2002) and Nazif al-Hajar (1990) were published only in 2002 as Anubis: A Desert Novel and The Bleeding of the Stone. Since 2002, four other novels have appeared in English translation, namely, al-Tibr (1990, translated as Gold Dust, 2008) and al Bahth An al-Makan al-Da'i' (2003, translated as The Seven Veils of Seth, 2008), al-Dumya (1998, translated as The Puppet, 2010), and New Waw: Saharan Oasis in 2014. The study presented here is based only on the novels in English translation and Al-Koni scholarship available in English.

As Al-Koni's work becomes more accessible to a broader English-language readership, the salience of his ideas to continental African and global conversations is becoming apparent. While Al-Koni's network of influences in the world of Arabic letters is often alluded to, the comparison with African novelists writing in other world languages like English and French have not been made. Like most Arabic novelists of his generation, Al-Koni has been influenced by Naguib Mahfouz, the doyen of the novel in Arabic. In the context of the concerns of this essay, which highlight the densely allusive style of Al-Koni's novels, the strongly allegorical and mythical approach of Mahfouz in The Children of Gebelawi comes to mind which more than likely was an influence on Al-Koni. But to return to translinguistic comparisons, like most of the other African writers born roughly in the 1930s and 1940s, Al-Koni writes in what is his second language but, given the historical legacy of Libya, his second international language is Arabic, rather than English or French. Like Chinua Achebe, the doyen of the African novel, Al-Koni is concerned with the effects of early 20th century colonialism on his culture and the lifeways of his tribe. Like Tayyib Salih (who, unlike the other writers highlighted here, writes in his first language) Al-Koni is concerned with the deeper philosophical impact of modernity on non-modern social forms. Although the motivation and effect of the use of mythology is different, Al-Koni's novels and stories, like those of Wole Soyinka, are saturated with allusions to myth, in this case, however, the mythology of the Tuareg, with its roots in the ancient civilisations of Egypt, and the mythological world of Islam. Like the Somali writer, Nuruddin Farah, Al-Koni's cultural formation is nomadic pastoral, in a continental African context, and itinerant in a contemporary transnational context. …

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