Ibrahim Al-Koni (sometimes translated as Ibrāhīm Kūnī) (Arabic: ابراهيم الكوني) is a Libyan writer and one of the most prolific Arabic novelists.
Born in 1948 in the Fezzan Region, Ibrahim al-Koni was brought up on the tradition of the Tuareg, popularly known as “the veiled men” or “the blue men.” Mythological elements, spiritual quest and existential questions mingle in the writings of al-Koni who has been hailed as magical realist, Sufi fabulist and poetic novelist.
He spent his childhood in the desert and learned to read and write Arabic when he was twelve. Al-Koni studied comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow and then worked as a journalist in Moscow and Warsaw.
By 2007, al-Koni had published more than 80 books and received numerous awards. All written in Arabic, his books have been translated into 35 languages. His novel Gold Dust appeared in English in 2008. In 2015, Al-Koni was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, which as of 2016 is his most prestigious international accolade.
Al-Koni’s texts have a particular positioning and a specific identity. The text is the product of the author’s own evolution. Al-Koni, to use his own language, ‘is not a plant’ whose botanical properties may be discerned by his topographical location and contextual features. His nomadic wanderings attest to this. Yet we need to pin down aspects of his persona or identity, even if this requires some speculation and generalisation. Said states, ‘For identity, while obviously a repository of distinct collective experiences, is finally a construction – involves establishing opposites and ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from ‘us’. Far from a static thing then, identity of self or of ‘other’ is a much worked over historical, social, intellectual, and political process that takes place as a contest involving individuals and institutions in all societies. In short, the construction of identity is bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.’ Tuareg
Al-Koni is possibly a ‘post-colonial’ subject who has a plurality of insularities imposed on his persona or identity. He is Tuareg thus a member of a nomadic linguistic, ethnic, and racial rapidly diminishing minority group. The Tuareg lack socio-political organisation and representation. They are particularly vulnerable to being marginalised and rendered an insignificant peripheral group. Understanding the Tuareg identity will contribute to establishing al-Koni’s profile. Though not exclusively a Tuareg phenomenon, the Tuareg endorse an ideology that includes ‘statelessness’ as an important feature of their identity. They do not have a fixed location but one that spans the entire Sahara desert from Libya up to Morocco, and beyond all through Africa, enjoying an absolute freedom of movement and autonomy. Though scatterings of sedentary communities are acknowledged, the Tuareg ‘have always associated fixed abode with serfdom.’
The desert is a symbol of freedom that reassures the Tuareg of their mastery over an environment that they strive to dominate and monopolise. It is a desert that in its simplicity creates conditions that bar material complications from creating spirals of dependency. It is a desert of no enclosures and apparently boundless freedom, with virtually no material ‘alienation’. We also need to acknowledge the fact that their assumed or tacit ‘ownership’ over the desert they inhabit, a desert not enclosed by recent ‘nation-state’ constructs, becomes a feature of their identity. They perceive themselves to be the sole rulers of the desert.
‘To the Arab are generally accredited the control of township of the Great Sahara, but in reality there, far away from the coasts, a people as mysterious as the trackless sands – the masked Tuareg – are the real rulers and buccaneers of the Desert.’
The Tuareg need to be distinguished from what we refer to as ‘Arab’. This distinction is important to understand the difference between an author’s choice of medium and the substance of the communication delivered by the medium. The Tuareg represent a nomadic desert community that were Islamicised but not Arabised. Even their Islamic faith may have been initially resisted. They retained their Berber culture and their own distinct ethos and self-image. The Tuareg, it is maintained, are ‘obsessed with a conviction of their superiority to other men’ inferring a deeply rooted ethnocentricity that is constantly gauging the identity of ‘other’ as inferior, while celebrating their own specifics and ethos as superior. The Tuareg ‘regard all foreigners as ‘pagan’ and ‘savages’; they are not in the least impressed by European culture’. They do not consider themselves to be Arabs or Africans, and have certain characteristics of fervent pride verging on intransigence that are as distinct as their language. Yet to survive they have had to succumb to realistic communication mediums. Al-Koni’s use of Arabic, learnt when he was already twelve, at once both confirms this and contests it.
‘Language is an index of the rise or fall of an ethnic group. Temajegh, the language of the Tuareg, is an example. It survives everyday usage; the written language, called T’infinagh (or Targui), is all but forgotten.’
The language of the Tuareg, the Tamashegh, is evidence of the Tuareg insularity and their fragility. For communication purposes the Tuareg necessarily depend on their ability to master a second language. This ‘need’ is a tangible form of dependency that reflects their diminishing status as a people, and their distinct linguistic and cultural identity.
‘The peoples who speak the Tamashegh tongue, known to the Western world as the Tuaregs, inhabit the Sahara and Sahel between Timbuctuu and Bilma, in Salih in Algeria and Kano in Nigeria. They are normally Muslim and share many customs and ways of life with other othet Sahelian peoples who are their neighbours, the Moors, the Fulani, and the Teder. Yet they are among the most distinct people in the Muslim world.’
The Tuareg have a highly stratified class structure. Substantial internal differences between Tuareg tribes do exist, but for the purpose of this essay they are not relevant. Indeed, a sense of camaraderie and cohesion unites the Tuareg against anyone perceived to harbour hostile intentions. Kinship is the epicentre of values, self-image, and world-view. Their normative order is intrinsically related to the predicate of kinship relations.
Anthropological studies conducted by Westerners affirm that they formed the impression that Tuaregs were allegedly suspicious of foreigners and ferociously violent towards perceived threats. Many portrayals verge on romanticism and notoriety, much of which we can safely dismiss to being non other than what Foucault and Said might agree to term as the Eurocentric or Orientalist “gaze”, apparently mitigated by evolution to the “tourist gaze”.
Past history handed down by oral transmission would include a series of accounts and myths. Tin Hinan, considered the maternal ancestor of all the noble tribes, and the first mother and first queen, is closely associated with Tuareg history. The Tuareg are ‘possibly direct descendants of Gara Mantians who ruled the central desert in Greco Roman times. Some research suggests they are etymologically related to an abandoned tribe –tawaruk has its radicals ascribed to mean ‘abandoned’. However, ‘it is likely that a tribe, confederation, perhaps a people who dwelt in the Fezzan called either the Targa or the Uraghen, is the most plausible origin of the Tuareg.’ Myths about battles, miracles, magic, identity, desert secrets, and reality beyond the desert would have possibly been orally transmitted to al-Koni and form part of his memory bank. This could be termed his ethnic culture. Bauman states that,
‘The differential concepts of culture, like all other concepts, are intellectual frames imposed on the accumulated body of recorded human experience. They are aspects of human social practise.’
Conflict with competing tribes is also to be factored in. Much of the Tuaregs’ functional imperative revolves around their mastery of the desert. As service-providers of safety of passage within the region, their relevance depended exclusively on monopolising the available resources. Naturally, they were inclined to view all incursions to what they perceived to be ‘their’ territorial sovereignty as threats. Their control of the slave and salt trade was second to none. The salt trade caravans known as Azalai, transport salt from Taodenni to Tibuctuu, and were possibly the last feature of Tuareg suzerainty. Accounts about tribal rivalry at the turn of the 20th century with the Kounta, that date back centuries, are a recent example of the perception of extinction or extermination that the Tuareg realistically faced. The Kounta take their tribal name after the founding zawia or religious school to which they adhere. They were attempting to takeover the salt trade. Slave trading had diminished considerably, and improved transport and communication had adversely affected regional trade, leaving the Tuareg desperate for resources. The Kounta competition was an issue that cannot be underestimated. The French in 1942 diminished the last remaining Tuareg self-esteem by the imposition of what appeared to be a quota system. This illustrates the anxiety the Tuareg were exposed to, a fact that al-Koni would have possibly been alerted to and potentially made to personally appraise as a feature of his identity.
Tuareg mythology is rich. Much of this mythology accentuates their assumed genealogy and heroic acts in the light of foreign incursions and conflict. It ascribes a specific class stratification and social order. It also reveals influences they became exposed to and their hopes and aspirations, as well as their disappointments, recorded as history. For example, diverse versions of the Cain and Abel story exist in Tuareg mythology that could either reflect their value of kinship or some similar story they can relate to. They believe that an inscription found in a remote desert area of the famous Quranic text from the sūra ‘al-baqr’a’ (the cow) is regarded as a talisman, and ‘every letter in the heart of the inscription indicates a number of words which have mystical meaning and power’ which is why groups would spend time in meditation there. Their survival within the desert environment is in fact both dependent on, and conducive to, the interpretation of signs. Their belief in magic and miracles, including the ability of humans to transform themselves and become immortal, typifies their reality and context to the extent that the Arab general Okba ibn Naïf exploited this predisposition to convince them to accept Islam. The importance of these myths and their transmission is that they inseminate a particular self-image and world view, which forms a specific type of reading of, or relating to, reality. Mythology shapes a specific type of organising data and interpreting them. The Tuaregs’ survival often depends on their ability to read or interpret the most subtle of signs within their environment. This would reflect their inclination to create complex sign-systems and different types of reading implements.
Their view of ‘women’ is quite diverse from that of the Arabs and also stems from their mythology. Al-Koni would have similarly been unconsciously exposed to having his own plausibility structures patterned upon these foundations, a fact he may have consciously become aware of and accepted simply as a form of socialisation that is subject to revision and refutation. This also logically implies a revision of ‘paternity’ relations, including lineage affiliations based on patrilenial systems. The Arab Dimension
Al-Koni’s immediate political context includes issues that were taking place around him in the Arab world during his formative years. He learnt Arabic at the age of twelve and travelled within Libya thereafter. He would have been exposed to the enormous infrastructural upheaval Libya was experiencing financed by oil prospectors that enhanced transport and communication. He would have been informed about regional affairs, and the fact that Libya, formerly thought of as three distinct regions, (Cyreniaca, Fezzan, and Tripolitania), between 1947 and 1951 was emerging as a unified nation state and monarchy. The strong foreign military presence within Libya, particularly the Anglo-American presence, would have been noted. Libya’s 1951 independence, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Moral Crisis, and Gadaffi’s 1969 revolution possibly all formed impressions on al-Koni.
Naturally, Arab and African independence featured prominently. Both Libya and Egypt were states that were part of al-Koni’s immediate reality. Issues related to the Algerian struggle for independence from French rule was of great importance to the region. Also politics related to the Polisaro in West Sahara and by implication the denials of autonomy to Tuareg. Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952. His revolutionary rhetoric was widely diffused throughout the Arab world. The region al-Koni lived in was not isolated from this field of discourse. Nasser’s pan-Arabism had conflicting implications for the Tuareg identity and their ethos of conservatism and tradition. His 1967 moral crisis after the seven-day war depreciated those aspirations.
The Algerian struggle for independence that involved the deployment of close to 400,000 French troops and left close to one million dead was possibly one of the major regional issues of that particular epoch. French colonialism had already made hostile overtures towards the Tuareg. It was believed that Nasser organised arms smuggling to the Algerian resistance from Libya through territory traditionally controlled by Tuareg. Some of the Tuareg may have been adversely affected by French reprisals. De Gaulle’s granting independence to Algeria in 1962 brought that last official French presence in North Africa to an end.
In the early 1970s internal conflict in Spain and Morocco over minority rights of desert populations were widely contested in international fora involving the intervention of various powers. Resolutions were debated at the United Nations, Organisation of African Unity, the Arab League, and even the International Court at The Hague. The Madrid Pact (14/11/75) prompted Spain’s withdrawal from the Sahara, leaving minority rights at the mercy of external interests and protracted procedural impasses. While this was going on, Tuareg rights were completely ignored and hope of autonomy and freedom of movement were extinguished. We may safely assume the Tuaregs like al-Koni were conscious of these realities.
Perhaps purely by circumstantial fate al-Koni is also designated as a Libyan citizen, with all the legalistic connotations this evokes. A wide range of potential Libyan influences would have contributed to al-Koni’s identity. Al-Koni was born in 1948 in ġadāmis close to the hamdā al-hamra desert in the Libyan Fezzān region. He is exposed to sedentary life albeit in a desert environment heavily dependent on nomadic circulation and exchange within the range of predominantly French influence.
Al-Koni was also exposed to the ideology of self-imposed exile that is personified by the Senussiya order that later ruled Libya up to 1969, and that was close to his own desert Tuareg world. This ideology considers reclusion or segregation to be an important mode of resistance, perhaps combining the Islamic doctrine of Hījrā (emigration to avoid negative influences as epitomised by the Prophet Muhammad’s emigration from Mecca to Medina) and ğihād (colloquial English jihad - an arousal of consciousness and affirmative action, often reductively associated with holy war). Al-Koni appears to be influenced by this order and their doctrine of self-imposed exile, although the Tuareg also construed similar segregation as a means of preservation or conservation of identity.
We may also add a version of ‘folk-Islam’ that framed his value-belief system. The Islam al-Koni would have been exposed to would have undoubtedly been a syncretisation of various African and Arab beliefs, framed in a language of Islam and Sufism. Much emphasis would have been laid on mystical experience and spirituality not bound by strict dogma or orthodoxy. Such beliefs would have been a synthesis of animist and magical beliefs through influences that came from sub-Saharan or Equatorial Africa. However, it is widely believed that the people from the Fezzan region in Libya also adhere to a puritanical version of Islam that is closely associated with the Rightly Guided caliphates.
Just after World War 2, Libya was an area that was considered one of the world’s poorest. Libya had the highest infant mortality rate, the lowest life expectancy, the highest illiteracy rate, no infrastructure, a miserable gross domestic product of circa $1 million, and a below subsistence per capita income of less than $100. The desert regions had impossible climatic conditions, and constant environmental hazards and political turmoil. Death was the order of the day, the rule that proved the exception of life.
‘It is estimated that at least half a million Libyans died in battle or from disease, starvation or thirst. In addition 250,000 more Libyans were forced into exile. The population of Libya which was 1.5 million in 1911, remained at that same figure in 1950’.
In strictly political terms, Africa, Libya and the Arab world was a site of perpetual contestation and struggle against Western hegemony and imperialism. Independence from colonialism, nationalism, and Pan-Arabism were themes that appeared paramount within his region. Naturally, a Tuareg would accentuate further isolation of identity in this milieu of aspired unity. Moving to Tripoli could have been quite an exciting or even traumatic experience for al-Koni. Tripoli was Libya’s principal metropolis alive with evident Italian influences, and certainly till 1969, a multi-cultural coastal city, with an Anglo-American military presence felt throughout. Tripoli also hosted access to a wide range of domestic and foreign news about various movements that sought to articulate reality through left-leaning political ideologies. Al-Koni worked for the Libyan newspapers ‘Fazzan’ and ‘al-¬thawra’ spurred by revolutionary ideology.
This was the epoch of the French intellectuals and the revolutionary movement in Europe that saw much of Europe joining the Socialist International. This was the epoch of the Cold war, Mao, Che Guevara, Ben Balla, the missile crisis, Palestinian resistance, and Vietnam. Al-Koni would undoubtedly been forming his political consciousness and political literacy. The utopian revolutionary aspirations that chequered Libya’s recent history after the advent of the 1969 al-Fatah revolution that brought Gadaffi to power would have undoubtedly contributed to al-Koni’s reading of reality. Al-Koni was 21 when Gadaffi came to power. Oil revenue had just started to pour in. Libya was transforming itself. Previously unimaginable opportunities presented themselves, particularly employment, travel, and education, that al-Koni was to enjoy as a Libyan citizen. In 1974, while still a 26-year-old student he published his first work. Over the years he contributed to a number of Libyan periodicals. These publications are proto-typically models of the dominant ideological discourse represented in the post-colonial third world that combine a version of socialism with nationalism. This cold war discourse characterised the Libyan government’s domestic and foreign policy for the foreseeable future, certainly up to the late 1970s.
Among al-Koni’s official Libyan posts, we find he served with the Minister of Social Affairs in Sabhā in the Fezān region, then The Minister of Information and Culture, and correspondent for the ğamāharīā news agency (J.A.N.A., later J.N.A.) in 1975. He also served in Libyan embassies in Russia and Poland, and their respective cultural affiliations. After 1969, Libya was a member of the Socialist International, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity, and the United Nations. Libya, like much of the Arab world, fell into the orbit of the U.S.S.R and established a number of joint ventures with the former Soviet Union.
Al-Koni travelled to Moscow where he learnt Russian, worked as a journalist, studied philosophy and comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Institute with a Masters of Arts essay on Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1977, and later served at the Libyan mission in the Libyan Cultural Centre. In Russia al-Koni would have been exposed to a wide spectrum of Russian literature that would have included as a minimum other authors apart from Dostoevsky like Tolstoy, Gorky, Sholokhov, Bakhtin, and Solzhenitsyn, together with the poetry of Pushkin and the drama of Chekhov. The officially encouraged readings would have ‘socialist realism’ as a principal theme. Soviet philosophy was obligatory for students so a number of Marxist perspectives would have informed al-Koni’s curriculum. Al-Koni’s Russia was the ‘Soviet’ Russia of contradictions, with a diminishing self-esteem that it tried desperately to resuscitate. It was a conspicuously Spartan economy that appeared to be a model of deprivation in a world of increased material affluence and accelerated technology-driven progress. Theoretically Soviet ideology encouraged a ‘negation’ of material affluence that was however, translated as a ‘depravation’. To many Soviet society represented absolute repression of expression, tangibly made evident by the embarrassing defections of some of its elite deemed fortunate and ironically safe enough to travel to the West. Spectres of its Stalinist past haunted its present and silenced its future.
During this period, Libya’s isolation grew. After the 1979 Khomeini revolution in Iran and the ensuing Iraq Iran war, Islam became a revived central theme in the Arab world. Islamic discourse shaped much of the political agenda in the Muslim world. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan presented an opportunity for Arab regimes to export their most recalcitrant subjects to the call of the duty – holy war, while also buttressing an expedient anti-soviet discourse that simplistically equated ‘atheism’ with ‘socialism’.
The Camp David accords and a visit to Israel by an Arab Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, was a devastating blow to Arab unity. The assassination of Gadaffi’s most-hated enemy Sadat in 1981 only isolated Libya further. The 1985 American bombing of Libya confirmed an aura of pessimism and anxiety that brought Libya to face the stark reality of inescapable Western power and hegemony.
Al-Koni was not impressed by the changes that occurred after the collapse of the former Soviet system attributed to the restructuring or ‘perestroika’ efforts of Gorbachev, or what was then ambitiously perceived to be ‘the end of history’. While undoubtedly a historical event in itself, contradictory reflections seem to defy the original euphoria. In an interview he gave in Switzerland, he explains why he left.
‘The new regime was sorely burdened by that age-old diabolical sorceress, the spirit of dealmaking. And thus, even as the Russians believed they were free, they found themselves back in chains, strangers in a strange land; and someone like me, filled with romantic sentiment, had no other choice but to leave the place. I had lost all hope for the return of the Russian soul to the state I had come to know in the works of Dostoevsky and other sages from Russia’s tremendous past. Nor did I believe any longer that this lost soul would be able to find its way back to the mythical spirit of Russian nature. So I left.’
Al-Koni moved to Warsaw Poland. He worked with the then Libyan News Agency (later JANA) and the Libyan Cultural Centre. He was a member of the Libyan Polish Friendship Society, and editor and contributor of its journal ‘Polonia Friendship’. He also ‘edited a Polish-language periodical ‘ѕadāqa’ which translated short stories from Arabic, including some of his own’. He lived in Poland till 1994.
The 1988 fall of the Berlin wall and the virtual crumbling of the Eastern Block and Warsaw Pact featured prominently as an inescapable epochal theme. This was the Poland of the ‘solidarity’ movement founded in 1980, and mirages of liberal democracy that mobilised the Polish masses, with the figure of Lech Walessa elected president in 1989, and the Polish-born Pope John Paul firmly rooted in consciousness. The promises of welfare spurred by ‘Reagonomics’ characterised by the influence of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan proved far removed from reality. Switzerland
In 1994 al-Koni moved to Switzerland, where he still resides in 2009. He lives in Goldiwill near Thun. In Switzerland Al-Koni established a professional relationship with the Arabist academic Dr. Hartmut Faehndrich who has become the principal translator of al-Koni’s work.
It is during this period that his works were successfully disseminated in the international market. Al-Koni received a number of literary awards that acknowledge this success.
1995 Award of Swiss State 1995 Literary Prize Award of the Canton of Bern 1996 Libya State Award for Art and Literature 2002 French Arab Friendship Committee Prize 2005 Mohamed Zafzaf Award for Arabic Novel 2005 Asila Morocco 2005 Arab Novelist Literary Prize of Town of Bern 2006 French Order of Literature and Arts 2008 Shaik Zayad Book Award for Literature 2009 Long List International Prize for Arabic Fiction - Arab Booker Prize
This cursory biographical sketch does not do justice to the persona of al-Koni or his identity. This essay has attempted to garnish enough evidence to build an identity kit of what appear to be inescapable influences al-Koni was exposed to. Drawing the boundaries of his self-image, world view, or psychological profile is a tentative exercise that is admittedly supplemented by various generalisations and speculative postulates. This exercise does however fill in a number of missing links. Literature on al-Koni is scarce.