Although now one of the most acclaimed writers in the Arabic world, Ibrahim al-Koni spent his earliest years completely immersed in the language and stories of Tuareg oral culture—a historically nomadic Berber tribe in northwest Libya. In fact, he was 12 before he learned to read and write in Arabic. After studying comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, although al-Koni worked as a journalist based in Moscow then Warsaw, his own writing remained locked on the undulating sands of his native land, a passion that has produced more than 80 books, including his most recent novel, The Night Will Have Its Say. With this third novel placed during the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the seventh century CE, written from the perspective of the conquered, he once again returns to the desert that has remained his spiritual home despite having moved to Europe in the 1990s.
How did growing up in the desert and in the Tuareg tradition shape the way you look at the world?
As the birthplace of creation, the desert is the source of the existential questions I pose in all my writings. The reason the desert, the place I come from, is alien to us can be traced to modern people’s tendency to see it as an empty void. However, the spiritual wealth of the desert is immeasurably greater than its material wealth. Indeed, it is the sanctuary from which waters of the timeless deluge receded at the dawn of creation, causing the depths to witness the birth of dry land, inaugurating the era of our existence on this planet.
Did learning to read in Tifinagh, the script used to write Tuareg Berber, first have an impact on how you approached stories?
Although I did not learn to read and write Arabic until later, I learned to read and write in Tifinagh quite young. The Tifinagh alphabet, the world’s most ancient and majestic language, captivated me from a young age. When my mother began teaching me its legendary symbols, I would go practice with the desert, mastering the art of tracing the symbols out on the pages of sand, exploring their mysterious shapes and musical logic, and interrogating the intuition that whispered their ancient secrets.
So far you’ve published more than 80 books. What keeps you writing at such a fast pace?
As someone possessed by a cosmic concern, I have to revolt against traditional habits, addict myself to isolation, and treat time with the understanding that disregard for the moment is disregard for the minute; disregard for the minute means disregard for the hour; disregard for the hour means disregard for the day; disregard for the day means disregard for the months; disregard for the months is disregard for the years, and disregard for the years is disregard for my entire lifetime! When we operate according to this rule, work becomes a way of repaying a debt for something that came as a gift, and it’s our duty to treat it with the veneration it deserves, because this is all we have. Work is a holy of holies, and we mustn’t allow anyone to take it away from us.
Your books have been translated into more than 35 languages. What do you look for in a translator? How do you ensure nothing gets lost in translation?
Translations receive no recognition from me unless the translator has outdone himself or herself, which can only happen if he or she has a touch of madness. Most translators are only mutarjims, those who translate as a profession, and not tarjuman, those who regard translation as a mission. They engage in the translation process without fully grasping the culture of the language from which they are translating, and the result is catastrophic, something I’ve personally experienced. Good translations require a tarjuman.
What inspired you to become a writer?
It came from the desert, my true home. The day I turned 5 years old, a calamity occurred. I was supposed to prove myself a useful member of the family by taking on the responsibility of herding the most unruly creature in the desert, a young goat that even the most-resourceful shepherds hadn’t managed to tame. How did they expect a 5-year-old boy to fare any better?
But the test had been scheduled, and I had no choice but to face the challenge, to prove my heroism. Not only did I fail, but I also didn’t even manage to pick the little goat out of the herd. It fell victim to wolves, and I knew I was finished along with it.
For a long time that night, I was idle, with no hope of deliverance. The desert turned into a boundless, dimensionless abyss, devoid of features other than horizons that came together in the abyss of the sky. I had to spend a bitter cold winter night in the open: hungry, thirsty, and naked, waiting to be devoured by wolves or bitten by snakes.
In that fabulous, metaphysical, nocturnal stillness that couldn’t be addressed even in a thousand tongues anywhere but in the desert, I was addressed by the Seer, al-Kahina, who had become a mother to me, and issued me a command much like the one given by the god Poseidon to the fugitive Odysseus.
She told me she had chosen me from all people to teach me life, because, in order to realize that the desert is life, we must first witness death. Al-Kahina entrusted her truth to me that night so that I could share her wisdom with this generation and generations to come. To demonstrate her good intentions, she led me the following morning to some tracks of camels’ hooves. Those hoof tracks proved to be my lifeline, because they led me to an oasis by nightfall.
Given the delicate mentality of a five-year-old boy, such a knife thrust may readily create a prophet. Although I failed as shepherd of a herd, as guardian of a treasure, I succeeded as guardian of a value, of a truth.