Literature | Libya

Messenger from the Sahara

Born into a Tuareg family, Ibrahim al-Koni has written about his birthplace for half a century. On why the desert won't let him go and why words can never do it justice

The experience by which the desert chose me, the significance of which I would only later realise, went as follows. At the age of five, while tending lambs and kids near our camp, I was suddenly engulfed by my surroundings. All at once, I found myself in infinity, surrounded by nothing but bare sky and a forbidding emptiness which stretched in all directions.

An eerie silence spread as evening fell. There was nothing to offer cheer that night except the comforting lure of the stars shining down on me in the freezing cold of the Jabal Nafusa mountains. Everything around me was the same, stretching endlessly into the dark horizon.

“All I remember from that night was a long conversation with the desert which had engulfed me”

Paralysed, I decided to spend the night on a carpet of razor-sharp stones, my head resting on my arms. My fear of the wolves and hyenas with which we still shared the Libyan mountains at that time meant I hardly slept a wink. All I remember from that night was a long conversation with the desert which had engulfed me, a conversation at the end of which my last hope was taken away and I accepted my fate.

But just at that moment, just as I wrote off my salvation, the desert took me in. All of a sudden, I no longer felt like I was inhabiting this place. It inhabited me, penetrating deep into my consciousness. It gave my soul refuge when I myself was unable to offer it any comfort.

And so, the next morning, the desert brought me back to life and gave me a nudge in the right direction. As if guided by a ghostly hand, I discovered a trail of camel hooves, which I instinctively followed and which, by the following evening, led me back to the oasis from which I had strayed.

“The Western view of the desert is a literal one and when I say literal, I mean it is superficial, naïve, even dismissive”

It was a long time before I realised the significance of that night and took seriously the covenant for which the desert had chosen me: to speak in its name. Yet once the time came, she found a dutiful messenger in me. What right did I have to refuse this mission? Just as I cannot turn away from the mother who gave me life, I cannot turn away from the place that gave me a second life.

No wonder, then, that I look differently at the desert today than do people in the West. The Western view of the desert is a literal one and when I say literal, I mean it is superficial, naïve, even dismissive. Sometimes the desert is declared to be nothing, a dumping ground for chemical waste or a nuclear test site, as was the case with the bomb tests carried out by the French on Algerian soil in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sometimes it is declared to be an uncivilised hell-hole where drug dealers and terrorists find refuge, or should it suit, it might just as easily be turned into the exact opposite: an exotic paradise for tourists and holidaymakers.

The idea is always to control and desecrate this last unspoiled spot in our world, an idea well-known to us in Libya, where foundations for the „largest man-made river project“ were laid back in the 1980s. To this day, the resulting monumental pipe and pipeline system is still extracting fossilised groundwater from the depths of the desert and pumping it into the large coastal cities at the expense of the rural population.

A boy swallowed up by the desert and shown a piece of eternity, a boy who miraculously returned to this transient world is unable to accept this exploitative and destructive logic.

“The desert does not welcome us so that we can settle in it, but so that we can wander through it, so that we can cross it”

In my literary work, the desert is therefore never a geographical reality, never a place that can be located on a map, but rather a place that is not of this world. For me, it is the primordial mother, the one who taught me spirituality and in which human and divine values lie dormant.

It is not for nothing that the great prophets such as Noah, Ibrahîm (Abraham), Jaakûb ( Jacob), Jûssuf ( Joseph), Mûssa (Moses), Jûnus ( Jonah), Îssa ( Jesus) and also the prophet Muhammad, the son of Abdullah, were always drawn to the desert. For all those who are not obsessed with the material treasures of this place, it is a true treasure trove full of spiritual riches.

Herodotus, the father of historiography, made this observation in the fourth book of his „Histories“, called „Melpomene“, when he praised the advantages of the Libyan desert regions over his homeland, ancient Greece.

According to Herodotus, it was in this region that Greek culture ultimately found the inspiration for many of its cultural achievements, from its gods (Athena, for example, came from Libyan tales) to music and other secular customs, to early technological advances, such as the chariot drawn by four horses.

“The desert will probably always elude my language to some extent”

The desert has always exuded a certain fascination for mankind and has had a mysterious and seductive effect on us - even though it is characterised above all by its simplicity. So much so, in fact, that the word „al-basāa“, which stands for „simplicity“ or „plainness“, has become one of its names in Arabic.

What is it about the desert which teaches us so much about life? For me, the answer is contained in the idea that the desert echoes life in one important way. It embodies a long wandering and at the same time is characterised by the absence of predetermined paths. The desert does not welcome us so that we can settle in it, but so that we can wander through it, so that we can cross it.

Accordingly, only those who accept the ideology of crossing the desert, that is, who walk through it without wanting to leave it behind, can be properly welcomed by the desert. If we do not surrender to the call of the desert, if we do not allow ourselves to be inhabited by it, its treasures will remain withheld from us. In this way, it teaches us an important lesson about life. For what else is our entire existence but a great journey from the cradle to the grave?

It is no coincidence that „the path“ in Chinese Taoism is a synonym for „the truth“ and that in the Upanishads, a collection of philosophical writings of Hinduism, it says: „Only through wandering did divinity become divinity.“

This idea is dealt with time and time again in the great literary epics of human history, from „Gilgamesh“ through the Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the „Iliad“, the „Odyssey“ and the „Aeneid“, „The Divine Comedy“, „Paradise Lost“ and „Don Quixote“ to „War and Peace“, „Moby Dick“ and „One Hundred Years of Solitude“.

Always, the mysterious human passion for wandering is described as the only antidote to the incurable disease called existence. In this respect, the desert, dry as it may be, is inhabited by an elementary knowledge - and the lesson it can teach us today is the same one it has taught us for thousands of years: acquire the knowledge of the way, holding on to the hem of nature, which has never abandoned anyone who has asked for its help.

But was it not Voltaire who found it monotonous to discuss everything to the end? Let us content ourselves for a second with the simple truth of the vision and dispense with a useless interpreter like the tongue.

In other words: the desert will probably always elude my language to some extent. It resists words, and what I have not written about it in 91 books will not flow out of me in a sentence today either.

Translated from the Arabic by Hartmut Fähndrich