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Ibrahim Al-Koni: 'Homeland does not take on the meaning of 'homeland' until we have been exiled from it'

Libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni [Mariam Al-Salik]

It is the seventh century CE and the Ummayad forces are advancing across North Africa. Their rapid expansion is fuelled by treasures and riches, their dynasty defined by opulence and debauchery.

Amidst the fighting, the Berber warrior queen, Al-Kahina, is resisting. It is from her perspective that Libyan writer, Ibrahim Al-Koni, presents his new novel, 'The Night Will Have Its Say', in this retelling of the Arab conquests, translated by Nancy Roberts.

Libyan writer, Ibrahim Al-Koni, was born in the north-west of the Sahara Desert, in Libya in 1948, and only learnt to read and write Arabic at the age of 12.

He has written over 80 novels, short stories and poems, all inspired by the desert and, in 2015, Al-Koni was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. In this Q&A with Amelia Smith, Ibrahim Al-Koni explains what Al-Kahina symbolises to him, his connection to the desert and trusting a translator with his writing.

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The Night Will Have Its Say by Libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni

Where did you find inspiration for The Night Will Have its Say?

The source of our inspiration is our stance on human values, because it is from such values that we derive the great questions of existence. Seen from this perspective, Al-Kahina was a hero not by the power of worldly authority, but by the power of sacrifice for the sake of the values she had embraced as her religion.

Since courage is a virtue we are accustomed to associate with manhood, then Al-Kahina was a hero twice, because she was not a man, but did what even men have been unable to do: that is, defend that which has been 'the holy of holies' in all cultures: the homeland. More than this, she did not 'lose her head' as it were when fighting her opponent, knowing, as she did, that going to extremes in self-defence is itself a kind of aggression.

She chose to fight the aggressor without losing the 'antennae' of truth, which consists of love. She fought the enemy with love; otherwise, she would not have adopted a descendant of strangers as her own son after having nursed him with her own milk via that miraculous rite. She did not retreat from upholding the principle of brotherhood even when this son betrayed her, choosing to spy on her on behalf of the enemy. This paradox alone can serve as the basis for tragedy, which is what inspires people down the generations.

How did your upbringing in the Tuareg tradition influence this novel?

The descendant of the desert who has lived with its reality will be concerned with mythological models such as Al-Kahina for several reasons. The first and most important reason is that the desert is the birthplace of mythology, which is a worthy means of singing the praises of legendary figures such as Al-Kahina. Second, only someone who grew up among the Amazigh of the desert can claim the right to do justice to heroes like Al-Kahina. And, third, Al-Kahina belonged to the Butrs, who are described by historical sources as "nomadic Berbers," who taught me what it means to fight for the truth.

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Why did you choose to tell the story from the perspective of the Berber warrior queen Al-Kahina?

Because heroic works of drama are always narrated from the point of view of the victim. Otherwise, they would not deserve to be described as either 'heroic' or 'drama'. Victims are God's beloveds, while aggressors are always people of falsehood.

Al-Kahina has been described as a symbol of women, a symbol of resistance against foreign occupation and male hegemony. What is she a symbol of for you?

To me, she is the symbol of self-defence. That is, she devoted herself to resisting injustice, which made her a hero. The fact that she was also a woman made her a hero twice over and, for her to have reached an advanced age, made her a hero three times over, because such a person defies fate. For this reason, her story is the epitome of tragedy for the simple reason that it does not count on the protagonist's salvation.

How does Al-Kahina resonate in the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East and North Africa today?

Al-Kahina is by nature a divisive figure. The oppressor will take a hostile stance towards her, while the victim will see her as a legendary hero. Contrary to the way it has been depicted by historians, the conflict depicted in the novel was not the outcome of a struggle between truth and falsehood, or between a monotheistic religion and a pagan religion. Rather, the historical facts recorded in this novel, all of which are true, having been taken from the writings of travellers and eyewitnesses of eminent stature, show that the essential conflict was not over truth, but over spoils.

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Suffice it to note that Abdullah Ibn Abi Sarh, an apostate from Islam against whom the Prophet issued a death sentence, was chosen by Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan to head the Muslim armies invading North Africa, not because of his exceptional talents, but because he was his milk-brother. It was this family tie that came to Abdullah Ibn Abi Sarh's rescue when the Prophet declared him worthy of death in punishment for his apostasy. What this means is that the campaign against North Africa was a baseless whim, or what has been termed 'a word of truth in the service of falsehood'.

The most powerful evidence of this will be found in the position taken by the righteous Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul-Aziz, who denounced the blasphemous practices of the armies that were forcing the people of North Africa to pay the jizya, despite their having embraced Islam, as a result of which they were obliged to pay the alleged tax with their very own daughters. When Umar Ibn Abdul-Aziz ordered an end to this blasphemy, all the Umayyad upper classes were in an angry uproar, since this would bankrupt the Muslim treasury. This is the theme around which the novel revolves, and it was because of this that the great Caliph was assassinated, by being poisoned.

Nancy Roberts translated Libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni's book The Night Will Have Its Say [Batoul Odeh]

The book portrays a deeper perspective on war than what we find in the news. What role can novels play in understanding war?

The novel is concerned with the spirit and value of history, not with its letter. The historian's mission is to convey the facts to us as events. These events, with which the historian is concerned, are the stuff of history, the result of history, but not its cause. As for the novelist, he or she is concerned not with results, but with causes, for in causes lie the human drama – human beings as the riddle of existence, as well as its treasure house. We cannot recover the spirit of reality in history unless we perceive the heartbeat of history, its causes, its logic, which is what a novel enables us to do.

You have been described as the master of magical realism and the evocation of the desert. Would you describe the desert as a 'character' in your books?

Is it more correct to say magical realism, or to say the magic of reality? I think that the latter possibility is more correct, for reality is the magician. Magic defies the bounds of reality, which is why it overflows into the unseen – the metaphysical – and when it overflows into the unseen, the existing dimension and the lost dimension are reunited. This is why creativity always addresses the lost dimension of existence and what it has to say.

The desert has always been 'The Academy of the Mystical Sciences', as I like to call it. Reality which is 'alienated' – beyond the mundane – is richer, because it is mythological reality, and mythology, as we know, is the fountain of creativity. In fact, it is the measure of creativity in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. There is no spiritual richness outside that of the mythological dimension. Hence, it would be better for us to speak not of "magical realism" but of "mythological realism", for that which is not mythologised is unreliable. The desert is then no longer just a character but becomes, in mythology, the godmother of human existence.

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Your novel contains several references to faith extracted through violence versus faith in response to scripture. Was this a theme from the Arab conquests of the seventh century only or is it universal, running through history, and up until the present day?

First of all, it needs to be understood that every great nation has its own scripture, and the Amazigh nation is no exception. It's simply that it is a scripture that runs in people's veins and manifests itself in their behaviour, but is not in written form. This is what led Saint Augustine, who belonged to the same sect, to portray the immigrant nation as a divine tribe, in contrast to the settled tribe, which he described as this-worldly.  This is also what prompted him to absolve Plato, the imam of wisdom – alone among all the ancient philosophers – of the charge of paganism, which means that the determining factor in matters of religion is faith, not the performance of rituals. The Amazigh mythological heritage demonstrates a deep monotheistic faith. So, when Al-Kahina was debating with the messenger of the King of Arabs, she argued from her scripture, which was absent, materially speaking, but present in her conduct in keeping with the pronouncement of St. Paul: "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life", meaning that religion is not a literal venture, but a spiritual experience.

Given your unique writing style, this book wouldn't have been easy to translate. As a writer who carefully chooses words and sentences, how do you feel about handing over your work for someone else to translate?

I confess that I haven't had good luck when it comes to the translation of my works since the beginning of my literary career, specifically since 1971 when my works began to be translated into European languages. And the reason, quite simply, is while I'm obsessed with how to write my works, I haven't been free to choose my translators. Rather, they have usually chosen me. They've chosen me to make me their victim because, by their nature, they are amateurs, even conjurers. So it was only natural that I would feel alienated by their translations.

In Arabic, there are two words for translator: mutarjim and turjumān.  The turjumān is not the same as the mutarjim. The turjumān is burdened with a moral responsibility that becomes a kind of mission, and it is the turjumān alone who is worthy of assuming the burden of building bridges between cultures. As for the mutarjim, he or she plays the role of a go-between which, in the language of commerce, is little more than that of a broker. Like a broker, he or she is concerned with the utilitarian transaction, not spiritual value. Mutarjims are, of course, in the majority. But if you have the good fortune of finding your way to a turjumān, this means that you will have gained another text besides your own, in which case you witness the miracle of having the translation of your work into another language offer a more powerful statement than even the original text.

This is what Gabriel Marquez confessed to having experienced with the translations of his works into English, which surpassed the Spanish original, as well as the translations of his works into Arabic by Salih Ilmani. Other examples include Asherov's translation of Seneca from Latin into Russian, Boris Pasternak's Russian translations of Shakespeare and the translation into Russian of Erich Maria Remarque's works composed in German. What this means is that the turjumān adds a spiritual element to the text, such that he or she is no longer merely a translator, but a sage. And I consider Nancy Roberts' translation of this book to be the most important of all the renderings of my work into English, thus far.

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Home, or homeland (waṭan) and what it means, particularly in the context of war, is a central theme in this book. How does war alter our perception of home, or homeland?

As I never tire of repeating, more important than the countries we inhabit are the countries that inhabit us, because the countries we inhabit are merely places. In fact, they may be places that burden us with worldly concerns that kill our love of the homeland. As for the countries that inhabit us, they are the value of a place, and become a paradise restored, thanks to the Holy of Holies, that is, freedom.

What this means is that a 'homeland' does not truly take on the meaning of 'homeland' until we have been exiled from it. Wars are a campaign to alienate homelands from homelands, since they threaten homelands' freedom. The homeland then turns into a dream, or rather an obsession, an ideal that loses its dimension as a place and assumes the status of a paradise restored. Perhaps for this reason, human experience has demonstrated that homelands are not rescued by those who live as prisoners to them, but rather, by those who have been liberated from captivity to them. This is another way of expressing a timeless law gifted to us by the Tuareg heritage which says: "Plant your feet in the homeland, but keep your heads outside of it, for by settling in it we become part of them; that is, captives in their grip. If this happens, we will be unable to defend them when enemies attack, but by remaining outside of them, we can repel invasions. Those who are freed from homelands are those capable of liberating them, not the settlers who have become their prisoners."

The Night Will Have Its Say will be published on 30 August by Hoopoe Fiction

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