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Ibrahim al-Koni

Ibrahim al-Koni

'My starting point is the desert.'

Ibrahim al-Koni was born in 1948 in the south Libyan desert near Gadamés. He spent his childhood in the desert as a member of a tribe of Tuareg, learning Arabic only at the age of twelve. He was schooled in the ancient oasis town near where he grew up. After a brief career as a journalist he went on to study philosophy and literature at the renowned Maxim Gorky Institute in Moscow. In 1974, while still a student, he published his first literary work, a book of stories. He worked at the Libyan Cultural Institute in Moscow and as a journalist and editor at a cultural magazine in Warsaw before moving to Switzerland in 1993, where he has lived ever since. His oeuvre now spans some sixty volumes, including novels, stories and aphorisms, and has been translated into all the major languages. Ibrahim al-Koni’s work has won him numerous important prizes in the Arabic world as well as in Switzerland.

The conversation was conducted in German and Arabic, and transcribed in German by Hartmut Fähndrich; the English translation is by Rafaël Newman.

HF: One of your books, not yet available in any language but Arabic, is entitled ‘A Myth of Love for Switzerland’. Does Switzerland really deserve to have a book dedicated to it?

I AL-K: If you look at my complete works you will see that I have actually dedicated two books to Switzerland. The first, not yet translated either, ‘The Divan of the Mainland and the Ocean’, appeared in 1999; the one you mention is the second, published three years ago. The dedication in the earlier book reads, ‘To Switzerland – a country on the face of the earth which reaches up through the peaks of its mountains, striving to win back the lost paradise of heaven.

HF: That sounds rather programmatic, perhaps even like a bit of mythical hyperbole.

I AL-K: The original dedication was more effusive still.

HF: Can you explain this almost Biblical abstraction in more practical terms?

I AL-K: Of course. For me Switzerland is first and foremost proof of the human capacity to work miracles, an expression of the human genius that builds wonderfully beautiful houses on the top of the highest mountains, cultivates fields on the sides of cliffs and cuts canals through river valleys.

HF: But is that in fact such a specifically Swiss thing?

I AL-K: While creativity on this order may be in evidence among other peoples sharing our planet, what you will not find anywhere else is what you might call the Swiss principle of mercy toward nature. One could perhaps also call it the principle of assimilation, that is, assimilation of the creative, active being with the object of its creativity, in this case the kingdom of nature. This is the spirit that turns Swiss activity into a kind of poetry, or let us say into a form of Sufi love, mystical love.

HF: You mean the way the Swiss deal with their country is a manifestation of Sufi love?

I AL-K: Yes. In Sufi love the lover gestures with fondness in the direction of his beloved; this form of love is utterly distinct from secular, sublunary love, where the lover kills the object of his desire.

HF: And what role does Switzerland play in your conception?

Ibrahim al-Koni (in new window)

I AL-K: An extremely central one. What I mean to say is this: the relationship of the Swiss to their home, to nature, is the expression of a constructive love, not a destructive one. Now, many people might find this idea odd since they are incapable of distinguishing between a love whose aim is freedom, and one whose aim is possession. The love that aims at freedom does not recognise the act of appropriation, and its actions do not mask the will to exploitation. The contrary principle is the tendency of profit-oriented societies to have no scruples about violating the sanctity of nature, and it is summed up in the fatuous slogan, ‘Since we cannot expect nature to surrender itself voluntarily, we must wrest from it by force what we require!’

HF: An idealised image of the country you now call home. Before this, however, you lived in Russia, a place you adored. You spent a considerable part of your life there, and the Russian language and culture have had a great influence on you. Why did you leave Russia?

I AL-K: I cannot deny that I loved Russia very much. I loved Russia for its nature, its secrets and its beauty. I loved the Russia of Dostoevsky and the Russia whose bottomless depths have impressed all who know it. These depths are no doubt the reason for its irresistible power to fascinate. They are the secret of its magic, and once you have experienced the magic, you will never be released.

HF: And how is this made manifest?

I AL-K: Sometimes very drastically. People are occasionally consumed by their longing for the country, as was the case with the many Russian intellectuals who lived in exile all over the world after the Bolsheviks came to power. But Russia’s tragedy is that it is an unlucky country – in contrast to Switzerland! Russia is a natural paradise second to none, and yet its inhabitants have been banned from their Garden of Eden – in contrast to Switzerland!

HF: How do you mean that?

I AL-K: Russia is a wealthy country, but during the Soviet period its wealth was confiscated and invested in a series of what you might call fairy-tale versions of paradise, into which people had to be led in chains. What’s more, Mother Nature was abused by that same blinded spirit that possesses all madmen, or rather all those who have been deprived of their eyesight by the scourge of idealism, which leads them to sacrifice authentic human happiness to the promise of an imaginary bliss. Russia might have been released from this false promise on the day of its political redemption, when the totalitarian regime fell. And yet the curse remained.

HF: How do you explain this missed opportunity?

I AL-K: 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.

HF: And thus yours has been the life of a traveller?

I AL-K: You could see it that way. There is a certain disposition that is suited to moving from one place to another. After all, people are not born on this earth as plants, but rather as travellers. Both history and holy scripture teach us that all of creation is in fact a community of travellers. And the journey that began with the expulsion from paradise has taken on a metaphysical dimension, one that helps us understand our longing for that primordial moment.

HF: Why did you come to Switzerland?

I AL-K: Well, certainly not because I was looking for material treasure, which would be a hopeless quest in any case, seeing that paradise is not to be found on earth  I was looking for something else, something more important. The Muslim mystics call it the peace of the soul, what the ascetics of old were in search of throughout their lonely lives in the desert.

HF: Isn’t that a paradox? You are looking for something in Switzerland that you could have found in the desert, the place you came from?

I AL-K: It may seem paradoxical at first, but it becomes clear as soon as we comprehend the nature of creative work, which is predicated upon a certain distance between the writing subject and his object, both temporally and spatially.

HF: Looking back on your life in Libya, in Russia and now in Switzerland, do you see a link between these three countries?

I AL-K: I do indeed, and it consists essentially in a love of nature. What I mean is this: Libya’s main feature is its vast desert; it is my first home and the cradle of my childhood.

HF: How are we to imagine this cradle?

I AL-K: I am talking specifically about the north-west edge of the desert we call the Hammadah al Hamra or ‘red plateau’. More generally I mean the immense emptiness that stretches endlessly away to the horizon, where it meets that eternally clear sky which equals it in its nakedness. Together they make up one continuous body, the secret of whose intimate embrace I am in fact still searching for.

HF: Let’s get back to the comparison of ‘your’ three countries.

I AL-K: My starting point is the desert. As is inevitable with one’s birthplace, the desert buries enigmatic signs in the souls of its natives that slumber deep within and one day must awake. The signs that my Great Desert planted within me have made a poet of me, and a seeker after the truth of this world.

HF: So that would be your material, as it were?

I AL-K: Yes. But in order to lend these signs a voice, to decode them, I required tools just like the ones a craftsman uses in his work. And in order to acquire these tools I had to leave my homeland. I went to Russia to study at the Maxim Gorky Institute, which became the first station on my quest for such instruments. In this case it was a linguistic quest. The tool in question was the Russian language, in which I consumed the world’s literary, philosophical and cultural legacy and thus stilled a thirst that had gone unquenched when all I had was Arabic, with its many fewer translations.

HF: But then, after many years in Eastern Europe, you moved on?

Ibrahim al-Koni (in new window)

'After all people are not born on this earth as plants, but rather as travellers.'

I AL-K: If we can see nothing in our earthly existence but a vast desert, and if we cannot distinguish that desert from the one that was our cradle, we must not stay forever in one particular place, for the law of the desert that we bear emblazoned in our hearts demands that we remain constantly on the move. We must move on because life is a constant journey, and the places we visit are nothing but oases. They are made for us to pass through; they are not intended to serve as our permanent residence. But this law consists of more than simply the imperative to be constantly on the move – it is also the idea of freedom. And thus it was natural for me to move on to Poland, where I spent a full nine years, before settling in Switzerland, in sight of the Alps.

HF: Let’s return once again to the question of what connects Libya, Russia and Switzerland as places where you have lived.

I AL-K: Well, actually all I really wanted to say was that both the question and the answer are in fact irrelevant. Writers don’t live in particular countries, really, after all; rather, they have another homeland altogether, and that is contemplation. I took my Great Desert with me on this long journey of mine because it is the subject of my contemplation. It is what inspires me. It is the source of my imagination. It is the secret of the eternal question, ‘Who am I?’, as well as of its companion, ‘Where am I going?’ These two questions are the other side of Pilate’s question to Jesus, ‘What is truth?’

HF: Isn’t that a rather bold comparison?

I AL-K: Perhaps, but I am trying to make something clear. And since I am not a prophet, like Jesus, who could rebuff that monstrous question with the assertion that his truth was not of this world, I have no choice but to continue dwelling in my various prisons and seeking the answer to the question within myself, by looking within myself. How can it possibly matter where you happen to be when you in fact live somewhere else? And thus, what sort of comparison can you make of these countries as long as they remain simply resting places, incapable of contributing to the search for truth?

HF: In Libya, your first home, you got to know the desert as a dominant phenomenon. Now, here in Switzerland, you live within sight of some mighty peaks. How do you experience the difference between these natural features?

I AL-K: The idea of the desert as a ‘phenomenon’ gives me pause, of course, as does the idea of ‘natural features’. For me the desert is never simply a geographical phenomenon.

HF: But surely it plays that role in your books?

I AL-K: Yes, among other things; but my actual desert is a metaphorical world, a metaphorical paradise, a boundless spiritual homeland. And for that reason the eye cannot see it; and if it does see it, then it ceases to be an eye made for the sight of earthly things and becomes instead an instrument of insight, capable of spying out the invisible world.

HF: How does that affect your concept of the desert, which is after all the region in which you were born?

I AL-K: It means that I could never sum up the desert in terms of so-called ‘features’. To my way of thinking the desert is a soul, not a body. The desert is the world’s soul, made visible by the fact that its nakedness is not that of a phenomenon but rather that of a liberation. That is why the desert is associated with freedom, no matter by which culture. And that is why my love for the desert is not simply a love of nature, but rather a love of creation’s homeland, which carries within it as such the secret of creation. If you want to talk about the ‘natural features’ of these countries, however, and not about the metaphors hidden within them, then the vast desert is only really distinct from places like Switzerland and Russia in its external form and – thus reduced – any given natural phenomenon has its own magic.

HF: What fascinates you the most about Switzerland?

I AL-K: Switzerland is the proof of what I have said about nature, that it repays uprightness in kind. Apparently, just as the Swiss have discovered their mission in the soul of nature, so has nature discovered its mission in the soul of the Swiss. Qualities like honesty as a means to a clear conscience, tolerance as a dialogue with the other or love of work as self-fulfilment – these qualities of the Swiss, of which they are justly proud, are a function of their respect for nature, or perhaps of the extraordinary treatment the kingdom of nature enjoys at their hands elevated to an ethical dimension, and which must appear to foreigners as a desire for isolation. And yet these qualities (honesty, tolerance and love of work) remain their tripartite treasure, respected by all who get to know Switzerland more closely.

HF: How are you able to continue writing about the desert, within sight of the Alps and in view of your distance from that part of the world?

I AL-K: If it were my mission to speak about the desert qua desert, I would be unable to write even one single letter on the topic. I was driven out of my paradise as a young child, remember. And even if I were a prophet, I would not have managed to write sixty books about it from memory. After all, the writer’s first commandment is, ‘Write what you know!’ So in order to make this beloved of mine present I have had recourse to memory of another kind, what the Sufis, the Islamic mystics, like to call ‘inner memory’ and psychologists refer to as ‘the unconscious’. For which reason the desert that lives in my heart is precisely not the same desert as exists outside my heart.

HF: So your place of residence actually plays no part?

Ibrahim al-Koni (in new window)

'You can compare the Swiss in their countryside with the Tuareg in their desert.'

I AL-K: Not for my writing. My desert is the metaphorical desert, the desert as synonym for the entirety of human existence. By which I mean that human existence is in every particular a desert as long as it remains a meaningless talisman. But on the day upon which this secular world takes on significance, on the day upon which the world bears down to tell us of its truth – on that day, and not before, shall we witness the separation of the world from the world-as-desert. And on that day, and not before, will I allow myself to rest from speaking about the desert in its function as symbol of existential alienation, what is known in religious discourse as ‘sin’. That is why it is obscurantist to see any connection between writing about the desert and living in the desert.

HF: Now, most Swiss do not wish to live in the mountains, but prefer instead to settle in a city, whether big or small. So don’t you live far from the real, mundane Switzerland? How would you describe your relationship with your fellow inhabitants?

I AL-K: If country-people are in general the simplest, while also the wisest, and if city-people are in general the most complicated, while also the least sensitive, then one could say that the Swiss are all country-people, regardless of where they happen to live.

HF: How do you explain this singular mentality?

I AL-K: The explanation seems to be partly cultural heritage and venerable educational tradition, and partly due to the fact that the cities are extensions of the countryside – and for me the latter is the real reason.

HF: You mean the fact that in Switzerland the cities tend to be small?

I AL-K: Yes, and it becomes clear when we consider the way they are infiltrated by nature, to an extent hardly known in any other country. Besides, what is the country in many places but an extension of its cities? I think this is a rare gift, if it is made sufficiently useful to serve as a heritage for the law of the collective as embodied in its ethical comportment.

HF: You yourself live in the countryside, in Goldiwil near Thun, at the gateway to the great mountain ranges.

I AL-K: Perhaps because you can compare the Swiss in the countryside with the Tuareg in their desert: both enjoy the same ethnic characteristics, the sort that nature tends to instil in the breasts of its disciples. Perhaps one might even call the Swiss the Tuareg of Europe, not only in their behaviour but also in their isolation. And thus the Tuareg would be the Swiss of the Great Desert. Which might well be adequate consolation for the scion of the desert, who has strayed far from his home there.

The conversation was conducted in German and Arabic, and transcribed in German by Hartmut Fähndrich; the English translation is by Rafaël Newman.

Ibrahim al-Koni was born in 1948 in the south Libyan desert near Gadamés. He spent his childhood in the desert as a member of a tribe of Tuareg, learning Arabic only at the age of twelve. He was schooled in the ancient oasis town near where he grew up. After a brief career as a journalist he went on to study philosophy and literature at the renowned Maxim Gorky Institute in Moscow. In 1974, while still a student, he published his first literary work, a book of stories. He worked at the Libyan Cultural Institute in Moscow and as a journalist and editor at a cultural magazine in Warsaw before moving to Switzerland in 1993, where he has lived ever since. His oeuvre now spans some sixty volumes, including novels, stories and aphorisms, and has been translated into all the major languages. Ibrahim al-Koni’s work has won him numerous important prizes in the Arabic world as well as in Switzerland.

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