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.
Ibrahim al-Koni, who was born in 1948, is an international author with many authentic, salient identities. He is an award-winning Arabic-language novelist who has already published more than seventy volumes, a Moscow-educated visionary who sees an inevitable interface between myth and contemporary life, an environmentalist, a writer who depicts desert life with great accuracy and emotional depth while adding layers of mythical and literary references the way a painter might apply luminous washes to a canvas, a Tuareg, whose mother tongue is Tamasheq, and a resident of Switzerland since 1993. Ibrahim al-Koni, winner of the 2005 Mohamed Zafzaf Award for the Arabic Novel and the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Award for Literature, has also received a Libyan state prize for literature and art, prizes in Switzerland, including the literary prize of the Canton of Bern, and a prize from the Franco-Arab Friendship Committee in 2002 for L'Oasis cachée.
After spending his childhood in the desert, al-Koni began his career writing for the Libyan newspapers Fazzan and al-Thawra. He then studied comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, where he also worked as a journalist. He later lived in Warsaw for nine years and edited the Polish-language periodical as-Sadaqa, which published translations of short stories from Arabic, including some of his own. His novels The Bleeding of the Stone, Anubis, Gold Dust, and The Seven Veils of Seth have already been published in English translation, and The Animists is forthcoming. At least seven of his titles have appeared in French, and at least ten exist in German translation. Representative works by al-Koni are available in approximately thirty-five languages, including Japanese.
Ibrahim al-Koni, like Joseph Conrad, has found international acclaim as a novelist while publishing primarily in his second language, in his case Arabic, which he learned to read and write at the age of twelve. Al-Koni grew up speaking Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, which has its own alphabet, Tifinagh, that dates back at least to the third century BCE. Arabic-Tamasheq bilingualism among the Tuareg is not uncommon and evidence of this goes back hundreds of years in the form of inscriptions and graffiti in Mali.
The Tuareg, or Kel Tamasheq, are traditionally pastoralist, nomadic Berber people who have moved freely across the Sahara from Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Today national boundaries and policies hinder this migratory pattern, and during the last fifty years there have been armed Tuareg insurrections in Mali and Niger.
Although the Tuareg have been affiliated with Islam for centuries, a tribal code of law still governs traditional Tuareg life, despite the fact that its written version is no longer extant. Al-Koni consistently refers to this Torah-like Law with the word naamuus to distinguish the Tuareg Law from Islamic Shari'a law. Although there are some excellent studies of the Tuareg (like The Lesser Gods of the Sahara by Jeremy Keenan), al-Koni's own publications remain the richest source for information about Tuareg culture.
Tuareg culture has attracted considerable attention from outsiders. The blue veils worn by Tuareg men have fascinated intrepid travelers and ethnographers for decades. More recently, Tuareg musical groups like Tinariwen and Tartit have achieved international renown, and the Tuareg Festival in the Desert (in Mali) draws visitors from around the world. Tuareg jewelry is sold commercially through the Internet and elsewhere. The Tuareg poet, painter, and calligrapher Hawad, who provided the cover art for this volume, can be seen reciting his Tamasheq poetry on the Internet site YouTube.
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the Arab father of sociology, described the rise and fall of Middle Eastern dynasties, which he said spring from hardy desert nomads (like the Tuareg). When they are united by 'asabiya, or group solidarity, they are able to conquer the reigning dynasty in the capital, but after several generations of enervating city life and several stages of governmental consolidation and withering, this now decadent elite falls to the next group of hardy desert nomads united by some new form of group solidarity. The Puppet [al-Dumya] (1998) is the central and key panel of a triptych—composed of Waw al-Sughra [Lesser (or New) Waw] (1997) and al-Fazza'a [The Scarecrow] (1998)—that traces the Khaldunian development and eventual decline of an oasis named in honor of the Tuareg's "lost" oasis, the paradise-like Waw, pronounced like the English word "wow." Even now this "distant oasis lying beyond every other oasis" occasionally appears, but only to searchers who are not looking for it.
The Puppet focuses on the cusp of the Khaldunian cycle when commerce, marriage, agriculture, and recreation—whether games or cultural activities—are oasis distractions that disrupt the traditional Tuareg nomadic way of life. Consequently The Puppet's hero, Aghulli, who still respects Tuareg nomadism, is devastated to learn that his secret supporter is exactly the wrong sort of (mercantile) person.
The Puppet is a completely realized tragedy at both personal and communal levels. If the flawed hero Aghulli experiences the reversal, recognition, and suffering of an Aristotelian tragic hero, the oasis community's flowering inevitably leads to its withering and eventual destruction. Plato in The Republic discussed the different types of states, which correspond to types of people, and their degeneration. Al-Koni in The Puppet captures the moments in this arc when the withering sets in as an aristocracy (rule by the best: the venerable elder Emmamma) degenerates first into a timocracy (rule by the ambitious: Aghulli, the sage, who succumbs to ambition) and then into an oligarchy (rule by the rich: the Chief Merchant). Plato's character Socrates remarked: "The downfall of timocracy is due to the flow of gold into those private stores we spoke of." Aghulli's campaign against gold makes perfect sense in this framework.
Although the novel's title brings to mind allegations of contemporary political manipulation, the author has stressed repeatedly that he is not a political author. According to him, The Puppet portrays a good man who has been asked to lead a corrupt society. Al-Koni's political fiction is philosophical, and some readers have complained that these novels are intellectually demanding. His elegant, formal Arabic can also be challenging and suggests a clear and simple but formal English rendition, with an occasional modern word added to rouse the reader from any mythical slumber. Regardless of its philosophical potential and language, The Puppet is most of all a gripping, expertly crafted story of bloody betrayal inspired by both gold lust and an ancient love affair.
The title character of The Puppet's sequel al-Fazza'a— the scarecrow—already appears as an enigmatic jinni in The Puppet and then becomes a key player in the oasis community's death in the final book in the trilogy. In The Puppet, this visitor from the Spirit World, despite an occasional muffled snicker, appears to try to help Aghulli, the noble if obtuse leader. Al-Koni's satanic figures—like this scarecrow or like Seth in The Seven Veils of Seth—often resemble the Yoruba god Eshu, whose tricks and mischief provide spiritual guidance by giving people a jolt. Al-Koni's "good demons" shock other characters, as in The Seven Veils of Seth, into resuming the questing, yearning life of the nomadic pastoralist, thus adding an extra fillip to the rags-to-riches cycle described by Ibn Khaldun: the return of a corrupt elite to a healthier nomadic life.
In Islamic West Africa, where societies retained elements—like masquerades—of their pre-Islamic culture for extended periods and where Sufism has been an important strand in the Islamic tapestry, spirituality is multifaceted and it is not surprising to see this diversity reflected in al-Koni's fiction. The ancient goddess Tanit, whom the Tuareg worshipped before the introduction of Islam, figures in some novels, and inhabitants of the Spirit World, many of whom are jinn, maintain an uneasy truce with their Tuareg neighbors. Typically, al-Koni's heroes feel a special bond with their ancient Saharan ancestors and the rock inscriptions they left behind. In novels like Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth, al-Koni added ancient Egyptian ingredients to his hearty spiritual stew. In The Puppet the subplot about the young lovers continues a Sufi theme of the possible transformation of carnal into spiritual (mystical) love.
Al-Koni has written dozens of desert novels, some set in a mythic past before the arrival of Islam, others in the medieval Islamic age, and still others in contemporary times. For al-Koni, the tension between nomadism and settled life is not only found among Saharan peoples but affects all of us as we face hard choices like relocation for career advancement. If scientists model human medical conditions on laboratory creatures and other inquirers use one phenomenon as a metaphor for another, al-Koni might be said to model global issues on Saharan life. Al-Koni has often used the same Saharan model, but he has employed it as a metaphor for a wide spectrum of human concerns.
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.
Since its founding, the oasis has received many people, and clans from the desert's four corners have settled there. Its walls have sheltered unknown wayfarers—most of them men but a few women as well. Some were excellent folks and others vile ne'er-do-wells. Among them were well-adjusted individuals; others conducted themselves in an eccentric way, exhibiting aberrant behavior.
It is said that this difference in qualities and defects of natures was typical not only of the men of these nomadic races but also of some of the women. Informed sources agree that Waw never experienced a creature more seditious or one who aroused greater agitation and curiosity than the lone female traveler whom narrators called the Mute Soprano.
Local history buffs say she arrived from the south and entered Waw at twilight, through the Oases Gate. Her timing fed the conviction that this visitor had no ties of kinship with the desert's people and was instead a she-jinni and the daughter of the Spirit World, because the tribe normally considered guests arriving at twilight to be jinn cloaked in human garb. The inhabitants of the oasis had inherited from their forefathers beliefs affirming that every creature that stirs at those frightening moments just before sunset is kin to the Spirit World's inhabitants.
She appeared alone, and no woman had ever arrived in the settlements of the oasis in this way before. By coming alone, she lent credence to the assertion, based on the soundest authority, that she was related to the noblest jinn. Unlike all the foreign women who had journeyed there before her, she was not accompanied by a spouse or relatives or attended by slaves or female servants.
She arrived on the back of a fearsome, short, well-nourished, large-mouthed, thick-haired camel with a crazed look in its eyes. Children joked about its appearance and repeated in unison that it was a jinni's steed bearing the daughter of the jinn.
On the behemoth's back was fastened a howdah that astonished everyone who saw it. The frame was composed of polished ribs bound together. Experts affirmed that these were cut from the tusks of an elephant slain by an ignoble hand. Woven around the arches of these curved beams were animal skins. Coverings of colorful, pure linen, which was decorated with embroidery of tiny beads of many hues, were braided around sheaths. Small white beads adorned the dark linen hangings and red ones embellished braided strips brightened by light colors. Thus the whole construction had been transformed into an extraordinarily beautiful masterpiece around which children hovered while the women gathered to inspect it. The men's eyes were refreshed as they admired and contemplated it, trading compliments for it. They eventually agreed that the ensemble was a verse of poetry and not a howdah at all.
Skeptics were quick to find in the howdah's beauty new evidence for their claim about the visitor's lineage. On peering beneath the saddle to scrutinize this marvel, they discovered that the howdah was attached to the body of the fearsome behemoth by leather belts that had dried into its skin after encircling the belly, thus making it impossible to remove the howdah, which had adhered to the camel's back, becoming one with its flesh, as if it were an extension of the hump on which it sat. The behemoth puffed out its jowls and cast furious glances from its angry eyes at the curiosity seekers, as if it were a hostile jinni. Then it went off to graze in the woods of the southern sector, without the howdah ever leaving its hump.