x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Words of wisdom

A collection of aphorisms by the Libyan writer Ibrahim al-Koni is about to be published in English. The work contains an urgent message about the power and fragility of the desert, writes Clare Dight

 The Algerian Sahara photographed by Alain Sèbe, whose images illustrate Sleepless Eye by Ibrahaim al-Koni.  Courtesy Alain Sebe / Syracuse University Press
The Algerian Sahara photographed by Alain Sèbe, whose images illustrate Sleepless Eye by Ibrahaim al-Koni. Courtesy Alain Sebe / Syracuse University Press

“The world kills us with its chaos, the Desert enlivens us with its tranquility …”. The “desert wisdom” of the Libyan writer and novelist Ibrahim al-Koni demand our attention now more than ever according to Arabist Roger Allen, professor emeritus of Arabic and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, who has translated al-Koni’s terse lines into English.

It has taken Allen more than 10 years to find an English-language publisher for Sleepless Eye, a collection of al-Koni’s aphorisms concerned with desert survival that were first published in French and German in 2001 by Alain Sèbe, a specialist desert photographer whose images illustrate the book.

Winner of the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature, al-Koni is a Tuareg from southern Libya, who grew up in the Libyan Desert before studying comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Institute in Russia, where he lived before moving to Poland and then Switzerland.

Allen is hopeful that Sleepless Eye will bring al-Koni to a wider audience. “It’s obviously something very different from what one expects in the realms of modern Arabic fiction, which he also has written,” Allen says, “but it seems to me to have a more profound and universal message about what we do if we muck around with the environment.”

Allen plans to visit NYUAD in the spring when the collection is also due to be published.


This extract is from Sleepless Eye by Ibrahim al-Koni and translated by Roger Allen. The book will be published by Syracuse University Press in the spring:

The Desert, God’s homeland.

Exile is like the Desert, a homeland for God.

The Desert, oasis of eternity.

The Desert, homeland for the spirit, exile for the body.

The sky, Desert above; the Desert, sky below.

The Desert, magic bottle of freedom.

The Desert, a house with walls of nothingness.

How miserable a child for whom the Desert is a homeland, unable to enjoy life in his homeland or to live far from it.

He who has the Desert as homeland has nothingness as a house.

Desert’s beauty is metaphysical. Desert is the wakening of the spirit.

Were not the Desert paradise lost for the body, it would not be paradise on earth for the spirit.

Desert, a home in touch with eternity. Desert’s space, the walls of eternity.

Desert is like the sea, a Desert in its unseen dimension, but not in its manifest one.

Desert with wells underneath is earth; Desert in its lost dimension is Desert.

Desert in its extension over space is expanse; Desert in its unknown dimension is Desert.

Desert is a sea with wilderness as its trunk and eternity as its root.

Desert is in conflict with existence but in harmony with its adversary, nothingness.

The Desert’s enchantment is borrowed from that of eternity.

Desert is a paradise, not through water but freedom.

Desert is a paradise of nothingness.

If the Desert were not lacking water, freedom could not have become water for it.

The Desert’s body is purified by the Desert sun; the Desert’s spirit is purified by solitude.

The Desert’s nakedness is borrowed from the sky’s.

The Desert will never be hidden as long as the Desert’s heavens are not.

Wasteland will remain the Desert’s fate so long as it is still fate for the Desert’s heavens.

We go to the Desert in order to quench our thirst for freedom.

In the Desert we die of thirst for water, yet we live by quenching our thirst for freedom.

In the Desert we die in body, but live in spirit.

The Desert has never betrayed us. It is we who have betrayed the Desert.

Desert pays nothingness as a price for a felicity named freedom. Lover of the Desert, prisoner of freedom. Isn’t the lover of the Desert the lover of eternity? The world is body, the Desert spirit.

Did you say the Desert can kill through hunger? Yes indeed. When did the spirit ever provide bread?

The world kills us with its chaos, the Desert enlivens us with its tranquility.

Freedom is like the Desert: we only dwell in it in order to transcend it. We only transcend it in order to run back to it.

The Desert’s devotee can choose to stay in the oasis, but the oasis’s devotee may not decide to stay in the Desert. That is because the oasis is captivity whereas the Desert is salvation.

Desert, body of freedom; freedom, spirit of the Desert. Desert, freedom incarnate; freedom, Desert concealed.