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Interview with Ibrahim al-Koni: Desert is a Soul, not a Body

While researching African writers, I came across the name of Ibrahim al-Koni, whom I’d never come across before. Unfortunately, most of his translations were coming out of American University of Cairo Press which meant that they rarely traveled across the Atlantic Ocean.

I am quickly reaching the conclusion that Google is absolutely useless for learning anything interesting about authors. (Wikipedia is only slightly better). Here is an interview Al-Koni  had in German with  Hartmut Fähndrich (translated into English by  Rafaël Newman). (The publication is a Swiss tourism website, which explains the inordinate number of questions about Switzerland—still a good read though).

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: 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?

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.

I guess this raises the question about geographical metaphors for where I live. Freeways have metaphorical resonances (and indeed, I do a lot of thinking on them, not to mention listening to audio books on them – see this essay of mine). With freeways you are surrounded by moving boxes of destruction driven by bored and distracted drivers.  On freeways the only thing that matters is speed and not getting hit and keeping your attention on the road. REM captured the anomie of freeways with their incredible music video Everybody Hurts.  In Houston (thankfully),  there aren’t too many traffic jams, but once or twice a week you will pass by a serious accident on the road – reminding you of the destructive power of all cars and the ability of the highway to become a final resting place.

That said, I think in the upcoming carbon-free era, people will spend less time on freeways and more time working out of their home or on mass transit.  The freeways will become better known for long hauls between cities and less known as a daily hassle for getting to a place of employment. Can you ever imagine a time when freeways will become obsolete—where they will have to be torn down to make way for something else? I remember my astonishment at seeing an old photo of Houston which depicted trolleycars downtown and wood-covered streets; we start out with reference points and then they disappear. Imagine what would happen if every gas station were to disappear? What would streets look like? What kinds of things would replace them?

Update (later that afternoon). It seems that I have missed the most interesting point mentioned: that it is possible to be influenced by a geography, even when you do not inhabit it.  Obviously that’s true with emigre writers (who tend to be obsessed with their homeland). But fiction is often a stage for encountering  objects of desire which can never be captured (or recaptured) in real life. As I grow older, I am surprised to find that I spend more time writing about my early youth and less time about my adult melodramas (real or imagined).  Yes, the adult world is interesting and important, but in a way I have failed it. I am not pointing to a personal failure; I am merely alluding to a general exasperation that all of us must feel about the overwhelming and exhausting days of adulthood. It seems easier to return to simpler times  when reality seemed less complex, where goals were easier to envision and manage.   The fictional world may not be a utopia or provide every answer, but it gives you a second chance in a world long since gone.   Perhaps Lewis Carroll wrote his adventures simply to  revisit his childhood and experience it better this time.

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