Tents in the Desert – Abstracts

Panel 1: Writing the Desert
Thursday, April 28, 2:00-4:00 pm
Ali Abdullatif Ahmida – University of New England
“Al-Koni’s Saharan Imagination: Engaging Modernity, History, and The Nation-State”

Two theoretical questions are raised regarding modernity and Arab culture: how Libyan intellectuals have engaged modernity, and how have they seen themselves as participants of modernity. This paper focuses on the contemporary Libyan novelist Ibrahim al-Koni.

Al-Koni engaged modernity in two fashions. First, he presents a critique and then an
alternative literary narrative of the cultural history of Libya and the Sahara. He presents a critique of the modern nation–state as unit of analysis and the assumption of the Sahara as a divide and empty space Between the Maghrib and the so-called sub-Sahara Africa. Instead he narrates the Sahara as bridge and dynamic mix of cultures, values of various groups and ethnicities that are free because of the absence of state oppression.

My analysis is experimental. Instead of repeating other critiques of orientalist and ethnocentric views and modernization theory, I shall examine how Ibrahim al-Koni as a Libyan intellectual engaged modernity by focusing on themes of everyday life, meaning, multiple identities, urbanization, alienation, and displacement.

2. Sharif Elmusa – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
“The Ecological Bedouin: Ibn Khaldun and Desert Literature”

This paper compares and contrasts the image of the desert dweller as it appears in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima with two works of contemporary Arab “desert fiction” by Abdelrahman Munif, Nihayat (Endings), and Ibrahim al-Koni, Nazif Al-Hajar (The Bleeding of the Stone).

I argue that while Ibn Khaldun and the two novelists all consider the environment as constitutive of the human self, the novelists go further than he does and ask: How do the desert inhabitants relate to their habitat? Ibn Khaldun depicted the Bedouin as a noble/ an ignoble savage, courageous and free, yet untamable and bereft of culture—a product of the desert with its vastness, harsh climate, and dearth of resources. A close reading of the two novels demonstrates a more complex and humane
view of the Bedouin (Tuareqs in the case of al-Koni).

At the center of the portraiture, although not exhaustive of it, is what I call the Ecological Bedouin, best illustrated in the relationship with animals. In the two novels, the Bedouin holds an animistic view of animals. He hunts them, but not more than one at a time; nor does he hunt a pregnant
beast. The authors bring this image into sharp relief by contrasting his attitude with that of the insatiable hunters from the city. They accomplish this without much romanticism; both authors describe life in the desert as perilous, vacillating between the extremes of droughts and floods, with occasional respite. The contrast with Ibn Khaldun could not be greater. Ibn Khaldun pictured the Bedouin as a turbulent figure menacing the city, whereas today it is the city that has conquered the desert, mining it for oil and minerals, and converting it into a tourist site and a waste dump—symbolized in the novels by the rapacious urban hunters. Not only do Mounif and al-Koni upend Ibn Khaldun’s enduring description of the Bedouin, they also rescue him from the distortions present in previous Arab fiction.

The paper makes an original argument about the emergence of the new figure, the Ecological Bedouin, his location in the changing relationship between city and desert, and the beginnings of a new Arab environmental ethic.

3. miriam cooke – Duke University
“Writing the Tribal Modern”

I will compare the fiction of al-Koni, Miral al-Tahawi and Raja’ Alim looking in particular at the effects of the incursion of modernity and outsiders on tribal structures, norms and values.


Panel 2: Myths of the Desert
Friday, April 29, 9:00-10:30am
4. Sa?id al-Ghanimi – Independent Scholar, Australia
“From Desert Epic to Lost Dimension Novel”

This paper will be presented in Arabic.

This paper consists of three parts. The first part deals with the imaginary characteristics of the desert epic. It shows that the first novels of Ibrahim Al-Koni were not novels that can be described as “epics of modern times”; they are the novel of a city, and explore what it means to live inside a special place and time. Al-Koni’s novels wanted to be an epic of the desert that extends horizontally in space and time. That is why the desert epic is not unique in its formal and structural elements, but is structurally very normal. At the same time, however, it tries to explore the desert imaginary from within, and to offer a visionary concept, in which rarity in the desert changes into plenty, and economy of sufficiency into wealth of values. It also substitutes the absence of material capital by developing a unique symbolic capital.

The second part of this paper deals with “the novel of lost dimension” as an imaginary concept as well, not as a structural element. Because Al-Koni was searching for a system of absent symbolic values in the desert, he was led to think of a lost code, or lost laws that were written by predecessors but disappeared with time. Nothing remained of them except ghostly memories that were called by their offspring “The Lost Book of Anhi.” All Al-Koni’s novels talk about this absent symbolic wealth, The Lost Anhi, so this book becomes a symbolic background, and conceptual frame, that nurtures the symbolic capital and value of all his characters. Most of his characters pursue a lost dimension that is always symbolic. Although the characters may seem naive and simple, they hide a great deal of consideration that approaches the limits of metaphysics. Through the search for the lost dimension, many of the simple and ordinary themes (like a dress, a mask, a stone, a bird, or a rabbit) can be changed into a lost dimension charged with metaphysical signs, through which the illiterate Bedouin man becomes a theorizing philosopher.

The third part of this paper is an attempt to apply these theoretical ideas of the desert imagery and lost dimension novel onto three of Al-Koni’s later novels: Al-Waram (The Tumour), al-Bahth ‘An al-Makan al-Da‘i‘ (The Seven Veils of Seth), and Messenger of the Seven Heavens (Rasul al-Samawat al-Sab’a).

5. Miral Al-Tahawy – Appalachian State University of North Carolina
“Desert Codes… The Lost Sacred of the Tuaregs”

The historical background of the sacred and the social perception of the “prohibited” form the foundation for the novel Al-Magus which is based on the difference between the northern tribes and the kingdoms of the south in dealing with gold or the “ill-omened metal” and the spiritual powers that possessed it. The metal has formed a prohibition or a taboo that bodes ill in Tuareg tradition. The novel starts with the Southern princess, the daughter of the Sultan of Timbuktu, the desert city that historically was founded on the trade in gold and slaves. She comes from Ayer to seek refuge from the storms that demolished the Kingdom of Timbuktu. She arrives to live beside one of the northern tribes who shares blood bonds with her. But the Northern tribes- among them Azjer to which the princess resorts- unlike any of the southern tribes, are bound by their own sacred system which makes of building and settling a prohibition by the law of the desert. Once the princess’ messenger asks for permission to settle down, the Azjeri Sheikh says, “If your princess is involved with building, this is a blatant defiance of the law, building means stability, which means slackness, bonds and slavery, such is the law.”

The same law or tribal tradition takes the shape of several prohibitions as secreted by the reality of the desert and takes the stead of the taboo in the primitive sense. Gold is the historic prohibition on which violating the taboo is based -hence the punishment and exile from heaven. Mircea Eliade considers gold and silver among the most important symbols in the history of religions according to the Encyclopaedia of Religion. This is due to the belief that the sun and the moon provide these two metals with extraordinary spiritual powers.

Al-Magus in its form and reference runs parallel to and crosses roads with mythology. The first of these crossing points is the code, a tribal tradition and an existential law that is equivalent to the taboo in primitive thinking. The writer resorts to it to define the forms of the prophecy. Every violation of the code is a violation of a taboo that necessitates heavenly punishment which comes in the shape of the anger of nature.

Gold stands as one of the prohibited taboos that are linked historically with the halting of conquests by the Muslims. What concerns us is this paper is the mythical trend to change the text from a historical narration to mythical form that makes of violating the sacred the proactive form that pushes towards karma or fatal end – something John Fontan points out by saying, “the role of fate cannot be ignored in the obliteration of principle conflicts in the novel.”


Panel 3: Signs and Wonders
Friday, April 29, 10:45am-12:15 pm
6. William Maynard Hutchins – Appalachian State University of North Carolina
“Al-Koni’s Demons”

How coherent are Ibrahim al-Koni’s depictions of demons across different novels? Are these all one demon, several demons, or merely plot devices? Is his demon more Abrahamic, pharaonic, Tuareg, or comparable to Western African trickster deities like Eshu?

The protagonist of Ibrahim al-Koni’s novel al-Bahth ‘An al-Makan al-Da‘i‘ (The Seven Veils of Seth) is a Satanic trickster named Isan whose antics destroy the oasis that has offered him its hospitality, but only because he wishes its residents a better, destabilizing, nomadic existence. Al-Koni encourages the reader to consider Isan a form of Seth, who in the ancient Egyptian religion killed his brother Osiris, the good god of agriculture, to seize the throne but who was also the desert god and therefore a benevolent champion of desert dwellers. In The Seven Veils of Seth Ibrahim al-Koni drew on the tension between these two opposing visions of Seth to provide depth to his portrait of his protagonist. Seth (or Isan) then would not be demonic but a god of necessary disorder.

The eponymous protagonist of his novel al-Fazza‘a (The Scarecrow) destroys the oasis community that he has been visiting, although in the prequel al-Dumya (The Puppet) he appeared several times to advise that novel’s well-intentioned tragic hero. In al-Fazza‘a, his destruction of the oasis seems malicious and vengeful. In Lawn al-La‘na (The Color of the Curse), the demonic protagonist is so evil that the ambiguous interplay of good and evil is lost, and he has an apprentice, junior demon. Are all these demons forms of Seth and if so is he trying to show us the way back to Waw, the Tuareg paradise? If God can bring good out of evil, does al-Koni think that we should thank God for demons?

7. Luc Deheuvels – INALCO, Paris
“Signs and Languages in Ibrahim al-Koni’s Works”

The works of Ibrahim al-Koni consist in many variations on the themes of wandering, infinite desire, nostalgia and the quest of meaning in the great “emptiness” of desert spaces. Throughout his works, Al-Koni strives to listen to the language of the stones and the world, to let the words express themselves, to recover the forgotten meaning, to embark upon a secret journey to the lost city of Wâw or toward oneself, to regain control of the lost code, and to restore the pact between men and the other creatures.

In order to illustrate these points, the present paper is based upon ??????? ???????? ?? ???? ?????? ????? ???? (The forgotten facts of the Pagans’ gesture, and other texts), a collection published by Ibrahim al-Koni in 1992, composed of twelve “texts” complexly connected to ??????, al-Majûs, The Pagans, a great novel in four parts published in 1991.

The present analysis will focus on the question of these texts’ genericity and lean upon the parallel between the nomad and Kuni’s reader, who are both engaged in a quest for meaning within unlimited spaces: deserts for the former, textual spaces for the latter. Both the nomad and the reader encounter multiple languages, mysterious writings, enigmatic rock paintings and carvings referring to mythical times: many signs made harder to decrypt by the loss of the codes, in a poetics dominated by the figure of syllepsis.


Panel 4: The Spiritual Horizon
Friday, April 29, 2:00-3:30pm
8. Hartmut Fähndrich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich
“Cain and Abel – The Biblical and Coranic Myth Basic to Ibrahim al-Koni’s Works”

Ibrahim al-Koni’s whole literary work may be seen as a continuous interpretation of the biblical cum koranic story of Cain and Abel (Qâbîl and Hâbîl). Maybe his worldview may altogether be considered to be based on this myth, which, however, is twofold, carrying, particularly in its biblical version, two essential elements, and Ibrahim al-Koni uses them both:

“And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”

The two brothers represent or symbolize two basic forms of life, the nomadic and the sedentary one, respectively, a division that is, of course, essentially also Ibrahim al-Koni’s, who inverts, however, the common values attached to either one: For him the realization of human destiny is the nomadic way that prevents life from getting stagnant.

“And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.”

Yet, the two ways of life are not only opposed to each other, there confrontation is lethal or, in the appropriate terminology, fratricidal.
Time and again in al-Koni’s novels, nomads are lured on the path of sedentariness, which is to prove fatal for them.
Elsewhere (cf. the novel Cain, where is Abel thy brother?), fratricide occurs without the background of the two lifestyles. It is “simply” greed, envy, jealousy and thirst for power that lies at the root of fratricide.

9. Amira El-Zein – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
“Unity of Existence in the Work of Ibrahim al-Koni”

This paper argues that al-Koni’s novels The Seven Veils of Seth and Anubis aim at differentiating between illusion and Reality and by the same token attain the “Unity of Existence” or wahdat al-wujud.

The paper will look in the first part at the different obstacles that impede the distinction between illusion and Reality, such as sedentary life, material accretion, and forgetfulness of who we are, all of which make up the illusion of truth.

In its second part, the paper will uncover the different ways that bring in the apprehension of Reality, such as nomadic life, solitude, bond with animals, with nature, and with spirits.

In my conclusion I will decode the father/son symbolism and demonstrate how it represents the ultimate step of Unity of Existence, which is none other than the Union with the Beloved.