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Mythological Tuareg gods in Ibrahim al-Koni's work.

This article examines the Tuareg myths which form a large part of Libyan novelist's Ibrahim al-Koni's work. It focuses especially on the role Ancient Egyptian Religion occupies in his fiction and essays. It analyzes in particular two novels: Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth. The author relies on the theories of Northrop Frye, Pierre Brunei, John Vickery, and Eric Gould who emphasize the archetypal nature of literature and its connection to mythology. The author demonstrates how al-Koni's genius transforms the myth into an enduring literary piece. Finally, the article elucidates seminal symbols in al-Koni's fiction.


Tuareg writer Ibrahim al-Koni is considered one of the most prominent and prolific writers in Arabic today. Born in 1948 in the south Libyan Desert, al-Koni grew up in the Ghadames Oasis at the edge of the Red Hamada. Initially educated in Libya, in his native language Tamasheq, al-Koni later learned Arabic. This article offers an interpretation of the role played by Tuareg mythology in al-Koni's oeuvre, though given the density and complexity of this mythology, I limit my research to Tuareg gods. Specifically, I examine these gods in four of al-Koni's novels, namely, The Seven Veils of Seth, Anubis, The Bleeding of the Stone, and New Waw: Saharan Oasis, though I occasionally refer to his other novels Tibr (Gold Dust) and Marathi Ulis (The Elegies of Ulis) and to the many essays that the author has written.

A complex syncretism of ancient Egyptian and ancient Libyan myths, regional belief systems, rituals, cosmologies, and magical and animist beliefs coming from sub-Saharan and Equatorial Africa as well as Egypt, Tuareg mythology is also blended with Sufism and Islamic mysticism. Yet the presence of Tuareg mythology in al-Koni's fiction exceeds by far the Sufi-Islamic dimension. (1) Indeed, the majority of al-Koni's novels are devoted to the Tuareg myths: In addition to the novels examined in this article, one could cite novels such as al-Bi'r (The Well), al-Majus (The Magi), and Bayt fi-l-dunya wa bayt fil-hanin (A House in this World and a House in Nostalgia) as evidence of Tuareg mythological influence on al-Koni's writing. Here, I focus on the complex ways in which al-Koni weaves the myths of his people, the Tuareg, and recreates them through a system of literary symbols and metaphors where the universal and the local meet. I emphasize that al-Koni is first and foremost a writer of fiction for whom the imaginary realm constantly recreates reality.

Having experienced firsthand the rituals and beliefs prescribed by Tuareg mythology, al-Koni brings these alive in his fiction. (2) In his novel Marathi Ulis, al-Koni underscores that the place you have lived in remains with you forever (18), and some critics read this move as evidence of alKoni's sense of his mission to safeguard the myths of his people before modernity sweeps away their legacy (Fahndrich 333). This speaks to the contemporary concern that the Tuareg heritage might be absorbed into a stricter Islam unless the Tuareg defend their traditions. (3) Indeed, nomadic activities are dwindling in most parts of the territory where the Tuareg move--i.e., across Algeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Libya--and many among the younger generation migrate in search of jobs or for political reasons (see Kohl). In addition, it is becoming almost impossible to herd due to the changes in the environment and the exploitation of uranium mines, especially in the Niger. This has led to one of the most striking changes in this nomadic way of life: the Tuareg's use of modern vehicles in which they smuggle trade or carry animals and which they use when they move across borders (Kohl 452) (4) A majority of the Tuareg people today are unemployed, poor, and lacking resources, all of which compels them to look for jobs in cities such as Tripoli, Benghazi, or Algiers. Those who stay behind wait desperately for the international aid to arrive from Niger, Mali, or Algeria (see Bonte and Claudot-Hawad).

Al-Koni's fiction is about Tuareg life in the deep Sahara, the largest desert on the planet; a place where it is very difficult for any form of life to be sustained. It is only in the few oases that human life is possible. Al-Koni's evocation of the vast and infinite landscapes of the desert is unique in Arabic literature. It reveals the Sahara as a paradoxical space, both eternal and empty, offering freedom for the spirit and captivity for the body. These compelling contrasts have prompted some critics to observe that his imagery evokes pre-Islamic poetry; the anthropologist Helene Claudot-Hawad calls it the "imaginaire tuareg arabise" (the Arabized Tuareg imaginary realm) (278). (5)

Although there is some geographical resemblance between the Great Sahara (where the Tuareg live) and certain landscapes of the Arabian Peninsula and the area of Najd where pre-Islamic poetry was born, the comparison between al-Koni's work and Arabic pre-Islamic literature remains problematic. While it is true that both ancient Arabs and Tuareg had a mainly pastoralist mode of life and their resources were scarce, the space in which the Tuareg moved is very different. It is vaster, harsher, and farther from the centers of the urban world. Al-Koni replies directly to the assertions that his work is "Arabized" when he maintains that it is not a continuation of Arabic pre-Islamic literature, adding that, apart from Abdel Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt, there is no Arabic "literature of the desert"; the Arabs have lived and written at its borders. (6) His aim is to finally let the desert speak (qtd. in Fahndrich 331). In his book, Diwan al-nathr al-barri (Anthology of Wild Prose), al-Koni depicts in detail impressive scenes of the Sahara with its rocky mountains, its strong winds, its ahl al-khafa' (people of the invisible), and its desolation (30-40).

Over the past few decades, more authors have sought to engage with the geographical space of the desert, and in a recent article, Salah Salih analyzes some modern Arab novels that have dealt with the desert in one way or another, such as the Egyptian novelist Sabri Mousa in his novel Fasad al-amkina (Seeds of Corruption) and the Tunisian writer Mahmud al Massoudi in Haddathani Abu Hurayra (Thus Spoke Abu Hurayra). Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no author writing in Arabic today has surpassed or even come close to al-Koni's evocation of the deep Sahara. His fiction deploys a complex metaphysics that is rooted in the Sahara itself. With the exception of the old southern Arabian kingdoms' mythology, the rest of pre-Islamic Arabia had a relatively simple cosmology, whereas Tuareg mythology was extremely sophisticated. Moreover, the Tuareg, despite their conversion to Islam and the influence of the Arabic language, have continued to maintain their old beliefs, and endeavor to keep these traditions alive, fighting against the tendency among Muslim Arabs to look down on this heritage as "pagan" or jahili (ignorant).

One of the most conspicuous aspects of this mythology is the Tuareg belief that they are the descendants of a tribe of jinn which has taken the shape of certain animals, such as the waddan. (7) Another striking feature is that men wear the veil to cover their mouths, ears, and nostrils, as they believe evil spirits could enter the body from any of its orifices. The mouth, in particular, seems to be the most important part of the face that should be constantly veiled because of the potential for it to be an entry point of shame, pollution, and, most importantly, evil spirits. A large robe always covers the body. Tuareg are often pictured wearing amulets to protect them from these evil spirits since covering all orifices might not be enough to protect them. In this context, magic plays a seminal role in their lives. (8)

Myth and the Novel

Literary critics and theorists from the mid twentieth century onwards have deemed myth an essential component of literature, especially fiction. In his study of D. H. Lawrence, John Vickery pointed out how myth not only characterizes the work of the writer, but also develops it and brings it into existence (185; Frye, "The Archetypes" 93). Pierre Brunei in turn emphasizes the seminal importance of myth in literature, touching on the narrative impulse that myth gives to fiction, stressing that story is the common denominator in both. He declares that literature demonstrates the creative power of myth and the reality of experience mythique (10). In The Educated Imagination, Northtrop Frye suggests that both myth and fiction share a logic that is different from the reality of everyday life (34). Eric Gould goes as far as to say that modern poets and novelists, like storytellers of oral societies, reach to the enduring meaningful characteristics of narrative that he names "mythicity" (65). (9)

Al-Koni's work highlights in its own way the archetypical and mythical nature of literature (Fahndrich 331). He fictionalizes the Tuareg myths that constitute the matrix of his oeuvre. He resorts to symbols to mirror life's wholeness and to creatively represent universal themes dealing with the human condition, such as the question of life, death, spirits, and the otherworld. For him, symbols are not simply elements in a creative text, but rather pointers to a multi-layered reality in which the different levels communicate with each other in an alchemical way. His writings show us how Tuareg mythology's endurance relies on the Tuaregs' aptitude to interpret the most complex signs within their surroundings.

It is in this context that al-Koni proposes that the desert of which he speaks "is a synonym of the world; it is an allegory" ("Le 'discours'" 101; my translation). This understanding of the symbolic highlights the specificity of the Tuareg mythology as well as the universal elements it contains. For symbols belong to a language developed by the human race, thus rendering them universal. Al-Koni considers myth an alchemical agent that transforms the Tuareg tradition into a highly artistic fiction.

In what follows, I examine the presence of Egyptian mythology in the Tuaregs' myths, as it appears in the fictional work of al-Koni and in his essays. I focus primarily on the legends of two Egyptian gods: Seth and Anubis.

Ancient Egypt and Tuareg Mythology

The Tuareg mythology as evoked in the work of al-Koni bears striking resemblances to old Egyptian mythology on many levels. The mythologies of Libya and Egypt need to be interpreted in the context of their African geography and, for the purpose of this article specifically, in light of the ways in which the nomadic Tuareg played a role in disseminating and maintaining these mythologies in ancient Phoenician and Egyptian territories, as well as in modern Libya and Egypt. More and more, Egyptologists stress the difficulty of fathoming the complexity of the ancient Egyptian religion and its impact on its neighboring countries outside of its African context. This perspective has in turn helped to reassess African contributions to ancient Egyptian religion and to correct the errors that scholars hostile to non-Egyptian Africans have committed in the past (see O'Connor and Reid).

The Tuareg mythology seems to have interacted historically with Egyptian mythology and even impacted it. One of the first scholars to detect this was Oric Bates (d. 1918), curator of African Archaeology and Ethnology at the Peabody Museum in Massachusetts. Bates maintains that there are remarkable similarities between ancient Egyptian and ancient Libyan religions, such as the strong belief in an afterlife and the choice of the same sacred animals like the bull and the ram in both (217). Alfred Wallis Budge (d. 1934) reiterates the same point. Budge goes further, stating that the Egyptian god Osiris was originally a Libyan god. He writes that all the texts of all periods show that he was a native god of North-East Africa, and that his origin is most probably Libyan (qtd. in Spence 64).

Thus, it is clear that there was interaction between the beliefs of the nomadic Tuareg and the settled peoples of ancient Egypt, and al-Koni is keen to highlight this hidden history in his fiction. Specifically, he is at pains to identify the way that his people who were and are still living in Libya and elsewhere in the Sahara have been instrumental in building the ancient Egyptian civilization. He alleges that the Tuareg who migrated to Egypt brought with them their beliefs, their practical experience, and the techniques they used to build "the house of eternity" as it was called later in Egypt. On many occasions, and in many of his writings, especially in his al-Suhuf al-'ula (Ancient Scripts and Texts), he comes back to this ancient Libyan influence on ancient Egypt (36).

Furthermore, al-Koni claims that "It is the Tuareg--who settled in the Nile Valley--who built the Egyptian civilization some thousands of years ago" ("Le 'discours'" 97; my translation). Several scholars consider these views exaggerated. J. Gwyn Griffiths, for example, maintains that there exists a general influence of ancient Libya on Egyptian mythology, but it is hard to talk about a specific one (89). Moreover, one cannot take at face value al-Koni's assertions because of the scarcity of written documents during the period that preceded the coming of the Romans and the colonization of North Africa. While rock paintings that were discovered in the caves of Tassili in the Libyan Desert point to the existence of an advanced and thriving mode of life, this is not enough to maintain that it is the Libyans who shaped the Egyptian mythology. Rather, we should view al-Koni's remarks in the context of his desire to re-insert the effaced history of the Tuareg people in the history of Egypt.

The Seven Veils of Seth and Anubis

Given both the historical nature of these interactions between Libyan and Egyptian mythologies, as well as al-Koni's personal agenda in re-narrating them, it is not surprising that he wrote two novels on two of ancient Egypt's most iconic gods: Seth and Anubis, gods present in both traditions. The first novel, entitled The Seven Veils of Seth, takes place in an oasis where a group of Tuareg set up a thriving settlement. An enigmatic traveler, Isan, enters the oasis and draws the attention of its inhabitants by his bizarre behavior. He rejects all offers of hospitality that the oasis people offer him. Even worse, he chooses to dwell in a crypt in the graveyard, which makes people ill at ease. No one seems to know his intentions, except the Fool who warns the town's elders of the danger of showing him hospitality; he even advises them to kill him before it is too late. At the end of the novel, Isan brings about a storm that destroys the settlement, thus forcing the people to leave the place and return to their previous nomadic life. Furious, the Fool kills Isan without knowing he is killing his own father. (10)

Al-Koni creates in Isan a character that resembles the Egyptian god Seth in many respects. First, like Seth, Isan appears evil at first glance. Ancient Egyptian texts mention that Seth not only murdered his brother Osiris, but also cut him into pieces which he spread all over the land of Egypt (Griffiths 42). Seth is presented as a jealous and angry god because the Supreme god, Ra, has made Osiris, his brother, king of Egypt, and because the people love Osiris as a just ruler. In the novel, one of Seth's names is Wantahet, a character in Tuareg mythology who represents the Devil. Isan reveals one of his names to the third nymph he encounters: Spirit World Demon (196).

Like Seth, too, Isan is ugly and bestial. He is a combination of eccentric features that do not occur elsewhere in nature. He is described as having a long forked tail and a curving snout (Quirke 37). When the Fool comes close to him in order to kill him, he notices that "His large ears resembled those of the she-ass!" (268). And one of the seven nymphs he meets at the spring immediately identifies his "animal" nature and notices his ass ears and his tail (19).

In Watani sahra' kubra (Sahara Is My Home), al-Koni reveals that the ancient Tuareg tradition uses the name Seth to indicate an ass. He adds that Seth appears as an ass on the rock paintings in the Sahara and in Ancient Egyptian art as well, which proves the wide-spread belief in these myths in both traditions. (11) Not only is Seth evil, bestial, and ugly, but he is also the symbol of infertility in Egyptian mythology. During the battle between Horns, the son of Osiris, and Seth, both gods get injured (Velde 42-46). Horns loses his left eye, yet is able to cut Seth's testicles. Since then, the legend goes, Seth not only became infertile; he also made women infertile, and even caused their miscarriage if pregnant (Velde 29). Likewise, Isan uses his magical talents to poison the oasis water causing an epidemic that makes women infertile.

Another name of Seth is the "storm god." In The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Seth is called "Lord of the Northern Sky" (Lindemans n. pag.). And while his brother Osiris is the god of agriculture, Seth is known in Egyptian mythology to be the god of the desert and of nomadic life. In The Seven Veils, Isan reminds us that Tuareg ideology highlights "statelessness" (60-61) as a seminal characteristic of their identity. The Tuareg do not have a fixed place, but rather travel throughout the entire Sahara, from Libya up to Morocco and beyond, and through Africa.

In all his writings, especially in Watani sahra' kubra, al-Koni comes back to the idea that settled life stifles spirituality, that prophecy was born in the desert and has nourished humanity with its wisdom for thousands of years. He stresses that migration within the desert created the ancient civilizations, giving birth to many of the world's first civilizations, from the great Sahara to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as the Arabian Peninsula and Asia Minor (105). In al-Rabba al-hajariyya wa nusus 'ukhra (Stone Goddess and Other Texts), he reminds the reader that the Tuareg believe that if one remains in the same place for longer than forty days, he loses his freedom (65). Often his novels end with the destruction of the oasis and with the people back in the desert. Interestingly enough, al-Koni indicates in al-Suhuf al-'ula that the equivalent of the Arabic term qabr (grave) signifies in the Tuareg language a house, a hut, or mausoleum, "because the grave is in its authentic truth a house for the eternity while the house is in its authentic tmth a grave for this world" (36; my translation).

Despite his wicked acts, Isan, like the god Seth, is not only evil, as we tend to think at a first reading. An analysis of the Egyptian Seth and Isan unveils a trickster figure whose mission is to destabilize society in order to enable the emergence of goodness. In Egyptian mythology, for example, despite all the horrific deeds he commits, Seth ends up protecting Ra, the supreme god, from his enemies, and, as such, having a place in the solar boat of the god (Armour 85). We even find invocations that are addressed to him, not as the slayer of his brother Osiris, but as the god who has conquered the monster of chaos, the snake Apep who attempted to destroy Ra. (12) Likewise, Isan destroys the oasis that has welcomed him in order to make its dwellers closer to the Spirit world, which can be achieved only through migration in the desert. Yet, he also performs good deeds: He is the only one in the oasis willing to cure a man from smallpox with his magical talents when the oasis's people had left him to die alone in his tent (180). In this sense, he is also similar to the shaman of ancient tribes and traditional cultures. Unconstrained by boundaries such as good or evil, life or death, heaven or earth, Isan, like Seth of the Egyptian myth, shows the way in which contradictory aspects can be united. (13) Al-Koni's skill in re-narrating the myth of Seth in the character of Isan lies not in his fusion of myths, but rather in using these myths to dramatize the values of nomadic versus settled life.

Al-Koni continues to explore the intermingling of ancient Egyptian religion with Tuareg religion in a second novel, Anubis. The title carries the name of one of the most complex and iconic gods in the ancient Egyptian pantheon. In the novel itself, however, al-Koni additionally uses the name Anubi in its Tamasheq sense, meaning 'orphan,' 'individual,' or 'human being.' The novel illustrates Frye's notion of "the quest-myth" (Fables 10): "the innermost myth of literature" ("The Archetypes" 87). Though Frye's notion concerns quests within a novel, in the case of Anubis, the writing of the novel was itself a quest: The author traveled to different parts of the Sahara in order to research the novel, conferring with Tuareg elders and investigating the origin and circulation of this god's worship. (14)

The hero Anubi is himself on a quest: The novel deals with the tribulations of the protagonist searching for his absent father whom he ends up killing, as did the fool with his father at the end of the Seven Veils. In Anubis, the narrator declares: "We must kill the father in order to seek the father" (206). The father departs, while the mother--"ma" as he calls her--remains with him. The text is anchored in the matrilineal Tuareg society, which, like many other mythological traditions, sees in heaven the father and in earth the mother. In al-Koni's fiction, especially in the novels under analysis here, the father is often absent, the son following his traces and repeating the same pattern. Anubi in al-Koni's novel is the god who represents the son of an unknown father, as is the case in Egyptian mythology where he is presented as the illegitimate son of Osiris and Nephythys. (15)

Both novels reveal how Tuareg myths, like Egyptian ones, conceive of humans and animals as forming a single entity. They speak the same language that Anubi calls "the forgotten language," a language he remembers after drinking the gazelle's urine (21). Al-Koni constantly highlights this aspect of Tuareg mythology in his fiction in general. Anubis and Seth appear in al-Koni's novels as half-animal, half-human, just as they are depicted in ancient Egypt. Isan appears with a forked tail and the ears of an ass in the oasis, while Anubi crosses the desert with the head of a man and the body of a gazelle. Yet it is especially in The Bleeding that al-Koni shows us the power of a Tuareg: The protagonist Asouf transforms himself into an animal. The novel intermingles human with animal form from its outset, progressing toward hybridity, and culminating with Asouf himself becoming the waddan and slaughtered as such on the stone. This is how the herdsman is "sacrificed," his death fulfilling a prophecy in which the Tuareg believe: "I, the High Priest of Matkhandoush, prophesy, for the generations to come, that redemption will be at hand when the sacred waddan bleeds and the blood issues from the stone. It is then that the miracle will be born; that the earth will be cleansed and the deluge cover the desert" (135).

The events in Anubis, The Bleeding, Gold Dust, and--to a certain extent--The Seven Veils illustrate the Tuareg belief in the inseparability of the human, the animal, and the spiritual. This is why any harm that affects one affects the other. Toward the end of Gold Dust, the animal sacrifices himself in order to save Ukhayyad, trapped in the cave. The waddan also saves Asouf who recognizes in him his father. Thus, the boundaries between humans and animals seem to be erased. Both species exchange sentiments. In this sense, animals do not exist only to serve humans, as food or pets, as is the case now. In all of al-Koni's writing, one finds a fascinating depiction of reciprocity of knowing and feeling between humans and animals, similar to the relation between animals and humans in many indigenous societies, in general, and in Native American traditions, in particular. These relations between the two species encompass viewpoints on the notion of personhood, discernment of ecology, and thoughts on cosmology. Animals are endowed with perceptive faculties which allow them to foresee events (see also Elmusa). Most importantly, animals in al-Koni's fiction seem to have access to the spirit world, and, in several cases, seem to penetrate deeper and farther than humans in the unseen realms, which sometimes makes them the spiritual superiors of humans. In Anubis, for instance, the narrator himself is transfigured, so to speak, after fixing for a long time the eyes of the hybrid animal which seems rather an apparition than a real being (56).

Like The Seven Veils of Seth, Anubis deals with essential themes related to Tuareg mythology. It revolves around light and obscurity, as if to hint that Anubi is at the frontier of good and evil. He commits violent acts that he regrets later on, unable to understand their meaning until a long time passes by. In Anubis, chapter titles refer to different shades of light and darkness. (16) Each chapter indicates a certain moment of the day or the night. Thus, the first chapter, entitled "Sunrise," revolves around the solar disk which is the symbol of the god Raugh in Tuareg--Ra in ancient Egyptian mythology. It is in this chapter that the reader is introduced to Anubi's birth and his learning about the sun god. His "ma" holds him and introduces him to his "father," the supreme god Ra, bathing him in the light of the golden sun. Then she addresses him with these words: "You shall call him Raugh, once your speech clears and you regain your ability like mine to make the 'r' sound" (7). Ziad Elmarsafy rightly describes this powerful mystical moment as "marked by the ritual definition of the self' (216). Al-Koni explains the symbolic importance of the letter 'r' in both ancient Egyptian mythology and Tuareg mythology, maintaining that both Tuareg and ancient Egyptians represent the sound 'r' by a circle to indicate the sun, which refers to the supreme god. Moreover, the circle as a closed entity is used in both traditions as a talisman as al-Koni explains (Watani 143).

The second chapter is entitled "Forenoon"; the third "When the Flocks Head Home," meaning sunset. In the fourth chapter, the action takes place in the afternoon, as the title indicates. The fifth chapter is entitled "Dusk"; the sixth "Night"; the seventh "Last Watch of the Night"; and the eighth "Dawn." In the second part of the novel, a new day begins, and, again, each chapter corresponds to a certain moment of the day or the night. I argue that the chapters depicting different moments of the night refer to Osiris, the god of the underworld, while the sections evoking light refer to Ra. In this sense, al-Koni plays on the doubt concerning the origin of Anubi's father. These recurrences in the order of the novel are also significant inasmuch as they indicate the Tuareg belief in cyclical time. It is noticeable also that the first part begins with sunrise and the last chapter of the second part is entitled "Morning." Thus, the end resembles the beginning, and light is triumphant in both. This cyclical structure is also reflected in the protagonist Anubi who evokes his own rebirth, or "coming back" to earth. Anubi celebrates the Tuareg cyclical vision with these words: "Wherever you come from, there you'll return, for man, like a caravan, would not be man, unless he returned to his point of departure" (90). It is also not clear whether Anubi is looking for his physical father--Osiris, the lord of resurrection, the god who receives the deceased and decides after weighing their hearts if they should go to heaven or to hell--or if he is searching for Ra, his mystical father, the one in heaven.

The novel ends with Anubi's aphorisms, which mirror the Tuareg wisdom accumulated through time. Dominique Casajus maintains that aphorisms are widely used among the Tuareg. She claims that the goal of an aphorism for the Tuareg is to close the conversation gradually towards an indisputable and peaceful truth (35). In the light of this comment, it is possible to understand the closure of the novel as illustrating a Tuareg tradition. However, Fahndrich, in his afterword to the very recent translation of al-Koni's Tuareg aphorisms by Roger Allen entitled Sleepless Eye, maintains that the aphorisms simply express al-Koni's belief that every single thing in the world has its own role to play and occupies a special place that is destined to it alone (111). Thus, water joins sky and earth through rain, while stones and rocks preserve the heritage of the ancestors. Be that as it may, al-Koni comes often to the question of aphorisms that express something from the Tuareg's Lost Law (al-namus al mafqud). I suggest that these aphorisms are at the heart of al-Koni's message, which is to preserve the sayings of the Tuareg sages of old and remind us of other prophets' aphorisms. It is as if the whole purpose of the narration was to reach the wisdom expressed in these aphorisms at the end. This knowledge seems to be the result of an experiential endeavor, not intellectual speculations. Anubi, like other characters in al-Koni's fiction, has left home, gone into an arduous journey across the desert, and, in his hardships, learned about the secrets of life and death. His crossing of the desert resembles other heroes' voyages in other mythologies across the world. Towards the end of the novel, and just before he dies, Anubi struggles to light a fire and write his story on a square of leather for the future generations to read and ponder.

The influence of ancient Egyptian religion on al-Koni's work is not limited to these two novels. It can be found scattered in his numerous books and novels. For example, at the end of his novel Marathi Ulis, the narrator, possibly a representation of al-Koni himself, stands on top of the mountain in the land of Tuat to meditate on life and death. Al-Koni explains in a footnote that Tuat is the land of the West to which all the dead return, as mentioned in the mythology of the Tuareg and Ancient Egyptians. From Tuat, the protagonist enters the land of eternity which is called in both Tamasheq and ancient Egyptian language "Imdawat" (246). In ancient Egyptian religion, Tuat is where Osiris and other gods--such as Seth, Anubis, Hathor, and Horns--dwell. Allen and Der Manuelian's The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, successive spells from the fifth and sixth dynasties, illustrate this association of the desert with death, one which we also find in al-Koni's writing. Both gods, Seth and Anubis, in both novels illustrate the necessity of continuous migration that al-Koni considers sacred. His novel New Waw: Saharan Oasis, for example, starts with a chapter entitled "The Winged People." It describes in lyrical and symbolic terms the arrival of an immense community of birds to the oasis. Birds, like the Tuareg, are in continual migration. Their halt in the oasis is only for a few days.

Al-Koni maintains that the immobility characterizing sedentary life is death, while movement characteristic of migration is the cure for the soul. After all, his people the Tuareg have survived hardships because they knew how to navigate the desert. Because of his celebration of nomadic life, al-Koni opposes the views of Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) who, in his Muqaddima (Introduction) compares "primitive" culture ('umran badawi) to civilized culture (umran hadari) (Elmusa 13). Ibn Khaldun deems nomads a threat to civilization because they repeatedly raid refined cities. For him, the inhabitants of the desert are primitive people (Ibn Khaldun 286-87; 290). Consistent with his veneration of the Tuareg style of life, al-Koni opposes also Marx who invited people to quit rural life and choose instead the industrial revolution taking place in plants and manufactures. In fact, al-Koni would agree with the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (d. 2009), who praises the intellect of so-called primitive people. Levi-Strauss makes it clear that scientific thought does not supplant mythic thought. Both kinds of thought are valid. They are simply two independent ways of thinking rather than two phases in the evolution of thought, as it was commonly believed. Levi-Strauss, in fact, distinguishes between the untamed (mythic) and tamed minds (scientific) (219). In his obituary for Levi-Strauss, Le Clezio writes: "In his book La Pensee Sauvage, published in 1962, he showed these 'primitive' people as the equals of those in the most elevated cultures of the civilized world" (n. pag.). Al-Koni is urging us to return to the state of the untamed mind in order to stay closer to nature and truer to ourselves.

By recreating the mythology of the two Egyptian and Tuareg gods, al-Koni has invented in his fiction new fictive patterns. He has shown us how myths are centrally intense and enduring. The reader's curiosity is aroused as to the meaning of these tales and the manner in which they have been articulated across time. Al-Koni reformulated Anubis and Seth through his own vision, and in his own language.


(1) Susan Rasmussen emphasizes the notion that pre-Islamic beliefs persist in several rites, cosmology, and symbolism. She traces this non-Islamic presence especially in the healing seances from spirit possession where non-Quranic invocations are addressed as well as in herbal treatments. Based on her numerous sojourns with the Tuareg of Niger, she finds that they have been able, to a certain extent, to blend their ancient Tuareg beliefs with those of Islam. She describes how they invoke both Islamic and pre-Islamic deities in their healing seances. Likewise, they appeal to spirits firm both pantheons, such as jinn mentioned in the Quran and Kel Essuf, or people of solitude, in the Tuareg tradition ("Re-Formations" 189).

(2) Al-Koni also notably chooses images for his book covers taken from the rock paintings that represent his ancestors, signaling a desire to remind the reader of this mythology's centrality in his work.

(3) Rasmussen notes that the preaching of Islamic teachers from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has led to a strict understanding of Islam. She asserts that marabouts control "even those rituals peripheral to or outside 'official Islam,'" (Those Who Touch 150). See also the article by Andy Morgan, who traveled extensively to the Tuareg territory. Morgan writes:
   Some Salafi Tuareg consider their Berber culture to be backward
   and irrelevant in the modern world, a folksy throw-back kept alive
   by meddling Western anthropologists. They would prefer their
   people to adopt Arabic, the language of the Quran and of the wider
   Muslim community. With that they would welcome a greater
   Arabisation of the Tuareg. They deem certain other aspects of
   Tuareg culture, especially music and dance, to be licentious and
   ungodly and they object to the relative freedom and social power
   that Tuareg women enjoy. They also revile the old "backward'
   Sufi traditions of Islam that most Tuareg adhere to. (n. pag.)

(4) Ines Kohl and Anja Fischer claim that the Tuareg, especially those who live in the Sahara bordering Mali, are more and more compelled to quit their nomadic way of life and adopt urban style (1).

(5) Roger Allen similarly sees in al-Koni's work a continuation of pre-Islamic poetry (247).

(6) Pre-Islamic poetry does not focus on the desert itself; rather, it offers reflections on various themes, such as love, camels, and departure. Moreover, al-Koni's work is essentially fictional while pre-Islamic literature was poetical. The difference in literary genre generates in itself a different vision of the world, regardless of time and space. Comparisons between both literatures could lead to a misunderstanding of al-Koni's work and a refutation of what the author himself asserts, namely, that his aim is to let the Sahara speak.

(7) The waddan is a wild sheep that continues to survive in the isolated mountain desert of southern Libya.

(8) Not all anthropologists agree on this interpretation of the veil. Robert F. Murphy, for example, thinks otherwise. The veil, in his view, creates distance from others and allows the individual to remain aloof during a conversation (1260). Jeremy Keenan who visited the Tuareg of Algeria a few years ago, writes that traditions are changing; the younger generation no longer believes that the mouth is especially to be protected. They wear colored veils in a rather fashionable manner (114).

(9) Since its inception, the novel has taken for its own use mythological elements. Eric Gould maintains that mythologies infiltrated the novel because the novel desired to go beyond history. In other words, the novel as a literary genre has always been in need of mythic elements. Gould stresses that the novel is "mythic in scope" even before being influenced by classical or religious mythologies (137).

(10) The same thing happens in another novel entitled, al-Fazza'a (The Scarecrow) in which the protagonist also destroys the oasis's community that he has been visiting, thus compelling people to migrate.

(11) It is worth noting here that the symbol of the ass carries connotations of evil in many traditions (Cooper 16).

(12) "O Seth, lord of life, who is upon the prow of the barque of Ra, save me from all evil clamour of this year" (qtd in Velde 99).

(13) Velde maintains that Seth existed also in ancient Libyan mythology. There, too, he ends up destroying the settlements of the Libyans as in the novel of al-Koni (115).

(14) Interestingly, al-Koni discovered that a version of this myth was written down using inscriptions in the caves of Tassili and other parts in the Sahara, such as the rocks of Masak and the caverns of Akukas (Anubis xvi-xvii). Assisted by Tuareg sages, al-Koni tried to decipher the symbols in these caves. He consulted scholars in Timbuktu, traveled to Ahaggar and other places. He pieced together the narratives he assembled and wrote them in his own mother tongue, the Tamasheq, which is very similar to ancient Egyptian. One wonders if, by writing them first in his native language, he wanted to come closer to the Tuareg/Egyptian god He translated them into Arabic several years later.

(15) This is the most well-known version. However, there are variations on this legend Some claim Anubis is the son of Osiris; others assert he is the son of Seth, while others still believe he is the son of the supreme god Ra (Budge 201).

(16) Budge, for instance, cites Plutarch on the issue of light and obscurity in the myth of Anubis: "On the subject of Anubis, Plutarch reports some interesting beliefs.... After referring to the view that Anubis was born of Nephthys, although Isis was his reputed mother, he goes on to say, 'By Anubis they understand the horizontal circle, which divides the invisible part of the world, which they call Nephthys, from the visible, to which they give the name of Isis; and as this circle equally touches upon the confines of both light and darkness, it may be looked upon as common to them both.'" (264).

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Author:Zein, Amira El-
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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