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.