Al-Koni’s Tuareg Perspective on Islam’s Conquest of North Africa

5 September, 2022
A wed­ding feast in Ghadames, Libya, Ibrahim al-Koni’s birth­place, a city from which the Tuaregs have been ban­ished almost entire­ly, dri­ven out by jiha­di Arab Libyan groups that descend­ed on the city after the fall of Gaddafi (pho­to cour­tesy Iason Athanasiadis).


The Night Will Have Its Say, a nov­el by Ibrahim al-Koni
Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Nan­cy Roberts
Hoopoe/AUC Press 2022
ISBN 9781649031860 


A damn­ing alter­na­tive retelling of how Islam expand­ed into Amazigh North Africa by an author­i­ta­tive insid­er-out­sider voice


Iason Athanasiadis


An omi­nous pre­dic­tion from the ora­cle of Del­phi about the trou­bles about to befall the land of Libya, and a say­ing attrib­uted to the Prophet Muham­mad about how “nine-tenths of evil” come from the East, is how Ibrahim al-Koni embarks on a nov­el unspar­ing in its treat­ment of Islam’s ear­ly armies.

The stan­dard nar­ra­tive of the Islam­ic con­quests involves swash­buck­ling Arab Mus­lims advanc­ing across the known world, and attempt­ing to win over hearts and minds to the new reli­gion. But Koni choos­es to fix his gaze on the plun­der, revenge killings, vin­dic­tive tax­a­tion, kid­napped chil­dren, raped women and encom­pass­ing injus­tice jus­ti­fied by self-serv­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of divine rul­ings. And he high­lights how, when they were not find­ing ways to engage in plun­der (which bal­looned into such a main­stream activ­i­ty as for the word ghan­i­ma — “spoils of war” — to be for­mal­ized in reli­gious doc­trine), the pur­vey­ors of the new faith were often busy back­stab­bing each oth­er. A poignant exam­ple of this con­cludes Koni’s novel.

The Night Will Have Its Say recounts the con­quest of North Africa.

Has­san Ibn al-Nu’man, com­man­der of an Arab Mus­lim army and a man whose name is today pre­fixed by the faith­ful with the hon­orif­ic hadhrat, spends much of The Night Will Have Its Say rumi­nat­ing on his role, as he hes­i­tates dur­ing a stalled advance in the no-man’s‑land of Bar­ca (today’s east­ern Libya), bid­ing his time before a final con­fronta­tion with his great adver­sary, the Amazigh leader Kahina.

The seer Kahi­na is the leader of North Africa’s indige­nous Amazigh com­mu­ni­ty, and the suit­ably tough prod­uct of a matri­lin­eal soci­ety. She is a cru­el yet far­sight­ed strate­gist in seek­ing to pump vig­or back into her society’s blood­stream by destroy­ing its cities, a gen­er­al in how she mar­shals her sub­jects, and a moth­er in the man­ner that she tries to “over­come enmi­ty among the world’s peo­ples by com­min­gling their blood.”

Although they are nev­er to meet, the mag­i­cal real­ist sequence of men­tal exchanges between Kahi­na and Nu’man form the nucle­us of a nov­el exam­in­ing the fad­ing of a peo­ple who were van­quished mil­i­tar­i­ly (but also cul­tur­al­ly) by the unstop­pable advance of monothe­is­tic and mono­cul­tur­al moder­ni­ty. The psy­chol­o­gy and inner strug­gles of Nu’man plays along Kahina’s per­son­al­i­ty, who becomes ever more aware of her own and her people’s demise as the nov­el progresses.

This is a rare book, both for the voice it gives the tra­di­tion­al­ly mar­gin­al­ized Amazigh, and the unortho­dox thoughts it dares express in a cen­sor­ship-rid­dled and taboo-strewn lit­er­ary scene.

So who is author Ibrahim al-Koni and what impelled him to take stances so extreme­ly crit­i­cal of Islam and Arab authoritarianism?


Both state­less and exiled 

Koni was born state­less in a Saha­ran oasis in 1948, a few years before a UN ref­er­en­dum brought Libya into exis­tence. He is not Arab, and from the con­text of this nov­el, which punc­tures the foun­da­tion­al myth of Islam by por­tray­ing the first ghazis (“war­riors”) as lit­tle more than ram­pag­ing booty-seek­ers and rapists, he does not appear to have a high opin­ion of Islam, at least in its main­stream practice.

An eth­nic Tuareg (one of the many com­mu­ni­ties of the Amazigh), Koni grew up in the medieval trad­ing cross­road of Ghadames, locat­ed in mod­ern-day Libya, in the years imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing World War II. The mud­brick town was once a car­a­van sta­tion, and today hud­dles in a patch of desert where the cor­ners of Libya, Tunisia and Alge­ria meet. One of the world’s mas­ter­pieces of desert archi­tec­ture, Ghadames saw its extra­or­di­nary bio­cli­mat­ic urban web restored by UNESCO just before the 2011 rev­o­lu­tion in Libya. But it is also emp­ty, fol­low­ing the forced relo­ca­tions of its inhab­i­tants, ini­tial­ly by for­mer Libyan leader Muam­mar Ghaddafi (who moved them to a col­lec­tion of air-con­di­tioned, flat-topped cement build­ings as part of his mod­ern­iza­tion dri­ve) and in the ear­ly 2010s by Arab Islamist mili­tias car­ry­ing out a racial purifi­ca­tion dri­ve. When this writer vis­it­ed Ghadames in 2013, some of the Salafist fight­ers who had dri­ven out the Tuareg from the city were already set­ting off for Syr­ia in order to wage jihad against the Alaw­ite Bashar al-Assad, as they put it.

Ibrahim al-Koni was born in Libya in 1948. A Tuareg who writes in Ara­bic, he spent his child­hood in the desert and learned to read and write Ara­bic when he was 12. His nov­els include Anu­bis, Gold Dust, and The Sev­en Veils of Seth, from the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo Press, and anoth­er nov­el, The Bleed­ing of the Stone. In 2008 he received the Sheikh Zayed Prize for Lit­er­a­ture for his nov­el Nida’ ma kan ba‘idan (Call­ing the Dis­tant). In 2010, he received in Cairo the Arab Nov­el Award and ded­i­cat­ed the prize to the chil­dren of the Tuareg tribes from which he orig­i­nal­ly hails.

“I was dri­ven out of my par­adise as a young child,” Koni lament­ed in an inter­view, refer­ring to Ghadames. Sub­se­quent­ly, his books — which recre­ate a lost world of desert dwelling — have been trans­lat­ed into 40 lan­guages. Koni was named a final­ist for the 2015 Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize.

“Even if I were a prophet, I would not have man­aged to write six­ty books about it [Ghadames] from memory…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,’” he said.

Despite only learn­ing Ara­bic at age 12, Koni went on to become one of the most award­ed authors in Ara­bic today. Rather than view­ing the desert as a bour­geois escape hatch from civ­i­liza­tion (increas­ing­ly how urban Arabs choose to expe­ri­ence it), Koni evokes the bal­ance it brings to its remain­ing residents.

As a young man, Koni worked in Tripoli as a jour­nal­ist. His polit­i­cal dis­si­dence soon drove him out of Libya to the Sovi­et Union, where he stud­ied com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. He worked as a jour­nal­ist in Moscow, found­ed a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine in War­saw and, short­ly after communism’s col­lapse, moved to Switzer­land for twen­ty years, then Swe­den, and onwards to Spain, where he lives today.

As time passed, the anti-author­i­tar­i­an sym­bol­ism Koni inject­ed into his nov­els became more overt­ly polit­i­cal. In 2011, he praised Mohammed Bouaz­izi, the Tunisian street ven­dor who sparked the Arab Spring by immo­lat­ing him­self after a rou­tine inci­dent of police harass­ment, as “a saint… the Christ of our time” who “bore his cross and sac­ri­ficed his life.” Gaddafi’s fall fol­lowed (with a help­ing hand by NATO) but rather than a hap­py end­ing, Libya segued into rip­ping itself apart in an ongo­ing orgy of vio­lent turmoil.

From his perch in Spain, Koni acts as the voice of the state­less and voice­less Tuareg. He relent­less­ly reminds us in his books and inter­views that Tuareg iso­la­tion and their tra­di­tion­al lifestyle in the Sahara were exploit­ed to deny them the twin agen­cies moder­ni­ty requires: a rec­og­nized state and lan­guage. Instead, French colo­nial­ists occu­pied Tuareg areas, sub­ject­ed them to years of with­er­ing nuclear tests, before divvy­ing up the land between Alge­ria, Libya, Niger and Sene­gal, none of whom acknowl­edge Tamasheq (a vari­ant of Amazigh) as a for­mal lan­guage. Koni likes to remind the world in inter­views that the Sahara is humanity’s cra­dle, and that there­fore the Tuareg deserve a bet­ter fate than their cur­rent one.


The Islam­ic conquest

In focus­ing on the Islam­ic con­quest of North Africa, The Night Will Have Its Say iden­ti­fies the key turn­ing point in Amazigh loss of agency. Koni views Islam as nei­ther enlight­en­ing nor civ­i­liz­ing, but as the pur­vey­or of a cor­rupt­ing moder­ni­ty that taints the puri­ty of ani­mistic culture.

Kahi­na, the Amazigh queen, has a greater ambi­tion than just defeat­ing the Arab Mus­lim invaders: she hopes to end racial com­pe­ti­tion through cre­at­ing a mixed race, a “rec­on­cil­i­a­tion among the races through the mag­i­cal medi­a­tion of moth­er­hood.” But as the Arab troops approach, her project shifts into a con­fronta­tion between a matri­lin­eal soci­ety and Arab patri­archy. Koni writes:

“How was she to exact revenge on peo­ple who made a pro­fes­sion of ignit­ing wars when, as every­one knows, in wartime all is law­ful, and the copies of the Quran raised high on their spear tips were noth­ing but an excuse to amass blood-drenched plunder?”

As the Arabs edge clos­er, Kahi­na insti­tutes a scorched earth pol­i­cy, cut­ting down the forests that offer respite from the Sahara’s fur­nace. “She ordered her men to cut down its trees and raze its fortress­es, destroy­ing every rem­nant of civ­i­liza­tion and veg­e­ta­tion alike… in the belief that wip­ing the Shade off the face of the earth would shield her from the Arabs, who had only come out against her out of greed for a civ­i­liza­tion they had for­feit­ed in their own homelands.”

But Kahi­na is also fight­ing an inter­nal rear­guard action against her own people’s com­pro­mis­es. Many have ceased their nomadic life to urban­ize. She has “no sym­pa­thy for peo­ple who, to her dis­gust, were con­tent to spend their days lolling in hous­es of clay and whose affin­i­ty for life in the Shade had extin­guished the flames of hero­ism in their hearts.”

Although she will nev­er meet her con­queror (and his con­quest will come through betray­al), Nu’man, they share this instinc­tive dis­trust of the urban: “I have avoid­ed liv­ing in cities for fear of falling cap­tive to these very cus­toms,” he notes. “I refused to live in Kairouan (an Arab gar­ri­son city devel­oped after the con­quest of the ter­ri­to­ry that is today’s Tunisia), or claim my share of the booty or take con­cu­bines. I didn’t want to give myself a taste of lux­u­ry, lest wealth be my demise, as it had been for so many.”

In the end, Koni shows that it is mon­ey that makes the world go round: the new reli­gion becomes an emp­ty ves­sel, exploit­ed by booty-seek­ers to enhance their reach. A few sen­si­tive out­siders, like Nu’man or the dervish Hanash Sanaani, hold onto their val­ues at the cost of swift mar­gin­al­iza­tion. Ulti­mate­ly, Koni sig­nals to us that the fate of the per­son who choos­es to remain authen­tic, whether in the 7th cen­tu­ry or the 21st, is to be vio­lent­ly pushed aside.


AmazighArab authoritarianismArabic literatureBerberIslamLibyaNorth Africa

TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.


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