Ibrahim al-Koni is one of the Arab world’s most prolific writers (75 books) and one of the most translated authors. But the famous writer did not lure many at the Festival of Literature in Dubai, where only a dozen people attended his conference.
Al-Koni spoke about concepts such as identity, languages, sedentary and nomadic life, tolerance, spirituality, but never ventured into politics.
It is only when the tall, emaciated Tuareg man sat down with foreign journalists that he spoke his mind about the Arab revolutions and in particular about the one that shook the very foundations of his country, Libya.
« The central authority in Libya is very weak, and is undermined by corruption, hate and tribal wars, » said the writer who was born in 1948 in the Libyan desert. « I don’t want to justify those who are calling for autonomy in Berqa, but in the current situation, they are trying to save the country by trying to go back to the federal system that existed during the first few years after the independence » in 1951, he said.
Al-Koni has been living in Switzerland since 1993, after having toured the world as a journalist. He had difficult relations with the Qaddafi regime, but managed to return to Libya to visit his family from time to time. « Fame protected me, » said the energetic man, who walks with a cane.
His brother Moussa is today the controversial representative of the Tuareg community in the Transitional National Council (TNC) ruling Libya. The Tuaregs in Mali had accused him of recruiting some members of their community as mercenaries to beef up Qaddafi’s forces at the start of the Libyan people’s revolt against his rule. He has denied such allegations. Qaddafi’s forces did include a whole battalion of Tuaregs nomads from the desert, and they were the ones believed to have organized the escape to Mali of Qaddafi’s son Saadi, known to have been a footballer. Qaddafi’s eldest son and heir apparent, Saif al Islam, was disguised as a Tuareg when he was detained by opposition militants.
Libya is at risk of losing its centralized political system inherited from the Qaddafi era. On March 6, tribal and militia leaders declared the semi-autonomy of the vast, oil-rich eastern region once known as Cyrenaica. TNC leader Mustafa Abdeljalil immediately rejected such moves toward the establishment of a federal system which he said would eventually lead to the « partition » of the country. Such a scenario brings to mind the aspirations for independence of Iraq’s Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region also rich in hydrocarbons.
« A revolution is the destruction of a certain world, » he said. « After the initial euphoria, the period of reconstruction starts, and this is often inspired by the past and thus leads to disillusionment, » he said. « What happens next is not very important because the Arab world as we know it is dead. The revolutions have killed the pan-Arab era of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Baath party to make way for the era of political Islam, until this in turn also fails. And the failure of political Islam will then lead to democracy, » Ibrahim al-Koni said.
Such drastic transformation of the Arab world has prompted al-Koni to start writing his memoirs. « I want to tell the stories of the revolutions that shook humanity, especially the ones that I have had the honor to witness, » he said.
He was a young journalist in Tripoli when Colonel Qaddafi led a coup d’état that ousted King Idris in 1969. After he became increasingly critical of the new « revolutionary » regime, al-Koni had to leave a year later to Moscow where he studied literature and journalism. He was in Beirut when the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. He was in Poland in the 1980s when Solidarnosc started its campaign against the Soviet Empire. He was in Moscow in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev was forced to dissolve this Soviet Union that had become an empty shell after many of the republics that had formed it declared their independence. He was on a visit in Libya when Mohammad Bouazizi, a street vendor in neighboring Tunisia, torched himself at the age of 26.
Away from the Tuareg desert that has long inspired him, al-Koni is pondering on a novel inspired by Bouazizi and his desperate act on January 4, 2011, that launched the Arab revolts. « Bouazizi is a bit like Christ, he had to die for the Arabs to return to life. »