"The True Trade Is Life"
Nomads are always on the move. The reason may lie in their trading activities, the long journeys necessary to cover the vast distances of the Sahara. According to tradition, they can stay up to 40 days in one place. But then it is high time to move on. For as the Tuaregs see it, travel also helps preserve society's moral order.
Those who stay in a given place more than 40 days already begin to think about a place of their own, possessions and property and how to accumulate as much of it as possible. But this leads to the pursuit of profit and to egoism that is bad for the community and may ultimately even cause it to break down. That, at any rate, is what the arbiters of tradition claim.
Mythical language, modern material
The only problem is that these arbiters themselves have long since accumulated considerable property. Like all the others, they too have long since abandoned their wanderings. They have settled down in the oasis, adopting a way of life that goes against the traditions, but offers greater security and comfort in return.
Ibrahim Al-Koni, born in 1948 to a Libyan Tuareg family, writes in a style that is as deliberate as it is subtle. But behind the façade of this seemingly timeless language he examines issues of the greatest contemporary relevance.
His novel, "The Puppet", not yet published in English, explores the emergence of capitalism in a society which only by a stretch of the imagination can still be described as 'traditional'.
But Al-Koni is too much the artist to mourn the collapse of the old order. Rather, he emerges as an attentive chronicler who traces the emergence of modernity from widely divergent perspectives.
An outdated view of the world
After describing the emergence of urban life in his novel The Promised City, not yet published in English, in Puppet he turns to the contradictions and ambivalence it brings with it, especially in economic terms.
The pursuit of gold contradicts tradition, announces the newly-chosen leader of the Tuareg. But can that really be said? "You don't want to see that we've long since ceased to be wanderers," one of the long-sedentary nomads points out to him. "You don't want to admit that we settled down here forty years ago."
According to his detractors, the young Tuareg leader is clinging to an outdated view of the world. He reveals himself not as a conservative, but a reactionary who is highly unsuited for the positions with which he is entrusted. At the same time, however, due to his obstinacy he is anything but the docile "puppet" his powerful handlers expected to fill the office.
The young man's refusal to become a puppet will ultimately seal his fate. The only question is whether this is due to his handlers' greed or to the young leader's unwillingness to understand how times have changed.
The aesthetics of the economy
The novel's central passage comes at the exact middle of the book, a dialogue between the young leader and an older merchant who develops an aesthetics of the economy that could hardly be more modern. For him, capitalism is a form of life that has long since established itself in the world of the Tuareg as well.
Al-Koni is not interested in a precise historic dating of this transformation, however. Rather, he elevates it into timelessness, expanding it into a fundamental examination of the phenomenon of emergent capitalism.
The merchant explains that he practices his profession above all because it is what makes him human. Trade, he explains, "has taught me that the true secret lies neither in running through the desert in pursuit of merchandise, nor in procuring the rarest merchandise from distant countries, nor in making profits that one leaves to unworthy descendents. No, the true trade is like life. The true trade, sir, is life!"
Triumphal march of the modern economy
Only through exertion does a person find himself, argue the proponents of the modern form of life dedicated to gold. No, in his restlessness he loses himself, the traditionalists counter. That is nothing but "chatter", the merchants reply, trade's greatest profit lies in the fascination it exerts.
For their part, the representatives of the other side suspect that this argument conceals a horror of the emptiness that would set in if people did not trade.
But how does one achieve inner peace? Al-Koni does not say. The role of the prophet or the cautious admonisher does not suit him. Instead, he depicts the different standpoints, presenting himself as a representative of modernity who knows that the triumphal march of the modern economy cannot be stopped, even in Libya's traditional societies.
Swan song for the old day
By failing to realize that times have changed, the young leader brings the region to the brink of an economic crisis. The prices fall, laboriously-gained trust collapses.
"Trade", a merchant says in an effort to explain the situation to the young leader, "is like a stray camel. Once scared off, it is not easy to bring back." Western economists would agree, speaking of the "volatility of the markets".
The Puppet ends with an act of violence, but Al-Koni refuses to mourn for the vanished world in melancholy fashion. A swan song for the good old Tuareg days would not only be kitschy, above all it would be pretentious and dishonestly melancholic.
Thus Al-Koni presents nothing other than the eternal drama of modernity – a thoroughly unromantic drama that, in the face of all romantic western notions of the Sahara, takes place under the desert sky. Nothing can stop the new times. Much less a puppet.
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole
Ibrahim Al-Koni, "Die Puppe" (The Puppet). Translated from the Arabic by Hartmut Fähndrich, Lenos Verlag, Basel, 2008.
Ibrahim al-Koni was born in 1948 in the desert of the Tuareg, Libya. He studied comparative literature in Moscow, and was a journalist in Moscow and Warsaw. He has lived in Switzerland since 1993, and authored over 50 novels, short stories, poems and aphorisms. Some works been translated into 35 languages, including eight into German and six into French. He has four works in English translation: "Bleeding of the Stone", "Anubis", "The Seven Veils of Seth", and "Gold Dust".