Posts by MK Harb

Prose Against the City: Ibrahim Al-koni and the Matters of the Desert

Al-koni is . . . giving the desert an ideological value that he believes has been lost.

Emptiness, desolation, and thirst—these evocations of the desert are the ones most familiar to the bulk of us, but for some, this wild landscape resists such simple evaluations, holding instead a kingdom of history, knowledge, and narrative. In this essay, anthropologist and writer MK Harb takes us through the literature of the North African author Ibrahim Al-koni, whose sagas reveal the historic philosophy that these regions have preserved. Despite the othering hierarchical nature that has plagued literature, Al-koni’s writings invoke tender and human shapes from his landscapes, arising from that mysterious creature: the Sahara. 

MK Harb recommends listening to this playlist while reading this article and the works of Al-Koni.

The mahri convulsed and its skin turned bloody red. It jittered with pain, its stomach containing a fire burning within and howled “Aw-a-a-a-a-a-a-a.”

Ukhayadd had given the mahri a silphium plant known for its magical capabilities for physical healing, but also for its mind-twisting qualities. Ukhayadd himself began to convulse, through his emotions he felt every bit of the pain the mahri was going through. He pleaded to the various gods in the Sahara from Allah to those guarding the temples to transfer the pain on to him. He yelled “Lord, divide his share of pain. Let me be the one to lighten his burden,” but the mahri still jittered and yelled “Awa-a-a-a-a-a-a.”

Ukhayadd’s emotions then turned to anger. He pleaded with the mahri, yelling “do you think you can escape your fate? Brave men do not try to run from themselves. Wise men do not try to flee from fate.” Ukhayadd did not see the mahri as a horse. He shared with him a sort of otherworldly love and addressed him with the various emotional capacities you would with a human. 

This imagery ripe with lore and the transfiguration of pain comes to us through the words of the novelist Ibrahim Al-koni. Al-koni is a prolific writer, having penned over eighty novels, with his most famous being The Bleeding of the Stone (translated by May Jayyusi) and Desert Gold (translated by Elliot Kolla), from which this preceding passage of Ukhayyad and the mahri comes. Al-koni hails from Libya, though he does not identify as a Libyan author; while he comes from the land that is now nationally defined as Libya, he is unwilling to commit to nationalist or modern labels. Having grown up in the traditions of the Tuareg, an Amazigh group that inhabits the borders in and out of the Sahara and whose cultural and geographic traditions were heavily disrupted by the imposition of colonial and national borders, this nomadic upbringing seeps throughout his words. His writing is divorced from a need to construct urban environments or a sense of linear time and space; instead, it is imbued with a Sahrawi melancholy, which conjures up vast plateaus that are full of events as enthralling as those unfolding in cities.

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Celestial Troubles: Love and Transition in Oman

In Celestial Bodies, Alharthi takes us on a bewildering journey that is both specific to Oman and relatable in its experiences.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies was awarded the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year, making her the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the prize. She was also the first Omani author ever to have her novel translated from Arabic into English. In the following essay, writer and anthropologist MK Harb examines how Oman’s overlooked history as an imperial dynasty, and its rapidly changing society are integral to the force of Alharthi’s novel.

The internal monologue of Abdallah is unnerving, and often unsettling. Lost between trauma and nostalgia, he repeatedly reflects on his fractured relationship with his father, a notorious merchant and slave owner. Situated in the balmy village of al-Awafi, Abdallah is one of the many members of an Omani family encountering the upheavals and changes of modernity brought on by the state. To some, Oman is an obscure country with an eccentric Sultan, whilst to others, its green pastures and monsoons represent a luscious geographic rarity in the Arabian Peninsula. Unknown to many is Oman’s long and complex history as an imperial dynasty. Oman’s history is as much African as it is Arab; with Zanzibar as its capital, the Sultanate ruled in East Africa from 1698 until the bloody revolution of 1963. Oman’s rule in East Africa represents a history of vernacular and mercantile economic systems that existed prior to the arrival of modern capitalism, but it also represents a racial history of manumission and slavery. Jokha Alharthi’s award-winning novel, Celestial Bodies, tells this history, unravelling the ghosts of an empire, and the precariousness of modernity in Omani society. READ MORE…