The Destructive Nature of Tyranny

Ibrahim Al-Koni is arguably the world's best-known Libyan writer. Although he usually refrains from making direct political comment, in this interview with Susanne Schanda he talks about his experience of the uprising in Libya

Ibrahim al-Koni (photo: private copyright)
"Libyan people are basically very peaceful, tolerant and patient," Ibrahim Al-Koni says, "but the pressure of 42 years of dictatorship was just too much"

​​ Mr al-Koni, What goes through your mind when you hear the news from Libya?

Ibrahim al-Koni: I'm very sad about the barbaric violence of the regime against the civilian population. Ghaddafi's troops are taking up arms against their own people, just like in a war. It's crazy. On the other hand I'm happy, because this war is leading to freedom. Will has triumphed over fear.

You've just spent two months in your home country. What did you see there?

Al-Koni: I flew to Libya in mid-December, to visit my sick brother. He has cancer. Many of my compatriots have cancer, and I believe that this is a direct result of the permanent stress they have been exposed to by the repressive Ghaddafi regime. I followed the progress of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt from there and sensed that Libya was also ready for its own revolution and that a spark could jump over here. After all, the situation in Libya has been catastrophic for a long while.

Where do the young people find the courage to take to the streets against the dictator?

Al-Koni: Libyan people are basically very peaceful, tolerant and patient. But the pressure of 42 years of dictatorship was just too much, and there had to be an explosion at some point. But this freedom comes with a price. The Libyans are paying a higher price for it than the Tunisians and the Egyptians. The population of Libya is just five million, and thousands of people have been killed in just a few days.

You've always visited Libya. Did there used to be an intellectual milieu there, and open debate on social issues?

Muammar al-Gaddafi (photo: AP)
When Ghaddafi was again granted a role on the international stage and received support from the West, he thought it was no longer necessary to initiate reforms, Al-Koni says

​​ Al-Koni: Yes there always used to be, but the scene was suppressed, there were individual intellectual circles, not a coherent movement as such. The mood was against Ghaddafi for a long time, because we had expected something else from this revolution that he promised back in 1969, when he assumed power. I was a young journalist at the time in Tripoli, and I was always in conflict with the regime. In 1970 I went to what was then the Soviet Union, because I no longer felt safe in my home country.

Were you able to travel to Libya safely at a later date?

Al-Koni: Well in the meantime I've become an internationally renowned writer, and that affords me some protection from the capriciousness of this regime. But each time I arrived in Libya I was tracked by the intelligence service.

How have you managed to keep in touch with your homeland from Switzerland?

Al-Koni: I always tried to visit Libya in spite of the dangers. These are my people, after all. I did risk being arrested and thrown in prison, but this is my homeland and I am closely bound up with it, even though I live in Switzerland. I have continually tried to effect change there. I have fought and debated, even with representatives of the regime, in an effort to secure progress in Libya.

Do the reforms promised in recent years by Ghaddafi's son Seif al-Islam have any significance or credibility?

Insurgents on top of a tank in Bengazi (photo: AP)
Insurgents in Bengazi: According to Al-Koni, the international community has played a key role in keeping Gaddafi in power for so long

​​ Al-Koni: Seif al-Islam aimed to modernise society. He knew that the people needed this, and that they trusted him. People have long been weary of the authoritarian system, and they were totally desperate. The reform project failed due to opposition from Muammar Ghaddafi. It was a power struggle between father and son. When Ghaddafi was again granted a role on the international stage and received support from the West, he thought it was no longer necessary to initiate reforms. The international community has played a key role in keeping this despot in power for so long.

How did people react to the failure of the reform programme?

Al-Koni: The Libyans were frustrated when the proclamation of reforms, positive changes and greater media freedom turned out to be nothing but empty promises. When the desperation is so deeply felt, and life is dominated by hopelessness, then people are ready to risk everything, just as they are doing on the streets of Libya. When you've reached that point, then you'll even risk your own life.

You vision of life without Ghaddafi – what does it look like?

Al-Koni: I've experienced Libya when it was still a kingdom, followed by the Ghaddafi regime – there are many possible scenarios. Libya could one day become a free, democratic country. What I don't know is whether I'll be around to see that. It's an arduous process. But Libya as it was until recently is a thing of the past now. The nation is clearly moving towards freedom and democracy, and there's no turning back. No one can no be under any illusions that they can assume absolute power in Libya ever again. The same applies to Tunisia and Egypt.

Your novel "The Puppet" portrays tyranny as a destructive cancer. Is this intended as a parable on the Libyan dictatorship?

​​ Al-Koni: The novel describes the delusional and diseased symbiosis of a person with power. This becomes evident when one day, his robes fuse with his skin. He can no longer remove his ruler's robes, or else he will die. This novel is a document against tyranny, not just in Libya and the Arab world, but against all forms of tyranny. I'm not a politician, I'm a writer of philosophical literature. The human striving for power was always the dominant theme of my work, whether that power be political, moral, psychological, social or economic. I'm obsessed with this subject.

Is the current upheaval in the Arab world providing you with inspiration for a new novel?

Al-Koni: I'm fascinated by Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vendor whose self-immolation on 17 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid triggered the revolution in Tunisia. His actions provided the spark that ignited the conflagration and in the end, they have changed the entire Arab world. If I were to write about these revolutions, these upheavals in the Arab world, then I would seek out their roots, their beginnings. Literature always goes to the roots.

Is Mohammed Bouazizi an Arab hero?

Al-Koni: I would like to describe this man as a saint. The entire Arab world should be grateful to him. He is the Christ of our time, he has borne his cross and sacrificed his life. A symbol of hope. The earthquakes currently churning things up throughout the Arab world were triggered by him. If I write about him, then at the same time I write about everything that he has set in motion. That is literature, it describes the world in an indirect, metaphorical way. The idea of writing about these events has befallen me like a disease. That's extremely fruitful for a writer, a deep, titanic inspiration.

Interview: Susanne Schanda

© 2011

Born in 1948, Ibrahim al-Koni grew up as a member of a Tuareg tribe in the Libyan desert. In 1970 he emigrated to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorky Literature Institute. He worked as a journalist in Moscow and Warsaw, before moving in 1993 to Switzerland, where he lives to this day. He is one of the greatest living Arab writers, and his novels have been translated into many languages.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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