A Sleepless Eye: Book Review

sleepless-eyeA Sleepless Eye: Aphorisms from the Sahara. Created by Ibrahim Al-Koni; selected by Hartmut Fähndrich; translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen; photography by Alain Sèbe. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 118. ISBN: 9780815610342.

Born in Libya in 1948, Ibrahim Al-Koni is a Tuareg who has published over eighty volumes in Arabic and received numerous awards. His works have been translated into thirty-five languages. In this book, he has thoughtfully added his personal experience as a nomad. Like any other poems, Al-Koni’s are not easy to translate and to give the exact intended meaning of the author’s original words to the readers. Sometimes the rhyme of a poem or the original sequence of the text is lost even with the best attempts at translation, according to Fähndrich, the selector of the poems. There are times when finding a synonym or equivalent to a phrase or word that can deliver the beauty of the original text is difficult. Nevertheless, the poems selected for this work are focused on nature, which has made it easier for readers to follow.

From Al-Koni’s philosophical point of view, every element in nature becomes visible, audible, tangible, and palpable. The author’s aphorisms imply that everything around us in the world exists for a reason and is connected with other elements, including human beings. He elegantly relates these elements and shows how they could coexist and function through a nomad’s perspective. Below is a brief summary of the interaction of the elements in “nature” through the author’s aphorisms:

“Nature” in his first poem resembles a mother with an unconditional love, full of forgiveness, embracing her children with love and nurturing them like no one else could do. In birth, nature is food for us, but in death we (human beings) become the food for nature.

Poems on “seasons” talk about autumn and winter where autumn is considered a phase of preparation for nature to embrace the winter.

“Desert” is linked to an exile, yet a magic bottle of freedom, an oasis of eternity, or a homeland of the spirit. It is expressed as a house with no boundaries or walls; something that could touch the unlimited, such as the sky above or the sea beneath it.

“Water,” as it flows, runs through the past, present, and future. It is powerful with its flexibility but fragile for the same reason.

“Sea water” is the land of eternity with generosity to give us more than it had promised; it never stops flowing.

“Sea and Desert” are compared; Sea resembles freedom replenishing thirst. Desert, on the other hand, is nothingness, an oasis of salvation.

“Wind” is something that could hide the visible or make the invisible visible. It is like an instrument to sing with the leaves on the trees and make them dance. Wind is the sound of the music in the desert.

“Rock” in nature is like a mass suspended between living or dead beings. It is silent yet resembles a messenger, since it was the first tool of mankind on which to write or draw to pass messages through history. Rock occupies the desert as a domain and it is only the rock that can subdue the wind.

“Trees” are another living element and the wind could play with their leaves and make them dance. In autumn, the wind helps the leaves to fall but in spring time, the leaves are back again dancing with the wind.

“Flowers’” essence is like the declaration of existence which brings to mind an unseen smile. Flowers are a treasure you can never possess or keep alive forever.

The last poem is about “fire,” which is associated with many other elements. Fire is chasing the rocks, loving the wind, but hating water. Air is an antidote to fire while water is its poison. Water gains freedom by fire but slavery by ice. Water and fire are enemies everywhere but close relatives to harmonize in the human body.

In general, this book is a good source to have in any literary collection. Al-Koni, through his poems, delivers an understanding of natural elements around us while he highlights these elements’ relationship in the Sahara landscape. With the professional work of French photographer Alain Sèbe, thorough the selection of Hartmut Fähndrich, and the meticulous translation of Roger Allen, Al-Koni’s poetry invites his readers to a more meaningful observation of their environment, and the coexistence of its natural elements and their features.

Shahrzad Khosrowpour
Chapman University

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