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    Interstitial International? Ibrahim al-Koni and the Question of Genre
    Sofia Samatar, September 2011
    Interstitial International? illustration by Michael William Kaluta
    illustration by M. W. Kaluta

    The pivotal moment of Ibrahim al-Koni's 1990 novel Nazīf al-ḥajar, translated as The Bleeding of the Stone, is a scene in which the isolated shepherd Asouf undergoes a life-and-death struggle with a waddan, a nearly extinct wild sheep. Asouf begins by hunting this mysterious beast and then, after hanging from a ledge over a gorge for more than a day, is rescued by the very creature he tried to destroy. In that moment, he recognizes the waddan as his dead father. As he makes his way back through the desert, bruised by the battle and tortured with thirst, he enters a liminal space: "There's another life, between life and death. A third state neither void nor existence. He was in that state now, crawling along the wadi like a snake, his eyes blinded" (64).

    The evocation of a "third state" hints at the novel's preoccupation with the bridging of the ordinary and the extraordinary, which becomes explicit when Asouf, in order to escape conscription into the Italian army, actually turns into a waddan (73). This miraculous transformation, together with other fantastic elements in the novel, such as gazelles that make covenants with human beings and the horrific cannibal, Cain son of Adam, suggest that it might be useful to read The Bleeding of the Stone as an interstitial text. As far as I know, this has not yet been tried, but the novel has certainly been described as an example of magical realism – in fact, if someone in a group of people who study Arabic literature says "magical realism," someone else is certain to say "Ibrahim al-Koni." Magical realism's strong association with postcolonial writing makes it the obvious choice to describe a work from a former colonial state that resists the conventions of the realistic novel, and such has been the case with al-Koni. Is there room, then, to discuss al-Koni's works as interstitial? If magical realism and interstitial arts both mix fantasy with conventional reality, if they both encourage revolt against the traditional constraints of genre, and if writers like Angela Carter can be placed in both categories, then why do we need both terms? More importantly, by embracing the concept of the interstitial, do we risk damaging the position of magical realism, through which, especially since the 1982 Nobel Prize award of the grand old man of the genre, Gabriel Garca Mrquez, so many works from around the world have been read, critiqued and taught? In these reflections, The Bleeding of the Stone, the award-winning novel by the prolific al-Koni and the first of his works to be translated into English, will provide not merely a passive testing ground for these theories, but an active model of how one might begin to theorize the interstitial in an international context.

    In focusing on al-Koni's writing, I am setting aside one of the most obvious differences between magical realism and the interstitial, which is that the latter welcomes works that combine artistic media, while this particular form of genre challenge has not been a major feature of magical realism. It is worth noting, however, that the term "magical realism" was first used by the German art critic Franz Roh in 1925 to describe visual and not literary art. Magical realism as a critical discourse, then, was born in the interstice between literature and painting. In addition, some authors associated with magical realism have produced works that push the edges of the novel form, giving us Milorad Pavic's encyclopedic The Dictionary of the Khazars, the crossword puzzle of his Landscape Painted with Tea, and the literary tarot of Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Yet these skirmishes with form are less important to the critical understanding of magical realism than the ideological stance associated with the term: a stance in which the fantastic is mixed with the real in order to destabilize master narratives, most often the narratives of imperialism. As Elleke Boehmer writes of postcolonial writers in English: "they... combine the supernatural with local legend and imagery derived from colonialist cultures to represent cultures which have been repeatedly unsettled by invasion, occupation, and political corruption" (235). It is this politically charged mingling of oppositional cultures, which in al-Koni's case takes place in a richly imagined desert, that has caused Sabry Hafez to claim that al-Koni "has provided Arabic literature with a dimension of magic realism similar to that in Latin American fiction, though" – he adds warningly – "unique and completely different from it" (60).

    One reason for the description of al-Koni's work as magical-realist is undoubtedly the fact that writing, particularly novel writing, that is not explicitly mimetic, tends to stimulate our categorizing urge. To categorize is human, but the proliferation of terms for this sort of writing – fantasy, science fiction, horror, the uncanny, steampunk, slipstream and mythpunk, to name a few – is ample proof that readers and writers are eager for definitions. One of the sharpest theorists on this state of affairs is Kathryn Hume, who in Fantasy and Mimesis points out that the denigration of departures from conventional reality in Western literature since Aristotle have left critics in the West – and through the way academic and critical institutions are structured, I would argue, in much of the rest of the world as well – without a language to talk about fantasy. We need to describe, tabulate and categorize the fantastic – in effect, to capture it – because we see it as a departure from the norm. The defensiveness felt by many readers and critics of non-mimetic literature, the concern to avoid being tainted by what Ellen Kushner vividly describes as "Fantasy Cooties" (/archive/about/origins.php), is another result of the Aristotelian legacy. Hume argues for the critical rehabilitation of fantasy, and for a view of literature as "the product of two impulses," fantasy and mimesis (20). This is a refreshing and exciting approach that deserves to be taken up with more energy than it has drawn so far. Yet because magical realism and the interstitial depend upon previously determined categories – magic/reality, or established genres which the interstitial exists between– neither can be theorized adequately without attention to, and (perhaps grudging) acceptance of, those categories. In this connection, Hume's work is useful less as a framework for criticism than as a reminder that there are historical reasons why those of us who cross the border between fantasy and mimesis, or strive to balance on it, often feel we're on shaky ground. When the cultural and historical Otherness of postcolonial writing is added to the literary Otherness of the fantastic, as is so often the case with magical realism, that ground may appear to be in serious need of defense.

    In fact, magical realism has been defended rather well. The amount of critical attention it has attracted, especially since 1982, has made it a genre in its own right. Yet its curious position, between cultures and between modes of perception – typically the magical versus the scientific – continues to stimulate debate. What does a magical-realist work look like? What should it look like? Who is writing magical realism and who is not? Such debates often boil down to territorial disputes that can be traced to the marginalization of the fantastic highlighted by Hume. The subtext of these disputes is that there is only so much room in academic and critical circles for non-mimetic literature, and lots of people who want to get in, making it hard to achieve consensus. An example of this stands out in the introduction to A Companion to Magical Realism, in which Stephen Hart both lists Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories as a magical-realist work, and also quotes from William Rowe's entry on magical realism in the Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature: "In the 1980s magical realism became a genre formula, transferable to scenarios that lacked the particular historical characteristics outlined above, and was even adopted as a model by non-Latin American writers (such as Angela Carter)" (quoted in Hart, 12).

    The implications of this statement – that Angela Carter was following a "genre formula," and that no one outside Latin America was experimenting with fantasy and realism before the 1980s – are outrageous, but they point to the powerful territorial claims that make "magical realism" a less elastic term than "interstitial arts." A wariness toward these claims can be read in Sabry Hafez's statement that al-Koni's work is both "similar" to Latin American magical realism and "unique and completely different from it." That wariness is probably well-advised, but it also raises the question: if two things are "completely different," what is to be gained from saying that they are similar? The solution may appear to lie in the outlining of different types of magical realism, connected to but distinct from the Latin American version, but this approach is highly problematic. We are already faced with a bewildering array of terms to describe artistic departures from conventional reality, one of them being magical realism. If we develop a range of subgenres of magical realism as well, we will soon find ourselves in the abject condition of Borges's Ireneo Funes, who desired a name for a dog at 3:14 seen from the side, and another for the same dog at 3:15 seen from the front (65).

    As a student of Arabic literature with a passion for the fantastic, I have no interest in carving out a new category of distinctly Arabic magical realism to which all genre-bending texts in Arabic will conform. Yet books like The Bleeding of the Stone call for a language that is not afraid of magic. This is where the concept of the interstitial becomes interesting, and potentially more useful than magical realism with its endlessly contested definitions. Yet I remain cautious, for if magical realism is too narrowly defined to travel far, the interstitial may be so broad that it travels too easily. If a strict focus on the local leaves us intellectually paralyzed like poor Funes, there is also the danger that a term like "interstitial" may become a tyrannical universal, subsuming diverse literatures under an umbrella manufactured by Western academics.

    The Bleeding of the Stone offers a way to read this dilemma. It is the story of Asouf, the son of a waddan, who is murdered by "Cain son of Adam," the brother of a gazelle: an ecological parable, and also a portrait of the desert as a rich and vital center. While Asouf lives deliberately cut off from community, following his father's pronouncement that "Anyone choosing the good has to flee from people, to make sure no evil comes to him" (4), many of the chapters in the novel bear epigraphs drawn from a variety of sources, linking Asouf to the larger world. The closest of these sources to Asouf's world is the Quran; there are also Biblical quotations which, though a step removed, grow out of the same monotheistic tradition. The novel opens with quotations from the Quran's Sura of the Cattle and the Biblical Genesis, placed side by side, which both resonate with Asouf's view of the natural world, reflecting his respect for animals and horror of bloodshed. The epigraphs to other chapters cite Sophocles, Herodotus, Ovid, the medieval mystic Muhammad ibn 'Abdi al-Jaffar al-Niffari, and the French ethnographer Henri Lhote, credited with the discovery of the Saharan cave paintings that form the backdrop to Asouf's life and death. These epigraphs are part of the structure of the text, but not the development of the plot; they introduce the chapters, and step aside to make way for them; they are attached to Asouf's story but never absorbed into it.

    By "attached" I mean both connected as words on the page, and also conceptually linked through characters or images encountered by Asouf, whose desert world, so often appearing empty of life, is always influenced by those who have crossed it, either recently or in the distant past. Thus the Quranic verses reflect not only the presence of Asouf, but of other Muslims such as the people of the oases and Cain son of Adam, while the Biblical verses reflect the foreigners described as "Christians." The Greek writers evoke the ancient world of the cave paintings, al-Niffari finds an echo in the Sufi communities, and Lhote brings to mind the Italian "expert" Asouf guides in the desert – and also, of course, the foreign soldiers of various nationalities, including the American John Parker, who provides the guns and airplane with which Cain son of Adam annihilates the gazelles.

    My intention is not simply to draw lines between epigraphs and characters. These lines are certainly present, and as I have tried to show, attending to them helps to draw out the threads that give richness to the fabric of al-Koni's novel. But when we consider how to approach The Bleeding of the Stone or any other genre-challenging text, the relationship between epigraph and story is useful not as an end, but as a beginning. It is useful because it illustrates in a deliberate way the power of the in-between: what comes alive in the juxtaposition of epigraph and chapter is a shifting universe of hints, images and associations that will not be the same for every reader. Juxtaposition is not syncretism or hybridity; it is not a case of two elements converging to create a third. It is rather a case of two or more elements in tandem, with but not of one another, and the world they create between them. The Bleeding of the Stone can be read, then, not only as an interstitial text, employing the techniques of both realistic and fantastic narrative, but as one which, through its use of epigraphs, theorizes the interstitial.

    A critical method which stands in this type of relation to the text – which stands next to it and even strikes sparks from it, without absorbing or overpowering it – seems to me to hold great possibilities for study beyond one's own borders. In directing attention to the in-between, the concept of the interstitial resonates beyond genre studies, into areas such as language and culture. Yet it is worth remembering, as we explore these possibilities, how much labor still needs to be devoted to the analysis of the fantastic impulse, and how, as Hume writes, critics "must struggle to wrest our insights from the inchoate imprecision of wordlessness" (3). Remember Asouf after his struggle with the waddan, "crawling along the wadi like a snake, his eyes blinded." In terms of a language to explore non-mimetic literature, we are still feeling our way.

    Work Cited

    Al-Koni, Ibrahim. The Bleeding of the Stone. Trans. May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley. New York: Interlink, 2002. Print.

    Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

    Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. New York: Modern Library, 1983.

    Hafez, Sabry. "The Novel of the Desert: Poetics of Space and Dialectics of Freedom." La potique de l'espace dans la literature arabe moderne. Ed. Boutros Hallaq, Robin Ostle and Stefan Wild. Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2002. 55-84. Print.

    Hart, Stephen M., and Wen-Chin Ouyang, eds. A Companion to Magical Realism. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, New York: Tamesis, 2005. Print.

    Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. New York: Methuen, 1984. Print.

    About the Author

    Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies 20th-century Arabic literature with a focus on Egypt and Sudan. Her poetry is forthcoming in Stone Telling and Bull Spec, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, will be released by Small Beer Press in 2012.

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