Ibrahim Al-Koni: ـلـيـل فـي حـق الـنـهـار، روايـ (The Night Will Have Its Say)
This book is set in North Africa during the Umayyad Caliphate, in the late seventh/early eighth century. It was the aim of the Umayyad Caliphate to conquer the region and turn it from what it considered pagan ways to the True Faith, i.e. Islam. The book is primarily written from the opposition point of view.
Our heroine is al-Kahina though during the course of the book she will be known by a variety of names, including The Priestess (the meaning of Kahina), The Seer and Dahiya/Dihyā, her real name. She is the leader of the Berber tribes in what is now Libya, Tunisia and Algeria and women play a far greater role in her culture than they do in Islam.
The Ummayads at that time were ruled by two rulers. Abd al-Aziz ibn Marwan was the governor of Egypt and, as a result, of all of North Africa that had been conquered by the Arabs while his brother, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan was the Caliph, ruling in Damascus. The two brothers hated each other and, while nominally aiming to spread Islam, they were particularly eager to grab whatever riches they could, at the expense of the other brother if possible. Indeed, this causes Arab commanders trouble, for if they bribe one of the brothers, the other will be furious and vice versa.
Kahina, while not totally averse to Islam, is averse to the the Arab military and civil authorities who wish to conquer her lands as they are greedy and wicked and are interested in promoting the letter of Islamic law and not the spirit, Moreover, of course, they do not accept a woman in any authority role. We see the differences when a messenger arrives at Kahina’s court and she proceeds to outargue him. We will meet him again.
There had been two previous Berbers who had tried to succumb to the Arabs in order to preserve their people – Kusaila and the leader of the Garamantes, who both paid a heavy price, so Kahina is having none of it. She has tried learning Arabic but not really succeeded, in order to read the Koran. However she tells the messenger The Deity is one but the ways leading to Him are many and You take your path to the Deity, and allow us to take ours!
She is well aware that the Arabs primarily want the gold found in her territory and she has even offered it to them. We have long been in search of a way to be rid of its evil, since according to our way of thinking, it brings bad luck! In short, the messenger, who, she will later admit is intelligent, has to leave with his tail between his legs.
We know from the history books that the Ummayads did conquer all of North Africa and, of course, their legacy still prevails, as North Africa remains very much Muslim. We also know that they will be eventually overthrown by the Abbasids and Al-Koni touches on this and why, in his view the Ummayads failed.
However, much of the book is about the confrontation between Kahina and the Arabs and how she outsmarts them intellectually and, for some time, militarily and the mistakes she makes, including a scorched earth policy. Al-Koni skilfully shows up the hypocrisy of the Arabs as they insist that their sole aim is to bring the Truth to the benighted Berber tribes, when it is clear that they are really after territory and booty (which includes female slaves) while it is also clear that it is Kahina, far more than the Arabs, who is the repository of the Truth. As mentioned, she is sympathetic to Islam but as it is intended to be and not as it is practised by the marauding Ummayyad Caliphate.
She is also prepared to reach out to other people, having a son by a Greek and adopting a captured Arab, Yazid. This is, apparently, something of a mistake, as the Fates cast him down for a reason and her picking him up is likely to annoy the Fates. However, she is well aware that he is likely to betray her and accepts this as she stoically accepts other things that the Fates have in store for her. For us and for al-Koni, the way she outsmarts the Arabs intellectually and shows up their hypocrisy on numerous occasions is what makes this book. Moreover, a few of the Arabs decide that that her point of view may well be right and act accordingly.
It is clear that al-Koni is fully supportive of the old religion but also of Islam, though Islam as it should be practised and not how it often is practised. I would add that this dictum probably applies to many other religions, particularly where men have distorted the religion for their own greedy ends as is very much the case here. Kahina makes the point more than once that women are both often the victims but do a better job when in charge.
As mentioned, Kahina makes mistakes, for which she pays, but, unlike the men, is often aware that she has made mistakes and admits it. Above all, we cannot help but admire her for looking beyond material and personal gain and showing a very sensible approach to life which other leaders could do well to emulate.
First published in 2019 by al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyah lil-Dirasat wa-al-Nashr, Beirut
First published in English in 2022 by Hoopoe
Translated by Nancy Roberts