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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Night Will Have Its Say

Ibrahim al-Koni

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To purchase The Night Will Have Its Say

Title: The Night Will Have Its Say
Author: Ibrahim al-Koni
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 259 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Night Will Have Its Say - US
The Night Will Have Its Say - UK
The Night Will Have Its Say - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Arabic title:" كلمة الليل في حق النهار
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Nancy Roberts

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Our Assessment:

B : rich, interesting variation on historical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The opening chapter of The Night Will Have Its Say is set in 700 CE (AH 78), but the story does not then proceed strictly chronologically, skipping back at points along its way forward, and eventually concluding some two decades later. The setting is the Maghreb, which the Arabs are seeking to conquer from the Berbers; beyond simple conquest (and plundering), the Arabs are also trying to impose their then still relatively new religion on those they subjugate. Based on historical events and persons, the novel nevertheless is a very free and creative take on them.
       The Berbers had suffered a significant defeat in 688, with their leader, Kusaila, defeated at the Battle of Mamma. Kusaila's successor is al-Kahina, also known as Dahiya, and she has been more successful in holding the Arabs off, notably in inflicting a significant defeat on Hassan ibn al-Nu'man, who, driven back, bides his time (mainly waiting for reïnforcements to be sent from the east) before trying to sweep in again.
       The ongoing struggle is between the followers of a lost Scripture and those of the new one - the Koran. The religion of al-Kahina and her followers honors women, and one of the reasons she is so opposed to the new one, as it is explained to her, is because it instead: "takes such a dim view of them". Her culture's ways stand in marked contrast to the one she is fighting:

From time immemorial, her ancestors had proclaimed the wisdom of reconciliation among the races through the magical mediation of motherhood. As they saw it, women -- and mothers in particular -- were the sole individuals qualified to merge blood lines and to eradicate one race's urge to kill others that differed from it in complexion, belief, or custom. Like a magic talisman, woman is the sacred vessel that the Realms of the Unseen put to use to bring forth progeny that exhibit similar traits, a single temperament, and a single spirit that is harmonious, reconciled, and at peace.
     This is a process which can only take place if fathers are decisively excluded from the transaction.
       So also she has two sons whose two fathers amounted to little more than impregnating ghosts -- both of who died in war, "the phantoms' favorite pursuit".
       Al-Kahina also can't help but have doubts about the sincerity of many of the Arab invaders, who seem moved more by the promise of riches and plunder rather than any religious motives:
     She did not believe, nor did she want to believe, that on their way to her, the invaders had lost sight of their Scripture's inward truth. However, the mean-spirited among the Arabs had robbed them of their true message and mission by exalting material gain as the purpose of their expeditions.
       She even proposes to: "bring ruin upon my own country so that the Arabs will despair of trying to make it their own" -- even though she is warned that they will always have the excuse of their Scripture to fall back upon. Yet she can't be convinced that even conversion to their religion could save her people and lands -- both because she has seen what happened to others who converted, as well as because of, for example, the way women are treated in this religion; she remains true to her own, even if the only path left to her is one that is (self-)destructive.
       Conflicts and power struggles among the Arabs themselves, including involving the more distant Umayyad caliphs as well as various local leaders in Egypt and elsewhere, also make for more complications, keeping the Arabs from long being able to present a united front. Nevertheless -- and as actually happened -- regional conquest and Islamization was ultimately successful, with al-Koni bringing his story to 723 CE ((AH 101).
       In al-Kahina al-Koni presents a strong and fascinating protagonist, a determined leader who is pragmatic but also deeply spiritual --tinged here with the mystical. Repeatedly, she is willing to embrace ruin over surrender -- shockingly, early on, showing herself willing to even destroy a city to save her followers from themselves, as it were, not trusting them to know what's good for them:
The only reason I'm allowing myself to destroy Béljaïa is that I know its people would never leave voluntarily, and that they will only do so only if they see their city in ruins. Even if I told them that the commander of the Arab armies was going to enslave them and use the city as a fortress in his war against me, they would not be persuaded.
       (Later, she also explains that the people of Béljaïa had: "allied themselves with an invading enemy", and that the destruction of the city was punishment for that act of treason.)
       There is also the Shade, the almost paradisiacal strip of land on the northern edge of the Maghreb -- which also stands: "along the desert's frontiers like a sentinel". Even this al-Kahina is willing to sacrifice:
She ordered her men to cut down its trees and raze its fortresses, destroying every remnant of civilization and vegetation alike. She did so in the belief that wiping the Shade off the face of the earth and joining the moist soil of the north with its arid counterpart in the south would shield her from the Arabs, who had only come out against her out of greed for a civilization they had forfeited in their own homelands.
       The strategic game played by al-Kahina is also affected by Ibn al-Nu'man's holding pattern -- his own frustrations and diversions as he waits for the needed reïnforcements making for another interesting facet to the story --, with al-Kahina herself teasing out the conflict, as:
     Prolonging an era requires that one prolong the quest, prolonging the quest requires that one avoid confrontation, and avoiding confrontation requires that one keep one's distance in the chase. This was the age-old truth she had observed in the night's endless pursuit of the day, and the day's pursuit of the night.
       One almost wishes for al-Kahina to be an even more dominant figure in the novel, entirely central, but in following through on the history al-Koni then also focuses on the later local reälignment among the Arabs themselves, as they extend their hold over the region ( a period where: "everything had changed and nothing had changed"). This, too, is of interest, and a glossary of 'Key Terms' helps those less familiar with the history of that time keep some track of the major players and events. Nevertheless, it can be hard to follow some of this.
       In making The Night Will Have Its Say an historical novel, al-Koni does, in part, straiten himself and his narrative -- forced always to return to what actually (or at least reportedly) happened. The basic conflict, between Arabs and Berbers and their different belief systems, as well as some of the personal conflicts and interactions, are certainly fascinating, and al-Koni builds his fiction well on these (not least in steeping much in the mystical). As always, he is also particularly good in presenting place, whether desert or urban (not least in having Ibn al-Nu'man occupying himself with: "building projects as a diversion and pastime" as he waits until he can once again attack).
       A rich text, The Night Will Have Its Say can be challenging -- not least, as noted, in its reliance on a history many readers may be unfamiliar with -- but it is rewarding, too, with gripping scenes and confrontations, and some fascinating underlying conflicts, in particular concerning attitudes towards life, freedom, and conquest. Obviously, also, with its strong female protagonist and the strictures of Islam it reflects interestingly on women's rights and roles. Al-Koni also does a good job of presenting the differing Arab postures, with some sincere about spreading their new religion and others essentially just piggy-backing on it as an excuse to plunder.
       The Night Will Have Its Say is an unusual kind of historical fiction, but certainly worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 August 2022

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The Night Will Have Its Say: Reviews: Other books by Ibrahim al-Koni under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni (إبراهيم الكوني) was born in 1948.

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© 2022 the complete review

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