The Librarian of the Desert

In 1906, Harry Lyman Koopman wrote a lengthy speculative poem about the transfer of the Senussi library from Jaghbub to Kufra some ten years earlier, part of the removal of the entire Senussi headquarters. A librarian at Brown University, Koopman (1860-1937) seemed captivated by the Senussi center of learning deep in the Sahara: the library was supposed to be so vast that, he relates, it required hundreds of camels to transport. Reflecting on this feat as a librarian himself, Koopman’s poem takes the perspective of the hypothetical Senussi librarian at Kufra. This fictitious narrator expounds on the history of Islam, the trajectories of Islamic learning, and finally the removal of the library from one oasis in the Sahara to another even more deep in the desert.

One might characterize the poem as Koopman’s attempt to describe the library job he might have enjoyed having, in an alternate universe. Appropriately, it was first published in The Library Journal, the official organ of American library associations, where it probably enjoyed a favorable reception among other librarians of venerable Anglophone educational institutions. It was then included two years later in a collected volume of Koopman’s poetry, his fifth, entitled The Librarian of the Desert and other poems (Boston, 1908). Since readers at that time may have been rather unfamiliar with the topic and its background, Koopman provided the poem with a “prefatory note”:

In the very heart of the Libyan Desert, the most barren and inaccessible portion of the great Sahara, is situated one of the most influential libraries of the modern world. It is the great library at the headquarters of the Senussi brotherhood, which is the chief unifying force in modern Islam. Hither, to the oasis of Kufra, the central government of the brotherhood moved about 1893 from its former seat in Jarabub, which occupies a more exposed position about three hundred miles further north on the border between Egypt and Tripoli. Jarabub still remains the burial-place of the great founder of the order, and supersedes Mecca as an object of pilgrimage, not only for the followers of the Mahdi, but even for other Mussulmans. The great library, however, which was formed by the Mahdi’s learned brother, to whom was entrusted the charge of ecclesiastical affairs and education, was removed to Kufra. Its transportation required five hundred, some say eight hundred, camels. From this remote center the Mahdi stretches out his influence, for good or evil, over the whole Mohammedan world. Most writers accuse the Senussi of political designs, and look to see them lead all Islam in a revolt against Christianity and European civilization. To other authorities, like Professor Toy, they “appear to have for their object merely to secure a territory in which they may retain their customs and practise their religion in peace.” The latter view is essentially that which I have ascribed to the Senussi Librarian, into whose mouth I have put my poem. The reader who wishes may pursue the subject further in Arthur Silva White’s volume, “From Sphinx to Oracle.”

The poem was written in 1906, some years before the Senussi became well-known internationally as important regional actors, first in World War I, and then as organizers of a decade-long armed resistance to Italian colonization. Though nearly all the existing scholarly work on the Senussi order, and on the resistance, would not be published till about a decade after the poem’s composition, by the early 1900s the Senussi had featured in a number of travelogues. A number of Western travelers had encountered members of the Senussi order in attempts to traverse and map the Sahara and Sahel regions, particularly the parts in western Egypt, eastern Libya, and Waddai and Bornu (in what is now Chad). Koopman refers approvingly to one such account in his prefatory note, From Sphinx to Oracle: Through the Libyan Desert to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon by Arthur Silva White (London, 1899). In that work, Silva White travels around the oases of Siwa and Jaghbub, writing in great detail of the Senussi, including a chapter devoted specifically to their organization and practices. But Koopman may also have read, and even obtained for the Brown library, other works such as Henri Duveyrier’s La Confrérie musulmane de Sidi Mohammed ben Ali es Senoûssi (Paris, 1884), perhaps among those he obliquely refers as “accus[ing] the Senussi of political designs”.

Indeed, Koopman appears to be rather sympathetic to the Senussi as an organization, overtly stating his view that the Senussi merely desire “to secure a territory in which they may retain their customs and practise their religion in peace” rather than intending to fight against European civilization writ large. This quote is drawn from an obscure article by Crawford Howell Toy (1836-1919), a professor of Semitic languages at Harvard at the turn of the century. Toy had served in the Confederate army in the US Civil War, before going on to a career in “Oriental Studies” and, in retirement, penning some general works about the history of religions in the world. In the article cited, entitled “The Church and the Individual” (The International Quarterly Vol. 12, 1905-06, pp. 293-311), Toy discusses, in a very generic way, a variety of religious movements and their relationships to political power. In a brief digression on Christianity and Islam as state-building projects, he writes: “The great fraternities of Africa (the Senussi and others), reflecting the Berber stolid and gloomy fanaticism, appear to have for their object merely to secure a territory in which they may retain their customs and practise their religion in peace, away from the approaches of Christian infidels” (pp. 296-97). Koopman must have written the preface to his long poem, if not the poem itself, shortly after reading this essay, given the poem’s appearance in August of 1906. As a librarian, Koopman would have read broadly and would no doubt have kept up with at least some of the  travelogues flowing nonstop from the pens of late-19th century adventurers or would-be colonizers in Africa and the Middle East. He may have known of the Senussi order already, or perhaps it was indeed Toy’s brief remark which piqued his interest and set him to reading works such as Silva White’s.

The poem is very long, and somewhat rambling. Although structured in sections, they are not necessarily thematically discrete. There seems to be an overall narrative trajectory to the poem, but it is easy to lose track of where phrases, and verses, are heading.

Several important aspects can be mentioned, though. One is the librarian-narrator’s explication of the trajectory of Islamic learning, the four “legions of might / That muster at my command”: Word, Traditions, Consent, and Decisions, each of which has more or less its own section in the poem. Another is the description of the process of transferring the library from Jaghbub to Kufra, said to have required hundreds of camels (one wonders how many camels the transport of Koopman’s own library at Brown would have required!): the Senussi order presses into “the desert’s deepest heart / To shelter our sacred lore” to build their new headquarters and library surrounded by “a hundred leagues of sand”. Koopman even nods to the idea that the Senussi simply wanted a place to practice their religion in peace away from Christian infidels, referring to the caravan of books also containing, but at its end, some books of “the prying Franks” who search destructively “with tireless pains” for profit and knowledge, but, having (one assumes) not embraced Islam, “in doubt they live and die.”

Inscription: “To S.G.R. from H.L.K.” in Koopman’s own hand


The Librarian of the Desert, by Harry Lyman Koopman

Where the giant stairs lead down,
Bowlders, and shingle, and sand,
From the lofty northern land
That fronts the far blue main,
To the vale of the Sacred Town, —
Where low on the southern plain
The wizard of Heat and Drouth,
With a sunbeam for a wand,
Upbuilds his world of deceit,
Palm grove and rippling pond
And garden and cool retreat, —
Even from north to south,
O’er the shimmering desert’s face,
My laden file I trace,
My peaceful marching line;
Yet the mightiest army, I ween,
To conquer a darkened world,
The desert’s eye hath seen,
Since Okba’s troop was hurled,
In the might of the Prophet’s word,
from the Nile to the trackless brine: —
Yea, into the sea he rode,
And, baring to heaven his sword,
He cried: “Did not the deep,
O Allah, my prowess tame,
Westward still would I sweep
And the knowledge of Thy law,
In mercy on man bestowed,
Yet wider spread, and the awe
That is due to Thy holiest Name.”

Nay, never with mine may dare
The mightiest army compare,
Not even Iskander’s own,
Which hewed the world to a throne.
Nor more my little worth
To glory like theirs must yield
Than the mightiest armies of earth
To the victor host I wield;
For not against spear and shield,
Nor the strength of a man’s right arm,
Nor the speed of a horse’s feet,
Nor the arrow’s, deadlier fleet,
Nor the unseen bullet’s harm, —
Not against these they war,
The weakness of men and brutes,
But against the demon powers
Behind the clouds that lurk,
That fly under heaven free,
That burrow in dank and mirk
Below the mountains’ roots,
That haunt the caves of the sea,
That beleaguer these hearts of ours,
And God and His Prophet abhor.
Four are the legions of might
That muster at my command:
The first is the awful WORD,
Eternal, uncreate,
Yea! dateless with God’s own date,
Unuttered and unheard,
But written in rays of light
On the mighty table of stone,
Where future and past are shown,
That leans at God’s right hand.
Thence, for the weal of men,
In a book whose leaves are gold,
That jewels and silk enfold,
That was writ with an angel’s pen,
It was brought from its high estate
Through the heavens to the lowest heaven
By Gabriel — such God’s plan —
ln the blessed, mystic even,
On the night of power and fate,
In the month of Ramadan.
But not, O crystal sphere,
In thee lay the Word concealed.
God willed that year by year
Its truths to the Prophet’s ear
Should, line upon line, be revealed;
Whether, with chime of bells,
Gabriel the message tells;
Or thoughts, with silence shod,
From the Holy Spirit come
Into the secret place
Of the heart; or the very God,
Veiled, or face to face,
By day or in dreams of the night,
Speaks, and the heavens bloom bright,
Speaks, and the hells are dumb.

The next of the legions arrayed
To conquer at my command,
To quell the hosts of the banned,
The holy TRADITIONS be,
That age unto age enshrine
The wisdom, the power to aid,
Of the Prophet’s words divine
To his friends, the trusted few;
With the holy deeds of his hand
That were done for their eyes to see,
An example of deeds to do
In every time and land.
These in men’s hearts locked fast,
Unto children’s children told,
And onward as heirlooms passed,
Richer than lands or gold,
After long centuries flown,
By holy men at last
Were gathered and made known, —
Saints enlightened by prayer
To mirror the Prophet’s heart,
To winnow the false from the true,
To sift the weak from the strong,
The low from the lofty to part.
For “Wo be unto you
If ye utter my sayings wrong!
But guard them with anxious care:
And be mindful that ye assign
No words to me save ye know
In truth they are surely mine.”
So, in warning and ruth,
Spake the Prophet long ago.
And lo! the Traditions abide,
Mighty to strengthen and guide,
To chasten, to check, to impel,
To comfort, reprove, inspire,
And weak are the weapons of hell,
And they fall in fruitless ire
On the sunbright shields of the Truth.

Behold, as they pass in review,
The legions of the CONSENT!
The mustering of the Laws,
The saying and doing blent
Of the learned and devout,
Men who saw clear and true,
Not fools in their folly blind,
Nor drunken with pride of doubt,
Nor scoffers that, snarling behind,
Snap at the heels of the Cause;
But the first of the Blessed, they,
The Prophet’s helpers at need,
The mates of the Banishment,
The followers of the Flight.
Nor had these been all, but their seed
In every age might we count,
Had God for our sins not sent
Wrangling and fell despite,
Which have blinded our eyes to the way
That leads to his holy fount.
But yet shall the Faithful learn
The last, first lesson of Peace;
And the precious flood shall return
No more to the empty sands,
But be dipped by men’s eager hands,
And the world’s long thirst shall cease;
And, forgetting its fevered years,
Islam shall forward leap,
As the panting hart, that deep
Has drunk of a hidden rill,
Leaps and forgets its fears;
And they that strove shall be still,
And the evil shall cease from scathe,
And Islam, rousing its youth
As a mighty man from a swoon,
Shall renew its morn of Faith,
And the triumphs of its Truth
Shall round to a fadeless noon.

Last of my legions four,
The DECISIONS of the wise,
The new and the newer lore
That still from the old arise;
Yea, the new Truth wrought from the old
For the needs of the newer day,
Never the old to gainsay,
For the Truth is eternally true,
But only the old made new,
As a tale to the young retold.
The sun that smiled on the morn
Of the holy Prophet’s birth
Rose to-day on the earth,
New to the new day born;
Even so, after centuries rolled,
The Truth abides the same;
And so long as sin its net
Shall spread, and the heedless fall
And for light in the darkness call,
Truth unto Truth shall be set,
And a new Truth forth shall flare,
As a new flame lightens the air,
When flame has been set to flame.

So march to victories new
My legions with victory bright.
But, lo! in their train a host
Of warriors, doughty and true,
Heroes, although they boast
Only a mortal might.
The Roots of the Law they hight,
The Creeds from the one creed wrought,
The Renderings of the Laws,
The Comments on the Word,
The History of the Cause,
The Rules of Thought Unheard,
The Arts of the Spoken Thought.
Last, as if led in chains,
Follow in captive ranks
The books, in motley guise,
Of the lore of the prying Franks,
Who spare not earth nor sky,
Nor future nor moldering past,
But search with tireless pains,
If haply some golden grains
Of fact they may find at last;
Yet, never with knowledge wise,
And wretched for all their gains,
In doubt they live and die.

Mightiest force among men,
And swiftest fleeting, the breath;
Speech, whose birth is a death;
For, the ear of the hearer to reach
On the speaker’s lips it must die;
And, heard and uttered by each,
And uttered and heard again,
Who shall say for a sooth
That its message has not been wrought
In the limbec of men’s thought
From the Truth to a semblance of Truth,
Which at heart is wholly a lie ?
But the BOOK was born, and lo!
Like a footprint on the strand
That has hardened into stone,
The Truth, released from change,
Outlasting ruler and throne,
Abides, while centuries range,
While nations ebb and flow,
In every time and land,
The Truth; else none might know
The thoughts of the great of yore.
For, ever the newer speech
The newer thought would teach,
Under the sheltering fame
Of the wise and ancient lore;
And the Truth — like the desert mound
Slow shifting day by day,
Till, ere one marks, it is found
New-shapen and far away —
Would be changed in all but name,
Not abide, like the hills, the same,
Flashing the morn abroad
From their iron crests, which took
The rose of creation’s dawn —
Themselves the earliest book,
On whose carven crags, deep-drawn,
Stands written the will of God.
Faint on the paling sky,
The wolf-tail’s white foreruns
The dawn’s quick-coming red;
And our prayers go up on high
To the Lord of dawns and suns.
Then flames like darts are sped,
And lo, the sun! and anon
O’er the rosy mists he has clomb,
The terrors of night are gone,
The day with its cheer has come.
Then southward, southward still,
Under the opaline arch,
Over the quivering sand,
And mocked on every hand
By the shifting mirage, we march;
Past shadowless mountains of thirst,
Through valleys with never a rill, —
Rivers that God has cursed,
That bleach with the bones of their doom.
At last in a veil of white
The sun goes down, and the west
Is a garden of fiery bloom;
And the prayers of the Faithful rise,
And beast and man take rest,
And the stars ope their myriad eyes,
And he that gave day gives night.
So, day after day,
For a score of days we press
Ever our southward way
Through a wilder wilderness,
To the region set apart
In the desert’s deepest heart
To shelter our sacred lore.
There at last shall we halt,
Where the oasis lies enisled
In a hundred leagues of sand
That surge on every hand,
By the hot winds driven and piled,
Barren as ashes or salt.
But, to the Faithful’s eyes,
A blessed bound it lies,
No foeman shall pass o’er.
Yea, in the desert’s deep
To their grave in the sands might go
Army on army sent
To work our mission scathe,
And we should awake and sleep
And awake, and never know
Evil deed or intent,
Safe in our Stronghold of Faith.

O Desert, vouchsafed to be,
From all eternity,
The shelter of God’s Truth
As God’s compassion large,
And lasting as the will
That wrought thee and endueth,
Receive thy priceless charge!
Accept the casket we bring
Of God’s provisioning
For the healing of men’s ill.
So guard it from every taint
Of the Unfaith that fills the earth,
That from it shall go forth,
Like rays of the strong sun’s light,
The healing of Truth to fill
The lands where men sicken and faint,
In the twilight of Faith or its night.
All is confusion there
And blindness and whirling haste;
The days of their lives men waste
In hurrying everywhere,
And arriving nowhere at last.
They cannot see God’s sky
For the smoke of their ceaseless toil,
And earth shows dull and awry
Through the dust of their mad turmoil.
But here, in the desert’s hush,
In the crystal of its air,
Which is healing more than art,
Where naught with din or rush
Distracts the ear or eye,
But lion and lizard wear
The desert’s tawny dye,
And a bowshot from the bound
Of his palms man hears no sound
But the beating of his heart;
Where, beyond the garden’s green
Only the infinite sheen
Of the desert spreads around;
And, day by day the same,
The sun on his opal throne,
Crowned with the gold of noon
Sits in his veil of flame·
And night by night the moon
Reigns in splendor alone;
Or the stars, like jewels sewn
On the blue-black robe of night,
Blaze, and the world is bright; —
Here, and only here,
Of all earth’s regions trod,
Stands man, with vision clear
Alone with the only God;
And the Truth forevermore
From the desert, as ever of yore
On earth shall be shed abroad;
And the gardens of earth that bloom
The gardens no less shall become
Of the holy Faith, and man,
In the desert brought face to face
With the infinite blessing and ban
Shall live in every place
As under the eye of God.


First published in The Library Journal Vol. 30, No. 9 August 1906 pp. 25-27.

Collected in H. L. Koopman, The Librarian of the Desert and Other Poems. Koopman Poetical Works V (Boston, 1908), pp. 1-13.

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