It’s not often that one comes across a novel where the location is an archaeological dig. Sabina Al Khemir’s novel The Blue Manuscript is that rare novel. The Blue Manuscript opens in a café in Cairo as members of the archaeological team meet each other in the flesh and discuss their project for the first time. The narrator Zohra muses on her new position as a translator for a team of archaeologists who hope to find a rare Islamic manuscript. She wonders at her new companions and their perception of the Arab world they find themselves in and she wonders at her role on the team. The reader is introduced to this world of outsiders come to investigate and classify a land and people most of them know primarily through their studies.
Besides Zohra, there are the archaeologists Donatella and the German known familiarly as Glasses. There is the Professor, whose wife controls his life as much as his need to classify the civilizations he unearths. There is the Japanese photographer Kodama San, whose lens captures much more than the artifacts he records and there is Mark, the man who arranged the dig with wealthy collectors in the United Kingdom. Rayyes Ahmed is the local contact. Part hustler and part negotiator, he lusts after a local woman whose husband went to South Africa to work years ago and never returned. The most innocent of the lead characters are Mahmoud the boy and Monia, an Egyptian archaeologist who gives her heart to a man called Spaghetti. Then there is the storyteller’s son. He is a blind man who sees the future and the past. Nobody listens to him so he spends most of his time talking to a tree tied up with ribbons that represent individual wishes. His stories are more than metaphor for the ill fated mission of foreigners. His audience, the tree, is destroyed by the locals when gold is found. The wishes are apparently no longer needed.
Like the physical setting of the story–a village that swelters in the Nile heat–the prose in this story is languid but not listless. Emotions of desire and jealousy stir under the dishdashes, abayas, scarves and hijabs of the locals and the Western dress of the archaeologists. Like so much in the world, the emotions are usually not acted upon yet they color the interactions and decisions of those who hold them and those with whom they are concerned.
History is many things, but most of all it is a story. It is a story told by many different voices. The visitor, the vanquished and those on neither side. It is multi-layered and it is multidimensional. It is linear and it is as nebulous as those pictures of galactic clouds one sees through a high powered telescope situated in a mountaintop observatory. It is tragedy and and it is mirth. It is dead and it is living. It is real and it is contrived. We live the way we do because of it and we make others ‘future by the history we create now. But, most of all, it is a story. In the world we live in, the story most of us know is the one told by the victors. The occupiers and colonizers. The owners, not the tenants.
The Blue Manuscript captures these many essences of history. Al Khemir’s metaphor of the archaeological dig presents history as both dead and layered. Each timespan unearthed by the diggers represents a historical period that is static to the scientists. To the people in the village, meanwhile, it represents another verification of the beliefs they currently hold. The final chapters reveal the literal creation of a history that becomes accepted as truth despite its false origins. This creation of history becomes fact because the victors say it is and because the vanquished decide that it is better to let it be so.
History has many layers. As The Blue Manuscript makes clear, they are all created by someone. Some of those creations become fact and the others are left on the side of the road of time. Perhaps those stories left behind will be discovered in the future and replace the narrative currently being told. Perhaps not. The Blue Manuscript also expresses the opinion that the tellers with the most power and money are often able to make their own truth and, more importantly, make it the accepted truth.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org