The Blue Manuscript, By Sabiha Al Khemir

An intriguing hunt for the mysterious blue Koran
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The Independent Culture

The "Blue Koran" is one of the most mysterious objects of medieval Islamic art. A whole animal skin was used for each bifolium, every page is dyed indigo, and the stylised, minimalist script shimmers in gold and gallnut ink. The manuscript is visually stunning and technically innovative, pointing to a potential meeting of Islamic and Christian techniques of manuscript illumination. There is vigorous debate regarding its date and place of origin, the artist-calligrapher, and the patron who commissioned it.

Sabiha Al Khemir's novel follows a group of archeologists on their search for a fictionalised version of the manuscript in Wadi Hassoun, a remote village in western Egypt. Her account of the dig, and the truths excavated for the archeologists and the villagers, is interspersed with scenes from the court of the Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz as he conquers Egypt and marches to Cairo in 972, and as his calligrapher Ibn al-Warraq produces the beautiful blue manuscript for the Caliph's mother.

Al Khemir seduces readers with the manuscript's mythical beauty and the philosophy of its art form. Calligraphy is "a direct reflection of the text's spirit onto the page ... The traced words were not images. They were not sound. They became rhythm which was not that of the reading of the text but that of its internal structure, which could neither be explained nor interpreted."

Her cast of archeologists is led by the avaricious Mark, accompanied by Zohra, their Tunisian-English translator. Their intrigues dominate the novel: thwarted professional aspirations, comic and complicated romantic geometries, and their interactions with villagers like their go-betweens Mustapha and Rayyed Ahmed, the cheeky little boy Mahmoud, the beautiful Zinab, and the blind sage Amm Gaber.

But these are less engrossing than the historical context that frames The Blue Manuscript. The novel's identity politics are purist and pessimistic, and blind to the cultural hybridities the manuscript might address. Zohra is emotionally crippled by her shared Tunisian and English cultural heritage. She will never find love because "every man who showed an interest in her was in harmony with only one side of her, not the other". There is no possibility of a shared oriental-occidental identity here: "My mother the west, my father the east. I grew up in the chasm that separated them."