[Seagull Books; 2023]
Tr. from the Arabic by Fady Joudah
A Sufi mystic tells a graduate student that his mind is a golden cup: “It’s natural for a mind to be empty,” he says, “and natural for an emptiness to receive any opinion, theory, belief, feeling, memory, or knowledge.” When the student falls back into talking about his past and his memories, the mystic cuts him off abruptly. The student’s cup is full of old tea, he says. It must be emptied.
In this autobiographical novel, The Blue Light, translated from the Arabic by Palestinian poet Fady Joudah, Hussein Barghouthi searches for a solution to his spiritual desolation. A young man from Ramallah studying Comparative Literature at the University of Washington in the 1990s, the novel’s protagonist has the classic malady of graduate students: He thinks too much. Hussein feels destined for dispersal, for scattering, and is terrified of losing his grip on reality and spiraling into madness.
Barghouthi’s text is woven with recurring visions, memories, and conversations with people Hussein encounters in Seattle who have their own histories of loss. He meets the beautiful Suzan at the Last Exit café, a place he frequents in order to at once relive and postpone, perpetually, his own “Last Exit” from Palestine. Suzan has no attachments: “no lover, no mother, no father, no friend.” All she has is a white notebook in which she sketches the same blue peacock, over and over. Hussein encounters Johnnie, a homeless man who lost his mother and created an imaginary identity for himself, an entire narrative where his mother’s loss can be explained by her relationship with green creatures from Deep Space.
Through Suzan, Hussein meets a Turkish Sufi named Bari. In Bari, he sees madness. Fascinated, Hussein seeks him out to learn what lies on the other side of sanity, and Bari in turn awakens a slew of memories in Hussein. The mystic’s voice possesses “sea depths and echoes of a roar” that remind Hussein of a night he walked barefoot on wet sand on the shores of Acca, where he snuck without a permit from the Israeli military. But Bari couldn’t be less interested in Hussein’s memories. In fact, Hussein observes that Bari is the first person who “signaled to me that I should toss all of my memories in the trash.” Hussein holds on to memories to keep his selfhood from disintegrating, to try to hold together his scattered life, much like Suzan’s blue peacocks. He likens his impulse to the paranoia of Israeli military commander Menachem Melson, whose “obsession with events, intelligence reports, orders, and all that was necessary to manage and rule the West Bank” helps him remain tethered to what he sees as “reality”—a “reality” that nonetheless slips like “water through his fingers.”
Bari tells Hussein, “your face is a shore.” Hussein is struck by this sentence, for he has always seen the sea through the eyes of his frightened childhood self, in a memory where he stands at a shore in Beirut, nearly swallowed up by a crashing wave. He has never, however, seen his childhood self through the eyes of the sea. This sentence unlocks for him a novel recognition of himself: “a fragile little boy, his red doll, and inside his belly a sea and repressed floods.” Suddenly, Hussein comes face to face with his deep-seated rage about exile, his inexplicable “desire to destroy the world.” It is an inseparable part of him, a part he has been cut off from.
Throughout the book, Barghouthi evokes the tension between Bari’s “golden” mind—his core, his selfhood, his knowledge—and the precarity of sharing knowledge with another. Hussein notes that “any mind that has lost its capacity to design itself will be designed by another.” In inviting Hussein to “empty his cup,” Bari can be seen as inviting Hussein’s mind to redesign itself without the interference of others, “to offer something new to itself every night.”
Bari’s isn’t merely an antisocial outlook, but a recognition that language carries the risk of misunderstanding. Hussein witnesses this at the Last Exit café, whose regulars each have their own “private dictionary.” “[D]ue to this polyvalence of meaning,” Hussein concludes, “no one could understand another.” Perhaps this is why Bari keeps some distance from the young student—why he seems to almost revel in that distance, much to Hussein’s confusion.
Through Bari, we see vagrancy, queerness, homelessness and “madness” as liberatory states. Certainly, these states of otherness can breed distrust in people. Perhaps they even breed distrust in readers of The Blue Light, who don’t know what to make of the odd, scattered visions and encounters throughout the text. Hussein unsettles the autobiographical genre because he doesn’t—perhaps is unable to, due to his exilic imagination—tell a straightforward tale about his life. But maybe it’s good that people don’t always trust what the “mad” say: “That’s useful to me,” writes Hussein at the end of the book, as he himself contemplates growing out his hair and wearing odd sandals to distance people from his “center and his soul.” These exilic states allow the candle of the enlightened mind to transfer “its light to other candles without diminishment of its own light,” without having to compromise the integrity of selfhood through language.
Throughout the narrative, Hussein resists the idea that verbal precision will bring us closer to spiritual truth. Barghouthi’s own text embodies this understanding in its very style: We quickly realize that it’s not so much what Bari is saying to Hussein that matters, but how it turns over Hussein’s own thoughts and memories like a wheel, opening the door to novel knowledge. In classic modernist fashion, Barghouthi unsettles stable truth and meaning. His book is an interesting departure from Palestinian fiction of the 60s, when novelists like Ghassan Kanafani opted for realist aesthetics to present characters confronting everyday political violence.
The Blue Light is philosophically capacious: Barghouthi explores spirituality and sociality, as well as knowledge, creativity, and writing. One day, Hussein asks Bari, “What is the heart?” To which Bari responds, “Pure intelligence.” Hussein reflects on memory and knowledge as he thinks about this:
I contemplate my memory as a sequence of events, and to each sequence a file preserved in memory, true, but the heart has a different order of things, a different arrangement. . . . The heart rearranges its furniture according to the importance of events as the heart deems it. The heart couldn’t care less about the system of dominant time or the system that time should dominate. And precision, as far as my experience with Bari is concerned, will lead only to nonsense. Who, for example, wants to accurately transfer how sea waves collide under moonlight, or what the blue light is?
Hussein’s heart becomes a way to access understanding, a way to forego precision in favor of something else. This recognition reflects a marked shift from Hussein’s night-long strolls through the woods on campus earlier, “thinking, thinking, thinking.” He comes to reject the idea that if we simply study what ails us, we might be able to extricate it from ourselves.
Our isolated narrator is perhaps more invested in the world than he might admit to himself, but his hard-won spiritual insight never translates to his relationships. Hussein is so preoccupied with his fears of going mad that every other character—with the exception of Bari—is recounted with bare curiosity. Readers will be surprised to learn that Hussein was once married! He recalls his dull union with Mary in a detached tone, with little more than a comment about American individualism. The text ends with Bari no longer in Hussein’s life, and Hussein reflecting on the “masks” he seeks to distance himself from others and remain true to his “center and his soul.”
The Blue Light, like Hussein himself, is split, scattered, and schizophrenic. It’s full of contradiction, but its embrace of these contradictions is perhaps what makes it, like Bari, “golden.”
Fatima Aamir is a current JD candidate at the University of Toronto and completed her MA at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature in 2021. Her literary and legal research interests lie in imagining liberation.
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