The New Here

A visit with Sabiha Al Khemir

HUMANITIES, January/February 2009, Volume 30, Number 1

In an essay prefacing the catalog for the 2006 exhibition “From Cordoba to Samarqand” at the Louvre, Sabiha Al Khemir writes of the “new here”: the shift in surroundings that occurs as objects become removed from their original time and place to take up residence in museum collections. For such an object, whether a humble household tool or a sacred work of art, “exhibition creates a context of a new ‘here.’”

Here is, of course, a relative concept, and finding oneself in a new here is as common as walking around. And yet that phrase, the “new here,” speaks very directly to the weird sense of being lost and found that one experiences when taking in Roman ruins one day and Elizabethan verse the next.

Al Khemir is an expert in Islamic art, with a great interest in its literary aspects. For the catalog of the NEH-supported 1992 exhibition “Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she wrote a close study of ten examples of Koranic manuscript to show how different styles of calligraphy developed in the Islamic world. Kufic script, whose name comes from Kufa in Iraq, once a major center of learning in the Islamic world, preceded the cursive Maghrebi style, which itself gave way to variations, one of which was called Andalusi.

The year of the “Al-Andalus” show was significant: 1992 was the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s famous voyage in 1492, which was also the year when Islamic rule came to an end on the Iberian peninsula. One would be hard-pressed to pick a more significant date for the beginning of the new relationship between Islam and the West. For Spain, for Europe, for the Americas, for Islam, 1492 is the date of a new here, when all the maps needed to be redrawn (and were redrawn, literally, the turn of the sixteenth century being a period of brilliant achievement for cartographers in Portugal, as Patricia Seed mentioned in these pages recently).

Like museum objects, people, too, find themselves in the new here. The Tunisian-born, English-fluent, Western-educated, globe-trotting Al Khemir is a perfect example, and so has written a novel (in English), her second, called The Blue Manuscript, which explores the seemingly tissue-thin layers of language, culture, and geography separating nations, individuals, and eras.

The story concerns an archaeological expedition to find, in the Egyptian desert, a lost copy of the Koran (or Qur’an) commissioned by a Fatimid queen. This Koran is remarkable for its colors: The vellum pages have been dyed blue and the Kufic script has been inscribed with gold leafing. The novel derives tension from the drama of the dig, which brings together an international team of archaeologists, a translator, local fixers, indigenous workers, and various town characters. The question of whether all this effort will be for naught begins to stalk their efforts, as the trials of desert life bring into focus the individual personalities of the story’s cast.

Al Khemir clearly wants the reader to know what it’s like to be in the thick of a high-stakes treasure hunt. But her true subjects seem to lie in the sacred hush of ruins and the moment of beholding when a mind gives itself over to contemplating a thing of beauty. The novel’s modern-day story of archaeology is mirrored by the tenth-century story of the Blue Manuscript’s creation, as the sacred work of the calligrapher inexorably pulls him toward the completion of the manuscript, his ultimate masterpiece, and, almost as matter of course, the end of his life. The reader’s connection with this delicate, yet all-consuming effort, and how it defines the life of this great artisan who exists just beyond barriers of time, language, and culture, is central to the novel’s success.

On a recent visit to the offices of the Endowment, Al Khemir discussed her absorbing interest in calligraphy. Wearing black rectangular Gucci eyeglasses and a floor-length turquoise vest that she explains was designed in France but inspired by Persian and Indian miniature paintings, she is chic and has a scholarly air. One is not surprised to learn that she has appeared in television documentaries about Islamic art. The inspiration for her novel, she says, came from her scholarly and museological work and feeling “so close to the objects and their creators.”

Al Khemir notes that without an iconic culture, the written word gained major significance in Islamic art and became, in a way, equivalent to imagery. And the creator of such imagery, the calligrapher, knew life as an artist does, with living and working occupying the same realm, the same here. There is no punching a clock and then going home to live your life. Rather the work of art brings order to the act of living. Or, as Al Khemir puts it, “Calligraphy is discipline to the soul.”

While reading The Blue Manuscript, one thinks of E. M. Forster’s great injunction that we “only connect.” But even in the new here what would such words mean to a character like the blind seer Amm Gaber as he talks to the Tree of Wishes, on whose branches visitors tie pieces of cloth bearing their secret, most heartfelt desires? And what would they mean to a character like the translator Zohra as she repeatedly finds herself feeling lost between languages? Al Khemir writes of Zohra’s failure to connect: “She crossed barriers between people of different nationalities and felt like a ghost among them. But there was also the untranslatable. That which was unique, particular to each language and each culture and there were moments when she, the translator, felt trapped in that zone, the zone of the untranslatable.”

Words are everywhere in this novel, as in the Islamic world where, Al Khemir writes, “the Arabic letter was painted, moulded, engraved, woven, embroidered, carved, incised. Calligraphy was even rendered on the leaves of trees in Ottoman Turkey.” Such a profusion of writing is not simply to supplant the role of imagery. Al Khemir points out that there is plenty of figurative representation in secular Islamic art, and that while words often approach the status of imagery, there are many examples of words being placed where they will rarely if ever be seen, as on the ceiling of a tall building, too high up to be read. “The answer lies,” writes Al Khemir, “in the Muslim mentality which sees beauty as not being for human eyes alone, but also for the Creator from whom it derives and to whom it returns, suggesting an intuition of the Transcendent.”

Her background in Islamic art came in handy while writing The Blue Manuscript, Al Khemir mentioned during her visit. This seems to understate her wealth of knowledge, which goes beyond the ability to discern varieties of Arabic lettering to include, among other things, a keen sense of how scholarship and the act of appreciation brings then into now and there into here