Review

A first novel weaves "an intricate Persian carpet" about a thief, a priest, a spy and a saddlebag

The Saddlebag
By Bahiyyih Nakhjavani
Bloomsbury
London

Among the new cultural expressions that have arisen in our contracting world, with its shifting and blurring of national boundaries, are "world music" and "world literature." In the latter category, one thinks of writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, and Salman Rushdie, whose works are informed by the authors' cultural backgrounds but framed by a modern, cosmopolitan sensibility. The result is a literature with broad appeal that draws readers compellingly into what would once have been considered "foreign" worlds. The combination is appealingly exotic and even educational, but also familiar and accessible.

The Saddlebag by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is a fine recent contribution to this genre of literature. With its exotic setting - primarily the route between Mecca and Medina in the mid-nineteenth century - a plot that circles tantalizingly around the enigmatic saddlebag of the title, its lyrical prose style, the disparate perspectives that comprise the narrative, and a fascinating collection of characters, the novel skillfully weaves together nine tales so immediate and compelling that the reader can taste the desert dust on her tongue. Yet at the same time the novel transcends the limitations of the specific setting, in the best tradition of literature, in its big-hearted portrayal of human quirks and foibles.

The Saddlebag possesses a fable-like quality, beginning with its first sentence: "There was once a Thief who made his living by stealing from pilgrims along the road between Mecca and Medina." The characters are a panoply of cultural and religious types: the Bedouin thief (a pagan), the Arab chieftain (an atheist), the Zoroastrian bride, the Indian moneychanger (who morphs from Hindu to Moslem to whatever else the occasion demands), the Felasha slave woman, the pilgrim who has amalgamated Confucian, Buddhist and Moslem beliefs, the Persian Shi`ah Moslem priest, the English spy (a lukewarm Anglican Christian), and the corpse of a rich Persian merchant.

The stage for the interweaving dramas that follow is set by the story of the illiterate Bedouin, who gambles his freedom and his life on the theft of a saddlebag from a pilgrim praying at the side of the road. From this act flows all that follows. The saddlebag's mysterious contents - bundles of written documents that the Thief, ironically, cannot read - cast their shadow on all the characters, challenging them to the depths of their being and granting redemption to some unlikely characters.

The Thief's story is perhaps the most exquisitely realized of the collection, in terms of the lyrical quality of the prose as well as the evocation of character and setting, as seen in the following passage: "Despite his illiteracy, the desert made a scholar of him too. He discovered whole treatises hidden in sandstorms; he read a thousand poems inscribed across the wide horizon. When his soul was unsullied, at the hour of sunrise, he could understand the language of the sand…. The wind was his religion and the planet Venus was his love and he had found the traces of their will in rocks and desert valleys."

While the theft destroys his fragile existence, it also leads him, in dying, towards a mystical transcendence that endows him with the literacy, wealth, and belief denied to him in life: "It was clear now. He heard the words of the merchant as he began to read them spread across the blue scroll of the sky. He read the prayer as he heard it, spanning the heavens like a bridge of light. Clear-sighted and wide open he died then, as rich as a prince of the realm, with eyes the colour of angels' wings."

The Saddlebag is an impressive first novel from author Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who was born in Iran, grew up in east Africa, attended boarding school in Wales, and studied at universities in England and the United States. Born in to a Bahá'í family and the author of several nonfiction works on matters relating to the Faith, Ms. Nakhjavani has taken the core incident of this work's plot from a Bahá'í historical narrative titled "The Dawn-breakers" which mentions briefly that a saddlebag belonging to the Báb - the prophet-herald of the Bahá'í Faith - was stolen during His pilgrimage to Mecca.

The characters and incidents are fictional, however, and the author has commented that one motive for writing the book was "to see how it was possible to weave the different threads so that the paths of a group of people from different races, cultures and backgrounds could cross and re-cross by perfect accident while making perfect sense. It seemed that if one could achieve this in a narrative form there was no reason why it could not be recognized as a valid metaphor at other levels: political, religious, economic."

The result of this amalgam of fact and fiction, of cultural juxtapositions and disparate character types, is a lyrical prose narrative that is as richly textured, as colorful, and as intricate as a Persian carpet.

The novel, which was Britain's Good Book Guide "Fiction Book of the Month" for February, is also being translated into Spanish, Germany, Dutch, and French. The U.S. edition is published by Beacon Press.

For information on how to order The Saddlebag, go to http://www.beacon.org/f00cat/nakhjavani.html

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