The Blue Manuscript
The Blue Manuscript, featuring an indigo cover laced with gold detail, aesthetically embodies its elusive subject, a legendary medieval copy of the Quran. Al Khemir's novel traces the archaeological expedition in search of the manuscript yearned for by collectors and scholars alike. Led by the enthusiastic Professor O'Brien, the eclectic group of researchers meets in Cairo as they prepare to embark upon a collector funded expedition in the remote village of Wadi Hassoun.
Donatella (an Italian archaeologist), Mark (an American project manager), Kodama San (Japanese site surveyor), Hans (the German conservator playfully nicknamed "Glasses" by a flirtatious Donatella), Alan (the professor's prized British student) and Mustapha (an Egyptian guide) compose the mosaic of expedition participants, which expands throughout the novel as more local figures (including the go-between Rayyed Ahmed and the young boy Mahmoud) become associated with the group. Zohra, the English-Tunisian interpreter, perhaps best echoes the life of the author as she occupies a privileged (albeit at times frustrated) narrative position within the novel.
Upon arriving in Cairo, each of the expedition's members experiences his or her own unique sense of foreignness. None of them, aside from the professor, are intimately familiar with the region yet all are crucial to the project's research, being at once at home and foreign within their new surroundings. Al Khemir delicately captures moments of meeting and simultaneous intimacy so common to the dynamic of international research projects: "Different people, of different races, cultures, and from different social backgrounds, thrown into a primal situation, the only link between them the buried past of a civilization alien to them."
Zohra's role, as interpreter is least related to the research at hand and for this, she feels an outsider among outsiders. She struggles with the notion of belonging in the face of cultural and linguistic hybridity; she describes herself as "being in-between," "Half-half. Rarely did people want to know about both halves, about her other half. The other half was always the other, depending on where she was." Zohra finds the role of intermediary dissatisfying and rejects her "in-betweenness." She longs for a voice of her own and dreams of writing a novel as she patiently waits for the words to emerge from the dictionary that she guards by her bedside.
Upon reading The Blue Manuscript, the reader departs on her own expedition where what is unknown overshadows what has already come to light. Al Khemir's writing is seductive; her mosaic cast of characters develops alongside the expedition itself. Descriptions are at first sparse, even frustrating to the reader, leaving her to excavate her own meaning and anticipate further discovery. Detailed physical descriptions of the characters, for example, are not revealed until well into the work, forcing the reader to partake in her own journey of discovery.
Interspersed within the tale of the expedition in the search of the Blue Manuscript are first-century fictional narratives depicting the writing of the document, creating a rich tapestry of voices that at once embrace and dissolve differences and contribute to a kaleidoscopic rendering of one of the most treasured documents in Islamic history.