Saddlebag, The: A Fable for Doubters and Seekers, by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani:
published in Washington Post
The Saddlebagg: A Fable for Doubters and Seekers
Author: Bahiyyih Nakhjavani
Publisher: Beacon Press, 2000, 258 pp. $22
Review by: Carolyn See
People long to go on pilgrimages, Chaucer once famously wrote, and this first novel of Persian-born writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani deals with a pilgrimage less than a hundred years ago, if I read correctly, somewhere in the wilderness between Mecca and Medina. There's a caravan filled with scoundrels and believers, all off on various errands having to do with religion, marriage, love, trade, robbery or any combination of the above. The caravan is beset by bandits, bedeviled by sandstorms, threatened by quicksand and equally menaced from within by a hysterically misogynistic priest, a dervish who is not who he seems to be, an Indian con man, and a bride-to-be who is prone to either visions or epileptic fits.
The author lectures internationally on the Bahá'í faith, which has been a powerful voice for communication among all religions. "The Saddlebag," then, is a novel of initial misunderstandings, then comprehension and finally, perhaps, transcendence.
The novel's central location is a crumbling shrine to the Mother of the Prophet marked by two wells, one fallen into disuse by neglect, the other freshly dug, a source of physical and spiritual refreshment for all who drink from it. The central plot point, if you will, is the theft of a saddlebag from a mysterious stranger (whose green turban marks him as a descendant of the Prophet) by a disgruntled thief who has been working as a guide for a gang of bloodthirsty Bedouin bandits. The thief grabs the saddlebag hoping for treasure and is mightily disappointed to find nothing but package after package of (as the reader already knows) sacred scripture. Somewhat impetuously, the thief jumps from a cliff trailing sacred words around him and lands in the vicinity of that traveling caravan.
All this isn't as far-fetched or downright awful as it might sound. One of the author's main points is that we are all locked irrevocably in the trappings of our lives, just as soundly and thoroughly as our brains are locked within the bone-prisons of our skulls, and the author uses considerable novelistic skills to prove this. It's not only difficult, she suggests, but totally impossible to perceive the dynamic of another person's life, or even the so-called "evidence" of the "objective" outside world. Thus, all these characters (who are also followers of different religions, of course) experience the events that occur in this trackless waste, coming and going around the shrine that is both used up and ever-new, in entirely different ways.
The disgruntled thief perishes early, with hardly a clue about the larger plot. The bloodthirsty chief of bandits is so discombobulated by his proximity to the sacred writ that he's unable to rape a virgin and delivers a deathblow to somebody who's already dead. The Indian con man gets his tongue cut out and finds, eventually, that it's the best thing that ever happened to him.
Goodness knows what's going on in the mind of the spoiled, "visionary" Zoroastrian bride, but we do know that her Jewish-Abyssinian slave is dying painfully of cancer. We also know that a fundamentalist Mohammedan priest who shuns women like the plague--and is plagued himself by flies, a nasty rash and lustful thoughts--will find that some sacred knowledge is undeniably female.
Mainly, these pilgrims wander through life carrying out their agendas without a clue. The most charmingly realized character here is the dervish, who isn't a dervish at all but a wannabe Lawrence of Arabia, a second-rate diplomat from the British Embassy in Constantinople, who's embarked on a crackbrained scheme to make contact with an elusive rebel tribe. His blond hair is dyed bright black, he mumbles fake prayers with feigned gusto, and he wouldn't know a rebel tribesman if one came up and said hello. That doesn't keep the dervish from living in his own cheap B-movie, where everyone around him is signaling to everyone else, and everyone is in on the plot. (Except there isn't any plot, or his plot is the absolute wrong one.)
If there is a downside to all this, it's that "The Saddlebag" is by definition inspirational prose. When one particularly tiresome character, the pilgrim, perceives the scripture of the saddlebag, it tells him that "the path is strait and the way is narrow even while it is more spacious than the heavens and the earth and all that lies between them . . . that the primal point was the beginning and end, the centre and the circumference of the heavens and the earth and all that lies between them. He did not understand." A little of this prose goes a long way.
But most of the time the author has mercy on us. The novelist part of her has the preacher part of her under control. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is best--really very effective--when she keeps to the sandstorms and delusions of our own imperfect Earth.