Writing about writing and telling stories about stories — these kinds of narratives can feel circularly post-modern. But, as it turns out, they are actually quite conventional and ancient. Homer’s The Odyssey, the vaunted paterfamilias of storytelling in the West, is an epic whose hero’s primary genius is not as a warrior or leader, but as a storyteller. Odysseus cements his reputation in history and fable as he wanders from kingdom to kingdom, weaving both truth and falsehood together into myth. In the Arabic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights, storytelling has the immediate, urgent function of saving the storyteller’s life. Scheherazade captivates the king night after night with vivid stories, each time winning her another day of life. Storytelling is a survival mechanism, but it also reenchants the king’s life with meaning, at a time when he feels betrayed — not only by his first wife, but by the social roles which should have given his life stability and order.
Zabor or The Psalms, Kamel Daoud’s second novel translated by Emma Ramadan, is maniacally concerned with questions of storytelling, meaning, and mortality. The narrator, Zabor — whose self-given name means “book,” “inscription,” or “writing” — is endowed with mystical powers of writing that allow him to stave off death. A 30-year-old outcast who lives with his aunt Hadjer in the remote North African village of Aboukir, Zabor is both blessed and cursed by his ability to save any person’s life by simply writing about that person. His life’s mandate is to serve as a mythic scribe, who visits injured, ailing, and otherwise perishing villagers, filling pages with ink at their bedsides to heal them.
He is zealously committed to this ethical destiny of saving as many people as he can from the ravages of death. But in a reversal of the basic assumption of oral storytelling, Zabor’s writing finds no audience but himself. Few in his village are literate, and he is the only person in his village who can read and write in French. Even if his fellow villagers could read his accounts, they likely wouldn’t. Condemned to describing every detail and forgetting nothing — everything he forgets will die, he believes — he writes taxonomically, drawing up lists of descriptions with no overarching narrative. Indeed, the text of Zabor or The Psalms can feel redundant on account of its narrator’s exhaustive tendency to describe recurring frustrations, lusts, and feelings of slight. Zabor’s notebooks might be filled with the level of mundane detail that practitioners like Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard are famous for, with the noteworthy exception that Zabor writes about others, not himself.
“Writing is the only effective ruse against death,” Zabor declares. With that sentence, Zabor begins furiously scrawling in his notebook, which forms the text of Zabor or The Psalms. This notebook, however — a notebook to end all notebooks (and there are at least 5,436 he has filled!) — is different from all those he has filled before. Zabor’s apparently neutral power to prolong life indefinitely becomes intensely personal when the dying man in question is Zabor’s father. Zabor’s father is tyrannical and unsympathetic, so his demise poses to Zabor a difficult decision, one which he can no longer help avoiding. Will he use his special powers to save his father’s life?
The existential question that confronts Zabor will feel familiar to readers who have read Kamel Daoud’s debut novel The Meursault Investigation. The elegance of that novel’s premise made Daoud’s name a common one printed on post-colonialism and world literature course syllabi everywhere: the murdered Arab in Albert Camus’s The Stranger is given a name, Musa, and Musa’s brother Harun assumes the mantle of the vengeful narrator. Harun learns French expressly to find out how his brother has died, and the entire novel is populated with references to, and inversions of, the events of The Stranger. “Mama’s still alive today,” The Meursault Investigation begins, a retort to the famed “Mama died today” of The Stranger. Those opening words shadow an array of symmetries to The Stranger that evince Daoud’s staunch critique of — but also dedication to — Camus’s absurdism.
Daoud’s penchant for allusions continues in Zabor or The Psalms. Zabor’s given name is Ishmael. His father is named Hadj Brahim, his aunt Hadjer — a nod to the Biblical Ishmael, Abraham, and Hagar. Abraham is the mythological patriarch par excellence, the mitochondrial Eve of the three main monotheistic religions today (i.e. the Abrahamic religions). Abraham is the religious anchor for Hadj Brahim, a wealthy and esteemed shepherd who is mercilessly mean to Zabor on account of his physical handicap at birth and his bleating voice. He casts Zabor out of the family when his mother dies during childbirth, relegating him to the care of his aunt. Hadjer becomes Zabor’s nurturing and protective maternal figure, like the Biblical Hagar who is often named the “Grand Mother of Arabians.”
But Zabor rejects all these Biblical ascriptions, subversively identifying with a new name of his own. The name “Zabor” echoes in his mind beginning in childhood, and when he finally writes his name down on paper, he makes the first great discovery of his life: that written language can vanquish predestiny. Writing, Zabor learns, opens new possibilities. Disillusioned with the desolation of his village, which is surrounded by the Sahara and subject to regular sandstorms, Zabor despairs that the lives of the people around him are led in vain, condemned to obscurity. He compares himself to Poll, the parrot in Robinson Crusoe, who repeats, “Where are you Robinson Crusoe?” Shipwrecked on his island of a village, he believes himself only to be capable of repeating fragments of tattered books that have improbably found their way to him. With such limited resources at his behest, can he find new and meaningful means of self-expression which are not mere reshufflings of the old?
Daoud’s interest in seizing secular meaning in a decolonizing world comes to a head toward the end of the novel, when Zabor determines what his gift of writing will mean for his life. Will it hold him captive, or will it set him free? It is no coincidence that Daoud chooses to grant Zabor sexual self-understanding through a piece of English erotica translated into French. An Islamist in youth who later renounced his religious past, Daoud has become a vocal critic of Islamic fundamentalism and a prolific contributor to French Algerian newspapers such as Le Quotidien d’Oran, for which he served as editor-in-chief for eight years. In 2016, Daoud notoriously denounced “the lands of Allah” for being suffused with “sexual misery” in the opinion pages of The New York Times. His sharp words drew the ire of a Salafist imam, who issued a fatwa against him. But it also provoked criticism from those on the left who disdained his regurgitation of Orientalist tropes. The whole incident repeated a well-trodden script already rehearsed by high-profile forerunners like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Daoud’s critique — which lambasted repressive gender and sexual norms across the Islamic world without providing particularly illuminating analyses of their histories — provoked a horrifyingly violent response among a very small group of Islamic leaders who then condemned Daoud to death for his words in the name of Islam. The consequence of every player’s contribution to the affair, intentionally or not, was to paint Islam with one broad brushstroke as regressive and unredeemable. The fact that Daoud himself has struggled to transcend unproductive ideological standoffs between the “liberated” West and “repressed” East demonstrates how difficult it can be to skip out of language that repeats like a broken record — even in milieus replete with literary texts very much unlike Zabor’s.
The existential credo that death is the precondition for life is literally true for Zabor, who cannot embrace his own life until he is emancipated from his daily work of bringing back centenarians from the dead. By the end of the novel, Zabor faces two interrelated challenges: building a life for himself apart from the despotism of his father, and writing about his own life for the first time. Zabor’s revelation — that meaning cannot be manufactured in isolation and that resisting tradition cannot be done alone — is an unexpected and largely underdeveloped one. Zabor does something very cinematic at the end of the novel with his closely-guarded notebooks and writings, but I could not wholeheartedly feel Zabor’s joy quite yet; the scene felt like a prelude to something else. Storytelling and writing in Zabor or The Psalms, then, shares all those ambitions of The Odyssey and One Thousand and One Nights: to change the course of events, to make an indent in the annals of history, even to save a person’s life. But in Zabor, writing is considerably more tortured, the victories it brings less glamorous. Zabor’s reclamation of his life in the final pages of the novel is a beginning rather than an end, and the trumpeted freedom itself, unfortunately, is dubious: what will freedom for Zabor mean anyways? With the death of his father, and his decision to act on long-subdued desires, Zabor is ready to start a new kind of book altogether — a book where his literary community of writers dead and alive, English, French, and Sudanese, meets his village community. That is the book that I wished to read.
Zabor or The Psalms
by Kamel Daoud
Published March 02, 2021