In March of this year, Seagull Books releases a cult classic by Palestinian writer Hussein Barghouthi, in translation by poet-translator Fady Joudah. An excerpt of Barghouthi’s The Blue Light appears here with permission; you can find more about the autobiographical novel at Seagull’s website.
Introduction to the Psychology of Fog
By Hussein Barghouthi
Translated by Fady Joudah
Strange how place appears as a ruse sometimes. For a reason mysterious to me, I spent most of my time in Seattle frequenting three places: Grand Illusion Cinema, Blue Moon Tavern, and Last Exit Café.
Their names attracted me. Blue Moon most especially. Particularly the color.
It is said that blue is an antidote to sexual excitation—and I was a raging bull then. It is also said that blue calms the nerves—and I was on the edge of madness, bad temper was my inheritance, my father was known for it.
I said the color drew me in. The Naqshbandi Sufi order believes that within each human there are multiple selves and that to each self there’s a light, an illumination specific to it. Blue is the color of the sinful self, the one that commands bad deeds. (Not only did my self command me to wrongdoing, but also to crime, and I was concerned that I would split in two: one self that commits a crime, and one that doesn’t know about it.)
Red is the color of the inspired self. White is the color of the serene self. Green the color of the self that is content with itself. Black is of the self that God has contented. And yellow is for the judgmental self.
Still, in my opinion, each self has its private set of colors. In Tibetan Buddhism, they say that blue is the color of the first being that has overflowed our colorless and formless first nature. Blue is the color of the energy of creation within us. I remember how years ago I would shut my eyes and listen to Stravinsky, Beethoven, or Mozart. I used to imagine myself in a wadi in the mountains of my childhood. And the wadi was a bewildering dark blue, the rocks were dark blue and magical. Was that an awareness of suppressed creative energy or a longing for childhood? Or was it total estrangement? I’m not sure, but my interest in blue is old, since I was a kid. The name of Zarqa’ al-Yamamah, for example, was stuck in my mind. Just because her name was strange and blue, the blue woman of Yamamah. Only recently I reconsidered her name.
Zarqa’ was the most famous oracle of pre-Islamic Arabs. She could see into distances no one else could. She would survey the landscape and warn her people of things to come. One day, she saw walking trees. Invaders had cut off tree branches, raised them over their heads and walked to evade her sight. No one believed her vision. The invaders reached Yamamah and destroyed it. They captured Zarqa’ and sought to tear out her eyes, the secret of her powers. They found her eyes stuffed with black antimony, a stone that ancient Arabs crushed into powder for kohl, mascara that men and women wore. Zarqa’ was the first to use it.
The black rocks were sacred to Ishtar, the lunar goddess. For that reason, kohl, as fine crystals of black antimony, was the equivalent of prayer to the moon goddess, so that she might inspire men and women toward far-sightedness, oracular vision, as was the case with Zarqa’s eyes, stuffed with black antimony, because Zarqa’ is a priestess of the moon. As for the story about the walking trees, it travelled west and became common in European literature. The Three Witches foretold Macbeth of his end. They said that when Dunsinane Forest walks, he dies.
But I wasn’t satisfied that the myth of Zarqa’ solved the riddle of her name. It is possible that blue is a divine color to bind both blues: sea and sky. Zoroastrian Persians believed that Ahura Mazda, the God of Wisdom, had a blue destructive enemy, Ahriman. Blue is satanic as well.
For me, blue is the color of estrangement, the unknown, and of the childhood sky. And maybe there is, also, blueness to my ill wishes. When I learned to play the piano, I composed a short magical piece, played it for a while, day after day, without knowing the secret of my love for it, until one day I read a book by a Black musician who claimed that each note has a color specific to it. And each composition, too. One of Mozart’s sonatas arouses in the listener green or blue or . . . anyway, I looked for the color of that magical note of mine and was astonished to find it was blue. I recognized my special love of blues music, which has a note called the blue note: His grandpa had an empire / his granny had an empire / and in the middle of Chicago, he got away with crime / and ran at night on the hills of San Fran howling like a wolf.
More about the book on the Seagull website.