In John Higgs’ alternative history of the Twentieth century, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, he discusses the jarring sense of dislocation which marked much of the era’s art, thinking, and scientific discovery. Throughout the book, he argues that the uneasiness with which we might feel on excountering post-modernism, surrealist art, quantum theory, and more, is related to the loss of the omphalos, or central organising principle around which all other beliefs can be structured. This absence of a unified identity, and the dislocation which it brings, is also central to the narrative of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel Call Me Zebra.
Oloomi’s narrator, Zebra (born Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini), is an exile, forced to flee her homeland at a young age after losing all of her family bar her father. The descendant of ‘a long line of self-taught men who repeatedly abandoned their capital, Tehran’, her identity is based around a series of literary and philosophical principles which have been handed down through generations. Hosseinis are Autodidacts, Anarchists and Atheists, who view themselves as keepers of an alternate tradition, and almost the unheard consciences of the world (‘it is our duty to remember that history’s unfinished business will recycle itself’). As a child, she is taught Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, English, Farsi, French and German – the languages of both oppressors and oppressed – and ‘armed with literature’.
Zebra’s exile begins during the Iran-Iraq war, as she leaves Iran with her father and mother, who dies early into the journey. Her father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini, a ‘man with a thick moustache fashioned after Nietzsche’s’, educates her as they escape into Europe, and then America. Exiled from her homeland (itself a state of ‘hybrid individuals best described as a residue of a composite of fallen empires’), her omphalos switches to the figure of her father, and the heritage which he has passed on to her. However, when her father dies, Zebra’s sense of dislocation becomes complete, and she sets about combating this feeling by embarking on a literary and philosophical pilgrimage through places of migration and exile. Along the way, she wants to remake herself as the ultimate embodiment of the Hosseini tradition, training her mind to ‘become so elastic it would be capable of containing all of literature’.
First, she attempts to find a mentor, a renegade academic who takes her on and attempts to help her structure her ambitions. He gives her books by Neruda; a fellow unofficial student gives her Kathy Acker, ‘a book one anarchist girl gives another’. The name Zebra comes to her during her father’s funeral, as she identifies with the creature ‘striped black and white like a prisoner of war; an animal that rejects all binaries, that represents ink on paper. A martyr of thought.’ In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera uses the phrase ‘in the kingdom of kitsch you would be a monster’; by becoming Zebra, Bibi is making herself a monster in the world of literature, a monster of erudition and certainty. As Zebra, she is abrasive, strident and definite; she addresses readers as ‘illiterates, abecedians, elitists, rodents all’.
By going into exile, Zebra is simultaneously retracing her family’s physical and literary footsteps, whilst becoming, in her words, ‘a Flaneur of Death, walking through the city, examining the palimpsest of time’. Through her pilgrimage, she finds herself ‘regressing through the chain of selves produced by exile and, in doing so… recovering patches of memories, of feeling, none of them exact, all of them falsified due to the patina of time’. Her exile is reminiscent of the protagonists of Mathias Enard’s novels; dislocated, highly literate individuals, who become stand-ins for the wider modern experience of migration and alienation, attempting to embody and preserve a disappearing culture.
In Europe, she is met by Ludo Bembo, an academic she is introduced to by her mentor. Their relationship, which is both erotic and antagonistic, is characterised by mutual incomprehension. Key to this is Zebra’s concept of the pyramid of exile, which ranks exiled people by their privilege and ability to attain stability. The mutual hostility between the two is again linked to the idea of omphalos. Zebra states that Bembo suffers from ‘unresolved issues with literature and death, and therefore with his ancestors… he was simultaneously attracted and repulsed by me, the last of the Hosseinis. By keeping me in close proximity, he was both working out his issues, which he longed to do – hence his confessions of love – and, concomitantly, was perplexed by the disturbance such processing required of him – hence his sudden withdrawals and subsequent numbness’. Bembo’s interactions with Zebra force him to confront his own experience of exile, from which he repeatedly attempts to escape into a settled, bourgeois lifestyle, without ever being able to decisively withdraw from.
Bembo, employing modern, liberal concepts, argues that borders are an artificial construct; the more dogmatic Zebra counters by saying they are ‘an artificial construct that has governed the terms of my life… there’s nothing abstract about that’. Their final confrontation comes in the middle of a tempest, on top of a mountain, which is followed by a surreal scene in which the pair walk on floor of the Mediterranean, ‘the sea of sunken hopes’ which so many exiles have crossed. Here, Zebra acknowledges ‘love… a provisional remedy to decrease our suffering, which will be infinite and self-perpetuating as long as we flock back to this meagre universe’.
Early in the novel, Zebra bemoans the fate of her family:
‘We are ill-fated, destined to wander in perpetual exile across a world hostile to our intelligence. In fact, possessing an agile intellect with literary overtones has only served to worsen our fate’.
However, by creating herself a monster out of this raw material, Zebra has discovered a means of addressing the world on her own terms, becoming an active agent rather than accepting a life of passive wandering. The omphalos she sought is no longer external, subject to the whims of outside forces, but located within her own self.
Any Cop?: Call Me Zebra is an iconoclastic and incandescent book, worthy of comparison to the likes of Mathias Enard. As fiercely intelligent and confrontational as Zebra, the novel addresses the central issues of globalisation with fire and originality.