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Writing a Fugue of Mystics, Misery and Memoir

In “I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir” Rafi Zabor’s heady, 472-page memoir, he portrays his life as a series of unpredictable transformations. The first major life twist occurred in 1969, the summer of love, when Zabor was 23 and fresh from Brooklyn College. It was then that he left his parents’ home in Brooklyn, where he’d been raised as a secularized Jew, and moved to Berkeley, Calif. There he took up with a group of “pseudo-Gurdjieff” Sufis who followed the guidance of a mathematician-turned-acid-dealer.

The second twist occurred in 1985, when Zabor, an unemployed writer in his late 30s who had a novel under contract, a rapidly diminishing bank account and a severe case of writer’s block, returned to the family home to watch over his dying parents. Though they passed away within months of each other, in 1986 and ’87, he still lives in their old Kensington apartment.

“Subliminally it’s probably not the best place for me to be, but I don’t notice it,” Zabor said in an interview at the apartment. His parents’ old flock wallpaper still hangs in the hallway; their furniture decorates most of the living room. In “I, Wabenzi,” Zabor declares that he’s never “been that keen on the symbols of worldly status,” and his apartment bears him out; the whole residence seems to have turned gray. Though twice in his life he has received windfalls of $200,000 — once as an inheritance from his parents, the other after winning the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his novel “The Bear Comes Home” (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997) — it appears that the only expensive items in the house are a stereo and a drum set. There’s a large hole in the carpet by the sofa, and the cushions at one end of the couch hold a permanent dent that marks the spot where Zabor likes to sit while he writes.

To understand how Zabor got from Brooklyn to Berkeley and back again takes some doing. His conversation isn’t particularly linear, and his memoir is spread over four volumes, of which “I, Wabenzi” is only the first. It covers his childhood in Brooklyn and part of his time in California, as well as his first year in a Sufi commune in England during the 1970s and last years of his parents’ lives, but its thoughts and scenes appear by association and not chronology. The memoir’s future volumes, Zabor said, will cover some of the gaps left in this one — including his father’s frustrated ambition to become a major Yiddish novelist. They’ll also recount the road trip he took in a used Mercedes after his parents’ death — from England to Belgium to Turkey to Israel. (“Wabenzi” is Swahili slang for people who own Benzes.)

“I’d rather be a musician than a writer,” Zabor told me, and it’s clear that music exerts a big influence on the style and structure of his book. The chapters are shaped as fugues: In them, the lives of at least a dozen people are spliced together for maximum symphonic effect. For example, take Zabor’s account of visiting his mother’s sister, Rose. The scene begins in the 1980s, shortly after his parents’ death, when an awkward comment from Rose provokes Zabor to stare down at his coffee and bite into a “tight curl of rugelach,” which works as a sort of Brooklyn madeleine.

As he chews it, Zabor remembers how, as a boy in the 1950s, he loved Friday mornings. That was when he could escape next door to watch Rose bake delicious challah, coffee cake and tsibeleh kichlach. “Fry-day is Bake-day!” he’d squeal as he ran down the hall. And from Rose’s sweet-smelling kitchen springs the memory of her genteel home and the contrast of his parents’ apartment, where the furniture was less expensive and his mother was “an inexplicably violent presence” given to screaming fits and paranoid accusations that routinely left her son shaking with helpless hysteria.

Understandably, Zabor isn’t eager to connect such traumatic childhood experiences to his later embrace of Sufism. He is, after all, a true believer. On the side table next to his writing spot on the sofa, framed photographs of his gurus — Mahmut Rauf and Bülent Rauf, two Turkish brothers who exemplified worldliness and asceticism, respectively — watch over the dark room. Zabor speaks of them with the sort of teasing affection obviously meant as a guard against complete adoration. “He looks like someone out of P.G. Wodehouse,” he said, admiring Bülent’s cheerful photograph. “He looks like Uncle Fred in the springtime.”

But there’s no denying that Beshara, the commune organized around Bülent in the 1970s, provided Zabor with the kind of nurturing, open-minded family he never had in Brooklyn. Zabor’s body had turned against him on his drive to California in ’69. His circulation shut down, so he was freezing even on the hottest summer days. He said that this and other ailments were caused by “horrible feelings of guilt and responsibility.” In his memoir, Zabor attributes these emotions to a girlfriend’s abortion, but chronology suggests they were tied more closely to his decision to leave New York despite his father’s objections.

At Beshara, Zabor recovered his well-being and discovered the new self he longed for when he packed his bags in Brooklyn. In the hands of a younger or more ideological writer, the commune surely would have appeared as an idyll of serenity and good will. At 59, however, Zabor is too savvy and experienced for that. He entered Beshara with the skepticism of a born-and-bred New Yorker, marveling at the director’s studied theatricality and noticing the social politics that divided the commune into rival, high-schoolish cliques.

Eight months after his first transforming mystical vision there, Zabor recalled, “the whole place went kaflooey.” Beshara’s members overthrew its directors and reformed in Scotland, leaving behind a wake of traumatized lives. Zabor is saving that story for the second, as yet unpublished, volume of his memoir. But in “I, Wabenzi” he does describe the coup’s aftereffects. One of the commune’s old stars winds up as a crude alcoholic in 1980s London. Meanwhile another one nurses a heroin addiction in New York’s East Village. And, around the same time in Brooklyn, Zabor himself was paralyzed with grief from his parents’ deaths. Only a joy ride across Europe to Turkey, he thought, could set him right again.

It’s tempting to point out that Zabor’s new religion didn’t save him or his friends from these miseries. But then again what religion does? And it’s easy to finger his unhappy childhood and track a path from there to his conversion. But, in the end, you have to admire Zabor’s resistance to reductive cause-and-effect. At Beshara, he learned, many of the members were Jewish. Not all of them came from families as searing as his. What united them was a belief in the truth of mystical experience — visions, trances, disembodied voices — an interest in Bülent, and an appreciation for the gnomic writings of a 12th-century Sufi theologian named Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. Who are we to say that they are wrong?

Marcela Valdes is a book review editor for Publishers Weekly. Her writing also has appeared in Bookforum, The Believer and the San Francisco Chronicle.




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