Some time ago Rafi Zabor sat down to write a brief narrative of the year 1986. That was the year he set out across two continents in a used Mercedes--"Wabenzi" is the Swahili word for a member of the Mercedes-owning class--to buy a grave stone for his friend Mahmoud Rauf and to outrun the shadow of his own parents' recent death.
But like a boat against the current, the writer was drawn back into the past: his father's escape from the Nazis, Rafi's own Brooklyn boyhood surrounded by the fractious, Zabors and Zaborovskys, and the anguished--sometimes farcical--spiritual journey that led Zabor from Brooklyn to Turkey by way of Coltrane, the thirteenth-century mystic Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, the McGovern campaign, Gurdjieff, a shoe salesman named Gogol, and the cataclysmic months Zabor spent studying (and whirling) amid a band of Sufis in rural England. The result--the first of a projected four volumes--is one of the most original, capacious, and vivid narratives of the last few decades, a real-life Bildungsroman dealing with an expanded range of human experience, from matters of life and death to a piece of what lies beyond them.
Straight from the unchartered territory between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Tristram Shandy, I, Wabenzi lifts a corner of the known world as if it were the edge of a curtain, and begins to show a reality new to our literature gleaming on the other side.