There is a great appetite for Sufi-themed novels in Arabic. Where will it lead?
By Ali Shakir
There’s probably not a single book club in the Arab world — as well as the many expatriate communities, scattered around the globe — that hasn’t yet discussed this novel. Ever since the release of its Arabic translation (based on the English translation of the original Turkish manuscript) the book has been taking the market by storm. Five years later, it’s still on nearly every bestseller list, not to mention the numerous pirated digital copies available online for free. Throughout the social media, the ancient sage and his beloved companion’s wisdom — as depicted in the novel — is being quoted by Arab musicians, actors, athletes, politicians and thousands of lay people on an almost daily basis.
Yes, I am talking about Jalaluddin Rumi and Elif Shafak’s biographical fiction (or almost) The Forty Rules of Love.
It’s not difficult to understand the story’s appeal amongst educated Muslim youth, many of whom are struggling with cultural stereotypes and undergoing an identity crisis in this hectic age of globalization. Shafak’s novel opened a gate that led into a secret garden, where their religion was neither threatening nor demanding. Rumi was nothing like the stern-faced imams and sheikhs they saw in their neighborhood mosques or watched on television screens, warning the disobedient of eternal torment in hell. Rather a man of poetry, music, and dancing. And above all, an ultimate messenger of love and tenderness.
The novel has been translated into over forty languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, crowning its author as the most widely read female novelist in Turkey, and outshining Shafak’s previous — and in my opinion, better — novel on the massacre of the Armenians in early-twentieth-century Ottoman Empire, The Bastard of Istanbul, which nearly saw Shafak jailed in her country of origin on the charge of “insulting Turkishness.”
In terms of fiction craftsmanship, The Forty Rules of Love may strike its readers as simplistic, bordering on melodramatic and cliché, especially in the thread of the modern narrative. The novel’s contemplative mystical prose, however, is anything but. The international success of the story created a considerable demand for more books on Rumi, as well as the other Sufis. The world bookshelves started accommodating dozens of new titles that spanned every literary genre imaginable. That, however, wasn’t the case for the Arabic bookshelves, where a different set of criteria prevailed and dictated the direction of many publishers’ editorial policies.
It is no secret that the prominent publishing houses in the Arab world, with some exceptions, are either owned by investors from the rich Gulf States or driven by financial difficulties to abide by the cultural rules of the only remaining thriving book market in the region since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” and all the violence and chaos that ensued. Also, most publishers and novelists nowadays have their eyes set on the handsome literary prizes offered by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Qatar and have to walk an extremely narrow tightrope lest they provoke the easily irritable religious institutions in the lands of the rich.
Throughout the history of Islam, Sufis have frequently been persecuted — Mansur al-Hallaj, for one, was brutally tortured and decapitated in tenth-century Baghdad for questioning the pilgrimage to Mecca and claiming divine incarnation through his famous cry “I am the Truth!” Many Muslim puritans to this day consider Sufis deviants who use religion to hide their heresy under its cloak. The eccentric manner in which Sufis taught and practiced their disciplines and the fact that their literature contained mentions of wine, kisses and love-making (albeit metaphorically) have made them more vulnerable to their attackers’ gunfire.
For many contemporary readers, Sufi poetry and prose can be quite challenging, and with the secrecy that has been shrouding the cult for ages — perhaps a means of self-protection against state and clerical oppression — the task is made even harder. But mystery and ambiguity compel endless interpretations and possibilities, which should make for excellent novel material, especially with an eager book market, appropriated from the phenomenal popularity of Elif Shafak’s novel. Saudi novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan must have considered the aforementioned factors (and risks!) when he started writing his International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novel A Small Death on the life of thirteenth-century Sufi mystic ibn ‘Arabi, best known for saying: “I follow the religion of Love.”
Like The Forty Rules of Love, Alwan’s novel hangs between two threads, modern and historical. The apparently favored structure appeared decades ago in Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand (1988) on the life of twelfth-century Persian poet and philosopher Omar Khayyam. Maalouf’s novel, originally written in French, didn’t shy away from tackling Khayyam’s sensual life and the spirituality that had enveloped his famous Rubaiyat (quatrains) and led a number of scholars to suggest that he might well have been a closeted mystic.
A Small Death, on the other hand, is decently researched and eloquently presented. Alwan managed in it to break free from the excessive romanticism that had sealed his early work to explore broader and more diverse horizons. The novel is an amusing read, but it’s hard not to notice its keenness to comply with the author’s inner as well as governmental censorship, occasionally reminding us readers of the virtues of Islam and that Sufism was by no means in conflict with it. Despite the obvious structural similarity between Samarkand and A Small Death, the latter seems to tread gently on the existential soil, wittingly plowed and disturbed by the previous. Although, truth be told, Ibn ‘Arabi’s persona and approach are less confrontational compared to Khayyam’s, which probably made his story a safe choice, even safer than Rumi.
Now that Mohammed Hasan Alwan has won the prestigious prize, “run with the support, as its mentor, of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority in the UAE,” how will that affect his forthcoming work? Is he going to invest the extensive international publicity he received in pushing the boundaries further? Will his success, along with the recent social shifts in Saudi Arabia, encourage other Arab authors to write more audacious Sufi-themed novels? How is all of that going to influence the book markets in the Gulf region and the Arab world at large? There are too many questions and hardly any answers. The future of Arabic literature (and politics) has never seemed more uncertain that it is now. We can only wait and see.