Whirling to freedom

The Forty Rules of LoveThe Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The encounter and transforming love between Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams i-Tabriz in the 1240s is background, context and explanation of the transformation in 2008 and 2009 of Ella Rubinstein, Jewish American housewife in Northampton MA, through contact with their story. Shams turns the respected and sedate scholar Rumi into a poet and co-founder (along with Shams) of the whirling dervishes; their story turns Ella from a self-repressed, resigned wife in a loveless marriage into a free and adventurous woman. Alternating chapters are told from the points of view of Ella or Shams and the many people who come in contact directly with him in Konya, Damascus or Tabriz. His stern but gentle manner and his preachings of love arouse strong reactions, ranging from murderous hostility on the part of Islamic zealots to almost total identification by Rumi, from respect and devotion by outcastes whom he has consoled and aided to the one kind of love he cannot allow himself, the passionate, carnal kind. Which may be what you thought this book was going to be about, but no, Shams' 40 Rules of Love are Sufi rules, of accepting one's fate but aiding and preventing harm to others and trusting in God's overall just design of all things. The book is a welcome introduction to this moment in Sufism and the origins of the Mahlevi whirling dervishes ("Mahlev" or master was what Rumi was called), and the twin stories — of the 13th and of the 21st centuries — come to a satisfying conclusion.

However, Shafak's narrative structure and voice here are so limited that one longs for a little break now and then. Each chapter tells us the thoughts and observations of just one character at a time, often telling us things that they would be unlikely to say even to themselves, and everybody sounds alike, whether a drunk or a prostitute or enlightened one in Konya in 1246 or Ella Rubinstein in 2008. The drunk tells us he is drunk but he doesn't sound drunk, the angry zealot tells us he is an angry zealot but doesn't sound very excited about it, and so on. “"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Shams kept saying.” (p. 268) He sounds just like Ella. These limitations are quite unlike Elif Shafak's approach in her earlier novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (see my review), where there are different voices and narrative points of view, including a genie and an Internet forum. But "40 Rules" comes to a good, perfectly Sufi ending, which goes far to compensate for other weaknesses, and in the course of reading it we learn much about why Sufism is so appealing to so many.

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