Monday, February 22, 2010

THE FORY RULES OF LOVE: A Novel of Rumi by Elif Shafak

As one long familiar and passionate about Sufism and familiar with Rumi, I was delighted at the prospect of a Rumi inspired novel and happily pre-ordered the book. I should have been more patient and waited to see the  Publishers Weekly review. It's spot on in its assessment of this novel as "a mediocre work of hen lit." This is a light work of ladies romance based very thinly on the persons of Rumi and Shams. As per the PW review, it is also the story of the most remarkably uninteresting housewife I have ever encountered in the pages of a book. But then, I don't generally read books about housewives and their lives. The title is misleading, as half the book, every other chapter, is the tepid narrative of her failing contemporary marriage to a dentist. That says it all. But the language used for 14th century Turkish characters is straight out of a high school in 2010. I can't remember the last time I have been so shocked. Romance readers who like a little Orientalism lite peppered into their stories of sad housewives might enjoy this. If you have a preexisting interest in Sufism, scholarly or mystical, Islam, Rumi, or anything else falsely advertised in the title of this book, just read the PW review and know that it's highly accurate.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


ISBN 978-0-300-13931-0
Yale University Press
304pp Cloth
Copyright 2009

MEMORIES OF MUHAMMAD: Why the Prophet Matters by Omid Safi

ISBN 978-0-06-123134-6
346pp cloth HarperOne NY
Copyright 2009

JOURNEY TO THE END OF ISLAM by Michael Muhammad Knight

ISBN 978-159376-246-9
Soft Skull Press NY
378pp Trade Paperback
Copyright 2009

Saturday, December 5, 2009


ISBN 978-0-06-156708-7
HarperOne NY
337pp Cloth
Copyright 2009

This compelling memoir will command the attention of a wide range of readers. A well known young voice in the Islamic “blogosphere,” Ali Eteraz is clearly a thinking voice that is not to be confined to any of the cliché tableaus that seek loudly to speak for all Muslims all the time and to define monolithically the “Muslim experience.” Even before his birth, Ali Eteraz was committed to the path of Islam. Hoping for the birth of a son, his parents had offered their child while still in the womb to the lifelong service of Islam, if they were granted the blessing of a son. As an infant Eteraz made his first Hajj to Mecca where this covenant was renewed and his body was rubbed on the very surface of the Ka’ba walls. The body of the work deals with various phases of Eteraz’s life where he embraces Islam as he finds it, and then rejects it in various forms as his frustrations illustrate to him that nothing in Islam is as it appears on the surface. Some readers will find this disillusionment sad as he turns away from the most obvious, visual and literal manifestations of the faith. Others will find this disillusionment the natural evolution of a young man who grapples with secularism and its empowering joys and dangerous pitfalls as he comes of age as a young man in the grips of all that young manhood entails in any culture. Readers looking for a peek into the backrooms of fundamentalism at its most raw and vital fount, will enjoy this clear taste. And those seeking some basic understanding of the ravaging chaos that is tearing Pakistan apart will glimpse this as well.
Eteraz is first and foremost a strong and bold storyteller. But he is a gentle one as well, knowing when to touch lightly upon the elephant in the room of colonialism without mounting the soapbox and alienating readers who need to be coaxed into that pool if they are to understand the world we live in. But for this reader, it was the relentless race through the inner minefield of religious seeking that was most compelling. The moments when Ali seems to be beating a dead horse, melt suddenly away in the most wonderful and unexpected places and he attains new understanding that can be called nothing short of mini-enlightenments. And these are often drowned in a laughter and good humor that sweeps all else away. Ali Eteraz is clearly guided by an inner compass that seems never to have steered him wrong, if at times that journey has taken a circuitous route. The eventual description of his understanding that what has bared his way towards a deep and meaningful encounter with the essence of Islam, is his idolatry of the form of Islam, is worthy of the great Persian poets, the Rumis, the Hafezs, and all the rest. But here it is offered in a hip new robe that reminds the questing reader that the journey Ali Eteraz has undertaken is a universal one, shaped to the unique contours of the individual soul, not to be embraced as a one-size-fits-all template that never descends beneath the surface of the skin. This book is an absolute delight.


ISBN 978-0863535573
Saqi Books
Trade Paperback
Copyright 2005

Adonis has asked us to dinner, with no less a promise than Truth itself to be served up once and for all. The mystery is solved, all veils have been forever rent and it is time for the Old Garde to step back and allow the latest phalanx of Young Turks who have it all figured out to sweep into town and establish a New Eden upon the Earth for all. The problem at the outset with Adonis’ formula is that the social catharsis, the collective loss of virginity that he would have us believe it wholly unique, now, is carried in on the back of all groundbreaking antinomian movements, it appears frequently, and with cataclysmic effect, in fifty to seventy-five year cycles and can be mapped out in this way over the last five hundred years.At first it can be initially agreed that Adonis’ premise that Sufism and Surrealism bear striking resemblances is intriguing and warrants consideration. However, his invitation to dinner begins with a highly cursory comparison of the high water marks of Sufi mystical experience and Surrealist aesthetic methodology, but instead of structurally detailing his hypotheses, i.e. doing the math, he suffices by restating his premises with little clarifying elaboration. We sit down to this dinner, starving for the delicacies Adonis has described, but are fed with nothing more than the reiterative descriptions of the food all over again.Adonis leaves us starved for the touch and taste, the feel of the truth he keeps alluding to, almost with a snide wink and a nod. Presumably we either get what he is saying, no matter how superficial the ascent, or we are beyond the pale of understanding. In this way, Sufism & Surrealism reads like Adonis’s manifesto, but an almost pornographic manifesto pamphlet for inexperienced insiders. Much like the cults he refers to, there is the communal “company chant” the mere mention of which is presumably designed to get us “off” like Pavlov’s dogs.A second problem with Adonis’ manifesto is that it speaks to those caught inextricably within the moment of time in which the manifesto, his, Breton’s, or any other antinomian manifesto appears. This does not diminish the beauty, the critical importance, and the seminal experiences attendant upon these movements and the milieus in which they appeared, but not every generation of 15-year-olds has invented sex, though they are quite certain they have done so. Critical to this phenomenon is the assumption that the world is forever on the verge of a unilateral and collective Edenesque enlightenment, and the hubris of each generation of young pioneers to believe that they are ushering it in.But let us begin. On page 35-37 Adonis discusses psychophysical experiences that allowed various Surrealist artists and writers to transcend the commonly held and clung to belief that the observable and material world is the totality of existence. This is a good step towards brushing away any dismissal of such experiences as mere hallucinations without substance. Adonis refers to and mentions briefly if numerous times, the inner and subjective personal transformation that takes hold of the lives of those who have enjoyed such experiences. Hereby he tepidly establishes that the value of such experiences and pioneering into the unseen is not mere entertainment, and that as such, perhaps these experiences are a necessary function of our Being. But on page 37 for example (and elsewhere frequently) he states:“”Thus the Surrealists reveal the significance of magicastrology, and the esoteric – the mystical legacy, whichincludes Buddhism.”This, as throughout the whole work, is vague in the extreme. What is this significance, other than the knowledge that it exists? Are Surrealism and Sufism describing the same desires, longings, and discoveries but in different languages? Magic, “the esoteric” astrology, mystical “legacy” and Buddhism. What have these things in common? How are they dissimilar, what are their individual and specific uses and limitations, and the differentiating characteristics between this array of states and belief modalities?The writings of the Surrealists seem to illustrate radically enhanced states of Human Beingness and remain utterly homocentric in the capacity of these human beings to apprehend radical states of physical awareness, while aggrandizing the individual essence. Sufism unilaterally strives to transcend that Beingness, and to embrace what is beyond the Human, the source of Humanness, and that which comprises all that is not Human. This is a major and defining difference, a difference impossible to brush aside. But Adonis never ventures into those waters but seems rather satisfied with a collective sense of almost “yeah man, that stuff is REAL!”Okay, it’s all real, what next? Scorpions, housecats, cattle, manta rays and elephants are all real too. What use and relevance, beyond mere proved existence, do these things hold for us? This type of language is the very reason that Adonis’ text reads more like a vanity screed designed to puff up the self importance of those who have just discovered these mysteries, and thereby do nothing more than facilitate that same self importance and ill-founded elitism. The true elites are those who have delved deeply enough into the many, many layers of these realms to know their way around. These would never refer collectively to these states as a unified and homogenous field. The very element of the prophetic identity of the Chosen Generation to make these discoveries and usher them into the world reveals the very limited vantage on this horizon they have. Surrealists, (the Beat Generation, hippies, et el) all make the same profound claims of having transcended the final veil. Yet the world remains the same. And they all conveniently forget and overlook this, while maintaining it is the remainder of humanity who has failed by not embracing their program.A second point of the Adonis text that seems questionable is the frequency with which he unclearly cites other sources, earlier texts, paraphrases Breton, makes brief quotations and often resorts to mere name-dropping to illustrate his statements while drawing highly tenuous connections at rapid fire speed. It sounds like raving. (perhaps like this paper itself does.) Adonis is fired up, and he is preaching to his choir, but they don’t see it because they are too flattered by what he is telling them about themselves. Similarly his tossing around quotes and ideas from disparate voices and sources with no offer of the interfacing math to show the validity of the quote or comparisons. George Bataille as a case in point. This is flimsy. One could just as easily quote Martha Stewart to “prove” similarities between Sufism and Surrealism.On page 45 of the text, Adonis states:“Henri Michaux repeats William James’ words in his ownpeculiar fashion. Through using drugs, this poet attainedThe same state as that attained by the Sufis throughphysical exertion ……”This is an old hackneyed claim that has been made repeatedly regarding a whole plethora of spiritual and ethno-religious states of consciousness with the implication that such experiences can be easily obtained by anyone for a few bucks on the street. This is similarly played out in the purely physical arena with steroids and other physical enhancements attempting to make create the Übermensch in the laboratory. The last two generations have given ample proof of the concept of “God on tap” in the pharmacy. Adonis closes this passage with a reference to “mysterious places.” This is poetry; this is a travel brochure for those who will never leave their homesWhat is ultimately so enraging about Adonis is that he takes up some very provocative topics not often thrown into the same blender: a cross cultural, cross paradigm examination of altered states of being. He claims these equations can work, and perhaps in some contexts and individual cases they can But he never turns on the voltage and really digs in below the veneer of catchy allusions and provocative correlations. The only thing he doesn’t mention is Smoke & Mirrors. A pity, because that is the substance of Adonis’ work. But I sense, given the unlikely yet highly plausible connectivity between many of his models, that Adonis could have given us so much more.Adonis several times makes references and allusions to magic and the western occult. Yet he never mentions the Golden Dawn, Fraternitas Saturni, or Aleister Crowley’s highly developed system whose secondary motto is “The Aim of Religion, and the Method of Science.” Crowley was not a laboratory man, but his sexual and drug fueled ritual techniques were notorious, with limited, but highly documented and catastrophic results. Adonis could not but know of Crowley and his works. Mention of these related schools would of course have diluted the mystique of Adonis’ catchy title, even while proving some of his more controversial claims. There were known connections and cross pollinations between these groups. References to the specific methods of these schools would have provided solid material to demonstrate possible interfaces between Sufism and Surrealist methodology. Instead, Adonis merely makes the claims and hopes his readers will be sufficiently impressed with the “mysterious” references.In the end, Adonis’ work is ultimately neither sufficiently titillating or evocative enough to be the work of mystical eroticism he seems to be striving to create. His prose is too repetitive, but not repetitive and lyrical enough to become hypnotic. He is not writing in magical realism. Had he chosen to do so he may have produced a work that could have seduced yet another generation to venture down the forest path toward the enchanted cottage, the hungry ogre, or the sleeping princess waiting for us all. Instead I see Adonis as Piper intentionally leading Children towards a precipice. But unlike fairy tales, real life children will need to see a great deal more before they leap.This makes Adonis, to my mind, a cheat of the worst sort: A lazy cheat who is relying on his readers having a very limited personal experience of the states, across comparative paradigms, to which he is referring. But he does his readers a great disservice, because as soon as they step off the material path of mundane consciousness and begin to explore for themselves those worlds, they will recognize the “view from 20,000 feet” that Adonis has provided of the connection between Surrealism and Sufism. For the connection is most certainly there, as it is between all systems which provide authentic access to other, deeper, lower, higher, and stranger and more alien states of Being.


ISBN 978-0-385-52334-9
Doubleday New York 2008
paperback 978-0767928014
From the jacket notes: “The grandson of an eminent Ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, now an American citizen, Hooman Majd, in a way, is both 100 percent Iranian and 100 percent American, combining an insider’s knowledge of how Iran works with a remarkable ability to explain its history and its quirks to western readers.” That said, Majd is also a widely published author of social commentary featured frequently in GQ, The New York Times, Interview Magazine, as well as having served as executive vice president of Island Records. He is also the official translator for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammad Khatami at UN proceedings and press engagements. None of which alone are remarkably impressive or authoritative, but together they speak of a man of diverse experience and insights who can hardly be called an apologist or cheerleader for any nation or political model.The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is a hip and savvy trip. We accompany Majd through the back streets of small villages and gatherings in glamorous high rise apartment buildings, through difficult to navigate civic offices and noisy bazaars of a very culturally and politically diverse Iran as the author incites candid and often unexpected responses from a broad range of people from all classes of society. The book, however, is not for everyone. Majd is a man who decidedly chooses to taste every possibility that life offers. If one isn’t comfortable with his visit to a small household where the patriarchal resident is an unapologetic opium addict, and Majd samples all of his host’s hospitality and reflects on the tragic role of opium in village life, then this isn’t the right book. All too often in today’s commentary however, the reader is subjected to unassailably impassioned screeds by the aforementioned apologists and cheerleaders who rant in one dimensional prose from monolithic and reductionist platforms. Majd introduces us to real people who think, and reason, and occupy complex places in the world of ideas, culture, politics and religion. His family connections and his familiarity with important people in the Iranian government gain him entrée into places otherwise closed to western journalists. But that entrée is not always a seamless affair, and the author injects many delicious moments of his own pithy wit and humor into the mix of the narrative, ensuring that The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is never a dry or academic read. As such, both Majd and his rapid fire bolt through Iran in which he talks to cab drivers and fashion mavens, civic workers in out of the way office buildings, religious clerics of all persuasions and very high ranking global personalities in the Iranian government is a dazzling trip, rich with historical context and back-story, and one that leaves the thinking reader, the questioning reader, hungry for more. Hooman Majd is a rare and important creature these days: a writer who makes you think, rather than merely respond.