Who is Shafak, you ask? Well, Elif Shafak is the Turkish (and apparently feminist) author of an amazing book that you should go and download right now, called The Forty Rules of Love. Alright, you radicals, don’t start running away because I said feminist. It’s not any throw-it-in-your-face empowerment campaign. Interestingly enough, there are only about three female characters in the whole story, and one of them is a prostitute. True to the nature of a story set in ancient and religious context, it is male dominated.
The paradox of this novel is that while most novels aren’t just “about” something that you can describe in a word, this one is; it is simply about love. The paradox is augmented by the fact that I have no idea what label to give this genre. Please, for those who have started running away again, it is not a romance book, though some people who also don’t know where to place it might call it one. Is it a historical novel? Tragedy? Adventure? Perhaps it would be similar to whatever genre Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” is. (Yes, apparently, she has been linked to him several times, and some deign to say that she is the female Coelho. I beg to differ. Their themes may be similar, but I believe they are very distinct from each other.)
The reason why this would be said to be a historical novel is because the two central characters are prominent figures in at least the Islamic world. The first is Rumi, the renowned poet, and the second is Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish, who becomes Rumi’s best friend, and later, the subject or object of many of Rumi’s poems. Yes, these were real people, and they had pretty interesting lives. You should go and read about them or something. What fascinated me is Shams’ disappearance – his death or not-death. It reminds me of the legend of Okomfo Anokye, the (in my opinion) Ghanaian wizard. He was there, then he wasn’t there. No record has ever been found of his body, and I feel we are wrong to “assume” he is dead.
Though the book is not necessarily about relationships but about love itself, I won’t hesitate to say that the strongest human-to-human relationship in the book is between Rumi and Shams. Of course, as it was in real life, the people who love scandal will be quick to jump to homosexual conclusions. Yet this love was entirely non-sexual. Since I am Christian, I can easily relate it to the relationship between David and Jonathan. They loved each other like they loved themselves. It is the same with Shams and Rumi.
However, as I have observed and I like to say: there are some things that a person can share so widely, so that no matter how many people receive it, it does not get finished, and giving one person more is not exactly equivalent to giving another person less. Such an example of an infinite resource is love. On the other hand, there are things that, no matter how much we would like to share, are restricted by our own capabilities as humans. Giving one person more, unfortunately, invariably means another person does not get as much. Such an example of a finite resource is attention.
A prominent theme within the characters of Rumi’s household was jealously. Rumi, a teacher, a father and a husband, suddenly started paying so little attention to his wife, his sons, his student, all for the sake of spending time with his beloved Shams of Tabriz. I love how Shafak didn’t gloss the problems that arose from this relationship over. She told it like it happens: when Rumi loved someone deeply, he couldn’t pay the rest of them enough attention, and he realised the hurt he was causing them, yet, he was not the majestic hero who tried to placate everyone. His love was too strong, and he merely carried on – because sometimes, human as we are, we cannot help hurting the ones we love, even if it was not our intention. (Shout-out to all my friends who’ve been pairing up in high school and leaving me hanging, yo!) It doesn’t mean we don’t love them, though, and that’s the truth.
In accordance with this, another lesson that I have learnt is that it’s not sensible to forcibly pull people away from the ones that they love, no matter how hurt you may be by it. Because, if what you have ruined is that important to the person, you will have damaged the person whose love you have torn away, with no way to fix them. I learnt this from Shams’ separation from Rumi twice.
Perhaps this book is about religion. Perhaps this book is not about religion. It is true that everywhere, there are elements of it, particularly and prominently, Islam. The reason why I say it is not about religion is because, more than anything, it challenges religion in its most conventional sense. This is where the whole “individuals against society” theme comes in. As Shams is the main postulator of these vies, I shall speak with regards to Shams’ perspective. According to him, religion is null and void, the way it is carried out by the general public, and especially the religious elders. They occupy themselves with rules and regulations of what they can and cannot do, what is blessed and what is sin, judging each other’s actions, and mindlessly “studying” religious scripts – so much so that they have forgotten how to live, and they have forgotten that the true goal of whatever they are practicing is not to look good in front of society, but to love God with all their hearts, regardless of any so-called rules. Shams is a freaking rebel. Because of the things he says, they call him a heathen.
As Shams said to an aspiring dervish who wished to follow him,
“You are too timid for me. You care too much about what other people think. But you know what? Because you are so desperate to win the approval of others, you will never get rid of their criticisms, no matter how hard you try.” -Elif Shafak
Honestly, this Tabriz guy, he’s the very definition of controversial, and I love him. He lives not by the doctrines of religion, but by his own compilation of rules, about something he believes is the core of our existence: to love, and to love God. The rules are forty in total. If you were wondering why the book is called The Forty Rules of Love, there you go.
Well yeah, Shams is bae, but let’s talk about the mastery of Shafak herself. This brilliant woman eh…okay.
I’ll start with the narrative itself. This book is one of those books that make one feel like a god wrote it – because how on earth could you know the inside of every event, every character’s heart so thoroughly? The real narrative of the story follows the life of a modern-day Jewish, American woman living in Massachusetts, whose routine, conventional life begins to turn upside down when she is about to turn forty, which is triggered by two things: first, her oldest, collegiate daughter trying to get married, because she and the other boy supposedly “love” each other, and secondly, her job requiring her to produce an editorial review of a book by an obscure writer called Aziz Zahara, called Sweet Blasphemy. So, in the book “The Forty Rules of Love”, which is written in third person by Elif Shafak, and follows the life story of an American woman, we are able to read the book she is reading, called “Sweet Blasphemy,” by Aziz Zahara, which is about Rumi and Shams, and which is written in first person.
Does that sound confusing? Because it gets worse! The whole book keeps switching between narratives, and, although the mains tory of the American woman (called Ella) is in third person, “Sweet Blasphemy” is in several first persons. There are at lest seven characters in “Sweet Blasphemy” who get to tell their stories through their own eyes. (LOL. Through their own I’s – because first-person.) (I’m fooling. Ignore the last parentheses,) And it switches without warning, in every different chapter. Oftentimes, I forgot whose POV I was reading from. But it’s all pat of the work of a master, who can write from each perspective because she knows her characters inside out. And this, in my opinion, is true omniscient narrative.
Through each of these people, she provides us with the avenue to understand everyone’s contrasting perspectives. Some characters are round, some are flat. The story isn’t like, “Hey, this is what the protagonist thinks about life! Swallow it!” It’s more like, “This is what each character thinks in relation to the other. The protagonist himself has flaws and caused problems that he himself cannot rectify. So you, reader, who do you think is right?”
Through the few female characters, we do see underlying feminist themes; like the right of a female to an education. This is an excerpt from one of the females’ POV:
“When you are born a girl, you are taught how to cook and clean, wash dirty clothes, mend old socks, make butter and cheese, and feed babies Some women are also taught the art of love and making themselves attractive to men. But that’s about it. Nobody gives women books to open their eyes.” – Elif Shafak
And remember that in the 1200s, the male dominance issue was much worse than it is now. So, imagine.
There are a lot of other brilliantly controversial themes in there, such as the disparities that exist between rebel children and parents, the credibility of religious leaders, and the credibility of what our brains confirm as truths but our hearts have not really accepted. It is a brilliant. Freaking. Book.
Personally, I think that whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, traditional, whatever, there is stuff to be learned from this book.
I could share my favourite quotes, but as they took up about eleven pages of my notebook when I was copying them out, I will spare a reader the trouble, and only share one:
“It is never too late to ask yourself, “Am I ready to change the life I am living? Am I ready to change within? Even if a single day in your life is the same as the day before, it surely is a pity. AT every moment, and with each new breath, one should be renewed and renewed again. There in only one way to be born into a new life: to die before death.” – Elif Shafak
You’ll understand the last sentence if you read the book.