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Elif Shafak: The Forty Rules of Love
The Forty Rules of Love is a multi-faceted novel weaving together the tale of the famed 13th-century poet Rumi; his transformation from a respected scholar into a Sufi poet under the influence of his companion; Shams of Tabriz, and the story of suburban housewife Ella Rubinstein’s path to true love.
The novel’s plot is set in motion when Ella, who has spent the past twenty years as a model homemaker raising three children and patiently tolerating a philandering husband, takes on a job as a reader for a literary agency. Her first assignment is to read Sweet Blasphemy, a novel by unknown author Aziz Z. Zahara.
As Ella struggles with growing dissatisfaction with her home life, Zahara’s novel opens up a new world where love takes centre stage in the search for the truth and oneness with God. Intrigued, Ella locates Zahara’s blog and begins corresponding with him, an exchange that grows into an unexpected love.
Chapters written from Ella’s perspective are interspersed with chapters from Sweet Blasphemy, which are told from the perspective of Rumi, Shams of Tabriz and various other characters. When Shams of Tabriz arrives in Konya to meet Rumi, the man destined to be his spiritual and intellectual companion; his unorthodox ways cause a scandal in the town and tension within Rumi’s family, with dire consequences.
Different situations throughout the book prompt Shams and other characters to speak of one of the ’rules‘– the forty rules of love. These pearls of wisdom, dotted throughout the text, describe the Sufi philosophy created by Shams and passed onto Rumi and into the future to, finally; Ella.
The Forty Rules of Love is a unique look at Sufism and the life of Rumi, offering casual readers with little knowledge of these subjects a comprehensible and interesting look into life in 13th-century Anatolia. The chapters set in this period are undoubtedly the novel’s strong suit, whereas the chapters written from Ella’s perspective threaten to overwhelm and disenchant the reader.
The storyline of Ella and Aziz could be viewed as unrealistic and a little forced; stilted dialogue, uncharacteristic happenings, and a predictably tragic ending make for an underwhelming story that detracts from the other plotline of the novel. Had Shafak simply chosen to focus on the story of Rumi and Shams, the resulting novel might have been stronger, more cohesive and more believable.
Despite this, The Forty Rules of Love is a thoroughly entertaining and quick read, as well as a work of literature that examines the timeworn theme of love in unexpected ways, with eye-opening results. Readers of all stripes will enjoy this well-crafted tale, and learn something about history and religion in the process.
A simple online search would give you a chronological account of the Egyptian revolution; accurate dates, death tolls and perhaps even the names of the martyrs. But it will not tell you how it made the Egyptian people feel. Statistics can't describe what the families of the martyrs went through and it cannot accurately express the weight placed on the hearts of millions of Egyptians during this time.
Soueif doesn't ignore the violence perpetrated by the regime against protestors; she also mentions those who have lost their lives. She has kept in mind that by the time readers received her book a lot would have changed, so she frequently refers to the fact that we – her readers – would know more about the current situation than she did while writing it.
As she walks down every street, she supplements her story with memories and anecdotes from her childhood and adolescence, adding an emotional and personal dimension to her book and making it easy for readers to imagine why she is still attached to Cairo despite her long years in London.
The book is a refreshing spin on a now-over-a-year-old revolution. It brings hope. Soueif's sharp senses have led her to assume that by the time the book hits bookshelves, hope would still be the number one motivation and that's how she writes; invoking hope and persistence in the hearts of her readers.
Born and raised in Texas, Gretchen McCullough's teaching career has taken her to Egypt, Turkey and Japan; currently, McCullough teaches writing in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.
Released earlier this year, her latest publication is titled ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’; a compilation of short stories revolving around a host of eccentric individuals and their experiences in Cairo. A large bulk of the stories are driven by the thoughts rummaging through the characters minds and, more often than not, they transpire to be both charming and relatable.
‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ has a colourful team of characters with strong presence, charisma and an air of familiarity. Digging deeper into their personal lives and problems, her writing style is distinct, bringing an American charm and non-linearity to her stories, which builds a pleasant intricacy.
With many of the characters connected by a single building in Garden City, McCullough allots the main characters in her stories as small cameos in others, spreading the characters' presence and allowing for further development.
In ‘A Little Honey and a Little Sunlight’, we are given insight into the raging nature of Professor Gary by his dying neighbour, Joe Pulaski - a poet - reminiscing his days spent living in Cairo. Many pages later in ‘Pure Water’, we find ourselves reading from the eyes of Dr Gary as he spends time with his bulky Greek friend, Kolombos, in a mental asylum before the uprising of January 25th. The title story, meanwhile, sees two main protagonists; journalist and teacher, Mary Beth Somers, and her dentist, Dr Samy. Far from sappy, the two fall into a love which avoids the overt romantic notions seen in cliched literature, despite ending on a melancholic note.
Aside from the characters, Cairo as a city is portrayed as an integral player in the stories. On regular occasions, vivid descriptions of popular places in the city are given, such as El Horreya, Windsor Bar, the Gezirah Club and Koshari Abou Tarek. Having visited all these places ourselves, it's obvious that McCullough has immersed herself in the city, and amongst its people, well beyond the point of a touristic escapade. She’s become a sort of semi-native, in touch with Cairene culture, but maintains enough outside insight to give a new perspective to those who’ve been living in the city for too long.
With its mix of emotions and interesting character troupe, ‘Shahrazad’s Tooth’ promises an entertaining, comforting read for both locals and foreigners alike.