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“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak: A Captivating Blend of Contemporary and Historical Narratives

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Fatima Tariq

Elif Shafak, a renowned French-born Turkish author, has cemented her place as one of the most celebrated and fearless feminist voices in Turkey. Her novel ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ stands as one of her bestselling works, captivating readers with its unique blend of two parallel narratives. The contemporary storyline follows the life of an unhappily married Jewish housewife named Ella, residing in Northampton, Massachusetts. Ella works for a literary agency and becomes engrossed in a book called ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ by Aziz Zahara, which leads her on a transformative journey. Meanwhile, ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ delves into the historical narrative of a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz, and his profound impact on the renowned scholar Jalaluddin Rumi. The novel’s ability to evoke a sense of wonder and intrigue is truly captivating.

Shams, a mystic Sufi, embarks on a quest to find a companion to whom he can impart his wisdom after foreseeing his own death. His journey takes him from Samarkand to Baghdad, where he learns about Rumi, eventually arriving in Konya, where Rumi resides. As their friendship blossoms, Rumi undergoes a remarkable transformation, while facing opposition from both his family and the townspeople. Simultaneously, Ella’s correspondence with the author of “Sweet Blasphemy,” Aziz Zahara, leads her to question her own life choices, causing her to contemplate sacrificing everything for a connection with a mysterious stranger. The novel beautifully captures the transformative journey of these characters, inviting readers to reflect on their own paths of self-discovery and spiritual growth.

The novel’s narrative style adeptly weaves together the contemporary and historical elements. While “Sweet Blasphemy” beautifully captures the essence of the characters and their perspectives, Ella’s narrative, albeit compelling, introduces a hint of weakness due to its singular point of view. Exploring Ella’s story from multiple perspectives, such as those of Aziz or her children, would have enhanced the reader’s understanding of her journey and inner turmoil.

What truly sets the novel apart is the mesmerizing portrayal of Shams of Tabriz – his rules of love, unwavering faith, and magnetic personality. As an agnostic, delving into Shams’ spiritual journey ignited a newfound curiosity to seek the divine in unexpected places. Shams’ intermittent narration of the ‘forty rules of love’ briefly transformed my outlook on life, relationships, and spirituality, while also intensifying my disdain for hypocritical religious individuals who stray from the true essence of love and faith. The novel’s ability to challenge preconceived notions and stimulate intellectual curiosity is truly remarkable.

Moreover, gaining insight into Rumi’s transformation from a mere poet to a profound philosopher, under the influence of the enigmatic Shams of Tabriz, proved to be a deeply enriching experience. It shed light on the man behind Rumi’s timeless poetry and added a new dimension to my admiration for his literary works. ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ is a compelling and thought-provoking novel that intertwines historical mysticism with contemporary contemplation, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s heart and mind, and inspiring a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment.

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