One of the benefits of traveling for my work -- so far and so variously -- is time spent in the cocoon of airplanes. International travel, also, normally means no phone or internet access, which for me translates to long periods of concentrated time to write, to catch up, and especially to read.
Which is why I tend to linger, for as long as possible before my flight, in the bookstores at international airports around the world. They carry plenty of books in their native language, of course, but there is also usually an English-language section that carries locally popular books in translation.
It's an amazing opportunity to pick up books that are important in that place at that time to that population, and most often they are books I have not encountered at home in the US.
(Sidebar: bookstores, and consignment clothing shops, are vacuums for me. I'm drawn in and have a hard time pulling my imagination away from all of those STORIES -- no matter their shape, as text or images or scarf or hat. Especially hats...)
I pick up book after book. Fiction. Biography. Business. I put 96% of them back down. But when I find The One, I know it immediately.
That's what led me to, for example, Napoleon Bones by Jenny Hobbs (picked up at the bookstore in Johannesburg, South Africa). And An Italian Education by Tim Parks (picked up at the bookstore near the Delta gates -- right around G7, I believe -- in Rome). And, most recently, The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak, which I found at the airport in Istanbul.
Shafak is a Turkish writer, well-known in her own country but not in my reading circles at home. Forty Rules is about the poet Rumi, who I've long admired, and the imaginary retelling of his encounter with a Sufi dervish who helped him find his voice as a poet and not only as the well-respected Muslim scholar he was before they met.
I knew immediately that Forty Rules was The One for my trip home from Istanbul. I wasn't disappointed -- far from it, in fact. But there was another layer of benefit I hadn't expected.
Since I've returned home from visiting wineries in Turkey, I've written about the religiously-motivated regulations imposed by the Turkish government against the promotion or marketing of alcohol. It's been on my mind, for lots of reasons -- not only the economic implications of the regulations on the wineries, but the pervasive insidiousness of the anti-alcohol, anti-wine sentiment.
Here, toward the end of Forty Rules, I found this scene where Rumi is sent by his dervish into the local tavern to buy two bottles of wine. It's a test, obviously, and Rumi handles it beautifully. Before he leaves, he is asked by one of the tavern's regulars:
‘You have seen us. We are not evil people, but that is what they say about us all the time. You tell me, what is so wrong with drinking wine, provided we behave ourselves and don’t harm anyone?’
Here's how Shafak describes the scene that follows:
* * * * *
Pensive, kind, sober, Rumi walked toward me, and here is what he said:
‘If the wine drinker
Has a deep gentleness in him,
He will show that,
But if he has hidden anger and arrogance,
And since most people do,
Wine is forbidden to everyone.’
There was a brief lull as we all contemplated these words.
‘My friends, wine is not an innocent drink,’ Rumi addressed us in a renewed voice, so commanding and yet so composed and solid, ‘because it brings out the worst in us. I believe it is better for us to abstain from drinking. That said, we cannot blame alcohol for what we are responsible for. It is our own arrogance and anger that we should be working on. That is more urgent. At the end of the day whoever wants to drink will drink and whoever wants to stay away from wine will stay away. We have no right to impose our ways on others. There is no compulsion in religion.’
* * * * *
I don't know if Rumi actually ever spoke about wine, or wine in relation to Islam. What is interesting to me about this scene is Shafak's having written about it, about her reimagining this element of society, and the implication that an issue so relevant in October 2014 was similarly debated 800 years earlier.