Monday, March 04, 2013

Review: 'Jinn Theory' by Aaron Vlek

The "Jinn Theory" is a novel that takes place in modern day Istanbul where main character Rafiq Reynard now lives and works. Born to an American father and Muslim mother, he grows up in America's 1960s where he feels he has completed "all the rites of passage required of his generation. That had included a deep sampling of the world's religious traditions". Stumbling upon sufism in the 1970s, Rafiq spends every last penny pouring over books written by sufi masters such as Ibn Arabi, Jami, al-Ghazali and others. He is hooked lock, stock and barrel "as though a leviathan has awakened in the depths of his soul and set his being on fire". Immersing himself in his new found Islam, Rafiq is "swept off his feet and into the most intense love affair of his life". 

Rafiq eventually leaves California when he decides to take a job working at a bookshop in England. It is during his time there that he meets one of the most important characters in this novel, that of Khosro Mirza Isfahani and his roommate Gary Magnusson. This 'chance' encounter has a deep impact on Rafiq's life and is to change the course of his life forever in the process creating a life long friendship and eternal spiritual bonds. Two years later, at the insistence of Khosro, Rafiq is prompted to take up the ownership of a bookshop in Istanbul (where Khosro's sister lives with her husband). Twenty years later, he is still there and that is where we meet him at the beginning of the novel.

Ensconced in his now well-stocked antique shop, we find Rafiq puzzling over two particular incidents that have interrupted his well-established routine. Having kept to himself most of his life in Istanbul, living in "solitary abandonment of the world" with no wife or family, the fact that the neighbourhood residents seem to all of a sudden bring their woes to his door seems to truly threaten his sense of safety. He "wanted to pray and meditate and read, he wanted to spend his time collecting beautiful things and hopefully selling them to people who'd ... pay him enough to keep him safe and secure in the world". Although aware of certain changes taking place he is also aware that it is futile to try and fight these changes even if all he wants is to be left alone.

Rafiq also discovers that his previously held impressions of the neighborhood residents is proving to be a whole lot different than he had previously thought. From Selim the mosque guardian and his young warden Azami, to the baker Ramsay, the young migraine-suffering Suhayl and even Hamid and his wife (Khosro's sister). The addition of new residents Michaela, her young family and her in-laws Jamal Butalib and Eileen is another of the distractions that Rafiq thinks he can do well without. Unaware to everyone involved, their fates will be forever entwined.

A central character to this novel is Tursun Nourazar. A wise Sufi Sheikh of the highest order, he is the epitome of what defines Sufism as an ascetic, mystical Muslim sect which emphasises the direct personal experience of God. A childhood friend of Khosro, the part of the novel in which the author tells us the story of how these two characters meet their Jinn in 1950s Qom in Iran, who is responsible for their religious awakening, is one of the most beautiful parts of the book. Tursun has to be the most beautiful character in the book as well and it is through his teachings and interactions with the novel's characters that we get a good sense of what Sufism is about.

Throughout the novel, we find that the author Vlek leans towards the idea that Sufism relies on the direct relationship between God and his worshippers with no need for a mediary. She is intolerant of would-be religious sheikhs who demand the full subservience and conformity of their subjects quashing all attempts of personal rationale and critical examination, treating their subjects as lambs, who without experience, can easily be led. This is very apparent in all the characters of the novel and particularly of Suhayl whose experience with his own Sheikh (Dr. Hassan Abusalem) is highlighted in the story. The Sheikh has forbidden Suhayl to seek any medical treatment for his debilitating migraines and has ordered him to recite Quranic verses to cure him of his condition. Once Suhayl starts to question his sheikh, he is threatened with expulsion from the order.

The elements of Sufism are all there in the 'Jinn Theory'. The teacher, one that traces his succession to such a job back to the prophet Muhammed, (Khosro and Tursun), the signs to the Signifier (the coin in Rafiq's shoe and the crooked trumpet), and then there are the Jinn, spirits mentioned in the Quran who inhabit an unseen world beyond the universe of humans. They can be good or evil and hence have freewill just like humans. Vlek has chosen to depict them as spirits who although can reveal themselves to whomever they choose appearing in human form, it is only those who have an open mind and a spiritual tendency and readiness who will and can actually see them for what they truly are. And although the Jinn play a central role in each of the character's religious awakening, as Tursun makes apparent to Selim it is always only about the relationship between God and his worshippers regardless of whose assistance is sought to get there.

This is a novel that I enjoyed for its subject matter although in the beginning I must admit that I found it a bit difficult to connect with the characters and I am still unsure of the necessity of the plot regarding Michaela and her family. We know from the onset of the novel that a big huge change is coming that will rock the neighbourhood to its foundation and I am afraid that when the event did finally happen I was left with a sense of disappointment. The ending in my opinion was very idealistic and conflict-ridden and I was just expecting more. And yet, I think this book would make a for an excellent book club choice. Themes of pre-ordained destiny, good vs bad, and how religion and spirituality fit in with today's modern Islamic world are key topics, in addition to themes of family, friendship, love and belief. It is an excellent opportunity to learn more about this wonderful and mystical branch of Islam.

In Javier Marias' new book "The Infatuations", Diaz Varela says to main character Maria Dolz that "once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay much more attention" and Aaron Vlek commands attention and I look forward to reading more from this author.

About the author:
American author Aaron Vlek completed an undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College where she focused on Islamic history, the modern state of Iran and the central mystical saints of the middle ages. She also completed an additional close read of the works of several of the prominent ideologues of the last century and why their ideas have shaped the narratives that dominate the news today. Vlek is a convert of 35 years to moderate spiritual Islam and a peripheral student of Sufism.

Further reading: Idris Shah, Sufism

No comments: