Thursday, January 20, 2011

Deserts and Mountains

Thoughts on Deserts and Mountains, a novel by Yilmaz Alimoglu

If there is one thing which I love about this new cultural landscape of the internet we seem to inhabit more and more, it is the ability of cultural creatives, artists, musicians, writers, armchair philosophers, spiritual seekers, and just about anyone else with an idea to make personal effort to promote themselves, find like minded souls and share a bit of themselves with the world in a fashion that is akin to word of mouth, but on such a broader scale.

Yilmaz Alimoglu’s wonderful novel Deserts and Mountains is not the first book to reach me in such a way. A few years ago, I was introduced to Tony Vigorito’s work (which is entirely different but every bit as thoughtful) in the same fashion, and I must say that both experiences have enriched my life, and meeting Yilmaz, even if only in the ‘virtual world’ of electrons flitting around crystals and screens, adds a new layer of experience to reading a novel and experiencing the intention of an author. I hope to see and experience more of this type of interaction between creators and witnesses (I will NOT say consumers!) in the future.

In an age when mass publishing houses are promoted by the likes of Oprah and many ‘spiritual journey’ books are tossed about in conversation like so many pulp mystery novels, used more to establish cultural identity and coolness factor rather than actual spiritual growth and rendering them stale and one dimensional in the larger pop culture context, it is refreshing to be presented with a truly grounded, personal and humble novel such as Deserts and Mountains. Add to that an author who seems to be joyous about interacting with his readers in the online realm, and the experience begins to dissolve boundaries even further and the book acts as a catalyst for further discussion.

This is exactly what I find to be the true beauty of Deserts and Mountains.
Yilmaz manages to create a highly personal feel to this fictional work, so much so that at times I found myself feeling so connected to the main character of Ali that I had to wonder how much of it was actually fiction. I felt as if Yilmaz might really be sitting next to me sharing some of his own life story.

The amazing thing about the novel is that it moves so smoothly between personal stories and exposition of many of the concepts of Sufism. In a time when a great deal of the Western world has a very warped and uninformed understanding of Islam and Muslims, especially when it comes to the Mystical aspects of the many cultures which comprise the Islamic World, a book such as this can act as something more than simply being a novel. It can act as a much needed primmer opening one to a deeper understanding of the depth and meaning of a tradition which seems to be so misunderstood by so many.
I have been ‘studying’ aspects of Sufism for more than a few years now, attempting to reach beyond the romanticized Western versions of the poetry of such Masters as Hafiz and Rumi. Along the way I have discovering Attar’s Conference of the Birds (a personal favorite), Ibn Arabi, El Ghazzali, the more modern Hazrat Inayat Khan as well as others and was pleased to find passages inspired by or quoting many of the Greats of the tradition sprinkled throughout the book, always at appropriate places in which they did not seem the least bit intrusive, but rather, a natural part of the flow, being exposition of the internal workings of Ali.
Sufism seems to be so much more that many realize, truly a beautiful and evolving tradition which understands its role in society and how it must adapt to the varying situations in life, yet at it’s core nurture the deepest understandings of and personal relationship to the Divine (often referred to as ‘The Friend’ or “The Beloved” within the tradition, which shows just how personal of a relationship Sufism can instill).
One amazing aspect of this novel is that it manages to translate that idea in a decidedly non academic manner through personal storytelling.
The thread of The Friend runs through every moment, whether the main character, Ali, finds himself in his adopted home of Canada, his homeland of Turkey, the Sahara or visiting Greece and Spain. This thread works as a great example of how our lives evolve and how we ‘digest’ and integrate our experiences, how we interpret them, color them by the beliefs we hold onto, and how, at times, those beliefs need to evolve in order to encompass the truths which seem to reveal themselves before our very eyes.
I’m sure it was not easy for Ali to return to his homeland only to find himself rather disgusted by the distorted display of morals and ethics (or lack thereof) which destroy romanticized memories. Yet, in a very real sense, the experience becomes a lens through which Ali can witness his own inner development and progress along The Path.

In a time when we are all having to learn more every day about how to exist in multi-cultural context in an increasingly pluralistic world, many times living great distances from where our cultural patterns and roots evolved, novels such as this can play a key roll in helping us understand what we are all going through, and that we are not alone in the quest to make peace with it.
So many of us are having to readjust our cultural perceptions as we are finding ourselves removed from original context and being able to re-examine our cultures of origin from outside, with fresh eyes.
Could Ali have truly understood and seen the problems he witnessed upon returning to his homeland of Turkey if he had not moved to Canada or some other outside culture? Maybe he needed that juxtaposition in order to open his eyes and allow him to see clearly, something we can all use a little more of in these seemingly chaotic times of cultural rearrangement. These are not simple times we live in, and cultivating this ability to witness, to see both connections and differences becomes something of increasing importance, especially if we are to find a common ground in which we can all find a way to coexist and understand each other and the need for maintaining our own personal understandings of life while at the same time maintaining that connection with those that differ, something that is elemental in building the foundations of compassion and maintaining a personal spiritual compass when presented with such a pluralistic flood of cultural ideas and mythologies.

Yilmaz does a wonderful job of humanizing Ali. He also does a wonderful job of showing the connection between science and spirituality. Ali’s secular life as a scientist blends so well into the mystical, and helps one to understand the common experimental nature needed in order to fully understand either – that is, experimenting while maintaining keen observation and awareness, something that his scientific background seems to help a great deal with, allowing Ali to move into a more objective ‘mindspace’ when it is called upon to overcome cultural filters and witness more clearly.
The intellectual nature of the story is wonderfully paired with the emotional nature of Ali’s experiences.
He faces intense emotional experiences: a love thought lost and possibly beyond recovery only to be renewed in a new, more mature fashion, new love lost to mortality, overcoming culturally imprinted ethnic bias during his visit to Greece, and most of all, confronting himself and his own illusions about who he is and his place in the world.
The transitions between the various situations in which Ali finds himself flows very naturally, even when events take U-turns. Some might be confused by moments such as when he decides to immediately return to Turkey from Spain so that he can ‘find himself’ on the Mountain, but anyone who has followed their own intuitive path will immediately understand the pressing need and seeming obsession. Such things are what great breakthroughs are made of. The same can be said for his journey to the desert, a place where all but the most vital aspects of culture tend to be stripped bare.

One of the greatest rewards of the book is to witness Ali return to his adopted home transformed and more capable of understanding himself and those he loves, and I was very pleased that his family, which remained in Canada as he moved forward on his journey, continued to be vital and important elements along his journey and reflected his own progress within the growth and evolution, the opening of eyes, which developed as they grew to understand and know each other more; something that also reflects the theme of growing and developing clearer understanding through a process of removing oneself from the situation and seeing with new eyes.

I applaud Yilmaz for presenting his first novel to the world and taking such great care in how he shares it and interacts with his readers. It might be possible that the small scale of distribution and marketing have been a blessing to the readers who have been lucky enough to share in this, as it has allowed for a more personalized experience – something which seems intrinsically important to such material.
I look forward to the next journey presented by Mr. Alimoglu, as I am sure it will be every bit as vital and vibrant as Deserts and Mountains.

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