This is the story of Kimya, a clever, pretty child given to mystical ‘timeless moments’, growing up in a tiny village in the mountains of what is now Turkey at a time when the traditional Christian families and the invading Muslims are still managing to live peacefully together in such remote parts of the country. Her mother Evdokia is a Christian, her father Farokh one of the newcomers.
At the age of seven, when it becomes obvious to everyone that she is very different from the other village children, she is taken to the nearest city, Konya, to be educated by Orthodox nuns. However, the nuns are no longer there, and her father leaves her with Maulana (Jalal ud din Rumi) and his family when Kimya seems to recognise the philosopher and to wish to stay with him.
All goes well until the arrival in the city of the whirling Dervish known as Shams, from Tabriz, whose influence on Maulana (and Kimya) is, according to most people, nothing short of malign, though they themselves (Maulana and Kimya) never cease to regard him as a saint.
The whole thing is more than a little reminiscent of Paulo Coelho; even his self-questioning and torment are there in the latter half of the book. But unlike Coelho (I think) Muriel Maufroy believes in the perennial philosophy, the mystical truths that underlie all real religion and make the bloody competition between fanatical supporters of the religion they happen to have been born into so tragic, not to mention the terrible persecution of those (usually mystics) whose beliefs are not considered orthodox.
There is magic in this book, and it is a very real brand of magic.
Under her door was a bright glow. She jumped out of bed and rushed out of her room. The door of Shams’s room was open and it was there that the fire was roaring. She approached, horrified then incredulous. Inside, surrounded by flames and with his eyes closed, Shams was sitting unconcerned. His face, colourless, seemed carved in stone. Her first impulse was to run inside and help him out, but something about the scene held her back. The flames were rising and falling without touching him, more like a protection than a threat. Aghast, she remained there gazing at him encircled by fire, until she retreated shivering to her room.
It is beautifully written, but strange. I found the ending unexpected and unsatisfying but that may be me. Certainly I enjoyed the book and now have a far better idea of how people lived and thought in that part of the world during the late Middle Ages.
If you are interested in mysticism, Sufism and Jalal ud din Rumi, don’t miss it.