I’m ashamed to say that I was born in the country where the famous Sufi poet Rumi lived, raised in the Muslim faith, but know little about Sufism, oth...moreI’m ashamed to say that I was born in the country where the famous Sufi poet Rumi lived, raised in the Muslim faith, but know little about Sufism, other than that it’s the mystical aspect of Islam and the spiritual home of the whirling dervishes (who I’ve seen perform in my native Turkey). For that reason I was drawn to Phillip Gowins’s book Practical Sufism. I wanted to learn the basics and thought this slim book by a hypnotherapist and Sufi teacher would be a great way to start.
Gowins takes us down his path of Sufism. Part memoir, part traditional non fiction text, part metaphysical musings with meditative exercises, Practical Sufism is a hodgepodge of a book. At times this lack of structure felt liberating, but at other times I found it hard to grasp the teachings and principles of Sufism, besides some basic principles such as: merging with the oneness of God, humans as beings of light, Sufism as the path of the heart, the need to open the channel to the soul through meditation. I felt that the author should have given at least a brief introduction on the history, philosophy and practice of Sufism before sharing his own experience. Without such an introduction, the narrative meanders.
Sufism is in fact the inner dimension of Islam. But there is little if no mention of Islam, and how Sufism ties into Islam. In the history of the religion, Sufism has played a key role, a fact that the reader should be informed of. Also, Islamic practice appears to be a key component of many Sufi orders. Gowins’s order appears to be independent of religion, so the reader longs to know: how is that possible?
Gowins’s spiritual awakening is engaging. He left the Protestant faith and joined a Sufi order. The book is based on the teachings of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, the author’s own guide and leader of his Sufi order. Khan has since passed away. And though many of the passages from Khan that Gowins includes are beautiful and poignant, it’s difficult to grasp exactly what Khan’s essential teachings are. Gowins doesn’t take the time to delve into them. So I’m left to wonder, what is the essential philosophy of Sufism and its major figures, and how does Khan fit in this history? Also, I wanted more details of Gowins own path in the Sufi order. What was the process? How did he become a Sufi? Apparently, it’s not easy to become one and can take years of tireless devotion and practice.
Gowins is a clear, succinct, and effective writer. His voice is likeable, his style is easy to read and follow. However, the book reads more like a spiritual self-help book than an informative text on the subject, as it lacks a narrative thread. The chapters don’t connect to one another, and the information appears to be dispersed. The random division of chapters makes it hard to grasp his spirituality’s key concepts. In the end, I felt the book was incomplete. Sufism has such a rich and fascinating history and I wish the author had shared more of that with the reader.
Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier is a gratifying find among the many historical books written about the harem life of the Ottom...moreHarem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier is a gratifying find among the many historical books written about the harem life of the Ottoman Empire. A harem was not a hidden, decadent enclave of the Sultan’s stunning concubines. It was simply where the women lived in the palace. All of the women lived there, including the Sultan’s own mother, known as the “Valide Sultan.” She was the most powerful figure in the empire after the Sultan himself. Croutier doesn’t exclusively cover the Turkish harem, or Seraglio as it is known, and addresses the topic of the harem in general. However, since Croutier is Turkish and has a personal linkage to this past, naturally the majority of her book covers the Ottoman harem.
Reading this book is like watching a documentary. Decorated with lush photography and paintings, it animates the women who lived in this time and place. Croutier covers all elements of the harem life: the baths that were a quotidian ritual, the poetry of the women’s voices, an emotional life as multifaceted as the gems adorning them, the princesses, high-ranking concubines, and the eunuchs who surrounded them. There is also mention of the ordinary harem of domestic households. This rich history is laid out like a damask tapestry. The author’s first person narrative makes the prose all the more alluring.
The harem life was not easy. It was an imprisoned life, a segregated complex of buildings populated mostly by foreign slaves. A Muslim Turk could not be a consort to the Sultan as slavery was forbidden in Islam. Women were kidnapped or sold into the slave market just as cattle were. In some ways, the Turks are still ashamed of such a history, and it was abolished in the early twentieth century. Even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revolutionary leader and creator of the modern Turkish republic, had said: “Is it possible that, while one half of a community stays chained to the ground, the other half can rise to the skies?” Women could rarely leave the walls of the harem, but as oppressive as it could be, it was still a place of rich culture where a network of women turned to each other for comfort and enjoyed as much of its splendor as they could.
Researched extensively, Harem offers a rare glimpse into the fascinating yet misunderstood heritage of women in the Ottoman Empire. (less)