Kimya, a Forgotten Mystic
This review was originally printed in Sufi, 69, Spring 2006. It is reprinted here (in the astore) with permission from Alireza Nurbakhsh, editor of Sufi.
Rumi’s Daughter is both a delightful and informative novel. It comes to us from Muriel Maufroy, French-born author and ex-journalist for the BBC World Service who currently lives in London. Partly imagined and partly factual, it recounts the life of Kimya, the adopted daughter of Maulana Jalalud-Din Rumi (1207-1273) who is known today both for his mystical love poetry written to his beloved God and the Sufi Order of the Whirling Dervishes founded after his death. Nothing is really known about Kimya’s origins, and we know very little about her life in Rumi’s household. Yet through her enchanting depiction, Maufroy lovingly evokes the spirit of a vivacious and ingenuous young girl. She brings to life this child of seven in all her innocence and simplicity as the girl awakens to a world of wonder and embraces the life of a mystic, even before she meets Rumi and Shams. This book is especially unique, in that it offers a glimpse into Rumi’s life from the women’s point of view, something which had not been done before.
It seems plausible that Kimya was born in an Anatolian village near Konya, that as a child she went into trances when she would black out and enter another dimension losing all track of time, and that her love for God was all-consuming, shaping what she became. As a young child Kimya frequently wonders, “Why am I alive? Where was I before I was born?” She appears to have been where Rumi and Shams are long before she meets them. Following one of her reveries she tells her mother sobbing, “I was somewhere where I was so happy … Then it was all over.” Maufroy writes, “And for a second it seemed the child had been touched by a beam of light.” In turn, Kimya’s Greek Christian mother Evdokia wonders how Kimya happens to be her child, and her Turkish Muslim father Farokh jokes whether perhaps she might be a witch. Both parents feel she does not “belong” to them.
Through this cross-cultural family, Maufroy gives us a flavor of the times in Anatolia when the Seljuk Turks ruled (1077-1308) the land, gently weaving historical facts in between her delightfully inspired fiction. She infuses the pages of her book with images that instruct: Farokh talks of nearby cities, Konya and Laranda, where his cousins used to visit and would return to tell stories about houses carved out of stone and “people speaking strange languages and wearing even stranger dresses.” Kimya’s father tells his inquisitive daughter of his nomadic childhood herding goats and sheep, bartering and selling milk, cheese, wool, and rugs, while living in tents made of felt, looking up to shamans for spiritual guidance, worshipping idols, and making offerings to the gods. In contrast, they now live in a stone house, work the land, and attend the mosque. Thus we learn about the landscape, inhabitants, and living conditions in the Taurus Mountains in the thirteenth century. Incidentally, Maufroy has traveled to Turkey on numerous occasions and even lived in a Turkish village in the area.
We also discover Konya and its many preachers: “Not only the Christian monks who tried to stem the rise of Islam, or the Franks on their way to Palestine, but all those beggars in disguise who came from the East and made their living from swallowing swords, spitting fire, or pretending to read the future.” Indeed, thirteenth-century Anatolia was a place where many faiths were intertwined: Hellenic, Gnostic, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Pagan. And the region was layered in many cultures: Greek, Roman, Persian, Turkish, and Arab. One could hear Venetian, Saxon, or Frank, Greek or Persian, Turkish or Arabic spoken in the streets. We meet characters like Ahmed, a Persian youth from Konya, his friend Theophanes, a young Greek boy, or Father Chrisostom, a Christian priest and a friend of Kimya’s family. Young Kimya wisely comments on this miscellany of peoples saying, “Perhaps one day everybody will speak the same language.”
As already indicated, Maufroy cleverly embeds her sensitively inspired tale within much historical fact. For example, through the ruminations of Father Chrisostom we learn that in the villages “Islam and the language of the Turkomans were slowly supplanting Christianity and the Greek language. How unsettling it was at times to live in this land of Anatolia and the Taurus, pulled between the Byzantine and Persian empires!” We also become aware of the tumultuous times in which Kimya lived, when the Mongol hordes were invading the country: “It was not only the individual who was threatened, but whole ways of life with their unique forms and richness. One heard of libraries disappearing in blazes, of illuminated manuscripts torn to pieces, of works of art reduced to rubble.”
But what the author really wants and succeeds to impress on us is her belief that, in the eyes of God, religious and gender differences are of little importance. We learn about Jalalud-Din Rumi as a preacher who accepts people of all faiths, and “even women,” as his disciples, which leads to much gossip about the propriety of his tolerance and his unorthodox views. In fact, Rumi’s second wife Kerra, whom we meet in this novel, was Christian. In the story Rumi is revered as Maulana, Our Master. Most importantly, we hear his own words, expressing the heart of his teaching: “Love for the Creator is latent in all men.” The Greek priest Chrisostom also voices sentiments similar to Rumi’s: “People have their faiths and God hears each one of them. Who are we to tell them how to talk to Him?” Thus, real-life characters and fictional ones blend together.
Kimya’s story begins in 1239 when she is seven. Rumi would have been thirty-two years old that year, a young scholar and spiritual figure gaining recognition and gathering a following. Their lives converge when Kimya’s parents, after much heart-wrenching contemplation, take the precocious young girl to Konya, where she can be taught by nuns in a convent. Instead, it is Kimya’s fate to cross paths with Rumi, who invites her to live in his home with his wife and children. By that point, Kimya has already learned about Rumi and his teaching from Ahmed, who teaches her the precious Persian word, doost, meaning “the Friend”–“the one I Love”, “the One I Long For.”
It is with the sensitivity and compassion of a true believer that Maufroy evokes the exchange that might have transpired between Rumi and Kimya when they meet physically for the first time: “We have already walked a long way together,” remarks Rumi to Kimya. And through Kimya, who is not even ten yet, we see Rumi: “From his whole being emanated a feeling of warmth and kindness, though his eyes looked sharp and alert.” What follows in the rest of the novel after that point is both intense and a delight, as the author shows us through the young girl’s eyes what Rumi the man might have been like, what might have transpired in his household day to day, and how he might have talked and behaved in everyday life.
It is thus that we meet Rumi’s second wife Kerra, his grown sons Sultan Walad and Alaud-Din, his six-month-old son Alim, his friends Sadruddin Qonavi, Namj al Razi, Salah ud din Zarkob, and finally, his doost Shams of Tabriz, “the confidant of [his] soul.” Approximately the last two thirds of the book follows Kimya as she matures beyond her years both psychologically and spiritually in a very short time. This part of Kimya’s tale is grounded in more familiar territory for readers who already know the historical facts of Shams and Rumi’s relationship, Shams’s wondrous entry into Rumi’s life in 1244, the jealousy that ensued among Rumi’s followers, and Shams’s heartbreaking disappearance forever only four years later. Kimya is barely fifteen when she enters into a marriage with Shams, her senior by at least three decades, who evokes emotions that are both exhilarating and devastating for anyone, let alone a child her age. Shams neglects her most of the time, instead spending his time with Rumi, locked in a room, without even food, for days and nights on end, lost in mystical conversation.
The historical Kimya was much pitied for having been neglected and for dying of loneliness and despair. This is not how Maufroy sees it, though. And this is another important aspect of this curiously powerful book. All along, the author indicates that too often our perceptions distort what really happens. We do not see reality; we interpret it according to our conditioning. This is particularly noticeable in Kimya’s relationship with Shams, which to Maufroy, is much more than an arranged marriage or one of convenience. The relationship is also one of teacher and disciple. We witness Kimya’s burning and her mystical transformation, as Shams allows her “almost at will to enter the place where her heart [is] content.” The discrepancy between perception and reality is equally demonstrated in the parallel relationship between Rumi and Shams, which clearly remains incomprehensible to the onlookers. But the main theme in the novel is first of all the Sufi theme of love and separation. Early in the book one of the characters proclaims: “Love’s task is to take us beyond the realm of separation. It has nothing to do with happiness here”–a statement which actually foretells Kimya’s, and later on Rumi’s story itself, as well as the very foundation of his teaching.
As a whole, this is an insightful novel that does not only interweave historical facts with a creative account of a young girl’s experiences growing up in Rumi’s household, but is imbued with Sufi thought and knowledge: “God’s knowledge is as free as a bird and so is your soul.” “There is a knowledge the mind knows nothing of”. Such statements subtly draw the reader into the Sufi mystic’s world and its language. “When Kimya left,” Maufroy writes, “the sky was softening into a rose-tinted gold, as tender as God’s whisper”. It is this whisper from God that this novel manages to make us hear.
Müge N. Galin, Ph.D., from the Department of English at The Ohio State University, has written Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing (State University of New York Press, 1997), Turkish Sampler (Indiana University, 1989), and Fatma Aliye Hanim (Isis Press).