A Review of Emily Jane O’Dell’s “The Gift of Rumi”
Rumi-nations of a Mystic
You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that the world is currently a very mixed-up place. The ravages of COVID-19 continue more than two years after the initial outbreak, and Monkeypox seems to be nipping at its heels. We have a war between Russia and Ukraine that one hopes will not suddenly go nuclear. We have an epidemic of gun violence in the United States that no one seems to be able to stop or prevent, and the consequences of climate change continue. What this world needs now is love (if not a focus on the spirit), it seems. Thus, Emily Jane O’Dell’s The Gift of Rumi is being released at an interesting time in world history. The book is about the poetry of 13th-century mystic Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, known colloquially to Western audiences as simply Rumi. While Rumi’s poetry is often seen to be romantic, which is how his poems have been translated into English, O’Dell instead chooses to retranslate these pieces to offer a more spiritual view of his work. She peppers this insight with her own experiences spent in a Sufi retreat for 40 days in Istanbul, Turkey.
To this end, the book is quite a bit uneven between the personal and the profound — but that’s the least of its problems. It presupposes that you have some familiarity with not only Rumi but Islam and Sufism in a larger context. If you don’t, you may be a little lost and not really understand what the deal is with concepts such as whirling dervishes unless you consult Wikipedia or challenge yourself to keep reading the book in the expectation that all will be revealed. However, to be considerate, the good news is you get a lot of Rumi’s poetry in this volume. Being a Christian, I found a lot of the poetry to be eerily reminiscent of David’s poetry in the Book of Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. As noted, O’Dell takes pains to extract the romanticism from Rumi’s poems and infuse it instead with more religious qualities in her translations. This may be revealing for those familiar with these works, and this will probably be the main attraction for readers interested in this. That said, don’t come to this book expecting anything close to rhyming couplets or proper metering. The author seems to focus on translating things as literally as possible — which she admits can be a challenge when, in the original Persian, scholars can spend months debating the meaning of a single word in these poems. Even though the poems may have been shorn of their poetry, they are interesting and illuminating. That alone is worth the price of admission.
However, there is some confusion at times as to whether the author is quoting the works of Rumi or a contemporary of his. Also, if you’re expecting a self-help guide to untangling your life based on Rumi’s works, you’re probably going to be disappointed. This is a straight-up and literal retelling of these classic verses, with very little in the way of personal insight to be gleaned. This is more about what Rumi might have meant when he was writing these poems based on both his personal life and the larger societal and political backdrop of his life — if not within the context of Sufism. When the book isn’t focused on Rumi’s teachings, O’Dell spends her time detailing her life in the Sufi retreat. While this section of the book can be interesting as the author learns how to whirl, make breakfast for her master, and play difficult traditional musical instruments such as the ney (a type of flute), it also can feel a little anonymous. We don’t learn a lot about the author’s backstory other than the fact that she’s very intelligent (according to the book, she studied at five different Ivy League schools before the age of 30). The book is crying out for more of a narrative and personal story behind this journey to Turkey. In fact, after having read The Gift of Rumi, I don’t feel any the wiser for what brought her to Turkey in the first place. She may have mentioned it, but perhaps she mentioned it too quickly to be caught be me.
In addition, the book can be somewhat dry. O’Dell simply dumps a lot of information about various things — stuff such as the 99 Names for God in Islam — without weaving them effortlessly into the text. On the names of God front, she simply lists all 99 names in one chapter. While this is helpful to understand what lies behind Rumi’s writing and is perhaps interesting from a layman’s perspective (I didn’t know, for instance, that there were 99 names for God in Islam until I read this book), you can also appreciate how boring it is to read pages upon pages of names in English with the corresponding Persian or Arabic. (I’m unsure as to which language she was quoting from, which may be a knock against the book in some regards.) Essentially, I think the main problem with this work is that the author presupposes that you’re as smart as she is or the reader is willing to sit through someone with a lot of knowledge trying to explain things — when she does explain things — that the result is more than a little off-putting. On the not explaining things front, I was curious to know why retreats such as the one she writes about last 40 days or even sometimes 1,001 days and what the significance behind those numbers might really mean. Again, it’s kind of presumed that the reader might already know this.
Still, I don’t want to sound too churlish in criticizing this book because I’m sure it will have value for some readers. It was interesting to be exposed to the work of a renowned figure in Islam because, if it weren’t for the fact that this book landed in my lap from a publisher for review consideration, I doubt I would have sought it out on my own. But, having said that, perhaps this will have much more value to students or practitioners of Islam who already have insider knowledge of the religion. The poetry is intriguing, and it’s good to know that someone has taken the time to translate work that has been stripped of its original meaning in traditional English translations. If anything, this might incline me to want to read some of that more romantic work just to see what the differences are and find out why original English scholars may have been tempted to veer away from Rumi’s spirituality in their translations. In that sense, The Gift of Rumi is a bit of a gift in and of itself. Even though this is a far from perfect examination of Rumi’s writing, anyone who wants to know more beyond what they already know will be likely enraptured by this. It’s just begging for more personal detail of the author’s life more seamlessly woven into the text and a more thorough examination of Rumi’s life and times — if not the spirituality of Islam — to really make this tick in the way that it was intended. A pass, then, but with caveats.
Emily Jane O’Dell’s The Gift of Rumi: Experiencing the Wisdom of the Sufi Master will be published by St. Martin’s Essentials on July 26, 2022.
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