The Magazine

Sufi Surfing

Pico Iyer and the Californication of mystical Islam.

Sep 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 02 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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by Pico Iyer

Knopf, 360 pp., $24

PICO IYER, who mainly works as a writer for Time, comes to the topic of Sufism after a series of books that seem unlikely preparation. His "Video Night in Kathmandu," "Falling Off the Map," and "The Global Soul" glittered with the bright lights and Time-reporter sorts of insights about a homogenized, post-postmodern, globalized world. He produced a novel, "Cuba and the Night," which showed a desperate need to find a place--even if it happened to be a brutal Communist dictatorship--unsullied by commercialization, uniformity, and standardization.

Now, in his latest novel, "Abandon," he has turned inward, ostensibly to an exploration of the Islamic mystical tradition called Sufism in search of an alternative to a globalized world. Strangely, the location for his inward search is California, the capital of ultimate banality. One would like to explain this away as a deep Sufi parable, but, a travel writer, Iyer's approach to Sufism remains that of a tourist among tourists. His Sufism is a marketable mysticism, reduced to small bites of tranquility and enlightenment.

The novel's protagonist, John Macmillan, is an English graduate student of unreported age and appearance. He meets with professors, attends seminars, and encounters a troubled woman, Camilla--a name Latin in origin, but a homonym of the Arabic name Kamila meaning "perfect" which is not mentioned in the narrative. He is shown obscure manuscripts (of which we learn nothing) by some Los Angeles Iranians and a Muslim in India. Finally, he obtains a manuscript of verse that, somewhat inexplicably, excites him. Interspersed with these episodes, and the enervated consequences that flow from them, are trips to places like Damascus, Seville, and the cities of Iran, that should be, but somehow are not, vivid--in order to meet individuals who should be, but somehow are not, insightful.

Macmillan also drives around California in a kind of Raymond Chandler reverie, but without gangsters, detectives, or blood. Bloodlessness is, indeed, the operating description of Iyer's "Abandon": an empty landscape of happenings where nothing happens. Aside from Macmillan's dully enigmatic and petulant mentor, Sefhadi, the book's experts talk about research without describing it, express an overdramatized amour propre, and lecture in New Age generalities. Macmillan's affair with Camilla is formalized and barely complicated, described with an oddly inept vocabulary about sex ("when he met her there, she let out a great cry, and then began sobbing").

In the pages of "Abandon," there are no real Sufis, only academic experts or weekend Sufis. For instance, dhikr (the central Sufi ritual of remembrance of God) is absent, as are the names of the dervish orders. Everything in the novel seems exhausted; and there is no self-awareness that would lift such unappetizing porridge to the level one might expect from a novel touching, even marginally, on the chaos and controversy with which, for instance, contemporary Iran is associated. One would never imagine, reading this story, that real Sufis are surprisingly easy to find in the United States. Nor would one learn, from this book, that the Sufi classics crackle with energy and verve.

SPIRITUAL ODYSSEYS DO, in fact, beckon us today. But to embark upon them requires something more than lackluster campus colloquia about Rumi. My own real engagement with Sufism came at age forty-four, when I came across a volume by Baba Rexheb Beqiri, who established an Albanian Sufi presence in Michigan, entitled "The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism."

Then, in Kosovo, I met genuine Sufis, committed to a life and death struggle for the survival of their communities in the face of Serbian aggression. On July 19, 1998, for instance, the first pitched battle between Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army took place in the town of Rahovec. Open fighting in the streets culminated in a Serb assault on the Helveti-Karabashi Sufi shrine in the town, in which hundreds of terrified residents had gathered. The elderly and distinguished leader of the community, Sheikh Myhedin Shehu, was killed, and up to a hundred and fifty more Albanians died. Serb paramilitaries also committed a horrifying massacre in the home and shrine of another Kosovo Sufi, Sheikh Dervishdana. (The Dervishdana incident figures in the indictment of Milosevic at the Hague.)