I don’t usually write about books I’ve read on this blog but I am making an exception for a wonderul book I read this summer by Ari Honarvar called A Girl Called Rumi. One of the perks of being more self-contained during Covid has been more time for reading. I hope you enjoy.
War, Poetry and Magical Realism
A Girl Called Rumi, Ari Honarvar’s debut novel, is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Honarvar carefully weaves the tragic history of family and country into a mysterious story guided by the great mystical teachings of ancient Persia. Throughout the book, which blends the harsh reality of war with the literary mode of magical realism, we are transported back and forth between Shiraz, Iran in 1981, San Diego, U.S.A in 2009, and the realm beyond the physical world where magic is the coin of the day and all things are possible.
In the first chapter we are introduced to the essential themes of the novel. On one side, fundamentalist political repression, war, trauma, and its effects on families, communities and country. On the other side, friendship, poetry, the transformative power of storytelling, and the great abiding truth that humans are in their core governed by kindness and goodness with a capacity for healing and reconciliation.
As the story begins, we meet Kimia—a rebellious nine-year old budding feminist determined to push the envelope of personal freedom as far as she can. Not easy in the midst of a brutal war with Iraq with regular aerial bombings and a very repressive Islamic regime installed in 1979. In Kimia’s world, it is small acts of defiance that give her the will to persist through the extreme conditions imposed by war and the Islamic regime. It is her love of poetry and storytelling that shelters her from the worst of her traumas. Honarvar generously offers us verses of the great mystical poets, Rumi, Hafiz, and Saadi sprinkled like delicate spices throughout the book in a call and response between Kimia and the storyteller, Baba Morshid, and Kimia and her mother, Roya [Maman or mother].
Roya, who is a poet, suffers from war-induced PTSD and has become violent and abusive with Kimia. One of the many strengths of the novel is the portrayal of the mother’s humanity despite being “besotted with the splendor of her own madness.” She is wildly passionate and violent one moment, and the next reciting Rumi and bestowing great tenderness on Kimia. For Persians poetry is life. It is a path of resilience under the most difficult circumstances. Poetry never fails. One senses an irrepressible joy that bleeds through even in the midst of grief and loss. In fact, Honarvar writes that she sees joy as a revolutionary act.
The mystical undertones that flow throughout the story are revealed in the first chapter as Kimia encounters the storyteller while out to buy some bread for dinner. There in the middle of Felekeh Ghasrodasht Square is a makeshift stage. Baba Morshed is telling the story of the mythical bird—the giant Simorgh with her emerald green eyes who appears as a giant shadow puppet behind the screen as he speaks.
Kimia is transfixed by the storyteller’s voice and his penetrating gaze which he has focused on her. She is transfixed by the movements of the Simorgh and doesn’t realize that in that moment an Iraqi bomb has exploded nearby and people are screaming and running away. In the middle of the mayhem, she stands utterly still, gazing at the storyteller who is smiling at her. Her older brother, Arman, comes to rescue her, and we begin to learn about the difficult family dynamics between the war-traumatized and abusive mother and a rebellious young girl.
Honarvar uses 13th century Sufi poet Fariduddin Attar’s Seven Valleys of Love as a framework for Kimia’s spiritual journey which is a journey of healing. In Attar’s story which unfolds skillfully as a story within the story, thousands of birds gather, called by the Hoopoe bird, to learn about this journey through seven valleys to the final valley where they will encounter the great Simorgh and become free. Each valley presents obstacles that must be overcome. Thousands begin the journey with the Valley of the Quest but only a few birds arrive in the end to the Valley of Death and beyond to life.
Kimia unknowingly begins her quest after she discovers a secret trap door beneath the stage the day after the bombing. She ventures within and sees the giant Simorgh with its emerald eye which falls out as though offered as a gift to her. She steps into an underground room filled with trees, shelves of books, and one great book, unopened on the desk. The table is set with tea for two as though she has been expected. The storyteller appears and the magic begins!
The surface story moves between Iran and San Diego—a twenty-eight-year leap from past to present and back to the past. In San Diego, we see the damaged lives of Kimia, her mother, Roya, and her older brother Arman. Page by page we see how each one has made a kind of truce with the past but the ceasefire has not led to peace. On the contrary, there are personal wars still being fought on a daily basis. The mystical story flows beneath past and present time, like a silent river.
The present rejoins the past when Roya decides to return to Iran where she hopes to die. Both Kimia and Arman accompany her. Through a cascade of events, missing pieces of the past come together. Unacknowledged grief surfaces as the secrets that have haunted each one now emerge from the darkness of repression. In a final piece of magical realism, as the story reaches toward its conclusion, Kimia returns to the storyteller’s den beneath the stage. Here the child she once was meets the adult she has become as she encounters the final Valley of Death. It’s a delightful ending full of surprise twists and turns.
As readers we are potentially more than witnesses to the story. We have also passed through each of the seven valleys, along with our cast of characters, including Attar’s birds, often reflecting on our life’s journey and its obstacles. As I put the finishing touches on this review, a bird flies past my window and lands in a nearby tree. It’s a young broad-winged hawk. I think she senses me looking at her as she tilts her head in my direction. Is her appearance just now random? I don’t think so. There is magic afoot. Did you think this was not also your story? Keep watch for the birds. They will come. They will bring transformation.
If you love magical realism and poetry, you will love this book. If you love stories of transformation, you will love this book. If you love sad stories with a happy ending, you will love this book. A Girl Called Rumi is—from beginning to end—an enchanting and life-affirming read. I highly recommend it.