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by Elif Shafak

My interest in Sufism began when I was a college student. At the time I was a rebellious young woman who liked to wrap several shawls of "-isms" around her shoulders: I was a leftist, feminist, nihilist, environmentalist, anarcho-pacifist.... I wasn´t interested in any religion and the difference between "religiosity" and "spirituality" was lost to me. Having spent some time of my childhood with a loving grandmother with many superstitions and beliefs, I had a sense the world was not composed of solely material things and there was more to life than I could see. But the truth is, I wasn´t interested in understanding the world. I only wanted to change it.

I loved books. I had started reading fiction and writing short stories at an early age, not because I wanted to be a professional writer at the time, but because I found my life dull and boring. I enjoyed living in the stories I wrote. I was an only child. I was raised by a single, working mother who could not spend much time with me. Due to my mother´s profession we lived in different countries. Wherever I went "imagination" was the first suitcase I took with me.

Little by little, I had built a private world, an inner space where stories floated freely. This was my life before college and when college started, old habits did not change. Whenever I could I retreated into that private space and I read, read, read. Books were the bridges that connected me to the world. It is no wonder, then, that my interest in Sufism, too, began with books.

It wasn´t one particular book, but a series of books. I started reading on Sufism out ofintellectual curiosity. One book led to another. A scrap of information in a footnote in one book guided me to another book. The more I read the more I unlearned. Because that is what Sufism does to you, it makes you "erase" what you know and what you are so sure of. Then you start thinking again. Not with your mind this time, but with your heart.

Among all the Sufi poets and philosophers that I read about during those years there were two names that moved me with their words: Shams of Tabriz and the great Rumi. In an age of deeply-embedded bigotries and clashes, they had stood for a universal spirituality, opening their doors to people of all backgrounds equally. They spoke of love as the essence of life, love that connected us all across centuries, cultures and cities. As I kept reading the Mathnawi, Rumi´s words gently removed the shawls I had wrapped around myself, layer upon layer, as if I was always in need of some warmth coming from outside.

I understood that whatever I chose to be, "leftist", "feminist" or anything else, what I needed truly was the light inside of me.
The light that exists inside all of us.

Thus began my interest in Sufism and spirituality. Over the years it went through several stages and seasons. Sometimes it was more vivid and visible, sometimes it receded to the background, but it never disappeared.

Spiritual paths are like stars in the dark satin of the sky. Some are long dead but their light still shines upon us. Some are there but we cannot see them. Some have been in the same place for such a long time we take simply them for granted. All together they set alight the sky we look up at for meaning and inspiration as move toward the promise of a new day, a new Self. That sky is the same endless sea of love above a rebellious college student in Istanbul or a housewife living in Boston.


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