by Tess Gerritsen
I’ve just returned from a three-week trip to Turkey. One thing I love about foreign travel are the lively and impromptu conversations I have with people abroad, and during my ramblings in Istanbul, Cappadocia, and the Aegean coast, I chatted with Turks about a wide range of topics. A coffee shop employee and I bemoaned the difficulties of successful cross-cultural romances. A jewelry store owner told me in great detail about his sick niece and sang the praises of Turkey’s socialized health-care system for keeping her alive. Several times, I heard about the deep and enduring affection that many Turkish men feel for their mothers. “You always remember your own mother’s scent,” one man said wistfully. “And all your life, you miss it.” It was a touching reminder of the universality of love, and how alike we humans really are.
While I was crossing a public square in Istanbul, I encountered another startling reminder that some experiences are universal. It was a book signing booth promoting a Turkish author named Serdar Ozkan, whose Istanbul-set novel THE MISSING ROSE, was available for sale in numerous foreign languages. Naturally, I stopped to buy a signed copy of the English edition, but the author had left to take a break. Manning the booth in his absence were a man and two women (posing with me below) who were passing out flyers to passers-by, encouraging everyone within earshot to take a look. I assumed they were bookstore employees.
Until I started chatting with them.
It turned out they weren’t bookstore employees at all. Two of them (the man and the woman standing beside him) are physicians at the American Hospital in Istanbul, and they’d taken the day off to help their friend — the author — sell his books. To their dismay, passersby were pretty much ignoring them, or waving off the flyers, and these three were getting a humiliating taste of what it’s like to be a salesman.
“You must be really good friends of the author,” I said. “If you’re going through all this for him.”
The man smiled serenely and asked me, “Do you know anything about Sufism?”
Baffled by his question, I admitted that I knew very little.
“Then let me tell you a story about a Sufi master,” he said.
Once long ago, there was a wealthy, well-respected judge who decided he wanted to be schooled in Sufi mystical traditions. He went in search of a famous Sufi master and found him wearing rags and living in an impoverished village. “I want to be your student,” the judge announced.
The Sufi master looked the judge up and down, and said: “You are not ready to be my student.”
The judge was outraged that this beggarly man would reject him. “What do I have to do to be your student?” he asked.
“You must sell meat in the market,” the master replied.
The judge was appalled that anyone would see him, a respected judge, working like a common butcher. So he lurked in the shadows, rolling his meat cart through side streets where he wouldn’t be noticed.
But again, the Sufi master rejected him. “You must sell your meat where everyone can see you,” he said. “And you must wear your judge’s robes, so everyone will know who you are.”
So the judge rolled his meat cart into the full glare of the public eye. No one bought his meat. Instead he was jeered at and humiliated until every ounce of his pride was destroyed.
And the Sufi master finally said, “Now you are ready to be my student.”
“That’s why I’m here today, helping my friend sell his books,” the doctor told me. “I wanted the full Sufi experience.”
“You wanted to experience humiliation?” I said.
He gave me a sly wink. “It’s working, isn’t it?”
That’s when we both laughed at just how right he was. Here was this medical doctor, shilling in a busy public square, facing rejection from passers-by who rudely waved away his flyers. As I watched him cheerfully persevere, I remembered all the booksignings I’d endured over the years, all the bookstores where I would feel humiliated, begging for customers’ attention, pleading with someone, anyone, to come and take a look at my latest novel. Whether you’re in Istanbul or Indiana, book-selling is a humbling experience. Perhaps it would be easier to stomach if we all adopt a bit of Sufi wisdom. Perhaps we should embrace the ordeal as the path to enlightenment.
Later that evening, on my way to dinner, I walked across that same Istanbul square and saw that the author was now back in the booth.
I stopped to say hello and told him that I’d bought his book earlier that day. Serdar Ozkan was gorgeous and charming, and he had a long line of customers waiting to buy his book. He was definitely not having the Sufi experience.
I guess he’ll have to wait for enlightenment another day.