Book-selling and the Sufi master

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.  


16 thoughts on “Book-selling and the Sufi master

  1. Jessica Scott

    What a fantastic experience. It’s often easy to forget that the people at book signings are facing the same type of risk, the rejection of each person who walks by and avoids eye contact. In my Austin RWA group, we all mob our fellow author’s book signings to prevent just that from happening. One, it draws the curious to see what the crowd is like and two, it shows our support for our fellow members. While we are hopefully preventing our authors from experiencing the sufi experience, I think we’re often times experiencing something else. The solidarity of being around other writers, and sharing a tiny piece of the success that comes when one of our own finds their name in print.
    Great post and I’m jealous you were in Turkey, I’m in Mosul Iraq and we have many Turkish vendors on post here. They ship in baklava and meat for the gyros, so I’ve got a tiny piece of normal in an otherwise, dusty drab army base.

  2. Sara J. Henry

    I’ll add that every person should work a "service" job for at least a brief time. I used to work part-time in a bicycle shop in a small Vermont town, and because the shop was near an interstate exit we’d get tourists and visiting leaf-peepers. And the disdain with which out-of-towners treated shop employees was astounding – as if you weren’t quite human.

    And everyone should substitute teach at least a week. You’ll learn an astounding amount about your community and what issues kids face today – and you’ll forevermore have immense, immense compassion for every person in the teaching profession.

  3. Alafair Burke

    Great post. Like JD, I wouldn’t mind being mobbed and unenlightened. I know we all have our humbling stories, but I had an event where one person showed up. When I went to introduce myself to him personally, he asked if any of my books had been made into movies. Then he told me he liked to read books before the movies came out. Then he left.

  4. pari noskin taichert

    Somehow it’s heartening to know that we can ALL have those Sufi experiences — and that we can all have those wonderful friends too.

    Today’s comments on your post are great reads too. This could quickly devolve into bad booksigning stories, couldn’t it? But that wasn’t the point.

  5. kit

    one of those stories that make you go….hmmmmmmm……..and file it away when you need to *switch things up a bit*
    "this is not really humiliation, Kit….this is ENLIGHTENMENT…. deal with it."

    thanks for sharing this story……

  6. JT Ellison

    Tess, gald you’re home safe!

    I think the American expression for the Sufi experience is "Pay Your Dues!" Too many people, in too many lines of work (authors included) expect to start at the top of the field, and get upset, disillusioned and bitter when they don’t make it right out of the chute. But really, what’s the fun of success and enlightenment if you haven’t had to slog through a couple of swamps to get to the castle? (I’m mixing some rather terrible metaphors here, but you get my drift.) Pay your dues, be humble, don’t EXPECT, but give, and you’ll find success in all your endeavors.

    When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you. –Lao Tzu

  7. Catherine Shipton

    I recently attended the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. The first event I went to was an hour of Lisa Unger and Gregg Hurwitz in a session called ‘Crime Pays’. I walked away impressed, and with a bundle of new ways to look at things.

    Then when I went down stairs there were the signing tables placed in this high ceiling, huge tiled space…sort of at a cross section to an information table, the bookstore, ticket sales. Anyway it had the capacity to be filled by hundreds of people. At a very long white covered table sat Lisa Unger and Gregg Hurwitz … fairly humming with polite meercat vulnerable alertness [at least that’s how it seemed to me]…only one person was standing in front of them.

    So I sort of thought ok, get past your own shyness and go say hello and thanks for the talk…even though I left my copy ‘Die for you’, at home… Then I descended into a ball of flustered silliness, and dropped what felt like about 30 years of development age in a nanosecond.

    I think I would of maintained more sense around the actors on Supernatural…I felt like I was chanelling warped fangirl cliches. Except somehow in there I may of shared a couple of backhanded compliments, like ‘I’m really glad I’ve found your books, your name caught my eye when I was in a bookstore because I recognised it from the program here….’

    Is this really awful to say to someone that has 4 books published under that name? That you didn’t know about them until recently? I did then go onto mention that I had read back into everything she had published under that name…because I liked her writing so much.

    Anyway by that time Gregg Hurwitz had another author talking with him, so rather than mangle word and meaning in attempt to be friendly, I thought scampering was the best.

    After this I’ve wondered do authors sometimes sit alone because other readers are afraid of chanelling their inner fangirl too?

  8. tess gerritsen

    trust me, LIsa was surely grateful you gathered up the nerve to approach her. Don’t ever hesitate to say hi to any author sitting alone at a signing table — we always want to hug the readers who do that!

  9. BCB

    I love this. Love. It.

    Beyond merely knowing the definitions, possessing a soul-deep understanding of the difference between humility and shame. Subtle, but so significant.

  10. Shadowy

    That was an experience and for the person of the same genre and occupation it will be instigating the real feel 🙂

    I would love to see an author at his store and immediately run over to her/him and say a hello and about her/his novel 🙂

  11. Elizabeth K. Barone

    When I was in community college, I went to our annual Writers’ Conference and met a local poet. Since I had won the previous years’ contest, I had been invited to read. After his reading and lecture about writing and his experiences, I got up to read. I’ve never felt so nervous in my life, knowing that he was listening carefully to my every word.

    After my reading, he congratulated me and complimented me. I was shocked and humbled. We later had lunch and I bought a copy of his poetry anthology, and we talked about writing some more. Before he left, he told me to contact him if I ever needed anything. If I had never approached him during lunch, I would have never made such a valuable contact.


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