The issue of immigration has long been important to countries in and around the Middle East. The youth, often incapable of expressing their ideals and political restrictions, escape to that “other” land which they are infatuated with through media. On a plane, off they fly. Cultural shock, lost in translation and finally adaptation.
But what happens when one finds himself with an identity crisis? Neither Egyptian nor English, Moroccan nor French, Turkish nor Canadian. Stuck in the middle. This feeling is familiar to many migrants, and also the topic of Yilmaz Alimoglu’s debut novel Deserts and Mountains.
Alimoglu, an engineer with Turkish roots based in Toronto, Canada, came out with Deserts and Mountains in April last year. The book tells the story of Ali Dogan, a Turkish immigrant in Mississauga, Canada, who finds himself lost and in an incomprehensible spiritual state of being. He sets off on a journey back to his homeland, keeping his heart in mind and his questions ready. Deserts and Mountains has received a readership across the world and some critics have found it reminiscent of blockbusters The Alchemist and Eat, Pray, Love.
However, it is more accurately described as a book that makes us discover an aspect of the Islamic world that seldom gets mentioned in the media: Sufism. Sufism is the spiritual aspect of Islam, which pushes one to look with the inner eye, better oneself spiritually, and to be conscious of one’s heart. Rather than being self-righteous and preachy, Deserts and Mountains is a thoughtful and caring book that describes Ali’s human dimension and inner strength in overcoming the everyday life troubles that most of us face. Mashallah had the opportunity to ask Yilmaz Alimoglu a few questions.
When and why did you decide to write Deserts and Mountains?
Having written op-ed pieces for the Toronto Star for a period of time, I decided in 2007 to fully devote myself to writing my first novel. The idea of writing a book was conceived many years before, with a vague timeline and a desire to have it published before I turn 40. A series of major life changes leading up to that time gave me the incentive to dedicate myself fully to the task.
I was, in part, prompted to share the story of Ali in Deserts and Mountains as a way to communicate with others the good things that have emerged from my own life journey. My personal experience as an expatriate Turk in Canada, and a pseudo Canadian visiting Turkey, form the foundation of Ali’s experiences. They emerged with clarity after a long trip to Turkey which inspired me to use the central character’s pain as a mirror for what others may endure.
My hope is that people of predominantly Western nations, as well as those from an Islamic cultural background, will find Ali’s story interesting and informative. The book mirrors the experience of painful loss, alienation and adaptation. As the story unfolds, readers may enjoy events and find ideas with the potential to help us view others with a lesser degree of prejudice. It is primarily for this reason — to provide an opportunity to see ourselves and others differently — that I felt compelled to share Ali’s story.
How did your own life experiences help building Ali’s character?
In many ways, Ali’s character was inspired by, and sometimes a direct result of, my own experiences. Writing about my life from the second person perspective was both scary and peculiar. It was akin to looking directly at myself in the mirror: as if someone else were telling me in real terms how my image appears to others.
In many ways, the decoding process of getting to know myself forced me to face realities that I previously failed to perceive. Dealing with this delusion was not a pleasant experience. One can shake up the very perception of the self and get left in a state of bewilderment for a period of time. But through this process I found myself laughing quite often at myself and my stupidities. It was a very interesting time in my life that challenged me enough to reconsider publishing the book.
It appears that emotional stress has trapped Ali in his Turkish-Muslim identity, and he seems unable to see clearly his potential while in Canada. Do you think that Ali changed after his journey?
Yes, he did change his point of view. Ali began to see people as human beings before anything else, which enabled him to understand others and, more importantly, to grasp his role as a human being. The journey helped Ali to escape the prison of cultures, racism, prejudices and misconceptions on many levels. But for Ali — and for me — there is still more work to do: this is a lengthy process which is not over yet for either of us.
Before his trip, Ali’s mind was plagued by notions of nationalism: the greatness of Turkish culture, the perceived superiority of practicing a certain lifestyle, and a sense of pride in his growing up like any other child in Turkish society. For him, the concept of “non-believers” created an antagonistic approach towards all other human beings who did not associate themselves with the Islamic religion. It was necessary for Ali to confront these inherited ideals in order for him to fully realise what was at the core of humanity: that we are all part of it.
How did Sufism help Ali to open up emotionally towards the world?
What the Sufi path did is help Ali answer some of the most fundamental questions associated with being human. Sufism is a path of accepting God’s will and the results of our choices. It is also about encouraging empathy towards other people. In our lives, there are a lot of things that happen to us that we fail to understand, or are simply unaware of.
We find ourselves tested with events which are beyond our control. Sometimes, things simply occur in our lives in mysterious ways without rational explanations. The question for us to ask is: How do we react to these situations? We can either turn them into an advantage, redeeming whatever possible good may arise from negative outcomes; or see them as a curse, resenting the opportunity of experiencing something we rather would not face. Human beings are a lot weaker than they think they are, but they can also be strong beyond their own imaginations. However, realising that strength requires hard work and determination.
For Ali, the world is a place for actualising his humanity through connecting with his Creator. Our lives as humans start at birth, and then grow and assimilate into a certain form and culture, without choice. It is only slowly that we learn to make our own choices. And even when we begin to evaluate our own choices, this process is influenced by our upbringing and the environment in which we live. In the reality of day to day life, there is not much actual freedom. Aren’t we all — even the worst among us — ultimately victims of our circumstances?