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Tales from Rumi: Rediscovering a World Classic
Jan 1, 2010

Tales from Rumi
Edited by Ali Fuat Bilkan
Translated by Jeannette Squires Okur
Tughra Books, 2008

There are books that I have always kept within arm’s reach on my desk-books that I have enjoyed rereading over and over again, and from which I draw the strength, joy and peace of the heart. Many of the selections from the Mathnawi-the magnum opus of Rumi, the world-famous Sufi master and poetic genius-included in Tales from Rumi, were the first of his stories that I read in Turkish many years ago. Going back as far as I can remember, I was aware that I was reading stories from the celebrated Rumi, who lived and died centuries ago in the Seljuk Turks’ capital of Konya in the heart of Anatolia. Yet, I had no idea then that I was in touch with “world literature.”

I never thought that I was not reading the Mathnawi stories in their original language; instead, I read them in an abridged version in modern Turkish-a book that greatly broadened my perception of the world. I do not think that any of my peers had the language skills to read the original Persian, or even Ottoman Turkish, versions of the Mathnawi. Indeed, many of the world’s literary masterpieces are not read or offered in their original language, and except for a small subset of world literature, most works are unknown outside of their culture. Moreover, when they are translated and read beyond the author’s environment, they require so much local knowledge to be understood that they lose their flavor.

However, Rumi is one of the rare literary figures whose works have circulated beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language. Now, there are a substantial number of his works that are available in many languages. The Tughra Books has recently published Tales from Rumi, a selection of Rumi’s stories from the Mathnawi, which have been adapted for young readers. This collection of accessible and abridged tales makes the Mathnawi available in an attractive 130-page hardcover book in the English language. The range of stories is admirably broad; each tale in this collection-from “The Rabbit and the Lion” to “The Teacher’s Fear”-has a fascinating, action-packed plot and ends with a moral that reinforces the message. It is most likely that readers will come away with a burning desire to read more of Rumi. Its intended audience includes readers interested in exciting tales and in world literature, especially younger readers, who wish to eliminate barriers and to broaden their perspectives.

Recently, there has been a growing global perspective and the increased awareness of the need to expose children and teenagers to world literature and to broaden their understanding of the larger world. In this age of globalization, while acknowledging the cultural perspectives of Rumi’s stories, young readers will become better aware of the commonalities that exist across the boundaries of various cultures. The stories in Tales from Rumi are selected from among numerous stories in the Mathnawi, adapted and edited by Professor Ali Fuat Bilkan, and translated into English by Jeanette Squires Okur. The stories will provide an enjoyable avenue to this great work of world literature and will offer a truly global perspective for this age group as well.

I would like to especially point out the potential benefits of incorporating this world classic into a secondary education curriculum. Other than recommending it for a list of suggested reading at secondary education institutions, I think that this collection of selected and abridged translations of stories from Rumi’s world classic could also be successfully used in school character education programs, which focus on personal, social, and global dimensions. The classroom study of Tales from Rumi-in an explanatory manner, respectful of cultural and linguistic diversity-will offer teenage students excellent opportunities to discover similarities in values across geography, culture, and time. Rumi’s tales have a variety of vivid human or animal characters portrayed with all the character, wit, and failings of humans. The spectacular and amusing illustrations and snapshots throughout the book are also moving and meditative-bringing the tales to life.

Native and nonnative English readers can understand the virtues and vices of characters in the tales and draw important lessons by making use of their reasoning skills and their appreciation of the book’s enlightening and comprehensible morals. Indeed, there is always more to be found in all the tales when they are read and reread, told and retold, visited and revisited, and mediated upon. In this manner, the tales’ messages may reveal themselves variously at different stages of human development. The tales could provide younger readers with the key to a better understanding of the elements of a good character and provide them with an understanding of the universal traits of respect, modesty, generosity, and the need to learn from mistakes-wisdom that have been revered by the generations of the past and acknowledged by those in the present.

Tales from Rumi is surely a marvelous introduction to one of the best books of the world literature for the youth audience, readers who do not wish to be myopic but want to see more of the world and cross borders they have not yet crossed.

Huseyin Bingul is a staff editor of The Fountain.