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RUMI NATION: Author Melody Moezzi on finding inspiration in a 13th-century mystic poet

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Melody Moezzi will read from her latest book, “The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life,” at UNCW next Monday night. Photo by Matthew Lenard

 

In 2014, while promoting the paperback release of her second book, a memoir about living with bipolar disorder, Melody Moezzi suffered what she calls “a complex compound fracture of the human soul.” Spiritually drained and left wanting by success, Moezzi found herself unable to write. After a period of despair, she eventually found relief in the form of the great Persian mystic poet Molana Jalaloddin Muhammad Balkhi Rumi.

This, in itself, is not usual. With a celebrity following that includes Jay-Z and Beyoncé (who named their daughter after him), and deceptively simple couplets that can read like yoga affirmations (“You went out in search of gold far and wide, but all along you were gold on the inside”), Rumi has achieved stunning relevancy in recent years: He has become arguably America’s best-selling poet some 700 years after his death.

Moezzi’s connection to him, however, is more personal. Since she was a girl, her father—a physician and poetry enthusiast—has been leaving Rumi’s poems for her in Persian on his old prescription pads. In the wake of her creative collapse, Moezzi traveled to her parents’ San Diego home and began studying the poet in earnest.

The result of that exploration is “The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life.” Out March 3 via TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House, the book borrows its structure from Moezzi’s father’s teachings: Chapters are cleverly organized into common maladies (“Anger”) and remedies in the form of lessons learned from Rumi (“Fall in Love with Love”). Like Moezzi’s previous books, “War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims” (2007) and “Haldol & Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life” (2013), it is also expansive, touching on Moezzi’s personal crisis as well as broader issues of mental health, feminism and Islamophobia.

Moezzi is an attorney, activist and visiting professor of creative nonfiction at UNCW. encore caught up with her over email last week.

encore (e): Why do you think Rumi is enjoying such popularity among present-day readers, particularly in America?

Melody Moezzi (MM): I think Rumi’s poetry speaks to an essential truth within each of us that connects us to one another. It’s a truth that is constant, but one that is far too easy to lose track of in an increasingly divided world brimming with seemingly endless distractions. By connecting to and through this truth within ourselves, outside of rigid names and labels, we find love. As Rumi says, “It’s names and labels that make us disagree. / Look beneath the words and make peace with me.” Rumi recognized this spiritual intuition, this devotion, as present within all of us, and his poetry reflects that.

As humans living in the 21st century, however, we’re routinely conditioned to trust our intellect over our intuition. Plus, we’re painfully forgetful by nature, especially when it comes to matters of the soul. We need steady reminders—from one day, one hour, one minute to the next—that we are more than the sum of our parts.

For me, my father and so many others around the world, Rumi’s poetry is one such powerful reminder, lovingly nudging us to recall that we are more than disparate bodies strolling aimlessly through time and space: We are interconnected souls with a purpose that transcends both. For Rumi and all the prophetic mystics who inspired and live within his poetry—from Moses to Jesus to Mohammad—that purpose is always love. The greatest hindrance to it, moreover, is always fear. That’s why I think Rumi’s words resonate so strongly with Americans today. As a country, we’re sick of submitting to fear and all the hatred it breeds. We’re ready to choose love and all the hope it represents.

e: You had to study an archaic version of Persian in order to read and translate Rumi. How, if at all, did that complicate the writing of this book?

MM: Honestly, the classical Persian was tough and always has been for me, but it was nothing compared to the spiritual work I had to do in order to live, let alone write, “The Rumi Prescription.” I had to slow down a lot to bring this book into the world, and by nature, I am forever in a rush. As a rule, I don’t slow down easily or willingly. Throughout my life, however, illness has consistently forced me to slow down—first by way of a pancreatic tumor in my late teens and then by way of bipolar disorder. Both nearly killed me.

Now I realize that if I don’t choose to slow down, then my body, mind and spirit will choose to do it for me. That’s how this book came about actually, born from a sort of spiritual illness that forced me to slow down. It’s the bane of any artist: a creative clot.

We writers call it writer’s block, and while I used to run from it, hoping that a change of venue might solve the problem, I now recognize this “block” as a gift. In fact, I recognize all of my illnesses as gifts because each of them woke me up to something I needed to pay attention to, something I was either ignoring or taking for granted. When it came to the brutal case of writer’s block that eventually led me to research (and, yes, write!) “The Rumi Prescription,” the thing that I was simultaneously ignoring and taking for granted was my source—both ancestrally and spiritually. Rumi advises, “Seek the tonic nectar in the bitter sting. / Go to the source of the source of your spring.”

This book is the result of going to my source and then returning to it, again and again, something I still do and something I know I need to keep doing for the rest of my life if I want to stay true to my purpose. So, yeah, compared to all that, studying classical Persian has been cake, especially since I’ve had my father to guide me through it. Without him this book would’ve been impossible. With him, it was inevitable—simply a matter of time. More than anything, I’m just so grateful he’s alive to see the book make its way into the world.

“The Rumi Prescription,” out March 3

e: You describe your ongoing study of Rumi as “an awakening.” Can you recall other times when a book has lifted you out of a difficult period of your life?

MM: Yes! And I love this question. In 1999, Glacier National Park (one of the Beloved’s finest works of art in my judgment) combined with “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” to wake me up. That summer, the sacred lakes, rivers, glaciers, and mountains of the hallowed land the Blackfeet call the “Backbone of the World” combined with Alex Haley’s rendering of the life of America’s most underrated and misunderstood civil rights leader to bring me back to the faith I was born into.

My parents are both Muslim, but neither is overtly religious. The religion of our household has always been education. I just never realized how much of that “education as religion” was influenced by—and in fact, definitive of—Islam until reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

To give you some context: At 20 years old, after having read the Qur’an for myself as an adult, and after a successful surgery to remove my pancreatic tumor that same spring, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in St. Mary, Montana. There, I found inspiration in Malcolm’s struggle against injustice and his evolution as a human being. In that struggle and evolution, I also spotted the true definition of the word jihad, a spiritual struggle for worldly justice and inner peace. All of this combined helped me fully surrender to the Beloved, which is actually the definition of Islam. Between the lines of that book, I found a path toward the best person and the best American I could be. For me, that person, that American, also happened to be Muslim, not merely by birth, but by choice.

e: What are some words you despise that have been used to describe your writing by readers and/or reviewers?

MM: You never hear reviewers refer to men’s books as sassy or feisty. No. But I feel like they love using these kinds of words to describe my books and those of so many of my fellow female writers. Men’s books are labeled authoritative, definitive, groundbreaking, genius and, of course, seminal. The way I see it, women are left with these weak, watered-down adjectives that say far less about the books themselves and far more about our patriarchal society.

e: You talk in the book about teaching Rumi to UNCW students, for whom Rumi is not considered part of the literary canon. If you could prescribe your book to anyone, who would it be and why?

MM: People who are struggling, whatever their backgrounds. Teaching Rumi to my UNCW MFA students and witnessing how warmly they received it, even in translation, was deeply healing for me. I spent my entire life as a student having my own history and culture ignored at best, and demeaned at worst, in classrooms. Being able to present my literary inheritance to these students and to find that they could connect with it as much as I had—despite the fact that none of them shared anything close to my ethnic or religious background—truly meant the world to me. I’ll always be grateful to my students and to UNCW for that.

Ultimately, I hope “The Rumi Prescription” helps my readers not only learn from Rumi’s wisdom, but also come to respect the faith and culture out of which this wisdom arose. As an Iranian and as a Muslim, it’s important to me for people—especially my fellow Americans—to love and understand Iranians and Muslims as diverse and complex and human. My hope is that, maybe if my readers can do that through this book, even if they’ve never met another Iranian or Muslim in real life, it might become harder for them to support policies that ban my extended family from visiting me in America, or otherwise limit my civil rights as an Iranian-American Muslim woman.

e: You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three people—dead or alive, literary or otherwise—do you invite?

MM: Rumi, Malcolm X and my maternal grandmother.

DETAILS:
A book launch reading with Melody Moezzi
Monday, March 2, 7 p.m.
UNCW Kenan Hall 1111
601 S. College Rd.
Free • melodymoezzi.com

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