The Lover — An Interview & A Review With The Author
Updated: Aug 11, 2019
Interviewer: Papatia Feauxzar at Fofky’s
Interviewee: Laury Silvers
From her bio, Laury Silvers has taught courses on Islam, Sufism, and Gender at Skidmore College and the University of Toronto. She is presently a visiting research fellow in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.
The Sufi Mysteries arise out of her desire to talk about the people and places she has researched beyond the constraints of academic skepticism. They are her love song to these early pious folk, mystics, and Sufis as human beings--who lived in a particular historical moment with all its complications--and to her experience of Islam.
She lives in Toronto with her relatives and is a member of a beautiful, inclusive, local Muslim Sufi order.
Readers, to give you a little background on this book, please read the summary below.
Baghdad, 295 Hijri (907 CE)
Zaytuna just wants to be left alone to her ascetic practices and nurse her dark view of the world. But when an impoverished servant girl she barely knows comes and begs her to bring some justice to the death of a local boy, she is forced to face the suffering of the most vulnerable in Baghdad and the emotional and mystical legacy of her mother, a famed ecstatic whose love for God eclipsed everything. The Lover is a historically sensitive mystery that introduces us to the world of medieval Baghdad and the lives of the great Sufi mystics, washerwomen, Hadith scholars, tavern owners, slaves, corpsewashers, police, and children indentured to serve in the homes of the wealthy. It asks what it means to have family when you have nearly no one left, what it takes to love and be loved by those who have stuck by you, and how one can come to love God and everything He's done to you.
Papatia Feauxzar - Assalamu aleikum Laury, welcome to Fofky’s. Can you please tell us something we don’t know about you?
Laury Silvers - Waalaykum assalam! Thank you!
This may sound a bit on the wild side, but I trained in independent pro-wrestling for one year! It was exciting and empowering. My trainer, JP Black (originally a Texan!), taught me about self-dignity and boundaries. Pro-wrestling, in an ideal sense, is centered on acts of consent. For instance, when one wrestler is about to be thrown by another, the two check in with each other before going ahead. The wrestler being thrown actually throws herself with the aid of her opponent. Through this, I learned that I controlled my own falls in life, no matter what happens to me. I trained with some very brawny men. I learned that I could make boundaries and that men would accept those boundaries. I trained until I was good enough to be able to perform in one live show in a very small town and that was that!
Papatia : Wow!!! That's interestingly amazing! Masha'Allah.
PF - I understand that you are well-versed and have reliable information on early Sufism. So, when did the idea to write The Sufi Mysteries based on the historical knowledge you have absorbed come to you?
LS - I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t believe in myself enough to do it. At the same time, I don’t think I was ready to write back then. God brings you to where you need to be when the time is right. I had a lot of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual traveling to do in order to get to a place where I could write with any emotional nuance or depth. In the same vein, I could never have written a textured historical story without my scholarly days behind me. The novel arose from studying the lives of the early mystic, pious, and Sufi folks I had been researching for decades. I had been mostly interested in the people who produced the medieval texts that I studied and in the people the texts depict. I wanted to know what drove them to produce these sources. I wanted to know what the world was like for them such that this was how they chose to express themselves and that this was what they thought was most important to record. This involves not just studying the biographies, collections of sayings and teachings, theology, law from the day, but daily life matters too. It means researching agriculture, flora and fauna, weather patterns, economic patterns, criminal patterns, biographical material, even some diaries that exist. I found the people and their lives most fascinating in my scholarship, and I wanted to bring these people to life in my fiction.
Sometimes, when we read about Sufism we read about it in this very idealized way, far outside of the contexts in which it was given. Not everyone realizes, for instance, that Rumi taught rough people, that he has quite harsh stories and even some raunchy ones in the Masnavi, or that Shams seemed nearly wild to everyone but Rumi himself. More to my point, we often read Sufi texts as speaking about spiritual cosmologies, visions, and feats of ritual athleticism and ethics that are quite beyond our experiences on the path. I find these texts inspiring, but I’m most interested in the fact that all these sources were eminently practical. They were all meant to guide people to God. Sufi guidance was being given in the midst of people’s lives, in the midst of their suffering, their joys, their mundane frustrations—for instance, there is a wonderful account of one female mystic letting her lay-about husband have a piece of her mind—and I wanted to show that in my fiction, as I tried to do in my scholarship, that the path is deeply embedded in the rough and tumble of life.
But really the book really happened when I shared with my mother and my husband my interest in doing it. And they simply insisted on it. Then, I spoke with everyone I knew who might see their own stories reflected in the book, and they told me to go ahead. So I did it, alhamdulillah.
Papatia : Well, Congratulations! I'm glad you did because Sufism is something I have an interest in. Alhamdullilah.
PF : Book 1 is very lyrical and slow-paced with care. How long did it take you to write The Lover? And how much of yourself or your relatives did you see in Zaytuna; the main protagonist and her fraternal twin; Tein? Book 2 titled The Jealous is coming in 2020 and it’s featuring Saliha; the supporting character of Book 1. Masha’Allah congratulations on that. I can’t wait to read what Saliha is up to this time *laughs.*
What a lovely compliment, alhamdulilah! It took about eight months to write a solid nearly final draft with research and writing. It took about a year overall because I asked many people to read it to make sure that not only was I getting the history right, but that I was getting the people and place right. I was concerned with being a white North American writing characters of color located in Iraq. So I asked for all the input I could get. My acknowledgements section is very long! I listened and made changes where necessary. That took a bit of time. Then, there was proofreading, etc. So a year over all. I’m learning a lot.
As for the characters, everyone reminds me of everyone! I took bits and pieces from historical people, historical sources, people I know, and people I don’t know. Zaytuna has a bit of me in her, but really she is all the women I know well. We’ve talked about the same struggles with God’s will, the need for justice, and navigating our own trauma for ages. But those concerns are also historical. I see them in the early texts. So while her struggles are familiar, I contextualized them to Zaytuna’s time. She experiences her period’s sense of justice and the divine nature, not ours. Her looks are based on a woman I once saw who was so strikingly beautiful to me yet she did not know it and might not be taken as such by wider society. Her baby brother, by a few minutes, Tein is based on all the men in my life whom I love the most, including the Prophet ﷺ and Ali رضي الله عنه . That may seem strange since his character is an atheist, but his qualities are noble. I found a photograph of a beautiful Nubian man from the 1900’s who helped me imagine his face. Their mother is based directly on the women I studied. These women faced the struggles depicted in the book in fact, not in theory, and they loved God straight through it all. Her dialogue is almost entirely taken from their sayings. Saliha is a mixture of two friends, one who has her personality, and the other for her looks. Both of them say they like the character of Saliha very much, thankfully. But her personality and strong-mindedness are also reflected in the historical sources. We see many women like her at that time. She is not an oddity. I am so glad you like her. She’s up to a lot in the next book! Her story opens the book, actually. She will continue to have “love” interests, but you’ll have to wait to see how that develops. She’s also, despite herself, becoming closer to God through her work corpse washing. And she’s going to team up with Tein to handle some bad guys. She’s a tough cookie. I love her. Ammar is the hard detective, classic to these kinds of stories, and Shia in a way particular to his time. This distinction will be clearer in the next book, and especially the third in which the murder happens at Kadhimiyya. As a Sunni, I found him hard to craft as a character. Stretching myself out of my Sunni head space has been good work for me to do. Shia friends made sure I got him right. Mustafa is maybe the most complicated of the characters for me. He reminds me of all the sincere Muslim men I know and love who don’t really grasp the harm they can do by not being as honest as they should be about the history of our traditions. He doesn’t know if he should be better, if being better would be “right.” It’s a conundrum I see in our men. I believe I see this personal struggle in some hints of the texts at the time, such as when a man articulates that maybe the sexual use of female slaves isn’t appropriate if those slaves are pious Muslims. Mustafa will have some real troubles on this front in the next book! Mustafa is bookish, not physically tough like Tein and Ammar, so he has to find his masculine strength through other prisms of the Prophet ﷺ ’s light, through careful self-reflection, honesty, and a willingness to do what is right despite the risks. He is lucky – or unlucky depending on your point of view – in that he has a lot of strong women to show him the way! But all three men, Tein, Ammar, and Mustafa are prisms of the Prophet ﷺ and Ali رضي الله عنه in their goodness and strength. The women are prisms of all the great women from our history, the family and household of the Prophet ﷺ , the companions, and the friends who followed.
Papatia : Thank you so much for giving us more insights on all these characters! Masha'Allah! And to be honest, I have seen women like Zaytuna's mother, and I had to make dua to not be jealous, astagfirullah! *Laughs* Alhamdullilah ala kulli haal. Also, as a Sunni Muslim, Ammar's thoughts on the blessed wife of the Prophet ﷺ didn't bother me, but they were honestly jarring to read even though he didn't lie. Any Shia you meet any day would voice their same concern about Aisha رضي الله عنها . Now, without sullying her memory or anything, I had my reservations about her mainly because I read a text where she harshly criticized a young man; implying his mother didn't school him right on pronunciation of the language. I wasn't even a mom yet, and I thought it was out of place. Astagfirullah if I sinned by writing this but it's something that has bothered me for years, and now I get a chance to let it out. I don't deny that she رضي الله عنها tremendously contributed to the scholarship of the religion. I just mean she رضي الله عنها was an odd one and Allah loves odd too, alhamdullilah ala kulli haal. I am also positively sure that the author of the book didn't intend for the reader to feel this way. He was trying to "help" Muslim women to be good mothers and Muslimahs by Aisha رضي الله عنها 's standards. Of course with many things, it had the opposite effect on me. Allahu alim.
Finally in this part, I had a feeling that you had at least a friend like Saliha! Don't we all, haha! I mean I also have issues with forcing sex on non-Muslim slaves or any woman for that matter because of "ownership" of the target. I call it fornication plain and simple. While I WON'T go around and do what Saliha does, there is a double standard for women or for any rich woman of the time. I haven't heard or read that women in the Mediaval Muslim era WIDELY slept with their slaves just because their husbands were unavailable or because they owned the male slave. Zulaykha tried with Prophet Yusuf aleihi salam but she respected the wish of the slave! Let me stop here to stay on track...
PF - I safely inferred from the book that as human beings, we are all sinners and that we should focus more on our weaknesses instead of always being in other people’s business when not invited or asked. What else did you want to achieve in writing this book?
LS - That’s a good takeaway! Definitely intended! I also wanted to counter a narrative of a “Golden Period” in Islam when everyone was perfect. You know the story, if we could all just go back in time, everything would be better. We’ve all heard some version of this. But that time never existed. We know from the stories of the Prophetﷺ’s time that even he had difficulty with his community. So how much more so when he was no longer personally present? Historical research demonstrates just how messy everything was. Despite the messiness, the troubles, and the hypocrisy, I also wanted to show the beauty too. I hope my depiction of the hadith scholars shows their sincerity and profound humility, as well. I wanted to show the range of their humanity, just as I did with everyone in the book. All my characters on this journey have shown themselves to be flawed which was necessary in order to challenge narratives of piety that I have found to be spiritually alienating. I wanted to show flawed people running headlong to God into God’s arms and God being there to hold them.
PF : I agree. Now, The Lover depicts the love of Allah throughout many of the madhabs that are often othered. It also exposes the hypocrisy of some religious clerics, their double standards, the little faith of the citizens in the police, racism, recurring public riots among other things. All things that were once called Bagdadi standards in that era. Do you feel anything has changed since then?
LS : As long as Muslims are members of the human race, we’ll always face the challenge that God set out for humanity when we agreed to carry The Trust. There is a reason the Mountains were afraid to carry it! You know how God ends those verses, always something like, “And the human being is unjust and ignorant.” We’re nothing but trouble. But we are also creatures of great possibility and great beauty and none of us is beyond doing better by holding ourselves to account.
Papatia : Laury Silvers, thank you for being with us. Fofky’s wishes you much success with your debut novel, aameen.
Laury : Alhamdulilah, thank you for this opportunity! If people want to find out more about the history behind the books, my website www.llsilvers.com has it all.
Papatia : Dear readers, please read our review below and check The Lover out on Amazon.
The Lover by Laury Silvers centers on Zaytuna, a mixed-race woman who is a Muslim ascetic who lives a rough life and can be very judgmental. She washes clothes for a living and she has a close friend named Saliha; an unapologetic man-eater. Zaytuna also has a fraternal twin called Tein— an alcoholic war veteran—and both are flawed like any human being should be. When a very young servant girl seeks her help to solve/make go away the murder of her friend Zayd on whom she had a crush, she is torn between letting things run their course and meddling in this affair that does not concern her. I mean everything has already been written. So, who are we to think at times that we can even make the world a better place if He doesn't allow it.
Anyway, in order to have peace of mind about this murder mystery which keeps nagging at her, Zaytuna seeks a sign from the Creator to help her decide. And the one she gets is loud and clear. Therefore, she gets involved and goes against many of her principles; especially lying which she has always despised in order to pick the brain of witnesses and people of importance in the case. Of course, the police of the time with Ammar as the lead investigator and Tein as a bodyguard of course get involved, but ultimately, Zaytuna is the one to solve the murder mystery by not letting herself be discouraged by the illustrious fending off techniques and word plays of the people she interviews.
Silvers does a great job painting the time and place of this story lyrically. Her words pack a punch! When she describes ugly, she does it vividly. And when she describes beauty, love, metaphysical feelings, etc. you experience those too. In all, The Lover is a beautifully written historical Muslim thriller.