What of your loved ones? if they were carried off to heinous, hopeless imprisonment for the mere whiff of accidental knowledge; knowledge obtained by proximity not involvement? If you lived in a land unacquainted with anything resembling justice, if all was corrupt, diffident autocracy, would you, could you be. . . Courageous?
Would you continue to carry The Flame? And if tables were suddenly turned in your favor and you were inexplicably granted powers you had assumed would always escape you? How would you use them?
Death and the Dervish take place in 17th century Bosnia, in the clumsy, dull, cruel colonialism of an Ottoman-held "kasaba," a provincial outpost of backward facing empire. The story's events take place in the veritible vacuum reminiscent of all over-extended empires (not unlike the ones current in the news).
Not enough has been said here about the deep nuance and loving portrayal of Sheikh Ahmed, the light of this sensitive novel and wan keeper of a pale flame. He is beautifully drawn, wistful and human; devoted to the loftiness of his Muslim education and to his Sufi (a Muslim mystical order) training.
Sheikh Ahmed endures the greatest human test, short-lived and wholly unanticipated access to power. It costs him his life but affirms his wavering morality.
The Sheik is at his finest facing the neglected avenues of public defiance. The episode of the mosque, after his brother has died in prison is beautiful, close examination of the individual power of conscience. Sheik Ahmed's struggles contains his furiously private battles to find authentic grounds for the espressions of an outrage shared by everyone around him. Unlike his fellows, he neither deflects or suborns in the face or tyranny.
Should you desire to find a moving story, fine writing and a window to some of the arguments behind Muslim belief (a humane belief, after all), this book is a fine portrayal of one man's struggle for a barely obtained justice; for the lit flame.
Reading Death and the Dervish could also broaden understanding of what is, in the end, not actually so foreign. I say this because the book's characters, though Muslim, are European and aware of their proximity to western culture.
I will remain attached to Sheikh Ahmed and miss his inner weight. Mesa Selimovic has reached into the stream of human consciousness to find a good man caught in horrible circumstances. As he moves the Sheikh's character forward to face power's temptation and thereby, the seductions of revenge, we are treated to the workings of an artfully drawn human psyche and its shadowy but reticent power.
There but for grace . . . go we.