To separate culture from religion is such a hard thing, and to read a book about how both collide in an emotional struggle is even harder. Meg Mullins’ The Rug Merchant is the book in question. Set in modern America, it’s a story about loneliness, unconditional love, and how people try to live a different life in a different place. Its quietly depressing atmosphere seems to follow the narrative everywhere it twists and turns, along with the presence of the main character and his deep-rooted sadness.
Told from Ushman’s point of view, The Rug Merchant invites the reader to see how a man of a foreign world has to deal with living thousands of miles away from his other half and the loneliness he feels in turn. Ushman flies to America to pursue a better life—good money, great living—to share with his wife, Farak, who’s staying in Iran. But it turns out that Farak doesn’t want any of those things her husband provides for her. She only wants one thing, one thing her husband can never give her: a baby. On that basis, Farak files for divorce, which is impossible unless she has a very good damning reason. So she makes up a false story about Ushman betraying her, gets their divorce fait accompli, and leaves for Istanbul with a Turkish man who can give her what she wishes most.
Ushman is broken-hearted, that’s for sure. Now he doesn’t know what all his hard work is for anymore. He’s been so engulfed in loneliness and sadness, and now he has no one but his hypocritical cousin and a loyal customer who’s not after his rugs, but his heart. But then he meets Stella, a young, similarly lonely girl, and feels something different about her. The feeling is not unrequited, for Stella openly shows how she feels about him. They try to brush aside everything getting in their way, religion, age, family background, and, most of all, culture, to be together. But at what cost?
Ushman is not just another lonely man. He is rather a complicated character with complicated thoughts and feelings, about his religion and culture, about his dilemmatic acceptance of America, about his love and affection for Stella continuously battling with his memories of Farak. He seems to deal with all of them in silence, without saying much although, we can’t deny it, his emotions are warring inside. He’s not a faithful Muslim in some ways, too. After setting foot in America, he seems to forget all the religious principles he should hold in a firm grip, forget how to do his prayer, forget, or rather overlook, the God’s law against having sex out of marriage. His heart, his mind, and even his view are blurred by his lonesome presence, ruining his identity and the nature of himself at the end.
And this character created by Mullins is something I’d really love to peruse and scrutinize. I always believe that most people confuse religion with culture, and vice versa, cannot really determine what is demanded by God and what is demanded by society. And, apparently, my thought is reflected in the character of Ushman and the narrative that follows. By her narration, Mullins seems to want to state that Islam teaching only works in the Arab world, and that you won’t need it, or any teaching at all for that matter, in a free country like America. There is one particular part in the book when Ushman thinks that getting laid with a woman who’s not his wife is just okay because he is in America, not in Iran. Not that I am a religion snob and think that I’m better than anyone, but I personally despise that kind of thought. It’s not about culture, it’s about religion. It’s not about what your surrounding society wants you to do, it’s about what God dictates to you. It’s not about where you live and what culture you hold, it’s about whether you understand or not the core of the rules of your God.
It is such a crying shame that The Rug Merchant implies the very idea I completely disagree with, for it’s actually a very wonderful, very stunning, very touching work of fiction. It’s beautifully written, with a strongly poignant narrative that will sadden anyone who reads it. Every scene Mullins elaborates, every dialogue she attaches, every character she describes are so gripping and stinging that I could feel my heart caught while reading it. The plot is also cleverly arranged, so even though it’s short and densely packed, it doesn’t seem like it’s a complete nonsense. It draws your every attention and although you’d hate some parts of it, or even a character or two, you’ll stick around and will not let it go unfinished. And the ending is nicely executed to boot. As a whole, technically speaking, The Rug Merchant is a very great work, and I won’t deny that. Had it not contained some false idea, in my opinion, I would’ve praised it more.
I have to say that I have mixed feelings about The Rug Merchant. I cannot refuse the fact that it is really a great book, something I would choose as my favorite kind of read. But, on the other hand, I personally disagree with the author’s point of view, which she embodies in the character of Ushman and her narrative. I can only say that I would have liked it a lot more if only it hadn’t contrasted sharply with my personal opinion.