Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thoughts on Mowlana (Rumi) after reading 'Reading Mystical Lyric’ by Fatemeh Keshavarz.

“What do you know of the kind of bird that I am? And of what I am whispering under my lips in each breath? How can anyone come to own me? I am at times a treasure, and at times a ruin. The firmament is whirling for my sake. For this reason, I keep turning the firmament.”

In the west Jalal al-Din Rumi (b. 1207, d. 1273) has been swept up in the popular fascination with things exotic and eastern.

Details of Rumi’s personal history only intensify the interest. A teacher well-schooled in orthodox Islamic doctrine, his meeting in 1244 with his ‘soul-brother’, the cranky wanderer Shams-e Tabriz, changed his life. Shams’ mysterious disappearance unleashed in Rumi a torrent of love and lyricism.

Yet, the English speaking world has only third-hand knowledge of Rumi’s work: Fragments of loose interpretations rendered from translations of translations that have found their way onto greeting cards and calendars. Most are taken from the more than 35,000 verses of the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi.

The Rumi of the popular English interpretations (most are not really translations) is a comforting New Age presence. Yet the real Rumi challenges us, rattles us, whispers and taunts. He sings to us, enveloping us in a whirlwind, then he is suddenly silent. As Keshavarz points out we are only too eager to submit to someone who speaks to us like a caring friend: “This is a charming person, at times outspoken and harsh but always informal, loving and intimate. Often, we feel we know him well.”

It’s said that Rumi first whirled in the marketplace upon hearing the rhythm of the coppersmith’s hammer. Music helps inform his poetry but unfortunately the melody and cadence are lost in translation. Even without understanding, one can sense the musicality of his verse:
“Khamushid, khamushid, khamushaneh benushid!
Bepushid! Bepushid! Shuma ganj-e nehanid.”

Beyond the music there is his message. He dares us to abandon our preconceptions: “Do not build much, for I intend to have you in ruins.”

From a distance of 8 centuries he exposes the egoism of the popular notion of self-discovery: “You said you destroyed the idol of illusions; The illusion that you destroyed the idol remains.”

The self realization he speaks of is beyond the realization of self “When I am, I am not, and when I am not, I am.”

He challenges us to find unity in paradox: “Life is the harmony of contraries/death is the fact that war arose between them.”

He tells us speech is a poor substitute for understanding: “The tightfisted sea in its willful silence says: ‘I know nothing. I have not seen any pearls.’”

Words are limiting; they only cloud the vision and intoxicate the senses: “Be silent! Remove the thorn of existence from the foot of the heart/So that you may see the gardens within.”

To Rumi, silence is the dark matter in that holds the key to understanding the universe.

Rumi never lectures or hectors. He is happy to show us wonders, but he leaves the heavy lifting of comprehension to us: “By the true men’s soul, I beseech you to complete this poem!”

Keshavarz suggests that Rumi’s unconventional writing style, which to his critics is a sign that he is ignorant of poetic rules and lacks real interest in the art, is actually an expression of freedom and, far from flaunting the rules, he is reinventing them and extending the boundaries of the traditional qhazal genre.

Rumi breaks with the Persian poetic tradition and speaks directly to the reader at turns as the beloved and the lover, the bereft and the fulfilled. He invites the reader into his embrace – at once warm and chilling:
“The world is a moth flying around my candle; Now I give it splendor, not I take away its wings.”

Keshavarz makes much of the playfulness of Rumi’s poetry. He is both profound and lighthearted, full of fun and brimming with meaning: “Creating a playful poetic ambience is one of Rumi’s major achievements…the reader enters a gamelike relationship with the poet. As the walls between fact and fiction or wakefulness and dreaming crumble, we the readers grow more eager to accept the rules of the game in order to penetrate more deeply into this world…Rumi’s view of our childlike position in the game of love is not a poetic accident….after all, what does a creature separated from his origin resemble more than a child in search of a mother?” This approach also has the consequence of leaving us feeling buoyant and hopeful about our existence.

The late British translator Reynolds Nicholson said, “Sufism has few ideas, but a wealth and variety of illustration.” And so it is with Rumi. What is his message, ultimately? He prods us to discard orthodox thinking, but in favor of what? He keeps secrets from us. He offers no rules, no charted course. He opens the door and invites us to step into the void. Is this some terrible omission on his part? It is two things, I believe:

1. The recognition of the limits of language. “The mouth is full of words, but speaking is not possible.”

2. The knowledge that each person’s understanding of God is different and, more importantly that as individuals, as cultures, and as a species our comprehension changes and develops.

Thus, the nature of God remains elusive, ever reshaped by our comprehension. Caught between the pain and the joy of existence we are propelled ever forward like a watermelon seed squeezed between the fingers.

“If anyone asks you about the huris, show your face, say: like this!
If anyone asks you about the moon, climb up on the roof, say: like this!

If anyone seeks a fairy, let them see your countenance,

If anyone talks about the aroma of musk, untie your hair [and] say: like this!
If anyone asks: “How do the clouds uncover the moon?” untie the front of your robe, knot by knot, say: like this!

If anyone asks: “How did Jesus raise the dead?” kiss me on the lips, say: like this!...”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

این جهان کوه است فعل ماندا
سوی ما آید نداها را صدا مولوی

"The world is a mountain and our actions a call.
To us will return the echo of our calls"


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sohrab Sepehri

This morning as I passed by two men talking on the sidewalk, I heard one of them say “life isn’t bad.” Immediately the opening lines of Sohrab Sepehri’s poem “Water’s Footsteps” sprang into my mind:

“I’m from Kashan/My life isn’t bad/I have a bit of bread/a little intelligence/and a pin’s head of talent.”

All morning long I couldn’t get those lines out of my head; until I was in a taxi creeping toward Tajrish. Then the driver played a tape of the song “Hotel California.” I have never been sure about the words of this song, because I am always distracted by the irritating and nasal keening of the singer. But, nonetheless, much to my chagrin and against my will, Sepehri’s words were replaced by the song’s lines looping in my brain:

“Welcome to the Hotel California/Wasn’t I surprised, bring your olive eyes.”

These words stayed in my head most of the afternoon but at some point they began to blend with Sepehri:

“Welcome to the Hotel California/Bring a bit of bread, I’m a pinhead."

I felt guilty mixing the words of a pop song with Sepehri’s sublime poetry. But, then I thought, “so what”. It’s nothing compared to the insulting way this man has been treated by the mullahs in this country.

I visited Kashan once and went in search of his grave, expecting to find a glorious tomb like those of Hafiz or Sa’adi. No such luck. His grave is a little piece of stone in a forgotten corner next to an imamzadeh. I looked down at the scuffed stone surrounded by brown weeds. I looked up at the glittering imamzadeh. Whatever mullah this monstrosity was built for, he is not worth the little finger of Sepehri. I mean, what did this akhund do for Iran? He force-fed us a religion concocted by some tribe of Arabs.

Sepehri, on the other hand, reminded us of our mystical nature, which separates us from the Arabs. See, he has one book called “Sharq Anduh”, “Pining for the East”. When this government wails about ‘Western influence’ – Westoxication – and the Leader warns of the ‘invasion of the miniskirts’, I say what about the invasion from the Arabs of the west?

Yes, we have Hafiz and Rumi, but we cannot live on handouts from the past. We must have our own voice – and that is what Sepehri gave us.

It’s strange that for someone who died less than 30 years ago, we know so little of this man. His mother and his sister nourished and guarded him. It seems he would talk to no one but them.

If you are coming to see me,
pray step gently, softly
Lest the thin shell of my loneliness
Should crack.

There is no interview, no autobiography or biography. Is there even more than one photo? I don’t know. It is as if we took away this man’s poetry and his paintings, he never existed.

But I think this is what made his poetry so beautiful, unsullied by the grime of daily human activity in all its vacuous and petty dullness. How else could someone imagine a garden lane greener than God’s dream?
How else could a man write:

My Ka’ba is at the edge of water
My Ka’ba is under the acacia trees
My Kaaba travels like the breeze,
From one garden to the next,
From one town to another

I feel a kinship with lines like:

I’m from Kashan
My lineage goes back, perhaps,
To a plant in Hindustan
To earthenware from the clay of Sialk
My lineage goes back, perhaps,
To a whore in Bokhara.

I say Better a whore from Bokhara than a princess from Baghdad.
Sepehri wrote only 8 books, he was only 51 when he died. Then they put him in that forgotten spot next to the imamzadeh. Now that I think of it, it’s probably what he would have preferred, rather than something grand. To lie among the weeds.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

One day, Sheikh al-Junayd set out on a journey and while traveling was overtaken by a thirst.

He found a well that was too deep to draw water from, so he took off his sash, dangled it into the well until it reached the water and set about raising and lowering it and squeezing it into his mouth.

A dervish appeared and asked him, "Why do it so? Tell the water to rise, and drink with your hands!" and the dervish approached the edge of the well and said to the water, "Rise, with God's permission," and it rose, and the sheikh and the dervish drank.

Afterwards the sheikh turned to the dervish and asked, "Who are you?"

"One of God's creatures," he replied.

"And who is your sheikh?" asked al-Junayd.

"My sheikh is al-Junayd, though I have yet to set eyes on him," replied the man.

"Then how did you attain these powers?" asked the sheikh.

"Through my faith in my sheikh," replied the man.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


"For just a moment, just a fleeting second, I have this thought as I stand scrunched on the overcrowded Tehran metro, hanging on with my nose in some guy’s armpit as it lurches into Mirdamad Station. The thought being, “what’s the point of any of this?” Thank God the train stops just then.

I walk along the platform, feeling pretty uninspired until about the fifth person bumps into me, then the juices started flowing and I get in the swing of things, cutting off an old lady right as she’s about to step onto the escalator. The edge of her chador is wet where she grips it between her teeth. Going up the escalator, I stare long and hard at some guy on the down escalator. He stares back. Why the hell do Iranians stare so much?  Is it genetic?.

I cross the footbridge over the highway and squeeze into the last seat on the taxi to Vanak. I always kick myself for not getting my money out before I get into a shared cab, but I never do manage to remember. I start digging around in my back pocket for the 2,000 rials I need to pay the driver. It takes a lot of careful squirming, because I’m wedged so damn tight between two other passengers. Even as careful as I am, a woman sitting next to me gets the idea I’m trying to play grab-ass and she somehow manages to retreat an additional fraction of a centimeter by exhaling the last of the oxygen in her body or something, because there sure wasn’t any room to move in that back seat. She gives me an irritated- as-hell glance and I smell onion on her breath.

The traffic is so bad that some of the passengers start to bail out before we get to Vanak Square, figuring they can walk there faster. I stick with it, intent on getting my 2,000 rial’s worth. Once I get out of the cab, the next choice is, do I hop in another crowded taxi or do I walk up Valiasr Street? Some nights I take a cab, but tonight it’s not so cold, so I walk.

These strange things have been installed on the sidewalk along Valiasr. I can’t really describe them. They have two narrow yellow treads and a handrail on either side, and they don’t seem to have any purpose, other than to make people walk around them. I stand near one of them and listen to two guys speculate about what they’re for. One guy says, “They’re for people to exercise.” They do have a kind of treadmill look to them, but there are no moving parts. Anyway, who’s going to stop in the middle of a busy city sidewalk and start exercising? And why? Just to make sure you breathe in the maximum amount of polluted air? The other guy doesn’t buy it, either. He has his own theory. “They’re to keep motorcycles off the sidewalk.” For God’s sake, I think, motorcyclists could go right around those things. Maybe they’re for pedestrians to take refuge from motorcycles on the sidewalks. That I could believe. Actually, though, up here in the north of the city motorcycles don’t go on the sidewalks. They only do it down where I live. Where life is cheaper, I suppose. I’ll bet not even the guys who installed these things with the yellow treads and handrails know what they’re for. That would be typical for Tehran. Somebody somewhere knows about them, but that person has long been out of the loop. He got fired or shipped off to Ahvaz. So here they sit and no one knows what to do with them. That’s so Tehran.

I make my way up Valiasr and on the sidewalk right in front of United Colors of Benetton, there’s a young guy selling DVDs of new, first-run movies: One Khomeini each. I’ve bought them from this guy before and they’re the real thing, not something someone shot with a video camera from the back of the theater. I just can’t figure out how it works. How does someone get their hands on a movie that’s still in theaters (not theaters in Iran, mind you, but some faraway place like the Great Satan), make illegal copies, and somehow get them into this country and to the man on the sidewalk? All for one Khomeini! I mean, there must be half a dozen middle men. Is each of them making about a rial a piece in the deal? This is the kind of economics that only makes sense here. Maybe the government subsidizes the price of illegally copied movies just to shut us up and keep us distracted from all the crap happening around here.

So finally I get to the coffeehouse and I know right away there’s something wrong. It looks too quiet. I go around the corner and see two green and white vans. A couple of policemen are there with a couple of women dressed like they’re on the way to the mosque or something. It’s Gasht Ershad and they’ve already ruined everyone’s night, hassling people about the way they’re dressed and about whether the person the opposite sex that they’re sitting with is a relative or a date. It’s mostly girls who get hassled for wearing high heeled boots, slathering on too much makeup, showing too much hair, etc. etc. We guys don’t have a lot to worry about unless we’re trying to imitate Kid Rock.

I stand around for a couple of minutes and I’m almost tempted to mouth off to the Gasht Ershad people. I’m that pissed off. But I’m not up for that much excitement. I got myself all the way up here just to sit in a coffeehouse and look at girls. That’s about all you can do around here for thrills. And even that’s been taken away from me tonight.

I start to trudge back down Valiasr toward the cabs that run to Mirdamad Station. On the way I stop at one of the mystery contraptions they’ve installed on the sidewalk. I put my hands on the rails and lift myself off the ground, my feet moving like crazy like I’m running in air. Running fast and going nowhere. That’s so Tehran."

Sunday, February 8, 2009


When I first met Davoud five years ago, he smiled little and laughed not at all. He was quite religious. He spoke disparagingly of women who were pushing the limits of Islamic dress and expressed unhesitating support for his government. Since then he finished college with a degree in economics and did his two years of military service.

Eight months ago Davoud moved to Tehran from his small hometown. The traffic in Tehran still makes him so nervous that I had to help him cross the street. We took a long walk the other evening, Davoud with his perfect posture, me slouching alongside. Now he drinks a little alcohol and he’s become somewhat critical of his government. Over dinner he announced that he has a girlfriend. “I think you never would have believed I have a girlfriend,” he told me. To prove it he called her on his cell phone and asked her to speak with me. I could hear her say “Chera!?” (“Why!?”). Afterward he explained that he chose her after assessing several girlfriend candidates using a spreadsheet and a rating system. She scored the most points. “What about what your heart tells you?” I asked him. “Oh yes,” he said,”I awarded points for that, too.”