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.
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.