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A hajj to the cradle of eastern poetry

Birds are singing an enthusiastic overture to the rising sun, which while still in a languid state of awakening is benevolently caressing with its rays. Soothing flows of wind leisurely impress themselves upon the tops of the cypresses. The remaining drops of dew gleam on the pink thickets like loose diamonds. The coppices adorn neatly preened lawns. More than a hundred thousand comprise a special pride for the residents of this blessed city. Passing by is a grape vine of cheerfully conversing, slim young girls, who more than likely were those roses sung about by the poets Sa’adi and Hafez. Due to them, the city of Shiraz is considered to be the poetic Mecca of not only Iran, but of the whole Middle East.

Iskander Amanzhol

An ancient legend says that Emir Timur heard a poem by Hafez that offered, “I will give Samarkand to a Turkish girl from Shiraz, and if necessary, even Bukhara.” Emir Timur demanded the poet come before his frightening gaze, and rudely exclaimed, “How can you dare to give my two favorite cities away for some girl’s beauty marks, when in order to adorn them, I had to kill hundreds of thousands of people.” The poet replied, “O ruler, look and see that if I had not been so generous, I would not be a pauper.” The emir laughed and rewarded the poet. Alas, the outcome was not always this way.

Unattainable Luminaries
Most likely, that was a fiction, which certified people’s love. To be more specific, not love, as the word pales, but the deep reverence and all-consuming enthusiasm, which bordered on the worship of these geniuses. This is exactly the attitude that people have towards Jalaladdin al-Rumi. Ordinary people call him “mavlana”, which means teacher and mentor. Silver adornments on his shrine in the ancient Turkish capital of Konya gleam due to the multitude of kisses from his admirers. He is believed to have daily during his life mounted a tall hill, upon which he spoke as an equal with the Creator of all living creatures of the earth. More surprising is the fact that those following religious orthodoxy permitted the act. One might have the impression that if this were concerning an ordinary person it would be considered blasphemy, while geniuses are allowed much leeway.
The cannons of Islam forbid the creation of images portraying human beings. This is why the following arts prospered in the East: carpet making, jewelry design, architecture, calligraphy, woodcarving, and plasterwork. But the attitude toward poetry is something special. By the way, there was one other category of people who were permitted almost everything. On the walls of the inside rooms of the palace of the Shahinshah in Esfahan were preserved frescoes portraying harem members, though the most sensual of them had been destroyed by the protectors of Islam.
Goethe canonized some of the natives of Shiraz. Once he made the statement: “Persians recognize only seven of their poets as being noteworthy, though many of those not deemed laudable by them were much better even than me.” The galaxy of stars includes: Firdowsi, Anvari, Rumi, Djami, Hafez, Sa’adi, and Nizami. Clearly, Persians had many from which to choose, but obvious to me was that they were wasteful. The list does not even include such greats as: Rudaki, Dehlvi, Khayyam, Attar, Babur, Baydel... It seems the list could be continued to infinity. As if predicting this, Omar Khayyam wrote:

Thus far, am I still an apprentice to life,
Among the list of its masters am I absent…

Leaving my car at the parking lot, I walk to the memorial of Sa’adi. Pleasing is the look of the emerald lawn, with the mausoleum sitting surrounded by evergreen cypresses. The structure itself is crowned by a turquoise cupola, while within it is belted with fancifully ligated Arabic verse. Near the tomb stand children who are attentively listening to the words of their parent, who recites the artist’s poetry, and an echo repeats his words. His face is full of unearthly bliss while he emotionally gesticulates, creating the impression of profound reference of the wordsmith’s talent, along with an enthusiasm bordering on ecstasy and boundless joy as he touches the apex of this aureate poetry. Visible is the fact that the man gains pleasure from the intermingled rhyme and rhythm of the poem.

By you is the imagination of the people is affected,
While my loquacious tongue numbs in front of you.

I do not even try to take out my camera for capturing that picture, as I do not wish to interrupt the children’s attention, nor bother the speaker, by this action. Such scenes are observable not only in Iran, where the art of recitation has become great, and poetic talent is considered is to be a gift of the Almighty.
I enter a teahouse, and despite the fact that there are many patrons inside, still a certain thoughtful peace and inwardly immersed concentration remains within the premises, which is as a sound audible only to the fish moving in a pond. Within the poetry of Sa’adi, the Sufi outlook is intermingled with devotion to Islam, but without any hint of religious fanaticism, while including tolerance towards other faiths and a vivaciousness that sparkles like wine. Safar Abdul, a quite brilliant expert on Iran, as well as a translator and literary critic, who himself has a poetic talent, believes that Sa’adi introduced the term “odamiyat”, meaning humanism, not only into the Farsi language, but into world literature.
Again, I return into the streets of Shiraz. I head to the tomb Hafez.

Host, pour for me the full goblet! In Paradise I will not have
the gardens surrounding Shiraz, or the river’s babbling.


Intercourse of the Living
As in the mausoleum of Sa’adi, there is an awe about that of Hafez. Curiously, pilgrims first place their fingers upon the tomb and whisper something for a long time. They then open up a collection Hafez’s works to any page, the poem upon which they then read, trying to decode the predictions of the author, as he had chosen to address us in such an interesting way. Following the tradition, I also considered a wish, and threw several coins into a small fountain.
And here are the famous “Gates of the Koran”. I pass under the arch, at the top of which is a special room containing the Koran. Anyone entering the city of Shiraz finds himself under the protection of the holy book. As for me, I am already departing this blessed city. What amazes me quite a bit is that in any town, and even a tiny village, on the central square will be a monument to a local poet. A tradition has been established that on holidays almost every adult must attend Mushaira, a contest of poets, improvisators, and hommes d’esprit.
I remember my visit to the gravesite of Djami in the Afghani city of Herat. It is tiled with stone slabs, and a pistachio tree is planted at the head of the grave. Locals say that it is more than 500 years old. I was surprised to see Afghanis sleeping on those slabs, and it turns out that pilgrims communicate with the poet in their dreams. After waking up, they still must face the necessity of correctly interpreting Djami’s instructions. To this purpose, there has been formed a slightly inclined mound covered with sand, on the top of which a pilgrim should lie down, placing a piece of marble under his head while crossing his arms over his chest, and then sliding down. Should the pilgrim veer to the left or right, this means he has misinterpreted the instructions. In such a case, following some deliberation, he repeats the procedure.
This city, located in the fertile valley of the Hari Rud River, was at one time the capital of Khurasan, and is famous because of the beautiful Gauharshad Begum, who was called in the East a “second Bilkis” – the Queen of Sheba. At her instruction, more than 300 buildings were constructed in Herat. The philosopher Khodja Abdullah e Ansari is also buried here. It is said that those who broke the law found sanctuary at this site, and nobody had the right to pursue them to the philosopher’s grave. Most of the life of Alisher Navoi is connected with this city as well. He expressed his deep respect for the works of Djami in the following verse:

He, like the Polar Star on the road,
Is called to lead those elected to knowledge.
He discovered the treasured pearls of truth,
Reflecting the secret in the heart’s mirror.


Pearls of Khurasan
There is no better way to say it. While advisor to Sultan Hussein Baikara, Djami sought to elevate the glory of Khurasan, and invited the poets Hatev and Bnai, the calligraphers Rafik and Bekhzad, as well as the musicians Sheik Nai and Hussein Ud. Interestingly, during my visit to the museum of Emir Timur in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), the guide said that during the restoration of Novae’s mausoleum in Herat the government of Uzbekistan provided the amount of US$5 mln. However, this is not true, as the restoration was done at the expense of the former governor of Herat, Ismael-khan. But to be frank, inviting professionals to do the work would have been better. Anyway, I feel a genuine gratitude towards him, as up until recently the mausoleum served as a cattle barn.
From Herat there is a very short distance to the Iranian city of Mashhad, not far from which the town of Nishapur is situated. This is the motherland of poet Firdowsi, author of the epic poem, “Shakh-name”, in which is described legendary warriors and kings, heroes and battles, feats and merits. While enjoying the outlines of the tomb of Firdowsi, I recall a legend. The founder Ghaznavid, Sultan Mahmoud, who believed himself to be adept at poetry, did not appreciate the titanic work of Firdowsi, which had taken the poet 35 years to complete. Moreover, the angered ruler ordered the death of Firdowsi by having him crushed by elephants. Avoiding execution, the poet was sent into exile Mentally, I address the verse of Sa’adi to this monarch: “One cannot mistake a piece of glass on the neck of a donkey for a diamond.” Later on, the sultan forgave Firdowsi, and when his caravan with gifts was entering Nishapur, the poet’s body was being carried of his house in a funeral procession. Most of all, Mahmoud had been jealous of Firdowsi, as initially the poem had been dedicated not to him, but to the ruler of Bukhara, who was of the Samanid Dynasty. We may only guess that this disgrace was caused by the animosity of the leader’s courtiers, which included his eulogists, Manuchekhri, Unsuri and Farrukhi. Firdowsi, it should be noted, wrote about the young women of the city of Taraz (Kazakhstan), who were considered to be demonstrative of the model of Eastern female beauty at the time, and as well mentioned the mastery of that city’s armorers.
I had the chance to twice visit the surrounding area of the town of Ghazni. From a distance I observed the ruins of the fortress citadel built on the top of the mount, as well as two high minarets built in honor two successfully military campaigns of Sultan Mahmud to India. These last are believed to be masterpieces of Eastern architecture. However, I did not risk coming closer, as there is a minefield near the site. Both before and after Taliban rule, the area has remained unsafe.
However, permit us to return to Nishapur. The city is the birthplace of Ghiyath al-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim Khayyam, the short version of which is Omar Khayyam. The original manuscripts of his poetry were not preserved, though he wrote more than five thousand versus, out of which only 329 have been proven to be his. He was a very gifted person, a great mathematician, a medical doctor, and an astronomer. By the way, very few people know that Khayyam was the designer of a calendar, in accordance with which we celebrate the Nauryz holiday on the day of the spring equinox, fixed on 22nd March. His error in calculation was a mere nineteen seconds.

Magic Country of Sistan
My trip to the locations described by Firdowsi has been no less interesting. The excursion was to Sistan, the motherland of the honored heroes Rustam, Sama and Zalia. Other names for Sistan include Dastan and the meridional country of Nimruz. According to Firdowsi, this area had been crowded with crowded towns, fertile fields, filled bazaars, as well as towering forests full of tigers, dear and spirits materializing from nowhere. I recollect such a verse: “I am there and not there; I am here and not here.” Looking at the boundless sands, it is difficult to believe such was true. Once, life was like a dancing fountain in this place. Now, one only meets the ruins of those towns. We cross dry riverbeds and channels. The hordes of Genghis Khan first went through this area, and following a year they became the soldiers of Timur, after which this prosperous region surrendered to desertification.
Using the fact that the water in the radiator of one of the jeeps began boiling over, I choose to walk across the sinking sands toward the picturesque ruins of a palace that stood atop a hill. Almost reaching the foot of the hill, I hear the threatening cry of a car’s horn, look backwards, and see how the second vehicle is rushing to me, kicking up clouds of dust. Approaching me, the driver sharply brakes, and starts to yell, “Mine! Mine! Explosive!” along with associated gesticulations showing the results of a possible explosion. In order to save this structure from tomb raiders, the Afghanis mined the surrounding area. This is the magic country of Sistan.
As for Kabul, Firdowsi called it “Kabol”. The Afghani capital was a favorite city of the founder of the empire of the Great Moguls, Muhammad Zahir-ud-din Babur, the author of “Babur Nama”. He wrote such lines to his friends as:

Missing the wonderful air of Kabul,
You quickly return there from Hinda.

After he became old, Babur instructed that his burial be at the garden of Bogi-Babur. Despite his luck and talent as a military leader, his calling really was city building. The passion that really took him was the creation of garden landscapes and their irrigation. “Traveler Babur’s” palace has been destroyed mostly by time, while the marble facing of his mausoleum was annihilated from mine debris and ordinance. Following the collapse of the Nadjibula regime, there were cruel battles fought in this place by detachments headed by insane field commanders of the mujahideen rebels that tried to seize the capital. Nowadays Afghanis who are inclined to gambling carry out cockfights here in the area.

Firdowsi: The Guiding Star
Still Afghanis regard poetry with less piety than Iranians. Entering one of the Kabul antiquarian shops, I see a pile of old volumes. One of these is a handwritten Koran of the fourteenth century, with traces of gold etching on its pages. Putting it aside, I pick up a book of Djami’s verses that is adorned with miniatures. On the frontispiece is the stamp of the first owner of this book, Huma­yun, the son of Babur. Noticing my awe, the shopkeeper offers it to me at the attractive price of ten thousand dollars.
I have seen many times how American military personnel, though dressed in civilian clothes can be distinguished by their gate, rush to the various antique stores in Kabul, Herat, Mazari-Sharif, in which they buy out ancient manuscripts, jewelry, carpets, rifles, and other things at bargain prices. They then export the items without taking proper permits from the Afghani Cultural Ministry. Sometimes they make these purchases while not even concealing their relation to the American military, even having guns on their person.
Also, I visited the area of the former country known as Samangan, where mighty Rustam discovered his wife, Tahmina, the daughter of a local shakh whose noble tribe had originated from “lions and tigers”. Firdowsi described her as thus:

She is as bright as the afternoon sun.
Like two bows are her eyebrows, her braids as two lassos.

 
Here as well one can come across the ruins of fortresses and palaces. Stopping in the middle of a bridge over the Samangan River, I enjoy watching the morning fog dissipating between the mountains. My face, hot from of the surrounding warmth, is cooled by a breeze coming down from the north. I remember a legend relating to Rudaki. Charmed by Herat, an emir of Bukhara remained in the city for three years. His entourage, being homesick, requested assistance from the poet. The emir jumped on his horse in order to rush home after having heard the following words glorifying Bukhara:

The wind blowing from Mulyan comes to us,
We are reached by the charms of my beloved’s eyes…

The entourage was barely able to catch up with the emir far from Herat.
I should also follow the example of the emir, and go far from this place. Unfortunately, our generation lacks the proper reverence for poetry in general. A mere forty years ago that performances by Rozhdestvensky, Yevtushenko and Voznesensky could fill stadiums. Seemingly, it is only recently that a literary evening with Olzhas Suleimenov on Ostankino, a Russian channel, could gather a large television audience. Why is this so? Perhaps we have lost something special, our spirituality? Too bad.
Already at home working on this article, I consider that unfortunately, however talented a translator may be, poems lose much in translation. Rarely is the transfer of the perfection and sophistication of phrase managed. Mostly this is due to the fact that the translator does not know the natural speech, the mentality and the mindset of the Eastern ethnicities. Therefore, he cannot transfer those subtle nuances that give the verse a masterful lightness, which results in the loss not only of sophistication, but also of the author’s conception.
I purposefully avoided mentioning the ethnicity of the poets. Turks state their right to Rumi. While the Hindus assert their hold on Dehlvi and Baydel. Azerbaijanis consider Nizami and Hakkani as theirs. And, Uzbeks judge Babur and his great granddaughter, Zebunisso, to belong with them. In my opinion, articles in which claims are laid to artists should be considered as manifestations of cultural nationalism. Issues on delineation of borders have now been resolved, and thus they have begun applying the process to poets. And, this is the only task left to be done? Despite their origin, all the poets mentioned here, excepting Novae, wrote in Farsi. In the East, this language could be compared to the use of French by Russian aristocrats, and that of English in current use. At present, nobody even considers Joseph Conrad, who transcended ethnicity and received many awards for works written in the English language, as a Polish writer. One more important aspect is that all of these poets comprise a portion of the unsurpassable glory of Eastern poetry, which has become a key constituent of world culture. It is to the pride of all humanity.
Well, my hajj has ended, but my deep conviction is that these mausoleums contain merely the earthly remains of the poets, as per the belief of the Sufis. The remainder lives on, and will eternally do so.

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