A Persian Poet

Books for Troubled Times in the Arab World

Destination: Iran (Persia, 12th Century)

Book: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1917)


Omar Khayyam Tomb
Omar Khayyam Tomb

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam*, a rather slim book with its ivory slip cover and front embossed with green, red and gold twining roses held an honored position in my parent’s living room.  Inside, in my father’s distinctive sweeping handwriting, a front page bore a dedication to The Duchesss, his form of address for my mother when they were courting back in the 1930’s.  The book was gilt edged and illustrated with dreamy watercolors of beautiful and exotic scenes of women in filmy gowns and men in turbans and gowns surrounded by lush gardens. Other illustrations show white palaces, or royal rooms that set a little girl dreaming.

This was my first introduction to the Middle East. My father, who liked to quote poetry, recited lines from Omar Khayyam so often that they are still stuck in my head.




A loaf of bread, a jug of wine....
Edmund Dulac illustration of Quatrain XI



A book of verses underneath the bough,

A jug of wine, a loaf of bread– and thou

Beside me singing in the wilderness–

Oh, wilderness were Paradise enow.

Unfortunately, when my mother died, the book disappeared from her meager possessions and I only recently bought a used copy. There was a lot I had not remembered about the book–which contains four versions of the translation as Fitzgerald continued to tinker– but the opening seemed very familiar:








Awake, for morning...
Illustration by Edmund Dulac, Quatrain I



Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

And Lo! the Hutner of the East has caught

The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Although the verses seem transparent and could be understood by a young person, some are a bit sobering.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,

Sans Wine, sands Song, sans Singer, and–sans End.

It was many years before I would learn about the paradoxes and ambiguities of the poetry– that all that talk about wine might be contradictory to the beliefs of a Muslim country and might not even mean wine; that the beloved might be another man, or a young boy instead of the ravishing beauty pictured in the illustration.  But most importantly, that the philosophy of “live it up for tomorrow we die” would be anathema to the conservative Muslims who rule in Iran today. And indeed Omar got into some trouble in his own lifetime, for lines like this:

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,

Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die,

Lift not your hands to IT for help–for It

As impotently rolls as you or I.

Poetry, I learned later in life, fuels the thought of many countries in the Middle East–particularly Iran, but also in other countries, as I saw in the book The Calligrapher’s Secret–in Syria. And the two books I am currently reading, Dining with Al Qaeda and  the soon to be released Saved by Beauty, demonstrate WHY poetry might be so beloved.  Poetry, with all its circular, formal locution, its ambiguity and symbolism reflects the general pattern of communication in the Middle East.  Perhaps the West might communicate better with those countries if we learned to think like poets.

Because of an accident of attention paid by a then-famous English poet, Khayyam became known and even famous in the Western world. But as you will see when I talk about Saved by Beauty, there are much better-known poets in the Middle East, and now I’m eager to read them, too. It is difficult to translate poetry, and difficult to read meaning into a translation of an ancient language, but Fitzgerald gave us something of beauty, anyhow. But we owe thanks to Khayym for singing verses in the twelfth century that still resonate with us today. As my father was found of reciting:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

[*The Amazon link in the first paragraph shows the edition that my parents owned. There are many other editions to choose from, and your local bookseller may have something less expensive. However, I will be grateful if you follow my link any time you are going to shop at Amazon.]

Disclaimer: The photo of Khayyam’s tomb comes from Flickr and I encourage you to follow the link to the work of  the photographer. The photographs of illustrations from the 1937 edition by Edmund Dulac are from the Crossett Library of Bennington College (Flickr, Creative Commons).

Do you remember your own first impression of the countries of the Middle East? Have you read any of the poets of those countries?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “A Persian Poet

  1. What beautiful illustrations! I couldn’t name any poets from the Middle East, but – big surprise – I have lots of favorite filmmakers from that region. A really wonderful film is ‘Captain Abu Raed.’ Such a lovely gem.

  2. What an amazing father to have introduced you to poetry like this. I think there’s some kind of draw to poetry books when you’re traveling. One of the few mementos of my time living abroad was an illustrated book based on a poem from Samuel Collridge. Years later I shared the poem with my daughter and she memorized it to share in an English class. But I’d be hard-pressed to recite lines to my kids now.

  3. the first impressions I remember of the Middle East were from the Bible. as to poetry, what comes first to mind is that a friend introduced me to the poetry of Rumi several years ago, and at university we read part of the epic of Gilgamesh in an art history course.

    1. Kerry: You’re right–and I’m sure that I first heard about some of the ancient countries of the Middle East in the Bible. That, and the fact that my father decided to keep himself busy while he was on a road job by learning everything he could about countries that existed B.C. And of course he shared tidbits about Babylonia and Mesopotamia with us when he was home. I don’t think I ever read any of Gilgamesh. Is it really a slog? And do you recommend Rumi?

      1. Gilgamesh gave added dimension to what we were studying. I don’t think we thought of it as a slog, exactly, but that’s been awhile. by the way, your posts on the Middle Eastern countries have also had me remembering a course I took on Islamic art — not my main field, but the instructor was a world renown scholar on the subject, so I figured why not take the chance to have a course with her?

        about recommending Rumi — yes and no. I wouldn’t call it light reading exactly, although I think some approach it that way. my freiend and I were both facing some challenging stuff, and one of her comments about Rumi was “now *there’s* a man who knows grief.” indeed.

        1. Kerry: Thanks for answering my question about Rumi, and a course in Islamic art sounds wonderful. Since I’ve not been to the Middle East (except for Israel) my views of Islamic art come from Spain–like the Alhambra–so Heavenly.

  4. Vera, these illustrations are stunning! I can see why you cherished your mother’s edition and had to replace it. Let’s just hope that wherever her original copy went, it was with someone who truly appreciated what had come into their possession.

  5. I read and re-read our copy of the Rubaiyat. It was endlessly fascinating for a kid growing up in a small Texas town.

  6. I really enjoyed reading about your memories of this book as a child. I have similar memories of many of my mother’s books and some I am still lucky enough to have.

  7. According to wikipedia, a Persian ruba’i is a two-line stanza with two parts (or hemistechs) per line, hence the word “Rubáiyát” (derived from the Arabic root word for “four”), meaning “quatrains”. Despite being familiar with the Rubaiyat, I never thought to look this up.
    Thanks or sharing! -r

    1. Richard: Interesting that you should look it up. Of course I had never paid any attention to that detail as a child, so when I re-read my newly acquired copy, I found the explanation in the preface. The preface of this edition, by the way, could merit a review in itself!

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