Books for Troubled Times in the Arab World
Destination: Iran (Persia, 12th Century)
Book: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1917)
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 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 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?