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Sunday surprise: the country western / blues of Hafez

Monday, December 8th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — at the heart not of the political entity, Iran, but of the Persian culture and people, can be found a king’s ransom in poetry and song ]
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The sensual and the spiritual meet, melt, meld, merge, and dare I say it, emerge to suit each reader of the poetry of Hafez, Sufi poet and mystic — at times erotic, at times ecstatic, the yearning for the beloved sounding in both registers in his poetry, as in the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.

These versions, by James Newell, capture the spirit of Hafez far better IMO than the frankly best-sellerized and thus trivial versions of Ladinsky. The most sophisticated translator of Hafez now living is probably Dick Davis, who has this to say in an essay intriguingly titled On Not Translating Hafez:

The second obvious problem faced by a translator inheres in those parts of a text which have clear cultural resonance for the original audience and very little or absolutely no resonance for the linguistic community of the target language. An obvious example of this for translators from almost any Persian text from the sixteenth century on is the lore of Shi’i Islam, an intimate knowledge of the main features of which is automatically assumed by most post-fifteenth-century Persian authors, though this is of course a knowledge almost entirely lacking in the linguistic communities of the West. When we turn to Persian poetry such cultural problems can be particularly intrusive. There is the fact that after the thirteenth century virtually all Persian poetry has at least a tinge of Sufism to it, if it is not outrightly mystical in intent, and mysticism is not a subject accorded particular importance by the poetry of the major Western languages. [ .. ]

A subdivision of this mystical problem is the set of ideas metaphorically expressed in Persian poetry by wine, drunkenness, the opposition of the rend (approximately “libertine”) and the zahed (“ascetic”), and so forth. None of these notions have any force whatsoever in the Western literary tradition. It would never occur to a Western poet to express the forbidden intoxications of mysticism by alluding to the forbidden intoxications of wine, for the simple fact that the intoxications of wine have never (if we exclude the brief and local moment of prohibition in the United States) been forbidden in the West. The whole topos of winebibbing and the flouting of sober outward convention, so dear to Persian Sufi poetry, can seem in earlier translators’ work to be little more than a kind of rowdy undergraduate hijinks, and in more recent versions it can take on the ethos of Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties. But in both cases the deeper resonances of the topos are not obvious for a Western audience: they have to be explained — and to explain a resonance is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is over, no one laughs, except out of pained politeness, and no one is moved.

Here’s a song in which the world-renouncing side of things comes axroo forcefully…

I wrote a poem of my own in somewhat similar spirit yesterday, not too long after listening to that one, and offer it here in counterpoint, with Madhu especially in mind:

Lend me at least an echo
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If you’re not listening to my poems
how shall I possibly know I’m still alive?
It’s when your heart stops
just for a moment
that my heart begins to race,
when your breath catches
that my breath can return to my heart.
You kill me. I call to you,

nightingale to rose or whatever,
lover to beloved,
thorn, petal, throat, branch —
are you nowhere,
and how can I follow?
Let me know it was you sang my song.

And okay, here’s a third and last Hafez version by James Newell:

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Dr Newell’s bio can be found here — and yes, in addition to playing with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Mose Allison and John Mayall, he does indeed hold a doctorate from Vanderbilt. His doctoral dissertation, should you care to read it, is on the ethnomusicology of the Qawwali

Which brings me just the opportunity I need to close this post with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing his signature qawwali, Allah Huu.

To the best of my understanding, Allah is simple the Arabic term for God, just as Dieu is in French — used by mambers of any religion or done who wish to reference the Deity — while the word Hu in Sufism references the breath or spirit — pneuma in Greek, prana in Sanskrit, spiritus in Latin — the wind that “bloweth where it listeth” of John 3.8.

Huu:

Of Omar Hammami — and dying more than once?

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — dying more than once in hadith, in press reports, in Rumi and John of the Cross ]
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The American mujahid in Somalia, Omar Hammami [see his Wikipedia bio], who has been tweeting back and forth with various “U.S. national security professionals” [see this Wired piece], reported yesterday that he had been shot in the neck “by Shabab assassin” [see this piece by Clint Watts at Selected Wisdom]. JM Berger, who has been in close correspondence with him, tweeted:

Omar has indeed been in dispute with Shabab, the group he originally joined [see this LWJ post], and his own most recent tweets, sent eighteen hours ago as I write this, were these:

Omar Hammami may or may not still be among us, although recent reports suggest with caveats that he survived the attack…

That’s the background.

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From my point of view, the most interesting discussion anyone had with Hammami in the last day or two was this exchange between Hammami and Jeremy Scahill, whose book Dirty Wars has just hit the stands:

Characteristically, Omar has a light tone — yet speaks to the issue in the context of his theology…

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There are, it seems to me, basically three ways that one might imagine dying more than once. The first — and it’s the one Hammami himself was referring to — is found in the hadith in Bukhari [Volume 4, Book 52, Number 54]:

Narrated Abu Huraira:

The Prophet said, “… By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to be martyred in Allah’s Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred.

Let the intensity of that hadith — and Hammami’s reference to it, a little earlier [?] on the same day he was shot — sink in.

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The second, “secular” way to have “died” more than once is through faulty intelligence and / or journalism — and that’s what JM Berger is on about when he tweets:

Indeed, such reports led to the 2011 release of a nasheed in his name, though he may not have sung it himself:

Now Hammami has apparently resurfaced, with two new a cappella songs that appeared on the web earlier this week. In “Send Me A Cruise,” Hammami begs to be plastered by a tank shell, a drone attack or a cruise missile, so that he can martyred like some of the heroes he names, including Al Qaeda leaders Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Laith al-Libi. In his trademark tuneless drone, he claims “an amazing martyrdom” is what he “strive(s) for and adore(s).” “Send me a cruise like Maa’lam Adam al Ansari/ And send me a couple of tons like Zarqawi,” chants Hammami. “Send me four and send me more, that’s what I implore.”

More generally, false reports of AQ leaders dying hither and yon have become so common that I posted a DoubleQuote about it last year:

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Here’s where it get’s most interesting…

For a third view of dying more than once, we can turn to the mystical tradition. Thus the Prophet Muhammad is credited with the hadith “Die before death” by Jalaluddin Rumi, who in his Mathnawi, VI, 3837-38 writes:

The mystery of “Die before death” is this, that the prizes come after dying (and not before).
Except dying, no other skill avails with God, O artful schemer.

The death before death here is the death of the nafs, the “self” — the true martyrdom of the greater jihad. As Peter Lamborn Wilson puts it in his Introduction to the Sufi Path:

Man’s authentic existence is in the Divine; he has a higher Self, which is true; he can attain felicity, even before death (“Die before you die,” said the Prophet). The call comes: to flight, migration, a journey beyond the limitations of world and self.

Of course, St John of the Cross wrote in much the same vein:

This life I live in vital strength
Is loss of life unless I win You:
And thus to die I shall continue
Until in You I live at length.
Listen (my God!) my life is in You.
This life I do not want, for I
Am dying that I do not die.

Ashura: the Passion of Husayn

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — today’s solemn commemorations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in comparative religious perspective ]
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I was listening to Mozart‘s Requiem last night, and it is rich in grief shot through with glory. That’s the thing about mourning celebrations in which death is accompanied by the “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life”.

One such observance is found in Shia Islam, and falls this year on the 25th of November — today. It is the day of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, and its epicenter is at Karbala in Iraq. As the saying goes:

Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.

For the Shia, Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn, grandson of the Prophet, at the Battle of Karbala, when he refused to give allegiance to the Umayyad caliph Yazid. Husayn’s martyrdom is dramatized in Ta’zieh, passion plays, giving us a hint that the martyrdom of Husayn at Ashura figures in the devotional life of the Shia much as the passion and death of Christ figures within Christianity, both in passion plays such as that at Oberammergau and in Catholic rituals such as the Stations of the Cross. This may seem a far-fetched analogy to some of my readers, but both deaths are viewed as redemptive. As another saying has it:

A single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.

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As you can see depicted in the lower panel above, Shiite mourning can include flagellation with chained blades, not something that sits easily with most westerners — yet as Roy Mottahedeh has said (quoted in SA Hayder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory):

Self-mutilation in emulation of the “passion” of heroes who are human yet divine is no stranger to the West: flagellants who whipped themselves both in penance and in remembrance of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus appeared in almost every western European country in the Middle Ages…

The upper panel above depicts Husayn’s horse, riderless and bloody, and can perhaps give us some sense of the dark ceremonial beauty of the occasion for those whose grief transcends time and unites them in aspiration with Husayn himself — their flagellation attesting to their wish that they themselves could have stood beside him on that day so long ago, standing for truth against an army of injustice.

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Their grief may be trans-temporal, but the possibility of dying for their faith persists to this day, for Sunni militants of the jihadist sort view Ashura differently — primarily as a day of fasting first performed by Moses and continued by Muhammad — and detest the breakaway sect of the Shia as rafidun, heretics.

In Iraq, Ashura there has seen millions of pilgrims visiting Karbala this year, with comparatively little violence:

Millions of Shiites flooded the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Sunday for the peak of Ashura rituals, which have been largely spared the attacks that struck pilgrims in past years. A bomb wounded 10 pilgrims in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, but it was the first such attack since a car bomb against pilgrims killed three people on November 17.

Farther afield, what the Pakstani police describe as a “major terror plot to attack the Muharram processions in Karachi” was avoided this year when “large amounts of explosive material, two suicide jackets and grenades” were confiscated during a raid, with the Minister for Religious Affairs declaring that the Tehreek-e-Taliban were behind the plots. Elsewhere in Pakistan:

At least five persons were killed and over 70 others injured on Sunday when a Shia procession was targeted with a bomb at Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan’s restive northwest, the second such attack in the city in as many days.

Meanwhile in Kabul:

For the past week, the Afghan capital has been draped with black cloth arches and festooned with huge colored banners. Mournful, pounding chants pour from loudspeakers across the city, filling the air with slow martial intensity.

The dramatic display is all part of Muharram and the 10-day Shiite festival that commemorates the slaying of Imam Hussein, a 7th-century holy figure and early champion of Islam. But it is also a symbol of the growing religious and political freedom that Afghanistan’s long-ostracized Shiites have had in the past decade.

That’s from a Washington Post piece yesterday titled Afghan’s Shiite minority fears a return to old ostracism — and the next two paragraphs bear out the title:

Now, as Western military forces prepare to leave the country by 2014, Afghan Shiites, most of whom are from the Hazara ethnic minority, fear that their window of opportunity may slam shut again, leaving larger rival ethnic groups as well as Taliban insurgents, who are radical Sunni Muslims, dominating power.

“Everything we have achieved, our ability to come out and participate in society, has been in the shade of the international community and forces,” said Mohammed Alizada, a Hazara Shiite who was elected to parliament in 2009. “We are very concerned that once they leave, the fundamentalists will reemerge, ethnic issues will return, and we will lose what we have gained.”

Tribal politics, sectarian issues, the impending departure of US forces, the Taliban, cross-border alliances — and the sheer power of devotion — all these are intricately intertwined in today’s Afghanistan and its future. We may do well to understand something of the meaning of this day of Ashura, in our own calendar, 25th November 2012.

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Annemarie Schimmel, the great Harvard scholar of Islamic mysticism, has a fine essay on the poetry of Ashura, encompassing both Sunni and (strongly Shia-influenced) Sufi traditions, Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature. The mindset is very different from contemporary secular westernism, seeing death itself — and the grief that accompanies it — as a prelude to resurrection, and thus part of the timeless love-play of God with those who love him:

In having his beloved suffer, the divine Beloved seems to show his coquetry, trying and examining their faith and love, and thus even the most cruel manifestations of the battle in which the ‘youthful heroes’, as Shah Latif calls them, are enmeshed, are signs of divine love.

The earth trembles, shakes; the skies are in uproar;
This is not a war, this is the manifestation of Love.

The poet knows that affliction is a special gift for the friends of God, Those who are afflicted most are the prophets, then the saints, then the others in degrees’, and so he continues:

The Friend kills the darlings, the lovers are slain,
For the elect friends He prepares difficulties.
God, the Eternal, without need what He wants, He does.

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The spirit here is not too far from that of the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who wrote in his Enneads [III.ii.15]:

Men directing their weapons against each other- under doom of death yet neatly lined up to fight as in the pyrrhic sword-dances of their sport- this is enough to tell us that all human intentions are but play, that death is nothing terrible, that to die in a war or in a fight is but to taste a little beforehand what old age has in store, to go away earlier and come back the sooner.

together with that of the early Christian Father, Origen, who wrote [De Martyrio, 39]:

And let each of us remember how many times we have been in danger of an ordinary death, and then let us ask ourselves whether we have not been preserved for something better, for the baptism in blood which washes away our sins and allows us to take our place at the heavenly altar together with all the companions of our warfare.

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In India, indeed, the martyrdom of Husayn takes on an interfaith character in some places, as Hindus and Christians join Muslims in Ashura commemorations, as Naim Naqvi relates:

One can observe the richness and beauty of the diversity of Indian Culture at the occasion of Muharram. Since the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, Muharram ceremonies are observed all over the world including India. Hindus take part in them with great reverence and devotion. The tragedy of Karbala has become the harbinger for interfaith understanding in the Indian sub-continent. Participation of Hindus in the mourning rituals of Imam Hussain has been a feature of Hinduism for centuries in large parts of India. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and even Christians observe Muharram. In the city of Varanasi which is the holiest city for Hindus many Hindu families participate in Muharram processions.

Describing the participation of one such Hindu family in Orissa, we read:

District police chief Lalit Das said Padhihary family has been doing this every year for the last 338 years, adding other local Hindu families also participate in the procession.

Muslims said it reflected the perfect harmony between the two communities in the area.

The Sufism of Zen

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — double-quoting a remark taken from Zen’s most recent post with a Sufi teaching tale out of Idries Shah ]
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Zen Zenpundit, Mark Safranski (above) that is — had a powerful comment about “the emaciated Somali followers of a two-bit warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, gleefully swarming over and looting our military’s former…. garbage dump” tucked away in his recent post on Strategy, Power and Diffusion:

When the enemy has a land so poor that he treasures and makes use of the crap you throw away, the economic spillover of your logistical supply lines will fund his war against you.

That’s a pretty profound statement about different levels of disparity, if you ponder it a bit. And worth pondering.

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And it reminds me of Idries Shah‘s lovely story The Food of Paradise, in which a fellow named Yunus, son of Adam sets out to find the source, the original source, of food.

Sitting by a riverbank to consider the matter, he spies a package floating downstream, rescues it, and find that it contains a delicious halwa “composed of almond paste, rosewater, honey and nuts and other precious elements” – surely a gift of providence — which he then eats. The next day, at the same time, a second package appears – and each day thereafter he wades further upstream, in search of the miraculous giver, each day receiving and appreciating the gift.

In time he comes to an island with a high tower, from a high window of which a maiden is casting out, each day, the packaged halwa which is to him the food of paradise. After considerable efforts involving a mirror stone and an army of jinn, he manages to present himself to this princess, and asks her:

How, and by what order, is the Food of Paradise, the wonderful halwa which you throw down every day for me, ordained to be deposited thus?

to which she replies:

Yunus, son of Adam, the halwa, as you call it, I throw down each day because it is in fact the residue of the cosmetic materials with which I rub myself every day after my bath of asses’ milk.

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You can read the whole tale with many others in Idries Shah’s Tales of the Dervishes, or here on the alhaddad blog.

Noor Inayat Khan, GC

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — east, west, music, espionage, pacifism, war, the Resistance, the Nazis, Dachau, and exceptional gallantry ]
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A Muslim woman — born in Moscow of princely Indian paternal descent, her mother an American from Albuquerque, her father a great North Indian classical musician and Sufi master of pacifist leanings…
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Noor Inayat Khan was a student of Western classical music in pre-War Paris under the great Nadia Boulanger, escaped the oncoming Nazis and made it across the channel to England, where she told a British officer during a recruitment interview that she would indeed support Indian independence from Britain after the war — but that defeating Hitler took precedence and she would gladly fight for the British…

She thus became the first female radio operator sent by the British Special Operations Executive into Nazi-occupied France, where she worked courageously as a vital link between the French Resistance and Churchill‘s London until she was finally betrayed, imprisoned, and finally executed by firing squad in Dachau.

After the war, the British awarded her the highest civilian award for bravery, the George Cross, and France the Croix de Guerre.

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Yesterday’s Guardian reports:

On Thursday afternoon, in a corner of Bloomsbury, Princess Anne unveiled Britain’s first memorial to an Asian woman. The bust is of Noor Inayat Khan, a woman who was a pioneer in so many things: an Indian princess who was also a gifted harpist; a Sufi who wrote Buddhist fables for children; an anti-imperialist who spied for the British empire – and the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France.

Her Twenty Jataka Tales is available here.
Shrabani Basu‘s biography of Noor Inayat Khan is here.

I raise a virtual toast to Noor Inayat Khan.

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h/t David Foster at Chicago Boyz.


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