A young man from Islamabad, Pakistan expresses himself through photography and the poetry of Rumi. (photo: “Spirit” by Esâm Khattak)
We’ve created a memorable hour of listening that’s fresh and lush with the sounds and the texture of the great Sufi poet, Rumi.
There is no formula for our shows, no template. Each begins with the raw material of a conversation, and we shape its pace and sound and elements around that. I think great productions emerge when the whole feel of the experience seems at one with the words being spoken, taking the listener more deeply into the passion and intent of the voice being heard. Creating this show around the life and words of Rumi has felt a little like having magic to work with.
I take away many gems of idea and image from my conversation with one of Rumi’s delightful 21st-century interpreters and successors, Fatemeh Keshavarz. Rumi saw human life and love as the closest we come to tasting and touching transcendence, and he approached all experience with his whole mind, heart, and body.
Keshavarz describes Rumi’s “whirling” around a column as he recited poetry — a habit that inspired the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi Order — as a way to “stay centered while moving.” He believed that, as searching and restlessness propel us to keep learning, plowing the ground beneath our feet, they are themselves a form of arrival. In Rumi’s way of seeing life, perplexity is a blessed state, sometimes a necessary state. This idea has special resonance, perhaps, in the 21st century when so many basic definitions and institutions of previous generations seem to be up for grabs.
But Rumi’s recent “discovery” in the West also holds no little irony. I found this best expressed in my research by a British journalist, William Dalrymple. “It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilizations,” he wrote, “but the best-selling poet in the U.S. in the 1990s was not Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, nor Shakespeare or Dante. … Instead, remarkably it was a classically trained Muslim cleric who taught Sharia law in a madrasa in what is now Turkey.” Yet as Rumi has been translated and popularized in the modern West, the religious sensibility behind his beautiful, best-selling words has often been lost.
Fatemah Keshavarz is adamant on this point: Rumi was steeped in Islam. He represents and speaks to “an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam.” The generous, cross-cultural appeal of his words reflects ideas at the core of Islam that are muted by the extremists and headlines of our time. But to the extent that Rumi would deny or subvert those, he does so through his grounding in Islamic tradition, and his profound love for it.
Keshavarz, who was born in Iran — the center of the vast civilization that spawned Rumi and where he remains to this day a household name — takes special solace in Rumi’s insistence that we can create worlds and possibilities by way of language itself.
Where that part of the world is now concerned, Keshavarz says, U.S. political culture has adopted a language of fear. Rumi champions and models a language of hope. This is not tepid and naive but full-blooded view of human reality, fully aware of the double-edged sword of the passions and pulls of real human experience. In this, Rumi speaks to those of us on both sides of a real or imagined “clash of civilizations.”
As we conclude this show, I hear Rumi as a perfect voice for the spiritual longing and energy of our time. With his vigorous and challenging language of the heart, he reminds us that we need poetry as much as we need science, alongside our politics and within our diplomacy. We need passionate searching words, not just logical decisive words, to tell the whole truth about what it means to be human, and about the past, present, and future of our world.
Here is one passage of many I’ve seen quoted of Rumi, which I’ll now hear with new layers of relevance:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.
There are many English translations of Rumi’s poetry available today. But, the craft of translating is a delicate art, one that calls for sensitivity and understanding of the Sufi master and his culture. The Rumi Collection, edited by Kabir Helminski, serves as a good introduction that includes translations by Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, as well as Helminski himself — a Shaikh, or master, of the Mevlevi Order — and others.