Tag Archives: Agha Shahid Ali

Another reposting of an Agha Shahid Ali poem: “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight”

19 May

The Marty's Cemetery, SrinagarThe Martyrs’ Cemetery, Srinagar (click)

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight

                              Now and in time to be,

                             Wherever green is worn…

                             A terrible beauty is born.

                                              — W. B. Yeats

1

One must wear jeweled ice in dry plains

to will the distant mountains to glass.

The city from where no news can come

Is now so visible in its curfewed nights

that the worst is precise:

                                        From Zero Bridge

a shadow chased by searchlights is running

away to find its body. On the edge

of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,

it shrinks almost into nothing, is

 

nothing by Interrogation gates

so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:

Drippings from a suspended burning tire

Are falling on the back of a prisoner,

the naked boy screaming, “I know nothing.”

2

The shadow slips out, beckons Console Me,

and somehow there, across five hundred miles,

I’m sheened in moonlight, in emptied Srinagar,

but without any assurance for him.

 

On Residency Road, by Mir Pan House,

unheard we speak: “I know those words by heart

(you once said them by chance): In autumn

when the wind blows sheer ice, the chinar leaves

fall in clusters –

                                 one by one, otherwise.”

“Rizwan, it’s you, Rizwan, it’s you,” I cry out

as he steps closer, the sleeves of his phiren torn.

“Each night put Kashmir in your dreams,” he says,

then touches me, his hands crusted with snow,

whispers, “I have been cold a long, long time.”

 

3

“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,

and I follow him through blood on the road

and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners

left behind, as they ran from the funeral,

victims of the firing. From windows we hear

grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall

on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,

it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,

the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.

Kashmir is burning:

 

                                   By that dazzling light

we see men removing statues from temples.

We beg them, “Who will protect us if you leave?”

They don’t answer, they just disappear

on the roads to the plains, clutching the gods.

 

4

I won’t tell your father you have died, Rizwan,

but where has your shadow fallen, like cloth

on the tomb of which saint, or the body

of which unburied boy in the mountains,

bullet-torn, like you, his blood sheer rubies

on Himalayan snow?

 

I’ve tied a knot

with green thread at Shah Hamdan, to be

untied only when the atrocities

are stunned by your jeweled return, but no news

escapes the curfew, nothing of your shadow,

and I’m back, five hundred miles, taking off

my ice, the mountains granite again as I see

men coming from those Abodes of Snow

with gods asleep like children in their arms.

 

                                      (for Molvi Abdul Hai)

 

(See whole post “India’s Blood-stained Democracy…” by Mirza Waheed)

*******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************   

*  “Don’t tell my mother / my beloved brother / my sister….I’m dead” is also a common stock phrase in Balkan epic poetry of guerrilla fighters, kleftes, haiduci.

*  “By that dazzling light we see men removing statues from temples”…”Who will protect us if you leave?”…”men coming from those Abodes of Snow with gods asleep like children in their arms.”

Shahid Ali’s universalist soul was as hurt by the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits) from the region as he was by the brutality of the Indian Army against its innocent Muslim majority.  I can only assume that the men with the gods asleep in their arms is a reference to this exodus.  Shahid suffered from a recurrent nightmare, in fact, that the last Hindu had left Kashmir, and he fought that haunting image through the curious fashion of reproducing their distinctive cuisine as meticulously and often as possible — he was an excellent cook; there are now hardly any Hindus left in the tormented region.  “Who will protect us if you leave?,” directed to the departing Hindu gods, is a line that always breaks my heart, and could only come from a poet of as sophisticated a background and from as beautifully Sufi-syncretic a region as Kashmir.

“I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Night” reprinted from The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems by Agha Shahid Ali. English translation copyright © 2009 by Daniel Hall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

 

The Annunciation: “And I thank you for choosing me…”

25 Mar

AnnunciationSantaMariaMaggiore

The Annunciation of the Virgin mosaic from Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore (click)

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a terrified, barely post-adolescent Jewish girl in a village in Galilee and told her that she was going to become God’s mother.  And in one of the greatest acts of moral bravery in history, this — what? fourteen-year-old? — Jewish girl said: “Yeah…ok.”

This is a “yes” which we should all pray to be given the opportunity to offer up to some one or to some greater thing, in even the tiniest of manners, at some one point in our lives.  It, oddly enough or not, always puts me in mind of the name “Reza,” which I’ve always loved on Persian men, since as far as I understand it, it means “willingness, acceptance, consent…” a saying-yes to Life or to the Divine Will.  (The other is “Peyman,” with its comparable sense of promise and commitment.)  Except in Mary’s case it’s a “saying-yes” that’s particularly female in its bravery, since she barely understands what’s being asked of her and she consents out of pure love, and most men find such consent difficult without first knowing what glory there is in it for them.  Instead Mary does the glorifying:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ, διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς, πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους, καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

That’s March 25th: the Annunciation of the Virgin.  The rest — by which we mostly mean Greek Independence Day — is bullshit.  Nothing that led to the establishment of the first independent Kingdom of Greece happened on March 25th.  There were sporadic outbreaks of rebellion, some semi-coordinated, among Ottoman Greeks throughout the Empire in the early spring of 1821, but there was no raising of any standards, or launching of any campaigns or declarations of any kind made on March 25, 1821 as far as we know.  Except for sporadic massacring nothing much occurred at all that year until the fall, when, only with foreign help, the Greek rebels were able to finally take Tripolitsa in the Peloponnese and butcher the majority of its Muslim and Jewish — meaning practically its entire — population.  And eventually all that happened is that the Greek statelet slapped its observation of Independence Day onto the Annunciation in a conscious-or-not appropriation of the holiday’s already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning (I think that, the Julian Calendar still in operation at the time, March 25th was also Easter Sunday that year so, with the theme of Resurrection added, the temptation was irresistible) and so Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus smothered one of the loveliest holidays of the Church with flags and parades and tanks and national anthem sap and all the other cheezy trappings of N/S patriotism.

But by the same token, the Annunciation itself was slapped by the Church onto the pre-existing observation of the Vernal Equinox (by a few days), the Persian Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz, the first day of spring, the first day of the month of Aries — with its already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning.  And fast forward nine months, exactly (she was nothing if not on-time our Pantanassa*) and we have Christ born on (or near) another Zoroastrian holiday, Yalda, which marks the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the lengthened days and the Sun’s return to our lives.  The Winter Solstice, in more ancient Iranian religion, was the birth date of the deity Mithra, often associated with the Sun, and who — guess what? — was often said to be born in a cave, of a virgin mother, and who saved the world through the sacrifice of a bull along with a whole other complex of shifting tales and myths that I’m not an expert on.

But though Mithra seemed to fade into a secondary deity in classical Sassanian Zoroastrianism, he was accepted with great fervor and enthusiasm into the highly eclectic polytheism of the late Roman world, where he was especially popular in the Roman army.  Many of the latter emperors were devout followers and there are historians that believe — seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me — that the West came close to being a Mithraic civilization instead of a Christian one.  But the Church slapped Christ’s December 25th birthday onto Mithra’s (I’m simplifying some) and that was the end of Mithraism.  Which is a bummer, because by the Second Century A.D., Mithraism had evolved, in Roman hands, into a super-butch, male virility bull-cult for an initiated military elite, all wrapped-up in the full panoply of Hermetic-Alexandrian-Astrological wisdom, where Roman officers and soldiers gathered in caves and commemorated the sacrificed bull and honored its blood  (we don’t really know what occurred because it was only for the initiated but a sacrifice and subsequent shared meal of some kind was probably involved) and Christianity is kinda — well — is kind of lacking in those kinds of thrills.  One of my best beloved Roman ancestors, Julian the Apostate (the subject of four Cavafy poems), a fascinating figure, who was both a devotee of Mithra and an initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries, tried to reverse his uncle Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the Roman state religion and give support to the traditional pagan cults, their rites, rituals and sacrifices, but it was already too late.  People just wanted their blood as metaphor by then, a shift in consciousness that has always been considered psychic or intellectual progress of some kind though — like the shift to monotheism itself — I could never quite understand why.  Those of us who still like reality better still have and have always had Spain though; that’s unless the European Union and PETA and the Catalans take their sanitary Handy-Wipes to the corrida too and that’ll be the real end.

Ah, but even then we’ll still have Mexico…

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

Mithra and the Bull, from the Vatican Museum (no other info) (click: it’s a huge and beautiful file)

What conclusions can we draw from all this?  One, is that humanity is not particularly imaginative and just kinda copies itself over and over ad infinitum.  Second, is the idea that often comes up when looking at our zone, thinking about “our parts,” more closely — and that’s the simple conclusion that everything is Persian.  Not just our food, our music or dance, our dress, our color palette, our poetic sensibility and ideas about love, but our common penchant for narrative cycles of martyrdom and rebirth (see: “Ashura 1435: a poem from Agha Shahid Ali”) and the deeper structures of our spiritual psyches.  It’s tempting; instead of the inane arguments about what’s Greek and what’s Arab and what’s Indian and what’s Turkish — everything is Persian, and be done with it.  Alexander seemed to have gotten it; shouldn’t be too hard for the rest of us.  But probably the truth lies and always will lie with Jung: and that is that all of the imaginary activity of the human unconscious operates on one, unified, symbolic grid of archetypes.

Chronia Polla to those whose namedays are today.  And signing off this post with R&B singer Lauryn Hill’s beautiful “To Zion” where the subtitle of this post comes from.  This was a song that came from her real-life experience of having to choose between having an unexpected baby and sticking with her career.  “One day…you gonna understand…”  Lyrics are below:

“To Zion”

Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said,
“Lauryn, baby use your head”
But instead I chose to use my heart

Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

How beautiful if nothing more
Than to wait at Zion’s door
I’ve never been in love like this before
Now let me pray to keep you from
The perils that will surely come
See life for you my prince has just begun
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of His grace
See I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Marching, marching
Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Beautiful, beautiful Zion
[repeat to end of song]

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

*”παντάνασσα,” pantanassa, is one of my favorite epithets for the Virgin, but whether it means “all-breathing, giver-of-breath, breath-granting” I can’t tell, nor can anybody else I know.

**Latest addendum note: Beloved dinosaur cousin — who is the always the one one should go to for these question, since he’s a monster of erudition in most fields, but especially Greek language, informs us that Pantanassa has nothing to do with breath or breathing, as many of us must assume, but: Η άνασσα είναι το θηλυκό του άνακτος (ονομαστική: άναξ), του βασιλέως (εξ ου και ανάκτορα).  “Anassa” is the feminine form of “Anax,” meaning king, same root as “Anaktora,” or palace.  So it simply means “Queen of Queens,” which is kind of disappointingly Catholic-sounding.  Speaks to a whole history of Greek and Latin vocabulary mixing itself up, replacing, re-replacing, disappearing and then appearing again, especially in titles of government or military due to initial composite character of Byzantine state structure.  I’m assuming, i.e., άνασσα was already an archaically Greek word at the time, for example, the Chairetismoi were written.

And a personal sensory note:  According to the guidelines of Orthodox fasting, which if observed carefully constitute the most elegantly designed spiritual economy of partaking and abstaining one can imagine (probably only Hinduism could produce a more intelligent  schema) — again, the guidelines, not the rules, meaning it doesn’t affect your G.P.A. at the end of term if you slip up, like if you’re Catholic — fish is considered meat, and is not eaten during Lent.  But there are festive days, essentially the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, which even in the sorrow of Lent, should be marked as Feasts, and then the eating of fish is practically obligatory.  Today in the streets of Greek neighborhoods, therefore, here in Athens or in Astoria, in apartment house corridors and restaurants, the smell of fried bacalao is all-pervasive.  One of my strongest sensory memories of Holy Week as a child is being taken to the matins for Holy Monday on Palm Sunday evening, the first of the so-called “Nymphios” or “Bridegroom” services (the reference being to Christ coming to Jerusalem for Passover and to meet his fate) and all the old women in church smelling like fish fritanga.

And a really interesting article from Wiki about “Tauroctony” or “Bull-slaying” if you’re interested in the phenomenon religio-anthropologically.  Again, the best book, that’s both an anthropology of Mediterranean bull cults and the best sociological history of Spanish bullfighting there is, is Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Syria Is Not A Country” — Andrew Sullivan lets fly another one of his kotsanes and then rushes to cover his tuches

27 Jan

Sykes-Picot

He got enough flak for the post (read through all the ctd.’s too — very interesting) and I feel kind of bad giving him more after so many months, but it’s been in the back of my mind since the fall and the argument is so irritating that I had to put in my own two cents.

It seems that every Sullivan-type pundit rushed out in 2001, or more probably 2003 when they were making their Iraq predictions, and bought some book about the Paris Peace Conference: “Paris 1919” “The Peace to End All Peace” — it’s an entire genre in itself.  And there they found out about some magic secret, like in a Dan Brown novel, called the Sykes Picot line, that supposedly explains everything about the Middle East’s dysfunction, and like a little kid who realizes he’s said something that the adults have found smart or funny, they go around repeating it ad nauseum: “Sykes-Picot Line”…”Sykes Picot Line” … “this guy Sykes and this guy Picot”…”The Sykes Picot Line…”  Listen to Sullivan’s own pedantic tone:

“Syria as we now know it was created by one Brit, Mark Sykes, and one Frenchman, Francois Georges-Picot in 1920. Originally, it included a chunk of Iraq (another non-country), but when oil was discovered there (in Mosul), the Brits wanted and got it. With that detail alone, you can see how valid the idea is of a Syrian “nation” is.”

The whole point is that most of the nations of the present Middle East are artificial, colonial creations — arbitrary lines drawn on a map –and that explains everything.  First, these lines are not arbitrary.  Whatever you might want to say about Sykes or Picot, or Churchill or Lloyd George or Clemenceau — that they were gross imperialists (which is not even redundant really but simply a tautology: “The King is a gross monarchist…”) or anything else, they weren’t ignorant or anistoretoi.*  The units they put together corresponded, as so many of Sullivan’s readers point out to him, with regions with long, historically recognized identities.  Where you look at a map of the Middle East and do see straight artificially drawn lines, they were drawn through places where nobody lives.  Otherwise, within every one of those lines, there has always existed a shifting, changing, re- or de-centralizing identity, but one with clear continuities nonetheless.

(*Anistoretoi – ανιστόρητοι – is a Greek word that I like very much, because it literally means “un-historied” — historically ignorant, obviously, but there’s something about “un-historied” that just seems to me like a sharper condemnation of inexcusable lack of knowledge — no? — so you’ll see it on this blog here and there.)

Thankfully, no one says this about Egypt, because it so obviously has a longer continuous history of unified consciousness than even China.  But what Sullivan, so damn pompous — or just so gay and so Magdalen — dismisses as the “non-country” of Iraq, the flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates basin, even when semi-splintered into northern, central, and southern parts, as Iraq seems to be doing now, was always seen as a unit: certainly geographically but even culturally.  The two regions the Greeks called Libya and Cyrene may correspond to a west-east division that is still apparent in modern Libya (Tripoli and Benghazi), but their union is not necessarily artificial or inherently problematic.  The headland to the west of Libya we call Tunisia was the first region called Africa by the Romans, where their ancient enemy Carthage had once stood.  And the region where the northwestern section of the Fertile Crescent bends over and meets the Mediterranean has been called Syria since the Greeks and was probably seen as a recognized cultural entity far before them.  The mountainous Mediterranean littoral of this Syria — what’s now Palestine and Lebanon and maybe a new Alawite state waiting to be born — was always a space slightly apart and more heterogeneous, but Syria nonetheless.  (The arid plateau across the Jordan, inhabited by the Moabites and Edomites and Nabataeans and all those other peoples the Israelites are always defeating in the Old Testament because God loves them more, was also a region of a recognized coherence of sorts not just made up by the Brits when they decided to call it Trans-Jordan.)  Syria was the birthplace of Christianity as an organized religion.  Syria was the Romans-Byzantines’ richest and most sophisticated eastern province.  Syria was the prize catch for the Crusaders; the real studs among them who could, got themselves a piece of booty there, not the “Holy Land.”  When Zainab bears her lament to the people of Shaam (Syria or the Levant) in Agha Shahid Ali’s beautiful poem she cries out: “Hear me Syria…” addressing the people of the seat of Umayyad power in Damascus — the one in Syria — that had massacred her sacred family.  Sykes and Picot didn’t make this stuff up.

What Sullivan wants to say, and what’s truly problematic about his assertion, is that Syria is not a country because it’s not ethnically or confessionally homogeneous, and dismissing it as a state for those reasons is a far more eurocentric, and anistoreto, an idea than he may know.  Because if those are our standards for nation-hood, there are very few countries in the world.  By those standards, if Syria is not a country, then England and France aren’t countries either.  Because a polity called the Kingdom of England, or the Kingdom of France — both of which one could argue were “artificially” created by the powers that be of the time — had existed for far longer than Englishmen and Frenchmen have.  And the process by which a unified national consciousness was created to match these pre-existing political units — England or France — was a long and complex one and one that followed the particular course it did only in Western Europe and trying to force it onto the peoples of states in other parts of the world is impossible and extremely dangerous.  Forget what Sullivan thinks is the Machiavelian divide-and-rule politics of the colonizers that pitted ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq against each other; these colonizers were probably never as devilishly smart as we like to imagine them.  What Sullivan finds inconceivable is that one can be a Latakian Alawite or a Sunni from Homs or an Aleppo Christian or a northeastern Kurd and still function as a citizen of a legitimate country called Syria; that these groups have always had boundaries that fluctuated or were permeable; and, that though relations between them historically were better at some moments than others, they were brought together in this place called Syria by organic historic processes and not corraled together there by outsiders.  And by believing that it’s inconceivable they can all function as citizens of this place, he’s actually participating in the creation of a discourse that pits these groups against each other in a manner far more fatal than the supposed manipulations of the British or French.  He’s creating a poetics of sectarianism, pure and simple.  One only has to look at how reinforcing ethnic differences, often with the naive supposition that satisfying each group’s demands will lead to peace, only exacerbated the tragedy — the tragedies — of Yugoslavia in the 90s to see where thinking like Sullivan’s leads.

To his credit, Sullivan gives the Ottomans credit for maintaining a semblance of peace and stability in the region for several centuries.  But the Ottomans had molded, over the centuries, a complex and flexible system of negotiated corporatism and autonomy that recognized the different groups of their empire and yet that held them together in one unit successfully until modern nationalism started making that impossible.  What Sullivan is doing with blowhard statements like the above is just continuing that process: making it impossible for the peoples of the region that have to live together to do so peacefully and productively.

Finally, as a somewhat tangential but important aside, I’d really be interested in finding out why Sullivan doesn’t think that India is “not a country.”

And, folks, what is going on in Syria?  I’ve been in France for a month and my French isn’t good enough to follow the news and the American stuff on-line seems to have less and less coverage.  Has some sort of stalemate been reached?  Is some kind of compromise being forged?  Are people just tired?  Anyone want to enlighten me?

Ashura 1435: a poem from Agha Shahid Ali

13 Nov

Iraq Transitions As U.S. Forces Withdraw After 8-Year Presence

(click)

Karbala: A History of the “House of Sorrow”

In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Husayn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.
—Edward Gibbon

Jesus and his disciples, passing through the plain of Karbala, saw “a herd of gazelles, crowding together and weeping.” Astonished, the disciples looked at their Lord. He spoke: “At this site the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) will one day be killed.” And Jesus wept. Oh, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain … And Jesus wept. And as if the news has just reached them—fourteen hundred years after the Battle of Karbala (near ancient Babylon, not far from the Euphrates) in the year A.H. 61/A.D. 680—mourners weep for “the prince among martyrs,” Hussain, grandson of the Prophet and son of Ali (“Father of Clay”) and Fatima (the Prophet’s only surviving child). Memorializing Hussain on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura) is the rite of Shi’a Islam—so central that at funerals those events are woven into elegies, every death framed by that “Calvary.” For just “as Jesus went to Jerusalem to die on the cross,” Hussain “went to Karbala to accept the passion that had been meant for him from the beginning of time.”

 

Zainab’s Lament in Damascus

Over Hussain’s mansion what night has fallen?

Look at me, O people of Shaam, the Prophet’s only daughter’s daughter, his only child’s child.

Over my brother’s bleeding mansion dawn rose—at such forever cost?

So weep now, you who of passion never made a holocaust, for I saw his children slain in the desert, crying for water.

Hear me. Remember Hussain, what he gave in Karbala, he the severed heart, the very heart of Muhammad, left there bleeding, unburied.

Deaf Damascus, here in your Caliph’s dungeons where they mock the blood of your Prophet, I’m an orphan, Hussain’s sister, a tyrant’s prisoner.

Father of Clay, he cried, forgive me. Syria triumphs, orphans all your children. Farewell.

And then he wore his shroud of words and left us alone forever.

Paradise, hear me— On my brother’s body what night has fallen?

Let the rooms of Heaven be deafened, Angels, with my unheard cry in the Caliph’s palace:

    Syria hear me

    Over Hussain’s mansion what night has fallen

    I alone am left to tell my brother’s story

    On my brother’s body what dawn has risen

      Weep for my brother World, weep for Hussain

 

WOMAN MOURNS ON COFFIN OF VICTIM KILLED DURING PROTEST IN CAIRO

(click)

Reprinted from The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems by Agha Shahid Ali. English translation copyright © 2009 by Daniel Hall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“India’s Blood-Stained Democracy” by Mirza Waheed

7 Jul

Kashmiri women attend a protest organized by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Srinagar in November 2010.  (Rouf Bhat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

 

from The New York Times, July 6th

India’s Blood-Stained Democracy, by Mirza Waheed

“LAST September, a lawmaker in Indian-controlled Kashmir stood up in the state’s legislative assembly and spoke of a valley filled with human carcasses near his home constituency in the mountains: “In our area, there are big gorges, where there are the bones of several hundred people who were eaten by crows.”

“I read about this in faraway London and was filled with a chill — I had written of a similar valley, a fictional one, in my novel about the lost boys of Kashmir. The assembly was debating a report on the uncovering of more than 2,000 unmarked and mass graves not far from the Line of Control that divides Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The report, by India’s government-appointed State Human Rights Commission, marked the first official acknowledgment of the presence of mass graves. More significantly, the report found that civilians, potentially the victims of extrajudicial killings, may be buried at some of the sites.

“Corpses were brought in by the truckload and buried on an industrial scale. The report cataloged 2,156 bullet-riddled bodies found in mountain graves and called for an inquiry to identify them. Many were men described as “unidentified militants” killed in fighting with soldiers during the armed rebellion against Indian rule during the 1990s, but according to the report, more than 500 were local residents. “There is every probability,” the report concluded, that the graves might “contain the dead bodies of enforced disappearances,” a euphemism for people who have been detained, abducted, taken away by armed forces or the police, often without charge or conviction, and never seen again.

“Had the graves been found under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s compound in Libya or in the rubble of Homs in Syria, there surely would have been an uproar. But when over 2,000 skeletons appear in the conflict-ridden backyard of the world’s largest democracy, no one bats an eye. While the West proselytizes democracy and respect for human rights, sometimes going so far as to cheerlead cavalier military interventions to remove repressive regimes, how can it reconcile its humanitarianism with such brazen disregard for the right to life in Kashmir? Have we come to accept that there are different benchmarks for justice in democracies and autocracies? Are mass graves unearthed in democratic India somehow less offensive?”

 

I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight

                              Now and in time to be,

                             Wherever green is worn…

                             A terrible beauty is born.

                                              — W. B. Yeats

1

One must wear jeweled ice in dry plains

to will the distant mountains to glass.

The city from where no news can come

Is now so visible in its curfewed nights

that the worst is precise:

                                        From Zero Bridge

a shadow chased by searchlights is running

away to find its body. On the edge

of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,

it shrinks almost into nothing, is

 

nothing by Interrogation gates

so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:

Drippings from a suspended burning tire

Are falling on the back of a prisoner,

the naked boy screaming, “I know nothing.”

2

The shadow slips out, beckons Console Me,

and somehow there, across five hundred miles,

I’m sheened in moonlight, in emptied Srinagar,

but without any assurance for him.

 

On Residency Road, by Mir Pan House,

unheard we speak: “I know those words by heart

(you once said them by chance): In autumn

when the wind blows sheer ice, the chinar leaves

fall in clusters –

                                 one by one, otherwise.”

“Rizwan, it’s you, Rizwan, it’s you,” I cry out

as he steps closer, the sleeves of his phiren torn.

“Each night put Kashmir in your dreams,” he says,

then touches me, his hands crusted with snow,

whispers, “I have been cold a long, long time.”

 

3

“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,

and I follow him through blood on the road

and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners

left behind, as they ran from the funeral,

victims of the firing. From windows we hear

grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall

on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,

it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,

the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.

Kashmir is burning:

 

                                   By that dazzling light

we see men removing statues from temples.

We beg them, “Who will protect us if you leave?”

They don’t answer, they just disappear

on the roads to the plains, clutching the gods.

 

4

I won’t tell your father you have died, Rizwan,

but where has your shadow fallen, like cloth

on the tomb of which saint, or the body

of which unburied boy in the mountains,

bullet-torn, like you, his blood sheer rubies

on Himalayan snow?

 

I’ve tied a knot

with green thread at Shah Hamdan, to be

untied only when the atrocities

are stunned by your jeweled return, but no news

escapes the curfew, nothing of your shadow,

and I’m back, five hundred miles, taking off

my ice, the mountains granite again as I see

men coming from those Abodes of Snow

with gods asleep like children in their arms.

 

                                      (for Molvi Abdul Hai)

 

 

*******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************   

*  “Don’t tell my mother / my beloved brother / my sister….I’m dead” is also a common stock phrase in Balkan epic poetry of guerrilla fighters, kleftes, haiduci.

*  “By that dazzling light we see men removing statues from temples”…”Who will protect us if you leave?”…”men coming from those Abodes of Snow with gods asleep like children in their arms.”

Shahid Ali’s universalist soul was as hurt by the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits) from the region as he was by the brutality of the Indian Army against its innocent Muslim majority.  I can only assume that the men with the gods asleep in their arms is a reference to this exodus.  Shahid suffered from a recurrent nightmare, in fact, that the last Hindu had left Kashmir, and he fought that haunting image through the curious fashion of reproducing their distinctive cuisine as meticulously and often as possible — he was an excellent cook; there are now hardly any Hindus left in the tormented region.  “Who will protect us if you leave?,” directed to the departing Hindu gods, is a line that always breaks my heart, and could only come from a poet of as sophisticated a background and from as beautifully Sufi-syncretic a region as Kashmir.

“I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Night” reprinted from The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems by Agha Shahid Ali. English translation copyright © 2009 by Daniel Hall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

 

The Destruction of Delhi — Dalrymple (final)

3 Jul

Bahadur Shah Zafar enthroned

Bahadur Shah Zafar ended up being the last of the Mughal emperors.  Already along in years when the Uprising began, he became, due to the enormous symbolic power the Mughal Shahenshah still commanded, the reluctant leader of a revolution that, for even a younger and seasoned warrior – of whom he was neither – would have been a daunting force to control, command and direct.  The original rebelling Hindu and Muslim sipahis (sepoys) had gravitated towards Delhi as the symbolic center of northern India.  They were soon joined by random teams of jihadis, groups of what Dalrymple calls “Wahabbis,” though always in quotes so I don’t know quite know who he means, and the usual motley crew of Pashtuns down from Afghanistan that never miss a good fight if word of one reaches them.  This alienated many Hindu factions in no good time and, bent as many of these groups were on plunder as much as Holy War, they ended up being as great a curse on the poor, long-suffering Delhiwallahs as any of the other players involved.

Zafar lived to see most of his family murdered.  Of his, I believe, thirty-one sons – who participated in the uprising from roles of active leadership to not at all – only two survived: three teenagers were shot in the heart at point blank range; two of the more ’implicated’ sons of similar age were put before a firing squad ordered to fire low in the guts for maximum pain; the rest hanged – along with all the other male notables of his court, including Hindus.  Certain amuck British officers seem to have spent days running around the ruins of the city, shooting anyone that looked even remotely “mirza”-like, or even Muslim, or just once rich.  The hangings seem to have lasted for weeks, with a cessating intervention finally coming from London itself.  Zafar was exiled first to the Andaman Islands and then to Burma, where he died in 1862.

It was the effective end of the Mughal aristocracy and the complete wiping out of an historic dynasty; a twentieth-century style liquidation of a social class; given the comparative dimensions of the societies involved, it was surely a purge of Bolshevik proportions and equally paranoid and crazy.  Dalrymple artfully carries the consequences of these events into modernity for us.

******************************************************************************************

Zafar (below)

Dalrymple:

But while Zafar was certainly never cut out to be a heroic or revolutionary leader, he remains, like his ancestor the Emperor Akbar, an attractive symbol of Islamic civilization at its most tolerant and pluralistic.  He himself was a notable poet and calligrapher; his court contained some of the most talented artistic and literary figures in modern South Asian history; and the Delhi he presided over was undergoing one of its great periods of learning, self-confidence, communal amity and prosperity.  He is certainly a strikingly liberal and likeable figure when compared to the Victorian Evangelicals whose insensitivity, arrogance and blindness did much to bring the Uprising of 1857 down upon both their own heads and those of the people and court of Delhi, engulfing all of northern India in a religious war of terrible violence.

Above all, Zafar always put huge emphasis on his role as a protector of Hindus and the moderator of Muslim demands.  He never forgot the central importance of preserving the bond between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, which he always recognized was the central stitching that held his city together.  Throughout the Uprising, his refusal to alienate his Hindu subjects by subscribing to the demands of the jihadis was probably his single most consistent policy.

There was nothing inevitable about the demise and extinction of the Mughals, as the sepoys’ dramatic surge towards the court of Delhi showed.  But in the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would increasingly grow apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborationists among the chauvinists of both faiths.  The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two.  As the Indian Muslim elite emigrated en masse to Pakistan, the time would soon come when it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.

Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.

Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as religious war.  Jihadis again fight what they regard as a defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent women, children and civilians are slaughtered.  As before, Western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies as the role of “incarnate fiends” and conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with “pure evil.”  Again, Western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wilder world, feel aggrieved to be attacked – as they interpret it – by mindless fanatics.

Against this bleak dualism, there is much to value in Zafar’s peaceful and tolerant attitude to life; and there is also much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughal’s pluralistic and philosophically composite civilization.

As we have seen in our own time, nothing threatens the liberal and moderate aspect of Islam so much as aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East, just as nothing so radicalizes the ordinary Muslim and feeds the power of the extremists: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have, after all, often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined.  There are clear lessons here.  For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, himself a fierce critic of Western aggression in India, those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.

Zafar’s two surviving sons, who shared his Burmese exile with him.

****************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Agha Shahid Ali: “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi”

Lear cries out “You are men of stones”

as Cordelia hangs from a broken wall.

 

I step into Chandni Chowk, a street once

strewn with jasmine flowers

for the Empress and the royal women

who bought perfumes from Isfahan,

fabrics from Dacca, essence from Kabul,

glass bangles from Agra.

 

Beggars now live here in tombs

of unknown nobles and forgotten saints

while hawkers sell combs and mirrors

outside a Sikh temple.  Across the street,

a theater is showing a Bombay spectacular.

 

I think of Zafar, poet and Emperor,

being led through this street

by British soldiers, his feet in chains,

to watch his sons hanged.

 

In exile he wrote:

“Unfortunate Zafar

spent half his life in hope,

the other half waiting.

He begs for two yards of Delhi for burial.”

 

He was exiled to Burma, buried in Rangoon.  

 

Last known photograph of Bahadur Shah Zafar

**********************************************************************************************************************************

I’d like to heartily and gratefully thank Mr. Dalrymple (below) for his permission to reproduce such an extensive piece of his work.  Usually permission is hard to obtain or you get no answer at all.  When I wrote Mr. Dalrymple, however, he shot an email back at me within minutes saying nothing but: “Go for it.”  Shukriya, kheyli moteshakeram, teshekur, and thanks again.

 “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi” reprinted from The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems by Agha Shahid Ali. English translation copyright © 2009 by Daniel Hall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Watercolor of the Jama Masjid and old Delhi from 1852

 

Become a moth

20 May

Shajarian and a very young Homayoun perform the Molana-Rumi verse (with Alizadeh and Kalhor)

Perhaps the main reason I started my attempt to learn Farsi was pure spite (the other was to go to Afghanistan).  I had gotten tired of asking Iranians whether they liked this or that translation of Saadi or Hafez and being smugly told or categorically barked at: “NO! None of them; Persian poetry can’t be translated,” or reading some poor soul on You Tube gush: “My God, what beautiful music!  Can someone translate the lyrics, please?!!” only to be shot down by an Iranian: “you dont know all the metaphors references you won’t understand you cant translate poetry.”  Well, yes you can translate poetry, ‘cause if you can’t, you can’t translate anything else either.  Or you can create a set of reasonably analogous concepts that gives the other language-speaker a strongly analogous idea, at least, and just as strong a sensory feel.  In the end, the set of incommunicable ideas we’ve each got locked in our heads is pretty much as different as that between any two languages, so if you doubt translation you’re doubting the hope of any human communication really – which might, I understand, be a reasonable theory.  But we’ll forgive the Persians their snobbery because, as they say in Spanish in an expression I love: “tienen con que…” literally “they got what with…” meaning “they have reason to be” or “they a have a right to…”

But then there’s this sweet and very generous attempt of one You Tube reader to give an almost calque-like translation of this Rumi piece:

If you are going to the drunkards, become drunk

If you go towards the drunk, go drunkenly! Go drunkenly! (mastâne is a compound from mast (drunk) and the prefix -âne, which is_ a particularizer (pertaining to the qualities of X, in a X manner) e.g. from mard we have mardâne (men’s, for men; …

You should become all soul, until you are worthy of the spirits[?]

You should become all soul until you become deserving the sweetheart (beloved)

And then become the cup [?] that holds the wine of love

And then become a cup for the wine of love! Become a cup! (in English, if I’m not mistaken, one says “become a member of X” so I translated it as “become a cup…” rather than “become the cup”)

Make your heart like the [other] hearts [?], wash it seven times [till it is free] of grudges

Go and wash the chest of hatreds seven-water-ly like [real] chests (chest is the house of heart. I think, in English, one says “like a [real] chest”. Ancient people believed that washing something with water of seven seas makes it purely clean.)

And then come live with the lovers

And then, come [and] become homemate with lovers! Become homemate! (ham- = homo-, xâne = home -> homo-home like homo-phone but anyway: homemate)

Become a stranger to yourself, ruin your own home [destroy the_ nafs]

[both] make yourself alien (stranger) and make the house ruined (I think it means “desert your past and your belongings”)

And from the heart of the flame, come out, become a moth

And into fire, enter! Become a butterfly! Become a butterfly! (candle (šamë)

Abandon your deceit, O lover, become mad

O lover, abandon deceit! Become mad! Become mad! (hilat is Arabic_ form of hila -> hile. In Persian, we have sometimes taken an Arabic word as -at and sometimes as -a. Well, as for hilat, it’s not found in common Persian and we only say hila/e)

 

And a Farsi transliteration, not all included in the above performance:

Aan goushvaar-e shaahedaan, hamsohbat-eh aarez shodeh,

Aan goush-e aarez baayadat! dordaaneh sho, dordaaneh sho(2),

Chon Jaan-e to shod dar hava, zafsaneh-ye shiereen-eh ma,

Faany sho O chon aasheghaan! afsaaneh_ sho, afsaaneh sho(2),

Andiesheh-at Jaaie ravad, aangah to ra aanja barad

zaandisheh bogzar chon ghaza! pieshaaneh sho, pieshaaneh sho(2)

O Hielat Raha kon aashegha! divaneh sho, divaneh sho(2),

Vandar del-e aHam khiesh ra bigaaneh kon, ham khaaneh ra viraneh kon,

Vaangah bia ba aasheghaa! hamkhaaneh sho, hamshaaneh sho(2),atash dar a! parvaneh sho, parvaneh sho(2)

Ro sieneh ra chon sieneh ha, haft aab_ shoo az kieneh ha,

Vaangah sharaab-e eshgh ra! peymaaneh sho, peymaaneh sho(2),

The moth-and-flame is one of the most classic of those ‘untranslatable’ metaphors: the constant injunction to become a moth and throw yourself into the flame, surrender to the annihilation of love.  The crucial surrender here, of course, is to ignore the full spectrum of interpretations – from the religious pedant’s to the equally irritating contemporary gay ‘reads’ (those of what Joseph Massad calls “The Gay International”) – about whether the flame is God or your spiritual master or a hot kid and really surrender the urge to interpret entirely, forget about metaphor, stop the transference, which is what “metaphora” means in Greek, something that the ghazal’s connected/disconnected structure is so conducive to and which gives it so much of its power  — and which probably leads to the common assumption of untranslatability.  This is what Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry does so successfully in English.

That said, I’ve never seen a moth actually do this.  I’ve heard mosquitoes incessantly frying themselves on those machines on summer nights in the sweltering plains of northern Greece while I’m trying to enjoy a roast pig crackling, but not a moth actually burn itself in a candle or other flame — or maybe Persian moths are greater emotional risk-takers.  In my experience, whenever a moth runs into trouble around light it’s usually ended up like this guy who I found in my icon lamp.

And this is what I’ve found most contemporary humans’ experience of love to be too: stuck in a viscous mess, your wings oil-logged, pedaling frantically and unable to escape your slow suffocation till life picks you out with a paper-towel and squishes you.  Don’t we wish it were instant incineration; we’d save ourselves much pointless humiliation.  But our hearts just aren’t up to such sacrificial leaps into the abyss anymore.

“Whom the flame itself has gone looking for, that moth — just imagine!” – Bollywood song

 

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: