A guest post by Bina Shah.[iae|313|r]
Come, come, whoever you are.
Worshipper, wanderer, lover of leaving, it doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.
One of the best parts of being a writer is that I sometimes get to travel for work. It's not the kind of travel of businesspeople and bankers, or politicians or doctors, but the kind of travel that writers do: in caravans of joy, to visit faraway places, to be inspired by that travel and the discussions, conversations, and friendships that take place in that space and time.
[iae|310|l] I flew into Istanbul and met some of the group at the airport, and we flew to Konya late in the evening. From then it was five days nonstop of sightseeing, travel, discussion, and socializing. We visited the tomb of Jalaluddin Rumi and Shams Tabriz in Konya; the tomb and mosque of the Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre and the tomb where Rumi's mother is buried in Karaman, 70 miles away. We visited a Greek village called Silla (the Greeks settled this part of Turkey, Anatolia, in ancient times); Armenian churches, Greek orthodox churches and temples -- we even saw a popular Turkish soap opera being filmed in one of the villages -- and gathered together in the afternoons to talk about Rumi, Rumi, Rumi…
I am no expert on Rumi. I've long avoided delving into his work, perhaps wary of the extreme sentimentality and commercialism that 20th century charlatans have introduced into his legacy. But I was forced to think long and deep about who Rumi is to me: the best metaphor I could find to understand him is that Rumi is a mirror: we look into his work to see ourselves.
[iae|311|r] The exchange was also meant to foster closer relations between Iranian and American poets, and our Iranian colleagues from Tehran had spent their academic lives studying Rumi. They dominated the conversations with their expertise, but at times on the bus or at dinner they would break into recitations of his poetry in beautiful Persian, and the other Iranians from America and Mexico City and the Afghans would join in, reciting together in Persian and Dari while the rest of us looked on, amazed. One afternoon I gave a talk on the role of women in Rumi's life and work; and then we translated together the famous lines of Rumi that begin:
Morden bodam, zindeh shodam
Geryeh bodam, khaneh shodam
(I was dead, then I came to life/ I was sorrow, then I became joy)
There was much laughter, some wine, lots of prayers, and so much poetry. I who am no poet, but a prose writer, sat enthralled while listening to my colleagues talk about rhyme, rhythm, meter, the merit of some words over others. I learned that poetry, which has sometimes eluded me, is nothing less than a mystical code that you could spend your whole life learning to write, or learning to decipher. And I wrote these lines while I was on the road with them, listening to their talk:
Poets to me are holy people
Their faces glow, their heads are expansive and enlarged
They have auras and halos around them
Like the angels in the paintings of Michelangelo
[iae|312|l] Then we traveled by bus three hours east, to Nevesehir Province, to visit Cappadocia, the Land of Beautiful Horses. This land was shaped by volcanos that spewed lava and ash which then formed the most unusual geographical formations I've ever seen: giant conical caves, mushroom-shaped spires called "fairy chimneys", and miles and miles of valleys with more conical dunes. The people of the area found that the structures could be easily shaped, because they were soft, and so they etched out dwellings, churches, temples, and monasteries - and people were living in caves up until the 1950s in this region.
I stayed in a cave hotel, Serinn House, which had been carved out of cave rock. We visited Derinkuyu City, an eight-story underground city where early Christians hid from Roman armies in 35 meters of labyrinthian rooms and tunnels set with booby traps. We went to the Gorime Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which was a huge religious complex with a monastery, nunnery, and churches with colorful and mystical religious frescoes etched into the walls. And we took a walk in a "Fairy Chimney Forest", where I sat and had Turkish tea and a friendly Turkish man told me he recognized the Pakistani clothing my Afghan colleague was wearing.
On our last day, as we drove to the airport in the early morning, we saw hundreds of hot air balloons up in the sky, exploring the lunar landscape, like alien life forms. Nothing could better encapsulate the experience of being in Cappadocia, or indeed on that entire trip, than the joy of uplift and elevation and being able to defy gravity underneath the bright hues of a globe-shaped multiverse. As a Muslim, worshipping at the shrines of the enlightened beings, I received affirmation and confirmation of my beliefs, and understood the connection across borders, generations, and centuries of those of us on the Path. As a writer, I made friendships with fantastic poets and scholars, learned at their feet, danced and sang with them in bliss and celebration. As a human, I saw places I never thought I'd be able to go.
May we all be blessed in such ways of seeking!
Last Friday, 17 poets and writers from the U.S., Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran arrived in Konya, in central Turkey, to participate in The Same Gate, a six-day conference centered around the life and work of celebrated poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi. Beirut-based documentary filmmaker Nigol Bezjian is recording the encounter, organized by the International Writing Program (IWP), which includes discussions, collaborative writing sessions, and visits to museums, shrines, and cultural sites. The conference culminates in a collaborative book of ghazals (a poetic form employed by Rumi), prose reflections, and translations composed by participants as a homage to the value and importance of international creative exchange.
A CENTRAL POET ACROSS CONTINENTS
The Same Gate is organized around 13th century poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a central poet in Afghan, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish literature and also the bestselling poet in America. “All countries claim Rumi,” says IWP director Christopher Merrill, who is travelling with the group; “his life and poetry provide fertile ground for collaboration and exchange.” While in Turkey, participants are meeting with Esin Celebi Bayru, Rumi's great granddaughter (21 generations removed), visiting the Rumi Shrine and the shrine of his mentor, Shams e Tabris in Konya, traveling to the southern town of Karaman, exploring a village where Rumi once lived with his family, and visiting the tomb of Rumi’s mother, among other activities.
FOSTERING CLOSER RELATIONS BETWEEN AMERICAN AND IRANIAN POETS
The product of more than two years of planning, The Same Gate is also designed to foster greater understanding between Iranian and American poets (MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow Richard Kenney and National Book Award winner Marilyn Hacker are among the U.S. participants), building upon the memorandum of understanding signed by the presidents of the University of Iowa and the University of Tehran to increase collaboration between the two institutions. With Rumi’s poetry as common ground, the project bring poets together to think and talk about poetry and to produce innovative new collaborative work, nearly 800 years after Rumi composed the ghazal that gave The Same Gate its name.
Recent articles on African literature feature the names of prominent IWP alumni:
A Guardian blog post mentioning Veronique Tadjo (Cote d'Ivoire, 2006).
And an article in Al Ahram on the former director of the African Writers Series, which includes the work of Bessie Head (Botswana, 1977) and Cyprian Ekwensi (Nigeria, 1974).
In other news: On a reading tour of Kenya this past summer, the IWP group led writing workshops for primary and secondary students in the Somali refugee camp Dadaab. American writers Tom Sleigh, Terese Svoboda, and Eliot Weinberger conducted impromptu writing excercises with nearly 200 students. You can read the students' pieces here.