Thursday, February 18, 2010

Off-topic: Khomeini - a poet?

Just last week I was having a discussion with a friend about Ghalib and the influence of Persian poetry. So it was amusing to read an article yesterday that mentioned a poem by Ayatollah Khomeini (yes, the original Ayatollah). In fact, the tenor of Khomeini's poem is not that different from what Ghalib had been writing in the 19th century. The article talks about couple of his other writings, but then here is the bit about his poem (tip from 3quarksdaily):
Finally, my desperate quest for more Khomeini led me to this singular, solitary poem, originally published in the New Republic in 1989, just as the Ayatollah was demanding death for Rushdie and poised to take the great leap into eternity himself. This was what I was really interested in – something that would reveal a side of Khomeini unknown to those of us in the west; a more tender aspect of the bearded, reactionary theocrat.

And what a poem! If the first two lines are startling:

I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.

Then what follows a few lines down is absolutely amazing:

Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.

The whole thing ends with a repudiation of Islam in favour of the "tavern's idol".

Even allowing for the fact that the Ayatollah is utilising a poetic persona, the poem is remarkable: free thinking, even heretical. And yet … according to Khomeini's Arabic translator, professor Muhammad Ala al-Din Mansur, of Cairo University, the apparently secular tone is misleading:

Imam Khomeini's poetry was exclusively a means for the manifestation of his mystical and numinous thoughts while praying to God and reflecting on the mysteries of the creation.

And sure enough, I soon found an essay online in which the critic revealed that everything in the poem is something else, and nothing is what it appears to be. Bummer.
I don't know. I won't be too quick to jump on an alternative interpretation. It is the ambiguity that often gives poetry its power. Read the full article here.

In any case, here is the full poem as published in NYT in 1989:
I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.
Delivered from self, I beat the drum of ''I am the Real!''
Like Hallaj, I became a customer for the top of the gallows.
Heartache for the beloved has thrown so many sparks into my soul
That I have been driven to despair and become the talk of the bazaar!
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
I have torn off the garb of asceticism and hypocrisy,
Putting on the cloak of the tavern-haunting shaykh and becoming aware.
The city preacher has so tormented me with his advice
That I have sought aid from the breath of the wine-drenched profligate.
Leave me alone to remember the idol-temple,
I who have been awakened by the hand of the tavern's idol.
(see here for more info on the Hallaj reference in the 4th line)

May be Khomeini and Ghalib would have had much to talk about (on life and poetry - but not on politics). Here is one of Ghalib's couplets:
ye masaail-e-tasawwuf, ye tera bayaan 'Ghalib'!
this mysticism, these statements of yours Ghalib
tujhe ham walee samajhate, jo na baada_khwaar hota
you would be a saint, if only you were not inebriated

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