“Attar traveled all seven cities of love,
While I’m still at the bend of its first valley.”
I hear Fayizeh softly uttering these lines. I know this couplet. I also know most educated Iranian know this by heart. This is Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi paying his tribute to one of the great Sufi poets of all times: Abu Hamid Bin Abu Baqr Ibrahim, who is known to the world by his penname Fariduddin Attar. The poet lived between 1145 and 1220. In Neyshabur.
Over the past 800 years creative souls across the world have recreated his timeless creation, Muntiq ut-Tair. Conference of the Birds. Peter Brook has adapted it into a major internationally acclaimed play. In India we have had a fresh new version from Heeba Shah. I haven’t seen either of these productions. I have read the book. No, I keep reading the book. The English translation by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. Penguin Classics. And I do intend to lay my hands on Sholeh Wolpe’s fresh translation, in which, she told me she has endeavoured to render the classic into modern English.
For me as an Indian, it does have some problems. Like Rumi, Attar also has deeply racist remarks about people from Hind, which are often glossed over. His eulogizing the destruction of the temple of Somnath certainly doesn’t add to his greatness. Instead, it provides definite testimony to the uncomfortable fact that the medieval custom of desecrating the vanquished party’s places of worship as an inseparable part of empire building, irrespective of the religion of the victor, also had a kind of intellectual sanction. The humiliation of the vanquished king’s God was considered to be the ultimate statement of his subjugation.
In India, Hindu armies of the Cholas, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas routinely ransacked Hindu temples of their enemy kingdoms, a policy that was continued by many Muslim rulers. There is enough evidence to prove that about 80 temples were destroyed over 500 years of ‘Islamic rule’, points out historian Richard Eaton, an authority on the subject. It is indeed possible to incite a selective memory of history, distort it suitably, and cite quotations from even such illustrious names as Rumi, Attar or Khusrau to whip-up murderous communal frenzy with a view to achieve very specific political goals.
It is also possible, instead, to read these great poets in their proper context and be drowned in the frenzy of love that they churn out of their heart. In my own mind The Conference of the Birds’ quest for the Simurgh merges effortlessly into the essence of Rabindranath: Aamar hiyar majhe lukiye chhile dekhte aami paaini / Tomay dekhte aami paini / Bahir paane chokh melechhi, aamar hriday paane chaini… In my heart you hid yourself / I didn’t see you / I opened my eyes to the world outside / In my heart I didn’t look…
Muntiq ut-Tair is the pinnacle of all transcending love, of which you can never have enough.
The evening has sucked out the final streaks of crimson from the sky. I and Fayizeh stand in front of the bust of the poet, who, with his flowing beard and hair has a curious similarity with Rabindranath. In the backdrop, lit by the moon is a hexagonal edifice with a large dome decked in polished blue and gold tiles. It takes me a very long time to come to terms with the fact that I am indeed standing in front of the tomb of Fariduddin Attar, the Lover among lovers, so far away from my own world, in the old city of Neyshabur, with a young Iranian lady who I have known not more than a few hours.
It is also in Neyshabur that I come to know about the tribulations of love in small-town-Iran. We explore Neyshabur’s fascinating old quarters, where the city merges into a reddish mud-walled village, with its colourful tapestry of sheep-herds. Fayizeh insists that I visit the world’s only Choubin village, in which every edifice is made of pure wood. Designed to withstand termites as well as shocks of earthquakes up to an intensity of 8 in the Richter scale, particularly beautiful here is the village mosque.
Finally when we are welcomed back to Iram hotel by the mechanical talking lady, for once I too do feel the need for a large cup of tea. Fayizeh bids me goodbye. Even before I take my first sip from the steaming cup, arrives Malihe with a million apologies for not being able to come in the morning. But she is not alone, and she is determined to drag me to an Iranain pizzeria for dinner. Hence I join the group of three, Badizadeh, Elnaz and Malihe, all of them engineers, in a completely empty pizzeria, where the gentleman at the reception appears to be in no particularly hurry. None of my new friends are over 25.
Pizza with Zamzam cola and French fries appear to be their dream dinner. Over endless bottles of Zamzam I learn that none of them is married. From marriage our talk flows into love. And I am stunned to hear that love-marriage is extremely unusual, if not a strict no-no, in Neyshabur and much of small-town Iran. The boy’s father will choose the prospective bride and take the proposal to her family. First, the proposal will be discussed over several rounds within the girl’s immediate and larger family. Next, the two families will talk to each other at length, and then only can the marriage happen. Love marriage as we know in India, and even in many big cities in Iran, doesn’t have social sanction in Iran’s rural hinterland.
‘But what if one falls in love?’ I fire straight.
‘Gulp it down,’ says Badizadeh more in jest, than seriously.
‘But that’s painful?’ I ask him.
Badizadeh clearly has no such experience. He laughs it off, ‘Come on. No one suffers.’
‘Yes it is painful, very painful. But such is the situation,’ that’s Elnaz.
‘How do you know? Have you ever fallen in love?’ Badizadeh taunts her.
‘Even if I have, not a soul in the world will ever know.’ Never have I seen a sharper dagger than the glance that Elnaz shoots at him. Even in the soft orange light of the restaurant I can see her face turn pink.
Risky uncharted waters. In a flash I change course. But I can’t get to the bottom of the equation. I’m transported to a moment that I experienced only a few hours ago: the sky has turned into a curious mix of pink and Firouzeh blue. We have left the city behind, even the old village of Neyshabur. Now in front of us is a vast field, as far as the eyes can see, which merges into a faint greyish outline of low hills.
And from the ground, almost as if from the every pore of the earth, has sprung up pink flowers. Saffron. We wander around watching saffron cultivators, male and female together, collecting the most expensive spice in the world in small buckets. Suddenly Fayizeh picks up a bunch from the ground, not just the threads, which serve as the real spice, but whole bright flowers with their stems, wraps the stems together in a tissue, and elaborately offers the little bouquet to me.
For the field full of farmers, it’s a spectacle. They laugh out in unison. They are amused to the hilt. I am reminded of this moment, as I learn about the social stricture on love marriage. I keep it aside in my mind along with the many enigmas that I confronted in Iran.
But then only a couple of days later, I witness the power of love that lives on in the eternal form of poetry in a dilapidated cemetery in bustling Tehran.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra