Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Paper Two: Didactic and Epic Poetry, Coffeeshop Performance and Calligraphy

Estelle Tronson

Poetry is an art form that has persisted for millenia. Often, the focus of poetry is love and beauty, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, deeper meanings can be extracted from poems. Rumi’s didactic poems are especially prevalent in this regard. A specific verse from The Parrot of Bagdad stood out to me. In this section, Rumi writes:

“See how the tricksy ape will imitate

Each human being he may chance to see,

And fancy, in his self-conceited pate:

‘I do this action quite as well as he.’

Thus does the sinner oft-times bend the knee,

And in the mosque prefer his sad complaint,

Till in his own eyes he appears to be

No whit less pious than the human saint-

Ay! and the world believes his sanctimonious feint”¹.

What Rumi is saying in this section is that people will often put up artificial facades in order to be perceived as just as good-if not better-than their neighbor. They will do something for status rather than for their own benefit or enjoyment. He uses the metaphor of a “tricksy ape” for this type of people, implying that they are less intelligent in some form. However, Rumi also implies that this is an easy trick to fall for, stating “Ay! and the world believes his sanctimonious feint”. It is easy to see someone excelling at something and wish to be as skillful as them, when in reality, it is possible that they are not as proficient as their facade may suggest. Rumi uses the metaphor of a sinner in the mosque, who pretends to bow in prayer, without making an effort to actually connect with God. This is a strong and vivid image, and the massage can be applied to any scenario, even in the present. This message resonated with me, as I often compare myself to others. It is good to remember, when self doubt starts creeping in, that people may not be as good or devoted to their craft as they appear.

Didactic poetry often appears woven into epics as well. One of the most prominent epic poems in Persian culture is Firdowsi’s Shahnameh. The Shahnameh, or “epic of kings” in Persian, is the tale of ancient Persian kings, told in over 50,000 rhyming couplets². The Shahnameh does not promote pacifism, but rather, it is “inclined to accept war as a reality of human history”³. Firdowsi recognizes that war was inevitable at that time in history, but hopes for a future without it. In class, we discussed the strict rules in the Shahnameh that surround war. One aspect of this that I found very interesting is that any sort of surprise attack, such as tricks and ambushes, are condemned as cowardice. Instead it is expected that armies fight their enemies face to face on the battlefield⁴. This means that soldiers would be forced to see the faces of their rivals before killing them. The human connection required in this style of combat makes violence more difficult and supports elevated morality in war. Other themes are laced throughout the epic. One verse that struck me was:

“The sparkling throne the ascending column fed;

In smoking fragments fell the golden bed;

The raging fire red glimmering died away’

And all the Warrior’s pride in dust and ashes lay.

Kavous, the King, now joins the mournful chief,

And tries to soothe his deep and settled grief;

For soon or late we yield our vital breath,

And all our worldly troubles end, in death!”⁵

The first two couplets of this section are written in beautiful flowing phrases, signifying the glory of battle, and perhaps, the honor of dying a warrior. As the passage continues, Firdowsi relays the horrors of war, and the grief and ash that follows, along with the sinking realization that we too, will someday join our fallen soldiers in the earth. 

Because of his significance, Fidowsi has been interpreted in many different ways. The Shahnameh has been used as a comprehensive text by “historians, astronomers, musicians, and poets” alike⁶. One such way that persists to this day is coffee shop performance. The Shahnameh is performed in two different ways: Shahnameh-khani, or singing verses if the epic from memory, and Naqqali of Shahnameh, or acting out the story individually⁷. The actor will leap from one side of the stage to the other, his volume and emotion fluctuating from one moment to the next⁸. It is a bit more lively than any performance found in an american coffee shop setting. Rather than drinking coffee to the sounds of a classical quartet, or local musician, it is poetry that is common place. A culture that supports such coffee shop performances is one that is deeply entrenched in poetry. The social aspect of this puts a great emphasis, as a culture, on storytelling. Although music, too, can tell a story, it is far more subtle than poetry. 

Another way that Firdowsi is interpreted is through calligraphy. In class, we attempted to copy a section of the Shahnameh that condemns greed, excessive pride and violence. This was my favorite calligraphy assignment thus far, and I feel as though I have improved significantly since the beginning of this course. The Persian alphabet is treated with such reverence, and I finally have enough knowledge about it to share this admiration. Annemarie Schimmel says, “There is no letter which does not worship God”⁹. Every letter can be interpreted differently and is treated with respect. For example, alif  “is compared to a man standing up and looking down at his feet as if standing in prayer”¹⁰. This makes the letters feel alive as they are written. It is taught that “when a man in inwardly free, his writing is good”¹¹. I am beginning to understand this rhetoric. Calligraphy can be remarkably freeing, though it is frustrating at times, it often helps clear my mind and calm my emotions. This, like the coffee shop performance, ties into a culture that hold writings such as poetry in the highest esteem.

Sources

¹ Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

² (Ferdowsi), Hakīm Abul-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī. “A Thousand Years of the Persian Book: The Epic of Shahnameh.” Library of Congress, USA.gov, 27 Mar. 2014, www.loc.gov/exhibits/thousand-years-of-the-persian-book/epic-of-shahnameh.html.

³ Mahallati, Mohammad Jafar Amir. Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shiʻi Islam. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

⁴ Mahallati, Mohammad Jafar Amir. Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shiʻi Islam. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

⁵ Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: an Anthology of Verse Translations. Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

⁶ Jahandideh, Mitra, and Shahab Kaefi. The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh: Shahnameh-Khani and Naqqali of Shahnameh. Volume 16c, University of Tehran, 2017. ResearchGate.

⁷ Jahandideh, Mitra, and Shahab Kaefi. The Most Important Performing Arts Arisen from Shahnameh: Shahnameh-Khani and Naqqali of Shahnameh. Volume 16c, University of Tehran, 2017. ResearchGate.

⁸ هنر نزد ایرانیان است . “گوشه هایی از نقالی ایرانی استاد مرشد ولی ترابی.” دالفک, هنر نزد ایرانیان است, www.dalfak.com/w/6e4c8.

⁹ Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York University Press, 1984.

¹⁰ Sulzberger, Jean. “The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition.” The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition, by William C. Chittick, Morning Light Press, 2007, pp. 78–81.¹¹ Sulzberger, Jean. “The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition.” The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition, by William C. Chittick, Morning Light Press, 2007, pp. 78–81.

¹¹ Sulzberger, Jean. “The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition.” The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition, by William C. Chittick, Morning Light Press, 2007, pp. 78–81.

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