Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, October 1, 2007

Essential Reading from the Middle East

Concerning some essential reading (in my opinion) from the Middle East, by way of San Francisco and Guantanamo:


According to amazon.com, a book called The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, has earned the following "honors":

Amazon.com Sales Rank: #3,396 in Books (See Bestsellers in Books)

Popular in these categories: (What's this?)

#1 in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Islam > Sufism
#1 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Authors, A-Z > ( R ) > Rumi, Mevlana Jalaleddin
#2 in Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Ancient, Classical & Medieval


That's right: Number One in Sufism (okay, let's assume that's not a massive category), but also Number One in Literature and Fiction by an author whose last name begins with R, and Number Two in all of Ancient and Classical & Medieval Poetry. And roughly 3,400th of all books sold on amazon.com. Sales position 3,400 (roughly) at amazon.com is pretty high up there for any book, but for poetry? Almost incredible.

Why is the translated (by Coleman Barks) work of a medieval poet from Afghanistan so popular in the U.S.? Well, I think Rumi's work earned the popularity the old fashioned way. It's terrific, even as one supposes the translation, which is no doubt excellent, does not do it complete justice. In an English translation, we can't get the full sense of Rumi's talent for rhythm and meter, but his gift of imagery, his wit, his learning, his intelligence, and his vast breadth of interests come through, as does his generous spirituality. Here's a snippet that may exemplify the combination of wit and spirituality often found in Rumi's work:

from On Resurrection Day

by Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks

On Resurrection Day your body testifies against you.
Your hand says, "I stole money."
Your lips, "I said meanness."
Your feet, "I went where I shouldn't."
Your genitals, "Me, too."

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks (Harper San Francisco, 2004), expanded edition.

Rumi was born in 1207 and died in 1273.

Barks writes (p. xvii), "Because of these troubles we are living in, I want to call attention again to Rumi's role as a bridge between religions and cultures. . . . Interfaith hardly reaches the depth of his connecting. Rumi speaks from the clear head at the center." One illustration of this connective quality: Rumi is the favorite poet of a Jesuit parish priest in Tacoma.

If you haven't looked into The Essential Rumi yet, give it a try, and it's the kind of book a person may just leap into at any point--no reading from page 1 to 300+, please, unless you simply must read that way. Jump in an have a look around. Move fast until you find something you like, and I think you will. Fair warning: You may find yourself continuing to read when you have allegedly better things to do.

As essential as Rumi, I would argue, if much more tied to the political moment, is Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Marc Falkoff, a professor of law who represents some of the prisoners at Guantanamo (University of Iowa Press, 2007). It's a painful book of poems to read, to say something close to the least. It's also a mortifying, shaming book for an American to read. Some of the poets have been released from the prison--but only after years of abuse and of being deprived of due process, and in many cases, after having been detained for no good reason. That is, even if one sets aside whether the prison is morally or legally correct (I really don't want to set these questions aside), one must conclude that many of the prisoners were clearly detained because of a combination of overzealousness, greed, rough politics (especially in Pakistan), and/or incompetence on the part of Americans and others. The collection is one of those books of poems that pulls you in opposite directions. It forces you to see, again, that the differences between Guantanamo prison and a concentration camp are difficult to cite, and yet it confirms the essential power of language and, more specifically, of poetry. I'm not sure it's proper to speak in terms of a "national shame" because I don't know if nations can be shamed. All nations are institutions of power. But people of and in nations can be shamed. From the dust-jacket, a comment from poet Robert Pinsky:

"Poetry, art of the human voice, helps turn us toward what we should or must not ignore. Speaking as they can across barriers actual and figurative, translated into our American tongue, these voices in confinement implicitly call us to our principles and to our humanity. They deserve, above all, not admiration or belief or sympathy--but attention. Attention to them is urgent for us."

Pinsky may be anticipating the reaction of those who suspect that some of these poets might be, for lack of a better term, "bad guys." Pinsky does not respond by pointing out that even the detention of bad guys is supposed to be governed by international law and respect for human rights (how naive this sounds in these jaded times). Nor does he point out that even from the point of view of the jailors, some of these men should never have been arrested, let alone jailed. Instead he suggests, implicitly, that as you hold on to your skepticism, your worries, your anger, or your fear, pay attention. Read what some of these prisoners say. Then consider your principles and your humanity. Attention to the prisoners in Guantanamo is, as Pinsky argues, urgent for us, but it is also urgent for the prisoners.
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