Inside the “fat” Iranian, a “thin” dervish often struggles for self-expression and freedom
December 18, 2004
[“Iran… or Persia?” by Peter Lamborn Wilson on NthPosition.com] is one loooooong article but a true joy to read… i’m half way throu it and it’s giving me serious goose bumps… — Deev
After two years on the Hippy Trail in India and Pakistan, a winter of poverty in Afghanistan, months of opium smoking in Quetta (the capital of Pakistani Baluchistan) followed by a severe and hallucinatory bout of intestinal malaria, I must not have looked very respectable to the Iranian Consul.
The Consulate, a concrete box in a dreary new suburb of Quetta, appeared to be empty except for me and the Consul, a small sour man in a suit, who seemed to have nothing to do except make life difficult for me personally. He was quizzing me about why he shouldn’t simply issue me a 14-day transit visa rather than the standard tourist three-month visa I wanted. He seemed to suspect me of something. Recently I’d been sort of thrown out of India and also Afghanistan. Clearly the Consul took me for a wealthless vagabond, which was rather perspicacious of him. “Why do you want to visit my country?” he kept asking.
I felt too tired to make anything up, so I said, “Well, you see, I’m interested in sufism…”
“Sufism!? Do you know what is sufism?”
“I know enough to know that I want to know more. Some sufis I met in India told me to go to Iran. So…”
The Consul metamorphosed before my eyes into a different person: all at once he became a cultivated and poetic soul unfairly and inexplicably consigned to his empty concrete box in Baluchistan. He unbent. He beamed. “This is fantastic! You must let me give you the maximum possible visa.” He began fumbling for seals and stamps. “One year with extensions. Yes?”
“You must remain in my country until you have learned everything. Please, promise me!”
We spent the entire afternoon talking and drinking tea. No one bothered the Consul, and we enjoyed ourselves. After a while, however, I wondered why no one ever seemed to bother the Consul. I asked him. And discovered the reason.
The Consul himself only dealt with important travellers or suspicious-looking cases like me. His clerks took care of the “third-class passengers”, so to speak. But not many important travellers chose to travel overland from Quetta in East Baluchistan to Zahedan, West Baluchistan, across the border to Iran. Not if they could help it. Smugglers and refugees, yes. Wealthless hippies, yes. But no one else in their right mind would ever volunteer for a three-day train journey across the Great Desert of Baluchistan.
Flat, utterly flat and strewn with fist-size grey pebbles rather than the usual sand or salt, this desert stretches from horizon to horizon. The mountain directly north (where Osama bin Ladin was last reported to be hiding as I write) remain beyond the horizon, unseen. NASA photos of the surface of Mars look like this, only cooler.
This was February, so the temperature never rose much above 120′ F. but on the second say the drinking water ran out. The passengers would have rioted in disgust if not for the heat prostration. I remember arriving at the border and /customs in a state of baked catatonia, feeling I deserved some kind of medal, maybe the Sir Richard Burton Award for Pointless Suffering. The prize I received, however, was a meal — a breakfast I’ve never forgotten.
At a mud-brick, poor-looking truck stop outside Zahedan along the hot sandy/dusty highway into the city, I was served fresh flat bread baked in a wood-fired tanoor on a bed of pebbles, made from stone-ground wheat that tasted Neolithic (and why not, since wheat was first cultivated in Iran about 10,000 years ago) – utterly convincing Biblical bread. With it, a plate of sabzi, fresh-picked herbs, six or seven kinds, maybe tarragon, chives, dill, parsley, rosemary, spring onions, and a big piece of fresh, salty sheep-milk cheese (panir). Very strong tea in tiny glasses with lots of sugar lumps broken from an old-fashioned sugar loaf. Most memorable was a dented metal bowl of spring water with a huge shard of crystal clear ice, the first I’d seen since long before the Train Across Hell.
Ice was a rare substance in India and Pakistan, usually available only in chi-chi, Western-style hotels. In Afghanistan, ice fell out of the sky in winter, but never in summer when you needed it. I thought the ice with my breakfast was a special treat, a unique bit of hospitality – my reward for valorous travel. But eventually I came to realise that Iran has an ancient ice culture. In the old days (for all I know, even in the Neolithic), winter ice was stored in yakhchals, beehive-shaped ice houses of thick adobe. The Persians claim to have invented ice cream and frozen sharbat; ‘Marco Polo’ brought the secret back to Italy. Even the poorest eating-house in Iran serves ice, and every good-sized town boasts at least one parlour serving rose-flavoured ice creams and fresh iced fruit juices. But nothing sharpens the senses like deprivation, and I still retain vivid sense impressions of that bread, those herbs, and especially that ice, thirty-two years ago.
Although I never learned “everything” about the consul’s country or even about sufism, I did spend the next seven years there, more or less, so my problem now is one of choice: what to leave out of this little memoir and what to put in. I’ll follow a loose thread suggested by the theme of the Consul’s unbending, his strange transformation from bureaucrat to human being; and secondly the theme of food, hospitality, suggested by the Consul’s tea and conversation.
And my motive for this arises from the probability that over the next few years, no one in the US is going to be discussing these aspects of Persian culture. Iran will be consigned to the evil pseudo-discourse and vacant imaginaire of the “news”. Persian humanism (as Iqbal called it) will be forgotten, denied and even betrayed – precisely because it belongs not to the realm of ideology and the “clash of cultures” but to “everyday life” and the ordinary and even unrepresentable beauties of the soul.
In the Christian (and post-Christian) West, mysticism is more widely associated with anorexic ascesis than with hospitality and food. Fasting, self-denying sufis have certainly existed, but in Islam, the “bounty of God” is a sign of God, and those who refuse it may be guilty of cosmic ingratitude. Consequently, a kind of feasting saint appears in sufism, perhaps puzzling those occidental commentators who ignore the possibility of combining Friar Tuck and Francis of Assisi in one living package. In sufism, both fasting and feasting are considered spiritual disciplines. Charles Fourier, the Utopian Socialist and inventor of ‘Gastrosophy’, would have enjoyed meeting certain gourmet sufis such as the 15th century Persian poet Abu Ishaq Shirazi, known and loved even today as Bushaq At’imah, the “Gastronomer”.
Shiraz, of course. A city of eccentric saints, pleasure gardens, poets like Saadi and Hafez, and the most perfected cuisine in Iran – a city of roses, which appear obsessively in Shirazi art and architecture as well as Shirazi gardens (and even in Shirazi food) – a city where an ode, or a new pickle, could make its creator famous and wealthy. Shiraz in the 1970s still seemed rich in all these pleasures, though no longer grand: a city somewhat lost in time and therefore ‘magical’, to use a hackneyed term – one of those magical cities, like Herat or Benares, where a living fabric and not just a picturesque shroud of some romantic Past still survives. (Or so I hope – though I’m afraid this may no longer be true, especially of Herat.)
Bushaq’s poetry concerns itself entirely and obsessively with one subject: food. Originally a hallaj, or cotton carder, by trade, he wrote parodies of all the great poets, transforming their conceits and metaphors into culinary tropes, with a comic effect that Persians still enjoy, even though Bushaq’s kitchen vocabulary is now rare and obsolete. (My co-translator Nasrollah Pourjavady had the devil of a time finding the meaning of some of these terms, and a few are simply lost.)
Since a lot of great Persian poetry is sufi poetry, Bushaq did a lot of sufi parodies – but, in fact, Bushaq himself was a sufi. His master was the famous saint Shah Ni’matollah Wali (Ni’matollah = “Bounty of God”), who was also a fine (though not a great) poet, and Bushaq dared even to make fun of his own shaykh’s verse.
Here’s an example, first, one of Ni’matollah’s best known mystic ghazals, a spiritual “boast” in which he reveals his true identity as the Master of the Age:
Drowned in the shoreless ocean sometimes
we are waves, sometimes the sea itself.
We are the songbird of the Beloved’s rosebed
as her lover we sing the canticles of love.
We are the sun of the sky of heart and soul
and thus we move from horizon to horizon.
We are not fit for any job
except the work of making love.
Today we are drunk and in love
and know nothing of the headaches of tomorrow.
Our beloved has become the very light of our eyes
and thus and only thus do we have sight.
Careless drunk, staggering drunk
we come from the tavern of love.
Since we first saw her face, her tresses,
sometimes we are believers, sometimes Christians.
All creatures are blind and sightless
or they would see us manifest as the Sun itself.
We have come into this world
only to show God to His Creation.
If you are sick and seek physicians
we are the doctor for everything and all.
If anyone should ask for God’s Bounty
tell him to come to us, to Ni’matollah.
We are macaronis in the Casserole of Gnosis
sometimes lumps of dough and sometimes pie.
On the surface of the stew we are dollops of rich grease
and we befriend the yoghurt-meatball soup.
Now we are the Simurgh on the slopes of sheeptail fat
now the Phoenix on the Mount of Meat.
We have descended to this kitchen only so that we might
reveal the meat sauce to the spaghetti.
Like the dates within a bowl of rice-pudding
sometimes we are manifest and sometimes not.
This boiled sheepshead now becomes the light within our eyes
and thus through its eyes we have our sight.
We’re skewered up our egos like kebabs upon the spit,
disciplines of the haggis at this feast.
Clots of honeycomb are we afloat amidst the butter:
sometimes we are up and sometimes down.
Like Bushsaq the Masterchef are we
fit for nothing but such gluttony!
According to legend, Shah Ni’matollah once visited Shiraz and Bushaq, of course, came to meet him for the first time, since he’d been initiated and trained, in fact, not by the saint himself, but by the saint’s son, Shah Khalilollah. Bushaq was introduced to the master simply as a poet. “And what have you said in your poetry?” asked the Shaykh.
“New of the Peas at the table of Khalilollah
Ask from me, the panegyrist of Ni’matollah.”
“Aha!” Shah Ni’matollah exclaimed, “So you are the Macaroni of the Casserole of Gnosis!”
Apologetically, Bushaq replied, “Others talk of Allah, I talk of Allah’s Bounty.”
In a parody of the most famous “divine boast” or “utterance” in all sufism – a boast that brought its speaker to the gallows for heresy – Bushaq wrote:
Mansur al-Hallaj said, “I am the Truth” (al-Haqq, ie God)
Bushaq al-Hallaj says, “I am the Pudding.”
That was the Hallajian claim
And this is the essence of it.
This is very funny, but it’s not blasphemy. Even the most platonising Christian might have great difficulty with this notion; but for a true monotheist, even a pudding can be the presence of God; especially a delicious one; especially when you’re hungry.
Iranian food resembles North Indian food, though without the complex spices and peppers: rice, flatbreads, mutton, yoghurt and so on, the basic Neolithic Central Asian table. But Persian cuisine appears unique in its brilliant deployment of fruit in combination with meats, eg that king of dishes fesenjan, duck in a sauce of pomegranate and crushed walnuts, served on Caspian rice, better and longer-grained even than Indian basmati, and called “king” rice. (Extra nice things are often kingly: for example, mulberries, indigenous to Central Asia, are called toot; strawberries, which are not indigenous, are known as shah-toot.)
Most Persian master dishes combine fruit with meat and vegetables, for instance a stew of mutton and spinach with dried lemons; or saffron rice baked n layers with chicken and fresh sour cherries. Although this practice may be quite archaic, it’s popularly ideologised according to the mediaeval principles of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), familiar to the readers of Shakespeare or the alchemists as the Theory of Four Humours. The balance between Hot, Cold, Wet and Dry determines health. Most meat is Hot, most fruits are Cold, so in combination they balance.
After the main course, even the meanest host serves mounds of fresh fruit to cool down the effects of the meat, butter and spices. In my experience of world travel, Khorassan (the north-easternmost part of Iran with part of Afghanistan and former Soviet Central Asia) produces the tastiest of all fruit, especially melons and table grapes. The first Moghul emperor Babur, in his wonderful memoirs the Babur-Nameh, waxed so nostalgic over such fruit as to seem maudlin or far-fetched, but anyone who’s ever tasted a real kharbouzeh, or “Persian melon”, will consider Babur simply a realist.
In general, in Iran, flavours are very marked, and cookery is devoted to enhancing rather than masking them. Wheat, chicken, grapes remain untampered-with by Capital or Science, glorying in their god-given or original flavours. I knew many Americans in Tehran who hated this and even feared it. “There’s something wrong with this egg. The yolk is too orange and it smells like a barnyard,” I heard one of them say. “Do you think it could be – ugh – fertile?”
As with Persian cookery, all traditional art forms are based on principles considered “mystical” by modern science – but these principles have deep effects on the fabric and colour of everyday life. In domestic architecture, for example, the use of adobe, the interior garden-courtyard, or – in the really hot regions – the wind-tower with zero-power water/air conditioning; the narrow, shaded village-like streets, the simple domes of mudbrick that look from a distance like rows of dunes – all this humble architecture-without-architects results from millennia-long folk experiments in living, staying cool n the desert, keeping the community cohesive.
The Iranian Government hated these old neighbourhoods and often literally ploughed through them à la Haussmann (leaving surrealist sliced houses and half-rooms exposed to public view) to create geometric modernist lines of power and routes for automobiles. But the pseudo-Californian architecture of concrete boxes that always accompanied this kind of Iranian modernity was a ghastly failure as architecture: ovens that need constant oil-powered air-conditioning to remain habitable.
Why does Modernism always show its ugliest face in so-called Third World countries? The house as “machine for living” must be itself a living being, breathing, using water and nutrients, almost conscious in its role as shelter and expression of the social. But the machine-house as conceived by Capital, inorganic and mechanical as an automobile, offers only a simulacrum of shelter. Moreover, a machine designed for use in the climate (both natural and social) of Europe or America, produced to undersell and ruin traditional self-sufficiency, can only result in social disaster when forced into a different Clime, a different set and setting.
Traditional housing principles are always inarticulate, usually non-literate, and easily fall victim to the Modernist techno-ideology of “efficiency” and maximum profit. Vernacular building has always know how to live in and with its clime; but the architecture of Capital denies the very existence of such a principle as the Clime. As every reader of The 1001 Nights or Nezami’s Seven Palaces must know, there are Seven Climes, each with its appropriate forms, colours, foods, religions, beauties, etc – and, of course, weather.
Once in a Tehran hotel lobby I met a nice Swedish businessman who hoped to sell pre-fab housing for oil workers to the companies in Ahvaz, in the deep South.
“Scandinavian pre-fab houses?” I asked, “Designed for the frozen North?”
“But it will work equally well in the desert,” he assured me. “Each unit is sealed against the environment.”
If architecture is frozen music, then music must the melted architecture, an invisible way of organising consciousness of space/time, our being-in-the-world. Persian classical music may best be experienced in a garden – a private rose garden in Shiraz, by preference, but if necessary a public rose garden in Shiraz. During the Shiraz Festival of the arts, where I worked every year as Resident Critic, the beautiful tomb-garden of Hafez was used for lamp-lit concerts of the purest Persian and Indian classical music. (The Indians included the great Dagar Brothers, who perform Hindu temple music but are, in fact, Shiite Muslims; and Pandit Pran Nath, who sang Hafez ghazals in Hindustani style.)
By a strange coincidence possible only in a “developing nation”, the strongest force for tradition and creative preservation of classical music was then the Iranian National Television. Radio Tehran, by contrast, represented a lovely but impure neo-traditionalism, which even ran to experiments with violin and piano. I love Persian piano music, which always reminds me of the mirror-mosaic architecture of Shiite tomb-shrines and other late-19th century public buildings. Like pianos (mostly uprights), European mirrors were shipped to Iran by caravan, and naturally many of them broke en route. Tile-mosaic craftsmen bought up shards by the camel-load and created a vulgar but scintillating hybrid form in which whole domes and iwans are transformed into glittering ice-diamond bursts of illumination. Purists hate this stuff. The pianos were re-tuned to Persian modes and played like dulcimers, using only four fingers.
Another comparison: all over Asia, the traditional embroidery techniques were given a creative burst by the introduction of foot-pedalled Singer sewing machines. Sooner or later, modern technology (inextricably linked with Capital) will suffocate and destroy traditional crafts, but the initial contact is often a stimulus and gives birth to vigorous hybrids.
Be that as it may, the TV musicians were all rigorous but creative purists, and the 1970s witnessed a mini-Renaissance of excellent Persian music – played by very young enthusiasts and very old virtuosi who’d been rescued from oblivion by the new wave and the TV budget. The Shiraz Festival was one of its epicentres. I spent a lot of time talking with Dr Dariush Safvat, director of The Centre for the Preservation and Propagation of Traditional Iranian Music.
One night in Shiraz, Dr Safvat told me an interesting story. I already knew most of it, because Nasrollah and I had written about it in Kings of Love, our study of the history and poetry of the Ni’matollahi Sufi order, the spiritual progeny of Shah Ni’matollah Wali. In 1792, one of these dervishes was martyred in Kerman; his sufi name was Mushtaq Ali Shah and he was a madzub, a sufi “madman”, totally absorbed in divine ecstasy. He was also a legendary musician and played the sehtar, the little three-stringed lute of Central Asia (ancestor of the Indian sitar). One day, in his craziness, Mushtaq played an accompaniment to the Call to Prayer (azan) from a nearby mosque, and this blasphemy aroused the wrath of a bigoted mullah. The mullah called on a mosque-full of people to stone Mushtaq Ali Shah, and he was crushed to death along with one of his disciples.
Dr Safvat told me the story over again, but he hadn’t read it in a book. He’s heard it as a youth from an old musician friend who heard it from his grandfather – who had actually been present in Kerman on May 18, 1792, and witnessed the death of Mushtaq.
The Ni’matollahi Order in the 1970s was still very pro-music (although they never used musical instruments in their actual sufi praxis). Several times a year on happy holidays such as the Birthday of the Prophet or Ali, the Ni’matollahi khaniqah in downtown Tehran would organise a jashn or musical fest. Dr Javad Nurbakhsh, the Qutb or Shaykh of the Order, counted many musicians among his disciples and friends, all glad to perform at his parties. Several thousand people from all classes and every part of Tehran (including women and kids) would attend, and each and every one received a free hot meal of rice and meat, and all the tea and sweets they could stomach, along with several hours of excellent traditional music.
The grand finale was always a provided by a troupe of wild-looking Qadiri dervishes from Kurdistan, who roused the crowd to delirium with dramatic chants and pounding drums. Dr Nurbakhsh told us that at home in Kurdistan, they’d follow the music with feats of power such as sticking knives through their cheeks or eating lightbulbs. “But I don’t allow any of that in my khaniqah,” he said with a twinkle in is eye. “You’ll have to go to Sanandaj if you want to see that sort of thaumaturgy.”
So – of course – we did.
The Kurds are a sight for sore eyes after the Iranians, who have all (except the mullahs) adopted Western-style clothes with generally counter-aesthetic results. The Kurds dress Kurdish: big fringed turbans, tight soldierly jackets, baggy trousers, riding boots – and guns, if they can get away with it. The women dress in dozens or scores of layered flower-patterned petticoats of dark, rich, saturated, velvety colours, and look like black tulips. Some tattoo their face with blue marks and go unveiled.
In Sanandaj, my friends and I, all of us American journalists working or the rackety Tehran English daily Journal and all fascinated by sufism, met Dr Murbakhsh’s contact, a small, 80-year-old gentleman who lived in a small house near the Qadiri khaniqah. He invited us in for tea and showed us an old photo of himself in military uniform with a really huge live snake draped over his shoulders. “You came to see us eat glass, my young friends? Ah, that’s nothing. One need not even enter the trance state for such tricks. I’ll show you.”
He snapped his fingers and his young grandson brought in a silver tray upon which sat a single light-bulb. The old soldier broke it up with his fingers are he uttered an invocation, then began scooping up shards and popping them in his mouth, crunch, crunch, crunch. Swallow. As we gaped, he winked his eye and offered us the tray. “Like to try it yourself?”
That night in the khaniqah (after a big dervish meal of mutton and tea on the floor around a sofreh, or dining cloth), we indeed witnessed feats of power, including cheek skewering, electricity eating, scorpion handling and light-bulb chomping – all performed (after a really rousing zikr) without any trace of damage or visible scars. I later visited Sanandaj several times, and I have to admit these tricks soon came to seem rather ordinary, though never tried any myself. But I never again saw the feat our tiny old soldier friend performed.
After achieving hal, or trance, by dancing wildly and whirling to the zikr, he suddenly ran at tremendous speed across the whole length of the room (say, the length of a tennis court at least), launched himself headfirst like a rocket in the air and crashed his skull into the far wall, bounced off, onto his feet, and went round whirling, dancing and singing ecstatically for the next hour. I believe it was this chap who told us that the Grand Shaykh of the Qadiri Sufi Order in Baghdad was able to cut off the heads of his disciples as part of the initiation ceremony and then replace them, no harm done. After seeing the old man perform, I was inclined to believe this, though I admit that later I became sceptical again. But it’s a nice story.
In the old days (say, up to mid-19th century), Iranian dervishes adhered to an ancient way of life very similar to that of Hindu saddhus in India – long hair (or shaved bald), patched cloak, begging bowl (made from coco de mer shells) and ritual axes (also very useful for chopping vegetables), distinctive cap or taj (“crown”); endless aimless wandering, music and dance, sometimes wine and hashish, an attitude of insouciance via à vis the claims of orthodoxy; yogic asceticism and libertine excesses – and a theology of ecstatic love.
The Ni’matollahi Order once occupied the vanguard of this sort of dervishism, but severe repression and even execution for heresy (such as that of Mushtaq Ali Shah), carried out by powerful mullahs (one of them known as Sufi-kush, or “sufi killer”), gradually drove the radical dervishes underground. Inwardly they retained their anti-puritanical conviction but outwardly they conformed to orthodox Shiism. Some of the shaykhs even dressed as mullahs in dark sombre robes and snow-white turbans.
Sufism of the wild qalandari variety may well be older than Islam, harking back to an Indo-Iranian antiquity or even a common shamanistic culture traceable in the earliest Indian and Iranian scriptures (the Vedas and the Yashts). Hallucinogenic plants (called Soma or Haoma) must have played a central role in this ur-cult. First orthodox Brahminism and Zoroastrianism, and later Islam, pushed these power-plants into the outer darkness of “heresy”, or “forgot” them, or turned them into metaphors like the flavourless “wine” of so many mediocre sufi poets.
But dervishism resists change. In the hierarchic world of Asia, with its rigid sets of inherited identities, the dervish life always offers a way out, a kind of traditional bohemianism, not exactly approved by authority, but at least recognised as a viable identity. It’s no wonder the hippies immediately gravitated towards the company of these “1,000-year-old beatniks”, sharing the same zero-work ethic and predilection for intoxicants and phantastica.
In India I found saddhus and dervishes aplenty, but in Iran they had mostly vanished, at least outwardly. The only patched cloaks belonged to an Order called the Khaksariyya, or “Dust Heads” (as in the image of prostrating in the dust of the Beloved’s doorway, or throwing dust on the head in mourning). In Shiraz, I attended zikr in one of their khaniqahs in a beautiful garden called “Seven Bodies”, where they recited Hafez and then turned out the lights and wept in darkness.
Patch-cloaked Khaksari dervishes still occasionally wandered around begging or selling incense against the Evil Eye (esfand, aka Syrian rue, a potent hallucinogen if ingested, also used to make a red dye for fezzes). I knew a teahouse in Isfahan staffed by Khaksari dervishes, where the head waiter, their shaykh, recited from the epic Shahnameh, acting out all the parts, a one-man theatre.
The Khaksari Order has initiatic links with a strange Kurdish sect called the Ahl-i Haqq, or “People of the Truth”, the same Divine Name claimed by Hallaj the sufi martyr. This is not a sufi order but a folk religion, a synecresis of pre-Zoroastrian paganism, extreme Shiism, dervish-sufism and perhaps Manichaeism. One branch of Ahl-i Haqq actually worship Satan, eat pork and drink wine; several friends of mine travelled to their remote valleys and found them quite warm and hospitable.
The “orthodox” Ahl-i Haqq has established a jam-khaneh, or meeting house, in Tehran under a charismatic shaykh, Ustad Elahi, a famous musician and master of the sehtar. Many Tehran musicians were drawn to him as disciples; some Westerners also (including my friend, the French ethnomusicologist Jean During); and Ustad Elahi’s son has written books in French and English.
Dervishism and the strange sects (too many to list in this essay) seem to me to provide something quite vital to Persian culture and even “politics” in a broad sense of that term – something that might be called “traditional anarchism”. Iran is generally depicted as “90%” orthodox Shiite, and this may be so, but the dervishes and heretics have played a larger role than such figures would suggest. Inside the “fat” Iranian, a “thin” dervish often struggles for self-expression and freedom.
Sufis are very pious, certainly, but dervishism (even without the outward signs and practices) also allows a way to cock a snook at all the dreary conformities, class suffocation, puritanism, overly formal manners and philistine consensus aesthetics. In modern Persian, the adjective darvishi implies a whole complex of such attitudes and tastes, not necessarily even connected with any sufi praxis. It means something like “laid back”, “cool”, informal and relaxed (“Don’t dress for dinner – we’ll be very darvishi“), “hip” and bohemian.
Some sufis are very darvishi, like the Safi Ali Shah branch of the Ni’matollahi Order, who owned a very nice khaniqah (with garden and tiled dome) in Tehran; many were professional musicians at Radio Tehran, and some of them – so people said – smoked opium. I attended a fashionable funeral in their garden once, since the dervishes rented it out for such occasions. Other sufis criticised them for this and looked on them as slackers. Not all sufis are darvishi by any means.
Sufism in the past has occasionally taken its “traditional anarchism” as far as armed uprising against injustice; but in recent times, it has transferred its energies to theological and intellectual liberation, and applied its wildness to more inward dimensions. Given a political reading, sufism provides plenty of inspiration for resistance: think of Hafez’s line, “Stain your prayer-carpet with wine!” Given a cultural reading, sufism has sparked off countless revivals of traditional culture precisely by resisting tradition’s “dead weight”. The tremendous changes in Persian classical music in the late 19th century, for example – larger ensembles, new melodic material, experiments with European influences etc – were all carried out by sufis or artists steeped in cultural sufism.
“Radical tolerance” may prove impossible as a political program at a given time and place – but it can always be internalised by the artist and externalised as art. Since “the Orient” never really experienced the enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (except as imposed by cultural imperialism), it retained many traditional forms of Romantic resistance within the “permitted dissidence” of sufism and the arts.
Under conditions of overwhelming oppression the dervish becomes rendi, that is to say, clever. A rend can drink wine under the very nose of the Law and get away with it. The rend is a secret agent of self-illumination, a strange combination of mystic monk and prankish surrealist. Perhaps this is where Gurdjieff found his notion of the “clever one” who avoids onerous paths of religion and yoga, and slips into heaven like a burglar, so to speak. In folklore, the rend becomes a comic figure like the famous Mulla Nasroddin, outwardly a fool but in truth a sage.
Now that I’ve set up a dichotomy between “orthodox” Twelve-Imams Shiism on the one hand and “heterodox” sufism and radical cults on the other hand, I have to ruin the neatness of contrast by admitting that orthodox Shiism has a mystical, ecstatic and even radical aspect of its own. The late French Islamicist and philosopher Henry Corbin went so far as to say that sufism and Shiism are “one”, or rather aspects of the same thing, Persian esotericism. In practice, however, the opposition is real enough – and even fatal on occasion, as we have seen.
But to some extent it’s a matter of taste and style. Dr Nurbakhsh and most of the dervishes confess orthodox Shiism – but Nurbakhsh forbids all forms of ritual mourning and weeping, so typical of Shiism, saying that sufism is about life and love, not death. (Once a Western friend of mine took an intelligent young mullah to a Tehran church for Christmas. Afterwards he said he found it interesting except for the sermon: “Why, no one shed a single tear! How can that be called preaching?”)
The ulema, even the most mystically inclined, would criticise Dr Nurbakhsh for usurping the role of the spiritual master, which for them can only belong to the Twelfth, or Hidden, Imam. As Corbin realised, the existence of spiritual authority solely in the realm of imaginal vision implies the existence of a kind of radical liberty – a dissemination of potential gnosis (erfan) amongst all believer. The paradoxical advantage of a Hidden Imam lies precisely in his absence, which creates a conceptual space of spiritual freedom.
Of course, for Shiites (and for Corbin), the Mundus Imaginalis is real, not mere make-believe or reverie. The goal of spiritual praxis in this case must consist of a constant renewal of visionary energy and imaginal presence. Small, informal groups of ulema teach and practise such practical erfan, which in some ways resembles sufism without a sufi master. Outside orthodox Shiism in the extremist sects (Ghulat), this spiritual anarchism can indeed be taken to extremes. Within orthodoxy, the “golden chain” of erfan may lie buried under the robes of the pious, but the glint of a different metal sometimes shows through.
I once met an outstanding Shiite gnostic who wore turban and robes but lived as a recluse scholar: the late Allamah Assar, then very aged, father of the Persian folk singer Shusha Guppy, a friend of mine. Mr Assar was known for his sense of humour and his deep mysticism, but also for his clairvoyance; and in none of these respects did he prove a disappointment. Over the teacups he suddenly beamed at me intently and said, “You remind me of someone. Who can it be? Ah, I have it: you look just like Shah Ni’matollah Wali!”
No explanation was forthcoming. Shah Ni’matollah died in 1431 and there exists no authentic portrait. (Imaginary portraits depict a stereotyped “bearded master”). Afterwards Shusha swore she had not told her father that I was working on a book about Shah Ni’matollah; in fact, she’s forgotten it till I reminded her. Shusha wasn’t surprised: O, father’s always like that, she said. But it was a strange moment for me, and led to the theory that good translations and biographies may sometimes be written by authors who are somehow possessed by their subjects.
As for the Twelfth Imam, it seems he is not quite so hidden as might be inferred from that title; in fact, according to popular belief, he makes frequent authentic appearances in dreams and visions and even in the flesh, or a form indistinguishable from flesh. A friend of mine, the scholar William C Chittick, once met a man who’d actually met the Hidden Imam several times and spoke so brilliantly on the subject that Chittick felt almost convinced that the Mahdi would soon return.
Later, both Chittick and I met an amazing alchemist in Isfahan who served us tea with drops of Oil of Gold in it, very stimulating. In fact, a Jungian psychologist who accompanied us on this visit went into almost terminal ecstasies of archetypal bliss. The alchemist showed us a closet-full of lead ingots that appeared to be halfway transformed into gold. Oil of Gold was easy, he said; transmutation of metals was more difficult. No living master had instructed him in this mystery. Instead, at each stage of the process he would fast for 40 days while invoking Ya Kabir, Ya Latif (“O, Generous and Subtle”, the alchemic names of God), and then retire to sleep. He would, without fail, experience a dream in which the Twelfth Imam, assisted by angels, demonstrated the correct alchemical procedures; upon waking, he knew exactly what to do. Eventually, he hoped to donate the bars to charity. But he had no disciples or helpers, and as far as I knew, he died before achieving the Philosopher’s Stone.
Sunni Islam is “built” upon Five Pillars: confession of unity; belief in prophets and angels; prayer; pilgrimage; and the poor-tax. To these, Shiism adds a Sixth Pillar: social justice. Shiism has usually existed as a religion without state power, and traditionally as a source of potential revolt against Sunnism. But in the course of time, the Pillar of Justice has been given an even wider interpretation.
The late Ali Shariati, a radical mullah assassinated by the Shah’s secret police, converted many Iranians to the concept of Shiite socialism. Shariati’s tracts reveal a fascinating blend of Marxist humanism and reverence for Ali and Husayn as rebels against state oppression. Official revolutionary state Shiism in Iran today has taken another direction, not socialist and not particularly radical. But curiously, Ayatollah Khomeini was involved in erfani circles as a young man and wrote several decent articles on sufism and even a few sufi poems. His mystical leanings made the really orthodox ayatollahs distrust him, and this is why they never proclaimed him their chief (Marja al taqlid, Ayatollah of Ayatollah, even now a vacant position). The link between erfan and revolution is quite solidly historic and real, and always capable of regeneration.
The dervish life and attitudes I’ve been discussing can best be appreciated by travelling to Iran and India, where, despite everything, despite both persecution by orthodoxy and attrition by modernism and “West-intoxication”, dervishes are still roaming – or at least I hope so. Short of a trip into these zones of potential war and confusion, however, the second-best method for getting a taste of dervishism would be to read some sufi poetry. I’ve made the following tiny selection of poems to illustrate some of the points emphasised in this essay, which doesn’t pretend to offer any explanations of sufism or dervishism, but only a nostalgic trace of something in my memory.
Hakim Sana’i, early 12th century, one of the first great sufi poets of the Persian language, already presented most of the great sufi themes in his work. Read literally, his poems suggest a revolt against orthodoxy, a form of spiritual extremism bordering on apostasy and mystical existentialism. Of course, it remains possible to read him (or any sufi poem) metaphorically, so that “wine” becomes divine inspiration, “beloved” the sufi master and so on. A lot of sufi poetry was undoubtedly written in this figurative vein, but when it comes to the work of real poets like Sana’i, one is forced to admit the likelihood of a complex over-writing of different but mutually resonating interpretations.
Saki, bring wine
and do not cease to bring it
for our dear friend here has broken
his vows of repentance,
has stood up from the siege
of self-denial and obligation
and sat down in the tavern
with that “Portrait.”
Let’s rid his head of hypocrisy
and vain boasting
and all at once spring himself
from his monastery;
he’s freed his ankle
from the chains of religion
and bound his waist with
a fire-worshipper’s sash.
He drinks and urges me
“Have one yourself:
for as long as you can;
keep following this path
and strike a fire beneath
all that survives.
It’s difficult not to read this in the light of Baudelaire as well as the light of Islamic mysticism. Pious sufis can always read such poems piously, but it would be wrong to claim that all readers do so. I’ve heard violent arguments in Iran about whether Hafez drank real wine or metaphorical wine. The Khaksari dervishes of Shiraz chanted Hafez and wept, but once I also witnessed a Communist professor of literature from Tehran university reciting Hafez with tears streaming down his cheeks. Ordinary folks still visit Hafez’s tomb to tell their fortunes by opening his poetic Divan at random, as if he were a sort of Nostradamus, a quasi-prophet. And yet from the Christian (or post-Christian) point of view, it would seem difficult to venerate a person who writes like Hafez in this imaginal letter to a long-dead sufi, Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam:
Sufi, approach and see the clarity of this jewelled vintage
in the burnished looking-glass of the cup.
Beg the secret from those profligates behind the curtain:
not the puritan, but only he of high Station attains this state.
Fold up your nets and go – no one hunts the phoenix –
the trap’s hand holds nothing but empty mind.
At the banquet of the Age take one cup, two cups
and go. No more than this. No perpetual Union.
My heart, youth drains away and you’ve not plucked one rose:
Don’t be an old laughing-stock! It’s not too late to start now!
Carpe diem, for when the fountainhead dried up
even Adam fled the garden of the Abode of Peace.
As for us at your threshold, at your command
my master, look with pity on your servants;
(signed) Hafez, disciple of Jamshid’s Cup
Now vagrant breeze, go and take
these signs of servitude to the Shaykh of Jam.
Finally, a quick brush with the poetry of those late 18th century and early 19th century Ni’matollahi dervishes who suffered persecution at the hands of the mullahs for their cavalier attitudes towards outward form.
Nur Ali Shah was their leader. He is still depicted in popular art as a beautiful youth of about 16 in dervish dress, archetype of the wild qalander boy. He was the companion of Mushtaq the martyred musician, and was himself poisoned in 1796. He married one of the very few women who ever adopted the wandering-dervish way of life, Bibi Hayati (her very existence scandalised the bigots). In their poetry, they appear as a triad: Nur Ali Shah as the saki, the cup-bearer; Hayati as the beloved; and Mushtaq as the minstrel – stock figures in Persian literature, interiorised and expressed in poetry, in life, and in death. Nur Ali and Hayati had a daughter, Tuti (“Parrot”); she survived the years of persecution and grandmothered a clan of dervishes who still adhere to the Order.
I am the wave, the ocean, the ship, the storm
In the depths of the bottomless sea I am the pearl.
I open my eyes to the Light of Revelation and become
The Light itself in the beholder’s eye.
My darling, I am the very soul of the Beloved’s body –
What body? What soul? No, I am the Soul of Soul.
For lovers by day, lovers by night, in union and separation
I am the Light and the fire, Paradise and the pits of Hell.
The Overlord of this entire Domain of Spirit and Soul
in this Age – I say it openly – is I.
By losing my head and the very structure of my being in His Love
I have become the very order of existence for His lovers.
As the reveller breathes wine, I, like the Light of ‘Ali,
Am he who overflows and breathes forth the very revellers themselves.
In this well-known ghazal, Nur Ali is boasting of his spiritual attainments, like Shah Ni’matollah in the poem quoted earlier; Nur Ali’s poem was often cited as evidence of his heretical beliefs. Hayati’s poems are more intimate, more subjective, but no less “shocking”, especially given that they were written by a woman.
Now is the assembly of delight, feast day, jubilee, song of the rebab
And the rays from this clear wineglass shame the sun and the moon.
There are no strangers in the house, musicians play, the Saki befriends us
The touch of those sweet lips fills drunkards’ mouths with pure honey.
Inlaid cups wait, filled with melted rubies.
The king s with us, the moon captures hearts, wine erases sorrow
The flesh is strong, the heart serene, the soul satisfied with intimacy.
How, in the world of wakefulness, can such celebrations be?
Is it a daydream? Do I sleep?
My Lord, in your benificence, cut not the way
For my soul’s fingers to grasp the sleeve of pleasure, till judgement Day.
If, for Hayati, in the heart of night the sun should shine
Tell her to unveil the face of the Daughter of the Vine.
In this ruba’i (quatrain), Hayati sums up the unique three-way love affair:
The Saki has unmasked the rose of his face
The sweetvoiced minstrel touched the strings of his rebab:
One ravished my heart with his wordless song
I have taken liquid rubies from the other’s hyacinthine lips.
Reza Ali Shah Herati was only a minor poet and a minor disciple of Nur Ali Shah, but still a very agreeable poet; this is one of the nicest descriptions of the wandering dervish life I’ve ever come across in all Persian sufi poetry:
In the absolute madness of love I am sane – and I dance
In His dreams and fantasies I am awake – and I dance
Out of ocean depths of desiring Him I overflow – and I laugh
I am filled with His bountiful drunkenness – and I dance
My idleness is busyness and all my business is idle
I have no work – I am unemployed – and I dance.
From the land of loneliness I have reached the Station of King Jamshid
And now I am the Chief in the country of all souls – and I dance.
Eager for the encounter I escaped myself
Like Mansur I am strung upon the gallows – and I dance.
A vagabond lover wandering through alleyways and bazaars
The Beloved has dropped His mask -I’m helpless – and I dance.
No thought of infamy passes through the lover’s mind
In the realm of fame and reputation I am first – and I dance.
My unconsciousness is awareness – my sobriety is drunkenness
In drunkenness and sobriety I am with the Friend – and I dance.
I am content, within and without, I have surrendered myself
Brought myself back from Other-than-He – and I dance.
Happy to know that Reza Ali, although he was forced to flee persecution after the deaths of Mushtaq and Nur Ali, died with his boots on in the Shiite pilgrimage town of Kazimayn in 1996.
By travelling in India and Iran rather than only reading about them I came to appreciate and actually love certain “late decadent periods” of he sort that are universally despised by the Orientalists for their aesthetic impurity, despised by the new breed of Islamist bigots for their religions impurity, and despised by modernist pro-Western orientals for their medieval impurity. Pretty much the only people who don’t despise these late decadent periods are the people who are actually still living in them and are too ignorant and backward to realise their own irrelevance, outdatedness, political incorrectness – and impurity.
In India, the remnants of the late Mughal era still provide a ghostly and melancholic but exquisitely refined matrix for the lives of many. In Iran, it’s the Qajar period (the dynasty before the Pahlevis); a past recent enough that in the 1970s one could still touch it through stories (like Dr Safvat’s story about Mushtaq), through buildings, paintings, music, crafts, poetry and even food. The past lingered in a way inconceivable to Americans or even Europeans; enough of it lingered that one could almost live in it.
Late decadent periods attract me for many reasons; eg, they’re usually rather peaceful (because too tired and blasé for war); often they’re devoted to “small happinesses” – which as Nietsche says may be more important than the big ones, the ones that always betray us. Maybe great original art fails to thrive in such periods – since kings and lords can no longer afford it – but the “minor arts” often experience a kind of perfection; aristocratic tastes (in cheap folkish forms) filter down even to the lowest levels. I remember one late winter night in Tehran, as I passed the skeleton of a half-built, jerry-built pseudo-California office block, I saw a lone night watchman warming himself by a barrel of burning trash; he wore a sheepskin coat and was entertaining himself by reciting Hafez viva voce to the snowflakes.
“Iran” is the proper ancient name for Persia, but it wasn’t the official name till the mid-20th century, changed by decree of Reza Shah (the last late Shah’s father) from “Persia” to “Iran”. His motive for this was suspect, because he was a Nazi sympathiser and because “Iran” means “land of the Aryans” – and the name change left a bad taste in the mouth of many Iranians. The name “Persia” was supposed to represent all that was backward, medieval, superstitious, anti-progress, late and decadent – everything “Oriental” in the land and people. But the land and its people (or some of them) still lived in that world and loved it.
I know it’s perfectly illegitimate and indefensible for me to say that I also loved it. I know I was an outsider (although at times I convinced myself otherwise!); I know that I cannot “represent the Other” and even that the whole project of representation has become suspect amidst the “ruins” of post-modernity. I even know that the entire hippie project of Romantic travel was largely illusory and certainly doomed to failure. The “post-colonial” discourse” has made all this perfectly and painfully clear. Sadly, however, I’m unable to repent or to write off my experiences as irrelevant crypto-reactionary delusions.
“Iran” as represented in the “news”, a two-dimensional imago of oil wells and atomic reactors under the control of evil fanatics in black robes… Is this “Iran” any more real than the “Persia” in which I tried to travel and even to lose myself, the Persia of roses and nightingales that impinges so sensibly on my memory? Or are both equally real and unreal? The truth must certainly be more complex even than such paradox could suggest. But since “Iran” is now (as I write in the summer of 2003) being pumped up in the media as the next spoke of the Axis of Evil, I doubt that “Persia will get much airplay over the next few years. Hence this essay. “Persia” has become part of The World We Lost. Its perfume lingers even as it recedes into a past that’s half imaginal. It leaves behind it only something that might be called difference. How else to define that which we feel is leaving us?
Peter Lamborn Wilson spent seven years in Iran, where he edited the journal of the Iranian Royal Academy of Philosophy. He has studied sufism and Ismailism, and translated Persian poetry. His books include Scandal (Semiotext(e) 1998), a study of Islamic heresy. This piece was published in on in August 2004, entitled “Iran… or Persia?”.