I was reciting Rumi’s poetry even before I could read or write. But when did my relationship with Rumi begin? To answer this, I first have to delve into the relationship Persians have with poetry. You see, I come from a culture in which poetry is as much a part of a person as her very heartbeat. Poems are used in celebration, in welcoming sorrow and despair and even in resolving conflicts.
For Persians, poetry points to much more than a moment eloquently defined. It is one of the most powerful forms of communication and storytelling. It tells our common story weaved through the resilient and encrypted thread of verse. It has kept our spirit alive despite numerous invasions, wars, despotic governments and sanctions.
For Persians, poetry points to much more than a moment eloquently defined. It is one of the most powerful forms of communication and storytelling. It tells our common story weaved through the resilient and encrypted thread of verse. It has kept our spirit alive despite numerous invasions, wars, despotic governments and sanctions.The words of poets like Hafez, Saadi, Ferdowsi and Rumi have been passed on from generation to generation and I cannot recall a time when they were not part of me. So in all honesty, I would have to say my relationship with Rumi began long before I was born. And in that I am not alone.
During the eight year war between Iran and Iraq, which took a million lives and destroyed many more, we Persians took refuge in the power of poetry. On the nights when we were especially brave, we would sneak to our rooftop to watch the anti-aircraft missiles shoot up into the air. The brilliant red patterns painting patterns in the pitch black sky rivaled the most magnificent Fourth of July fireworks. But, underneath the awe there was a simmering terror brewing in my belly. The terror of not knowing who or what was going to be destroyed next. And then would come a mad proclamation from another rooftop: “While others sing about love… I am the Sultan of love.” This soon would be rejoined by “Even if from the sky, poison befalls all, I’m still sweetness wrapped in sweetness wrapped in sweetness…” from a passerby below. And in an instance, my world would not only become sane, but glorious. It was as if no bomb could ever silence the poetry that flows in our blood.
Rumi not only understood the power of poetry, but also found the sweet spot of language somewhere between the clinical sterility of political correctness and the vulgarity of fanaticism. He brought the traditional masculine God from the sky and passionately embraced it as his genderless Beloved. He and others like him closed the gap between us and the divine until the Beloved was inside our beating heart. With that, they forever changed the language, making it sensual and transforming the image of a rigid God of fire and brimstone into the story of bittersweet longing and union.
This story, like the fragrant wine of the Beloved, fills our senses and we become drunk with love — a love so brimming that must be shared. We partake together and the flow of emotion and creativity merges, making it possible for us to participate in what we long for: A deep connection with others and the divine. Together, as Rumi puts it, “We say something new, and the world is renewed.” So, with the thrill of discovery, we learn to look with new eyes and bring our story of passion into the world.
As eager as I was to share Rumi’s words, I soon realized translating his poems is fraught with challenges. Persian poetry is rich with cultural references and packed with historical and mythical imagery. If the translation is too scholarly, it will lose its vitality and playfulness and if it is divorced from its historical and cultural context, its essence becomes diluted or even lost.
As I was reflecting on difficulties of translation, a number of people asked what I thought of popular translations of Rumi’s poems published by white men who don’t speak Persian. I offered this metaphor as a response: Imagine a group of artists depicting a spectacular sunset on the beach. Each resulting painting is a reflection of the artist’s style and skills. Afterwards, someone who was on the beach that day describes the sunset to an artist who has never been to the beach and has never seen a beach sunset. The first group of artists are translators, fluent in both Persian (Farsi) and English. The non-native translator is the artist who has never been to the beach.
Just as it is challenging to paint a sunset based on someone else’s description, it is difficult to depict layers of meaning in Rumi’s work.
Just as it is challenging to paint a sunset based on someone else’s description, it is difficult to depict layers of meaning in Rumi’s work.The flavor of mysticism in Rumi’s poetry comes through in the simmering stew of his Islamic roots, his experience as a refugee, his command of Arabic and Turkish, his love of playing chess and his reverence for the Old and the New Testament. Fortunately, my mother, a poet and a Persian Literature scholar, has helped me unpack the hidden meanings in Rumi’s poems. Even so, I must be honest that it is difficult to catch the magic of the original poems. For us Persians, no translation can come close to the majesty of Rumi’s words.
This became the inspiration for the Rumi’s Gift Oracle Deck. Instead of just translations, we created multiple pathways for non-Farsi speakers to connect with Rumi’s message. Like a traditional Oracle Deck, image cards present the visual gestalt, a pictorial manifestation of the message.
The poem cards contain some of the most poignant verses in English and Farsi, adding another means of venturing into the enchanting forest of the psyche. The commentary booklet features more verses, historical and cultural context, as well as stories and insights that help go deeper into the meaning of each poem. Some stories are from Masnavi, Rumi’s six-volume book of poetry, and others come from centuries-old Persian fables. The book also includes the section Poem In Action allowing further reflection, contemplation and action.
Rumi’s Gift Oracle Cards invite us to tell a fresh story each time we dive into the ocean of mystery presented by Rumi’s poetry. The symbols, in both images and poems, are portals through which we can delve into the deep unknown crevasses of the psyche and bring back the pearls of wisdom that have been waiting there all along.