How classical Persian poetry can lift us through life's difficulties - yas rahemtulla

How Classical Persian Poetry Can Lift Us Through Life’s Difficulties

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Content Warning: Mention of Mental Illness

A friend’s grandfather passed away last month. When I told her I’d be writing this blog post, she mentioned that her grandmother found Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat on her Alexa, and how listening to it helped her to cope with her loss. Persis (the heart of the Persian empire) is modern-day Iran. This is the homeland of literature that grounded our understanding of philosophy, astrology, folklore, all bound up in poetic verse. I’m not sure what it was like in 400 BC, but taking a moment to pause and gather energy amongst our chaos feels like the hardest thing in the world sometimes.

 

Wilderness is Paradise now – Khayyam

 

The most famous Persian poets (Rumi, Hafiz, Ferdowsi) were writing just under a thousand years ago. Why are they needed more than ever? The age of these poems doesn’t make them irrelevant, but instead gives them a unique quality of timelessness. These ideas have aged as eternal truths from people who have suffered, believed, struggled. The content of these poems becomes a source of comfort. The beauty of their form offers escape. 

The lyricism captured in these works mirrors the art of physical Islamic sanctuaries. There is a clarity and precision similar to the geometric star tiles that line the ceilings of mosques: they create a space for reflection, so we can focus inwardly. These expertly crafted lines have become mantras of positivity and understanding, they become phrases we can repeat when we are overwhelmed.

Throughout my life, I’ve spent months locked indoors, feeling trapped in a body that’s filled up with fear, sadness and shame. I know I’m not alone in this, depression is the most treated illness by the NHS, but the feeling of being completely alone makes the people we love feel too far away to reach out to. When depressive thoughts weigh me down, I just can’t concentrate: the idea of reading a book feels impossible. But a few words, that’s manageable. A few words can help, they’re within reach of everyone.

Silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation – Rumi

Even though some may be wary of any connotations or mention of God, these poems reframe our relation to the concept of God. The presence of a God in Persian literature strengthens our personal experience of this poetry: the messages are guided by this presence. God is not there as an authority, instead a figure to support our learning, structuring a peace that is free from prejudice.

 

I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the Astonishing Light of your own Being! – Hafiz

Persian literature authentically explores the human condition. Reading Rumi feels like a conversation with a kind friend. He discusses real emotions; from ecstatic joy and love to grief and loss. While Hafiz will speak to you with tender honesty. Eastern philosophy honours emotional pain and recognises its purpose. Depression and sadness are trying to tell you something and they are a reality. Persian poetry offers a platform to give those feelings our attention. 

A lot of my work life and free time is spent striving towards social change, but when I wake up in the morning I feel increasingly weak as I scroll through the news: the Home Office continues its dehumanisation of refugees and asylum seekers. Charities in Glasgow have to provide for these communities, while the government continues to persecute migrants. It’s more than just ‘news’ to me, my dad moved here as a refugee when he was 16 and has saved countless lives through his work in the medical field. Forcibly displaced people are not statistics! I despair silently. Then I listen to Rumi’s words in my head. I regain my strength and keep going.

 

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself – Rumi

The philosophy of these poems becomes a guide to navigate us through life’s challenges. Even though I’ve lived in a state of solitude over the past year, I still have to make a conscious effort to reach a peaceful state. Silence and stillness are so rare that the act of taking a moment to rest is like giving capitalism a big kick. Persian literature contains pan-continental wisdom and the focus on the replenishing qualities of spending time alone, come from the Eastern side. Through meditation we can reflect and understand our own reality. These are principles that have been recognised by Buddhism and Hinduism since the BC days, but are only now starting to be taken seriously here.

It’s hard to go from the manic buzz of the digital world to being left with your own thoughts and staring into the black mirror. Persian poetry provides me with an easy step from compulsive distractions towards calmness and stillness. Familiar like a mantra, these words show me that I already have the solutions to my own problems. It is so tempting to look elsewhere for happiness – relationships, work, physical objects – but Persian poets remind us that those things will never give us what we imagine they will.

 

Radical Acceptance

The lack of judgement in Persian poetry is essential: once we can accept every emotion without judgement, our healing will begin. The psychologist Carl Rogers observed that “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”. Radical acceptance of our situation, however bad it may be, can be the answer to lifting ourselves out of our current mindset. This is how we regain our sense of agency.

The whole universe is contained within a single human being – you. Everything that you see around, including the things that you might not be fond of and even the people you despise or abhor, is present within you in varying degrees – Shams Tabrizi

The lack of judgement also extends compassion to the other people. Time spent alone can be healing, but human connection is essential to a happy life. I Know the Way You Can Get by Hafiz is one of my favourite poems because it explains how the lack of love can twist anyone’s behaviour into cruelty. Hafiz explains that you will act unrecognisably if you “have not had a drink of Love” for a long time. This poetry teaches a deep respect and compassion for the people around us.

One theme of Persian poetry that gives me hope in the face of increasing prejudice and intolerance is another poem by Hafiz. How Does it Feel to be a Heart is a popular choice for same-sex wedding ceremonies because it explains the unimportance of gender in a way that often feels lost in modern society.

 

For all I know is Love. I find my heart infinite, and everywhere  -Hafiz

The focus on the individual allows me to strengthen myself and facilitates inner, personal change. People who lose their sense of agency get trapped. I often get stressed about populism, I can see that it’s spreading and how well far-right ideals are spun. I spiral into fear about the way the world is. Anything I do is a tiny scratch against everything that’s wrong. But this poetry is powerful, and it contains a message of hope in the face of despair. Modern day Iran is collapsing and the country’s beloved literature is giving people the strength to continue living through oppressive conditions. The words of Rumi, Ferdowsi, Hafiz and Khayyam and others remind us that things have not always been this way.

 

Fret not where the road will take you. Instead concentrate on the first step. That is the hardest part and that is what you are responsible for. Once you take that step let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Don’t go with the flow. Be the flow. – Shams Tabrizi

Persian poetry can help lift us through the worst periods of our lives by celebrating the details of everyday existence. Finding joy in a smile or a small movement is everything. The poets point towards ways that we can enjoy our daily reality, while arming us with poignant philosophy that is wrapped in gentle verse.

It’s important to remember that the English interpretation of these poems will always be missing something. Unless you speak one of the region’s languages, you’ll most likely be reading a white, male translation of these poems. Fitzgerald’s Victorian translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat has been strongly criticised for its empirical approach to the poem. John Keats expressed in his poem, Lamia, “philosophy will clip an angel’s wings” – modern Western culture readily places science and logic above everything else with a rigidness that means we lose some of our humanity. 

I see the words of Persian poetry as a precious gift, from humans who lived long before us – their words will continue to lift future generations through life’s difficulties, too. It is their simplicity that breaks down barriers.

All a Sane man can ever care about Is giving Love! – Hafiz

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yas rahemtulla lives, writes and designs in Glasgow. She worked with forcibly displaced communities in Athens before moving to Scotland. yas has a degree in Digital Media and a holistic approach to creative work, focusing her energy on promoting community-led organisations and social enterprises. She works with Glasgow Social Enterprise Network, is a trustee of the Marie Collins Foundation and is an advocate for mutual aid. 

website: yasminerahemtulla.com 

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