Recently, a book-buying trip was delayed because the city of Qom had gone on holiday. “It’s Muharram,” wrote the vendor, “nothing doing.” (I’m taking liberties with the translation). “Ah yes,” I nodded sagely, “Muharram. Good old Muharram.” Then the side of my brain that likes to burst the bubble of my self-delusion gave me a swift kick and said “Look it up!”. I knew it was a month and had special religious significance but off the top of my head…oh, right, Ashura! It’s the period of mourning to mark the slaying of Husayn ibn ‘Ali ibn Muhammad, which makes him the son of ‘Ali and Zahra, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. Shi’ites believe the Prophet’s family was unjustly denied governance of the Muslim community (Shi’a = “Party of ‘Ali”). The subject always brings to mind my second day as the new Persian cataloger when the phone rang and a man asked “What’s the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites?” I didn’t know enough at the time to give him the brush off and felt like it was something I should be able to answer easily, but apparently he already had an opinion and wasn’t satisfied with the facts. I recommended some books, which he said he owned but hadn’t read. I get fewer reference calls these days and I suspect it’s because people are relying on Wikipedia, which allows us to dispense with both books and facts.
Religious poetry is an often ignored facet of Persian literature. Even in discussions of mystical Sufi poetry, one encounters more emphasis on the literary, historical or even psychological aspects than the religious. In the more formal religious context, poems commemorating religious holidays were and are regularly composed and recited. Malek al-Sho’ara Bahar did just that as a functionary at the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad (the twelve Imams of Shi’ism (well, of Twelver Shi’ism, anyway) are the descendants of Muhammad) . These are counted among his early work and almost universally dismissed by scholars as uninteresting compared to his later political poems. This assessment may very well be accurate, but that sort of consensus always makes me want to go in the opposite direction, even if that way leads off a cliff.
So here is a portion of one of those poems. Even if it lacks literary merit, it still, like all annual holidays, marks the passing of another year in our inevitable march toward death. Merry Christmas!
NOTE: It took me a while to finish the translation and now Ashura has passed. It was unfortunately marked by a bombing at a mosque in Chabahar, Iran, a coastal city in south-eastern Iran, by a Sunni group called Jundullah which left a lot of innocent people, children among them, dead. Words fail me.
O Fate! You have driven the family of ‘Ali from their homeland
You left them broken and hopeless in Karbala
You drove the gazelles of the haram from the valley of safety
to be imprisoned by the claws of man-eating wolves
You tore the pure bodies of valiant men limb from limb
Grief broke the heart of the Lion of God
You beheaded the servant of God and so,
your vengeance left his daughters bereft of family and home.
You shattered the children of Zahra with the rock of spite.
Even you, o heavens? Your heart is made of stone.
You have filled the plains with the armies of religion’s foes
to obscure the sun of purity behind the clouds of rancour.
You have oppressed the pure of heart since time began
but you have crushed the hopes of the Prophet’s family in one blow.
You spied among those gathered a babe in a cradle
Had you no shame that you would harm such a child?
They sought to silence his crying
You soothed him in an instant with the tip of an arrow
You burned the house of ‘Ali with the fire of your bitter vengeance
Then you stood among the flames and looked on.
The women of the House of Zahra have been annihilated by your cruelty
Alas for injustice, a cry against oppression, and a plea for freedom from cruelty.