SOMETHING ELSE: ‘After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems’ by Hasan Sijzi, trans. by Rebecca Gould

Hasan Sijzi, After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems. Translated by Rebecca Gould. (Northwestern University Press, 2016). 

By Kevin L. Schwartz

Others leave behind gold and silver reserves.
Hasan leaves behind descriptions of his lover.

(from ghazal 19)

The language of profane love and descriptions of the beloved – with ruby lips, arrow-like lashes, and winding tresses – are the stock and trade of the classical Persian ghazal (lyric), passionately infuriating and befuddling the poet-observer in paroxysms both despondent and ecstatic, from the Iranian plateau to the Turkish steppe, from the back-alleys of Konya to the bazaars of Delhi. The beloved’s indifferent glance pierces the heart. ‌A view of her watery lips sends one to the tavern. His delicate line of pre-pubescent peachfuzz, flowing from below the sideburn to swirl around the cheek, no less captivating than the paradisiacal river Kawthar itself, makes one forget their faith. So long as the beloved exists, the poet is left to question existence, in enduring pursuit to relate the many ways they have become frenzied, forlorn, and forgotten.

The combination of seemingly formulaic tropes, captured within a form no less formulaic (the ghazal is typically between five and fifteen lines and follows the mono-rhyme scheme AABA), may lead one to believe that the genre itself is incapable of but capitulating under its own redundancy, especially when one moves from medieval times to the modern period. In fact the opposite is true. The formal characteristics of the ghazal and attention to well-worn tropes allows for unending permutations, albeit within prescribed limits. The feat is to capture the ocean in a jar – to borrow a famous phrasing from Rumi – and demonstrate the ways one can make its current swirl: distinctive as one’s own, but turning and twisting with riffs of previous masters and the recognizable flotsam of figures, ideas, and events from pre-Islamic and Islamic history and experience. The great poets allow for droplets to escape the rim so its saltiness may be relished. The masters make one question whether what was tasted is one’s own perspiration curling from the lip. Across the ages, the ghazal has attracted throngs of practitioners on a global scale and, in this way, may more or less be comparable to the sonnet as it serves as the predominant lyric in multiple languages. It has captivated poets of the Islamic and Western world alike.

SizjiRebecca Gould’s translation of the poems of Amir Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (d. ca. 1330), one of the more lucid yet forgotten composers of the ghazal, captures the genre’s dexterity in displaying the range of emotions and implications an encounter with the beloved can elicit. Gould’s translation of Hasan Sijzi’s poetry – unknown compared to the frequently translated oeuvre of better known poets, notably Hafez of Shiraz, or even that of Hasan Sijzi’s friend and fellow countryman, Amir Khusraw – is indicative of the increased attention of new scholarship seeking to recover some of the lost voices of Persian literary history. They are the voices of poets that have until now remained overlooked and cast aside in accounts of a Persian literary history that has tended more toward privileging Iranian born poets and literary developments occurring within the geographic space of Iran itself. This is particularly true for non-Iranian lyricists active in South Asia prior to the rise of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858). (While Persian literary culture gained its initial foothold in South Asia at the turn of the first millennium, it was with the formation and policies of the Mughal Empire and the activity of poets, authors, Sufis, travelers, merchants, religious scholars, and others during that time that allowed the Persian ecumene, there and elsewhere, to reach its “peak.”)

The omission of a poet like Hasan Sijzi in particular is all the more curious considering that his biography and poetic output reflect the emergent literary and historical trends that helped shape the wide world of Persian literary culture then and for centuries to follow: he was descended from a family of immigrants who fled to South Asia from the Mongol invasions of the early 13th century, an event that not only recast the political, social, and literary landscape of the Middle East and its adjoining lands, but helped initiate a “mystical” turn in Persian poetry for poets seeking to explain the travails of a world gone mad; his career exists on the front-end of Persian’s own illustrious career as prominent administrative and literary language in South Asia, whose rise would continue until the mid-18th century, and leave discernible traces well into the colonial period and beyond; he was a follower of the great Chisti Sufi saint Nizam al-Din Awliya, regarded as one of the greatest of all mystical personalities in South Asia and whose resting place in Delhi continues to be a place of pilgrimage to this day, compiling the most famous work of the Shaykh’s discourses, Morals for the Heart[1]; and he helped solidify the use of the radif, a feature that would serve as a mainstay of the ghazal moving forward.

It is Hasan Sijzi’s use of the radif that Gould, a reader in Comparative Literature and Translations Studies at the University of Bristol, features prominently in situating the poet’s verse. Radif can be loosely translated as a “refrain” consisting of a word, syllable, or set of syllables that recurs at the end of each poetic line. As Gould more carefully puts in her introduction: “Although, like any rhyme, it intensifies the sonic resonance of a verse, the radif is often more complex, more systematically weighted, and more formally demanding than the rhymes that inform Anglophone poetics.” Writing in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Hasan Sijzi was at the forefront of perfecting its use:

Friends, today, in my head, desire is something else.
The flower of hope smells for me of another’s loyalty.
I have found another light in the morning breeze.
In the dawn of truthful appearances, the breeze is something else.
Oh, tender heart, terrified of surrendering life.
Dying in the presence of the beloved is survival of another kind.
We do not speak of those who know reality.
For the bird of that garden, even this flute is something else.
I am a fire temple burning in the light of this truth.
The view of the beloved is something else.
The locks of her musky hair have clasped my heart.
Her locked coils bring trouble of a different order.
Oh, Hasan, how often do you circle the beloved’s coils?
This movement toward the beloved is something else.

(ghazal 9)

radif: is something else (digarast)

The occurrence of the radif, which Gould notes at most poems’ conclusions and diligently relates in her translations, helps establish the conceptual frame of Hasan Sijzi’s verse and provides a key for the English reader to “access the driving force of the original”. While the individual couplets within a ghazal can be difficult to connect topically – oftentimes each line does not easily cohere with what precedes and follows it – the radif shows how form helps give a poem its thematic structure. The thematic focus of the above selection, with the help of the radif, should be quite obvious to any reader: the physical trappings of the beloved and this world are something other than what they seem. This movement toward the beloved is something else. The beloved is something else. The beloved is God.

The articulation of a ghazal’s main theme will not always be so clear. Most often the conceptual and linguistic interplay between the sacred and the profane is ambiguous and uncertain, a fact which Hasan Sijzi renders irrelevant by clearly noting that the profane indeed is something else. In most cases, however, Hasan Sijzi’s other poems included, the ambiguous nature of whether one desires this world or the next (and whether the beloved indeed “is something else”) remains unresolved. It is how one goes about interpreting such ambiguity and to what extent one wishes to make meaning from the repeated tension between the two that readers of the ghazal have debated for close to a millennium. Nowhere is this contestation over understanding the profane and its potential mystical undertones better seen than in interpretations of the most profane, alluring, and putatively un-Islamic object of all: wine. Ergo, Hasan:

Until I sip from your wine-colored lips,
my lust for worshipping wine can never pass.
You ask me, Hasan, why of drinking I don’t repent.
By Allah, were I to repent, my drunkenness would never pass.

(from ghazal 18)

Is Hasan’s wine the elixir of merry-making or union with God? Is its pursuit one for physical pleasure or spiritual enlightenment? Does his state of drunkenness refer to the loss of faculties and inability to function or the clear-sightedness of fana (annihilation of the ego), the pinnacle of achievement on the Sufi path? Interpretations will typically diverge here, as they do for most references to wine and drunkenness that flow through the lines of generations of lyricists. Some will read the verse as a paean for fermented grapes and the luxuries of physical pleasure. Others will see it jam-packed with allusions to spiritual pursuit and betterment. Either way, this dichotomous choice to opt for one set of meanings over the other leaves little room to maneuver elsewhere. Equally so, they are their own interpretative straightjackets.

It is for this reason that a professor once confided in me that after a while he ceased to offer seminars on the poetry of the aforementioned Hafez, whose lines have been debated for centuries for their real or imagined mystical undertones, in particular around the meaning of wine.[2] Invariably, he noted, after the first week of class students would divide themselves into two camps, depending on whether they understood Hafez’s lexicon as descriptive of this world or the next, and maintain their allegiances to the bitter end. Positions hardened and debates became monotonous. Never the twain shall meet.

Hasan’s biography may, for some, be of relevance here. He recounts in his collected discourses of Nizam al-Din Awliya his renunciation of wine. If one wishes to follow this line of biographical inquiry further, then one must attempt to date the composition of the above lines either before or after his forsaking of wine. It is a task no more exact than it is gratuitous.

Whether Hasan Sijzi himself, like a host of other ghazal composers, was an inebriate or teetotaler is only of secondary importance, just as is designating him as someone who ineluctably strives to explain either the sacred in the profane or the profane in the sacred. The ingenuity of his verse is in his playful ability to concoct a jumbled world of both, melding the two language fields of sacredness (worship, repent, Allah) and profanity (lust, wine, drunkenness) to not only a point of ambiguity but of apparent contradiction.

Hasan swears an oath to God to not repent for his drunkenness, for to do so means forsaking the opportunity to experience the drunkenness of his beloved, which may be God in any case. He endeavors to faithfully pursue wine and drunkenness as a necessary act to fulfill the requirements of his own path of piety. Contemporary readers will likely find this contradiction – the reference to pursue wine as explained through the language of faith – irreconcilable. The forbiddance of wine, according to Islamic law, is well known and arguably one of the most recognizable proscriptions of the faith. Readers from Hasan Sijzi’s own time and later in the early-modern Islamic world, less accustomed to defining their own piety in direct relation to the letter of the law, would find the contradiction less problematic, even without making the necessary interpretative jump to see wine as something else. Wine was prevalent and accessible, both at the court of Muslim monarchs and elsewhere, to say nothing of the contact between Muslims and members of other faiths with no legal edicts against drinking. Only a precious few, mainly among the community of religious legal scholars, would recognize wine-drinking as a major dereliction or, in the extreme, an abdication of faith. Readers of Hasan in the medieval Islamic world and beyond would be unlikely to register the contradiction between legal prescription and praxis, explained and harnessed in a contested symbol such as wine, as the co-existence of the two in the text would conform to many of their own experiences and observations of what constitutes practiced Islam.

As the late Shahab Ahmed notes in his posthumously published opus What is Islam? Muslims from the Balkans to Bengal thought and lived seemingly contradictory things “without regarding themselves as transgressing […] what it meant to be Muslim.” “Indeed,” he continues, “these ideas and behaviours were construed, as paradoxical as it might seem, to be not in harmony with, but actually somehow articulating the meaning and truth of Islam.”[3] Hasan Sijzi’s perceptive intertwining of the sacredness of faith and the profanity of wine is remarkable not simply for the ambiguity it creates in intended meaning, but for its skill in reflecting a coherent language field of experienced Islam. His observations here would resonate with those of his readers who would have little problem in connecting the two, as they cohabitate the actual space of experienced Islam in society and are reflected in years of literary production and tradition.

Elsewhere Hasan Sijzi relates the most iconic symbols of love in the Islamic literary tradition with the most sacred place of worship in Islam to similar effect:

Oh, Layli, you drive your followers’ camels toward the Ka‘ba.
You see how the guardians of the shrine are crazier than Majnun.

(from ghazal 40)

The story of Layli (Layla) and Majnun, undoubtedly the most famous love story of the Islamic world, is one in which the Arab poet Qays died from heartbreak and madness (in Arabic, majnun means “possessed by madness”) in the wilderness of the desert, consigned to a fate absent from his beloved, Layli. He had glanced the beauty of Layli but once. The story has been retold, recast, and referenced across thousands of lines of poetry and longer individual poems. To frame the followers headed toward the Ka‘ba and its guardians in terms of Layli-inspired madness, itself the result of carnal lust and melancholic love, is so rich in the layering of Islamic textual and cultural tradition that it immobilizes any one interpretation. Is Layli redirecting her followers to follow the path of sacred over profane love? Are the guardians of Islam’s holiest site more mad than the love-struck Majnun? Does their madness also stem from losing Layli’s love or is it the madness of religion?

Once again it is the playing on tropes, whether profane, literary, or religious, steeped in discursive traditions of Islam, on which Hasan hangs his craft. Whether one wants to see the Islamic faith as more mad-driven than Majnun’s love, and whether such an interpretation is favorable or not, is left for the reader to decide. Hasan Sijzi’s brilliance comes from blending the two and the resulting emotive dissonance (or coherence), based on one’s own praxis and observations, when they appear in combination on the page. His readers would surely revel at the imagery.

Hasan Sijzi no doubt was able to hone such delicate verses by watching all that was around him: a Sufi saint, fellow poets, mendicants, wayfarers, monarchs, and all stripes of Muslims and non-Muslims, engaged in variegated stages of life and states of being. It is the composite of these experiences of observation that allowed him to more piercingly see into his world and bemoan that so few are able to do so:

The universe has no one to be one with.
Out of hundreds of watchers, not one can see.

(from ghazal 16)

Gould’s translation allows us to watch one of the great watchers of his world. How we choose to see what he sees, or even see at all, is left to us.


Notes:

[1] Nizam ad-din Awliya: Morals for the Heart: Conversations of Shaykh Nizam ad-din Awliya Recorded by Amir Hasan Sijzi, trans. Bruce Lawrence, New York, Paulist Press, 1992.

[2] For a recent translation of Hafez’s ghazals in English see: Hafez: Translations and Interpretations of the Ghazals, preface and translation by Geoffrey T. Squires, Oxford, Ohio, Miami University Press, 2014.

[3] Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2015.


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