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February 2003

Schimmel and Stars

Annemarie Schimmel, one of the brightest stars in the heaven of Persian and Sufi literature in our time, gave up her light last week to hide behind the musk-colored veil of the beloved's curling locks, in the strands of that moonless night, a night so long it stretches from the crown to the beloved's tiny waist. The extinction of such a brilliant light never leaves the poet silent:

Ki goft ke an zindeh-ye javid be-mord
Ki goft ke aftab-i umid be-mord
An dushman-i khurshid dar amad bam
Do dideh be-bast u goft khurshid be-mord

"Who said that she who lives on has died?
Who said that the sun of hope has died?
Behold! It's the sun's enemy who has come up on the roof,
Closing both eyes tight, crying: 'O' the Sun has died!"

These words, Muvlana Rumi's mourning song to Shams-i Tabrizi, have sent your Madame on an archeological mission through the world of myth and literature in search of the many instances in which the female body --the lips, the eyes, the hair, the nose, the eyebrow -- has come to represent something other than itself. Or, by contrast, instances in which inanimate and natural things such as candles, pomegranates, poppies, dates, wiffs of musk and the letters J and L have come to represent her beautiful features. Her features (like the young beardless man's) are the poet's passions, but how are HER passions represented?

I am reminded of the Tamil tale of Mariatale who falls in love with the male demigods (Gandharvas) in the pool where she goes to get her daily fill of water. When she goes to the pool, the tale proceeds, she usually rolls up the water and takes it home. But in seeing the beautiful demigods reflected back to her, her desire melts the roll of water under her arm and it mingles with the water of the frozen pool. Observing this from afar, her husband (Jamadagni) puts two and two together and has Mariatale's head cut off. His son Parasurama is saddened by this murder and reattaches the body and head. He whispers a prayer into his mother's ear and her body is revived. Typically he's attached the wrong parts to one another. While the head is hers, his mother's body is no longer her own. It is the body of a Pariah woman who was executed for a crime earlier that day.

Wendy Doniger writes that this is a "monstrous assemblage that gives the woman the virtues of the goddess and the vices of an unfortunate wretch." Mariatale is given the power to cure smallpox by the other gods (a useful ability in our times, it would seem, if CNN is to be trusted). But in their hands, she's split up again; her head placed in the inner sanctuary of the temple and her body at its door. In this way, her body can be worshipped by the Pariah of the lower castes who cannot enter the temple. Doniger writes that Mariatale's disease incarnate body is thought to bring a fever that is cooled by the grace of her divine head. But what's more interesting is that in Doniger's argument, this monstrous assemblage represents the pure Indian women who feels passion. As such, she can only exist as physically split. Must the passionate woman always remain a cobbled together monstrosity like Franken-bride, I wonder? That bright star that could bring us closer to an answer has gone away. Madame Bayaz shares with you the female beloved's parts as a balm and a consolation. To quote the words of a minstrel and slave girl whom Jami's Nohfat al-ons calls Tohfah (856 AD),

Though you dismember me and tear me
Limb from limb
I will never cease to contemplate You

Farvardin: Aries
The beloved's body and its parts have often been used as metaphors for the native soil: In classical Persian poetry, the hair that spells ringlets across the beloved's face in a thousand letters of J and L, represents both India and China. Her eyes are charging Turks and the eyelashes, the mirror-bearers of Hindustan. Her lips are the dwellers of Samarkand. The beauty spot on the corner of her mouth, the Ethiopian slave who stands patiently guarding the waters of life, an indentured servant lost in the land of the guardian.

Ordibehesht: Taurus
In the Quran the female beloveds are often the houris of Paradise. The suras represent them by way of the synecdoches of skin and eyes. The houris are referred to as "the fair skinned" those with wide, lustrous and lovely eyes "like unto hidden pearls." (Q. "Smoke" 44)

Khordad: Gemini
If in the Quran, wives are "men's garments", in the poet's words they are revived with additional meanings (Q. "Heifer" 2). Jalal al Din Rumi, however, ascribes to women (not only wives), the metaphor of the garment on which a man can wipe his hands. For emphasis he adds that enduring them cleanses men's impurities.

Tir: Cancer
Not all Sufis and poets had a misogynistic relation to women's bodies even if only in the form of metaphors and similes. Some, like Baha'uddin Walad have crafted the female body in their words as a site and object of worship. Walad once wrote, "Looking at the legs and backs of women was like enjoying God's wine which makes man unconscious and enables him to praise God more effectively."

Mordad: Leo
"TheÖ of a lustful woman," Baha'uddin Walad writes, "is the highest mosque of obedience to the Lord." We will never know exactly to what part of the body the metaphor of the mosque refers, but clearly here, as elsewhere in the classical tradition, the female body stands at the site of ambivalence. Even in its partial form, the enjoyment of the body represents an experience of the spirit, while, like the attached eyebrows of the female beloved, it simultaneously stands for human attachments to the material world.

Shahrivar: Virgo
The male artist's beloved, whether in literary or visual form until the late 19th century could be represented by a youthful woman or a young beardless man. In written and visual form, the narrow-waisted and the cypress-statured, beauties with crescent eyebrows and the black-scented hair, were as often young men (ghilman) as they were paradisiacal female huris. Their eternally youthful bodies stand as metaphors for the paradisical pleasures described in the sura of "Smoke" (Q. 44)

Mehr: Libra
The face of the beloved in Persian poetry is described with reference to the moon, a candle, the sun, myrtle, a flower, a poppy, an apple, halved. The four corners of her forehead are the lucky stars. And Venus sometimes takes their place.

Aban: Scorpio
The beloved's eyelashes are arrows, swords, razors, thorns, lancets, and an army of ants. They frame the eyes described as almonds, narcissus, sleepy, tactful, bewitching, shy, drunk, infirm and deceitful.

Azar: Sagittarius
Her eyebrows: horse shoes, bows, and the sign of Sagittarius, the archer. In Arabic, the eyebrows are known as "doorkeepers". The beloved's waist marks the reach of her long hair. The beautiful waist is measured in relation to the width of a single strand of that hair.

Dey: Capricorn
Her nose is represented by the letter Alif, a razor, Ahmad in the Quran who comes to represent that straight line of the nose that splits the face in two. Ivory is a metaphor for a woman's neck. But as a bobbin, her hair coils and wraps about it.

Bahman: Aquarius
The beauty spot, is represented by the star, pepper, musk, the raven, and the quince seed. Encompassing the beloved's face, it is the source of the lover's grief and blood, the reflection of the lover's heart and the pivot around which all being circles.

Esfand: Pisces
The female beloved's hair is associated with the smell of amber, the color and the smell of musk. It is compared to the color of the night, to night itself, the longest night, the moonless night. It is a swallow's feather, the bower, the shady place, the curtain, the veil, the harp or lyre. It twists and turns like the snake, restless like a long long life. As crown and treasure, the female beloved's hair breaks the heart of the lover. Indeed al-Mutinabi puts it best when he says that the female beloved is the recurrent malarial fever under the lover's ribs.

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