Excerpts from a translation of Saadi’s Gulistan, the 13th century Persian masterpiece, jointly published by Global Scholarly Publications (gsp-online.org) and the International Society for Iranian Culture (isicweb.org).
From “Padeshahan” (Kings)
Story 1 The condemned prisoner chose not to beg for mercy. Instead, in his native tongue, he called curse after curse down upon the head of the king, defiling the air around us with his words. As I stood there with nothing to do but listen, I remembered these lines:
A man confronting death who gives up hope holds back nothing when he speaks. His tongue grows long, and in the fierceness of his despair, like a cornered cat attacking a dog, he throws himself on his enemy’s drawn sword.
When the king asked what the prisoner was saying, one of his viziers, a kind-hearted and merciful man, stepped forward. “My Lord, the prisoner has quoted from the Quran the verse that praises: ‘… those who suppress their anger and pardon their fellowmen; [for] God loves those who are upright and do good.'” On hearing his advisor’s explanation, the king was so moved by what he believed to be the man’s piety that he stayed the execution on the spot.
A second vizier who was also standing with us, a bitter rival of the first, confronted his colleague, “The king looks to us for guidance. When he asks, men of our rank should speak nothing but the truth.” Then he turned to the king, “The prisoner insulted your majesty, cursing you with words not fit for royal ears.”
“I prefer the lie your colleague told to this truth that you would use to discredit him,” the king replied. “He was trying to make peace; peace is the farthest thing from your mind. Our sages have said it this way: ‘A lie that harmonizes dissonance is better than a truth that produces discord.'”
Pity that men whose words shape the shah’s actions hobble their tongues, refusing to speak the good. Read the inscription in Feridun’s hall:
“In the end, my brother, the world will not hold you. Become, therefore, inseparable from God. The trust you place in what you own betrays you. Creation kills what it was made to love. In the moments before your soul leaves you, are you a king or a man condemned to die?”
Story 2 In the dream, all that remained of Sultan Mahmud’s body were his eyes, which moved inside the space where his head should have been like planets turning in their orbits. The rest of him was gone, dissolved to dust in the hundred years since his death. The king of Khorasan asked his sages to interpret this vision for him. They could not. A darvish who happened to be walking by overheard what the men of the royal court were discussing. He offered the appropriate greetings and joined them. ” The Sultan,” he said, “still cannot accept that his kingdom is no longer his.” At death, the flesh unravels into words:
voice, muscle, bones; liver, heart, lungs. Just so, the earth has swallowed our most famous men, leaving us with nothing but their names. Nushirvan’s been gone for centuries, and still we measure justice by his deeds. You who sweep the floors or shovel shit, your lives also will be measured. If you want more from life after you die than Pity he’s dead. What was his name?, mark the world with good before you leave it.
Story 8 When he was asked what crime his father’s viziers had committed, Hormuzd replied, “None. I put these men in jail because they feared my power without respecting it. I knew that to protect themselves from the capriciousness they saw in me and the harm they thought might come to them because of it, they might try to kill me. So I had no choice. I took the advice of the sages, who said:
‘The power to wipe out a hundred men should not replace your fear of one who fears you. Watch when a cat is fighting for its life; it plucks the tiger’s eyes out with its claws. To stop the stone the shepherd might throw down to crush its head, the viper bites, and lives.'”
Story 9 The soldier kneeling before the king gave this report: The fort had been taken; the enemy’s forces were prisoners of war. By his majesty’s good fortune, the entire district was now pacified and subject to his rule. He was an Arab king, sick with old age and waiting to die. “This message is not for me,” he sighed deeply, “but for my true enemies, the heirs to my throne.”
I’ve lived until the end of my desires, each one fulfilled according to my wish, but now I’m old, tired, and I can hear, in each breath I have left, Fate’s hand striking Death’s drum in the rhythm of my dying. The pleasures of my past will not return. The time I spent on them has realized me no profit. Eyes, bid this head farewell. Palm, forearm, the fingers of my hand, take leave of each other. You who were my friends come close one last time. This life I leave leaves in its wake only ignorance. I have accomplished nothing. Be on your guard.
Story 10 An Arab king who was notorious for his cruelty came on a pilgrimage to the cathedral mosque of Damascus, where he offered the following prayer, clearly seeking God’s assistance in a matter of some urgency:
“The darvish, poor, owning nothing, the man whose money buys him anything he wants, here, on this floor, enslaved, we are equals. Nonetheless, the man who has the most comes before You bearing the greater need.”
When the king was done praying, he noticed me immersed in my own prayers at the head of the prophet Yahia’s tomb. The monarch turned to me, “I know that God favors you darvishes because you are passionate in your worship and honest in the way you live your lives. I fear a powerful enemy, but if you add your prayers to mine, I am sure that God will protect me for your sake.”
“Have mercy on the weak among your own people,” I replied, “and no one will be able to defeat you.”
To break each of a poor man’s ten fingers just because you have the strength offends God. Show compassion to those who fall before you, and others will extend their hands when you are down. The man who plants bad seed hallucinates if he expects sweet fruit at harvest time. Take the cotton from your ears! Give your people justice before justice finds you.
All men and women are to each other the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn from life’s shimmering essence, God’s perfect pearl; and when this life we share wounds one of us, all share the hurt as if it were our own. You, who will not feel another’s pain, you forfeit the right to be called human.
From “Darvishan” (Darvishes)
Story 8 In response to the praise being heaped upon him by the people he was with, the great man raised his head and said, ” I am as I know myself to be.”
You who list my virtues one by one, please stop, you’re hurting me: The traits you name are those that all can see. You do not know the others lying hidden in my heart. When people look at me, they see a man who does what’s right, and so I please their eyes, but underneath that surface I am evil, and ashamed, and I walk with my head held low. I am like the peacock, praised for the colors of his tail, but ashamed of his ugly feet.
From “Ta’alim va Tarbiyat” (Education)
Story 18 I overheard a rich man’s son and a poor man’s son arguing as they stood near the grave of the wealthier boy’s father. “My father’s coffin,” the rich boy was saying, “has a marble gravestone decorated with a mosaic of turquoise-like gems, and his epitaph has been carved in the most elegant script. Your father’s grave, on the other hand, is nothing more than two bricks pushed together with two handfuls of mud thrown over them.”
The poor son listened quietly. Then he said, “By the time your father gets out from under that heavy stone, mine will already be in paradise.”
An ass walks lightly with a light burden. Just so, a darvish who carries on his back nothing but his own poverty will arrive at death’s gate at ease with the life he’s lived and with his fate; but a wealthy man, whose life lacked nothing, will find it hard to die, for death means leaving luxury behind. In the end, the prisoner who escapes with nothing will be happier than a prince whose wealth lies just beyond the bars of his cage.
From “Adab’eh Soh’bat” (Principles Of Social Conduct) Thirty Three Everyone thinks his own thinking is perfect and that his child is the most beautiful. I watched a Muslim and a Jew debate and shook with laughter at their childishness. The Muslim swore, “If what I’ve done is wrong, may God cause me to die a Jew.” The Jew swore as well, “If what I’ve said is false, I swear by the holy Torah that I will die a Muslim, like you.” If tomorrow the earth fell suddenly void of all wisdom no one would admit that it was gone.
About Richard Jeffrey Newman is an essayist, poet and translator who has been publishing his work since 1988, when the essay “His Sexuality; Her Reproductive Rights” appeared in Changing Men magazine. Since then, his essays and poems have appeared in Salon.com, The American Voice, On The Issues, The Pedestal, Circumference, Prairie Schooner, ACM, Birmingham Poetry Review, Potomac Review and other literary journals. He has given talks and led workshops on writing autobiographically about gender, sex and sexuality. His first book, a translation, Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, the 13th century Persian masterpiece, has just been jointly published by Global Scholarly Publications (gsp-online.org) and the International Society for Iranian Culture (isicweb.org). His own book of poems, The Silence Of Men, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. He is currently translating selections from Saadi’s other masterpiece, the Bustsan. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Nassau Community College. Top