I was 8 or 9 years old, in the mid '60s, when one night a large party brought the sounds of professional Tar to our house. My father was a bank manager in the remote town of Sirjan. Once in a while in roassa's doreh one could hear the Tar of Soleiman Khan, the mayor, the only tar player in town. In those days my dad had just purchased a Philips reel tape player and was very proud of his recording capabilities. He was famous for making a cover for everything and this humongous machine was no exception: a blue satin cover was made for it and sat in our mehmankhaneh.
That night our guest was supposed to be a famous Tar player, who played for Iranian National Radio, the late Ustad Lotfollah Majd. Before sunset several chicken were slaughtered and rice was on the ojagh in preparation of dinner, well in advance. Several of the usual suspects arrived early that night and finally the artist, a guest of the governor, showed up. Before long, bottles of aragh keshmesh and vodka were opened and sounds of noush noush could be noted.
After dinner and once most heads were a little warm, the requests started that Ustad Majd should give the honor of offering some music to those present. My Dad insisted on recording and Lotfollah Khane Majd agreed as long as he could not see the microphone. That was an opportunity for me to enter the scene and be the guardian of the microphone.
Every one was sitting on the floor on blankets next to white walls–this was years before wall paper came to town. The lights were turned off and Ustad started playing. Soon after, he started moving around the room and every one would change their seat to open space for Ustad who was unconsciously circling the room.
Later that night when the lights came back, we noticed drops of blood all over the white sheeted blanket. Ustad had lost his mezraab, but had decided not to stop and had played with his nail, with a finger that was bleeding by now. That recording became the love of my dad's life and I played it at his memorial. I thought it was a very saddening and powerful performance, as if Ustad Majd had put all the pain of his injured finger into the music. I have listened to that tape numerous times until I left my homeland with all the memories, including the royal blue satin covered Philips. I have missed the zakhmehye tar of Ustad Majd ever since.
That is until last Monday when I attended Dariush Dolat-shahi's concert in Portland, Oregon. Dariush, a good friend, has gained his Doctor of Musical Art degree in music composition and electronic music from Columbia University. He has studied at Tehran University, as well as at the Amsterdam Conservatory of Music and Utrecht Institute of Sonology in the Netherlands. He lives in Portland.
Dariush's live performances are very rare and sacred to attend. His perfectionism and high expectations make the performances difficult to repeat, and turns them into unique experiences of the kind I described in the opening of this story. This time Dariush performed his Seven Valleys of the Way, a composition influenced by the twelfth century Persian philosopher and Sufi poet Farid ud-din Attar and his major work of poetry The Conference of the Birds (mantiq ut-tair).*
The composition consists of six movements representing the seven valleys; the Quest, the Love, the Insight into Mystery, Detachment, Unity, Bewilderment, and the finale of the Poverty and Nothingness. As the Ustad travels through the valleys, his instrument turns into waves of thirty birds and sometimes millions of them in search of themselves. You and me and the artist, we are all whirling in the valleys in a faithful search of the divine Simorgh.
Thousands of us perish during the sacred journey which requires faith but does not guarantee the outcome. Enlightenment requires discipline, self examination and self-awareness, and the purging of the spirit, as Attar makes clear. At each corner of the forth valleys Ustad detaches one or many of birds with a zakhmeye tar and drops them into their dark destiny, he beats the tar angrily to get rid of the unfaithful. Cries, the sadness of the tunes, breaks the heart and injures each being but do not seem to stop him. Only a few arrive at the finale of the Poverty and Nothingness, the Ustad for sure is one of them finding himself freed of traditional Persian dastgahs.
The finale is the most colorful movement with mirrors all around reflecting all the remaining birds, blood stains on their white feathers. The Ustad's mezraab must have been lost again, and so do we.
The Conference of the Birds recounts the story of the birds of the world gathering together to meet the Simurgh or the King of birds. The birds choose a guide from among themselves, the hoopoe, who represents the spiritual master and makes up the Tariqah (Way). The hoopoe tells them that the Simurgh lives in a distant place and the journey to him is difficult. The birds have to cross seven valleys on the fateful journey to the divine Simurgh.
The Valley of the Quest
The Valley of Love
The Valley of Insight into Mystery
The Valley of Detachment
The Valley of Unity
The Valley of Bewilderment
The Valley of Poverty and Nothingness
Thousands of birds perish during the journey; they make the right choice to search for the Simurgh, but they are not guaranteed success. Attar makes it clear that simply to wish to be united with the Divine is not in itself enough. Enlightenment requires discipline, self-examination and self-awareness, and the purging of the spirit.
The birds arrive at the court of the Simurgh. At first they are turned back; but then are finally admitted, only to see the reflection of themselves in a mirror. They learn that the Simurgh they have sought is none other than themselves. Only thirty (si) birds (murgh) are left at the end of the Way, the Si-murghs meet the Simurgh, the goal of their quest.
Goudarz Eghtedari, Ph.D., is a Human Rights and Peace activist, a community organizer, a writer, and producer of the Voices of the Middle East program on KBOO 90.7 fm (VoicesOfTheMiddleEast.com). He has served on the boards of the Oregon Peace Institute and the Iranian Human Rights Group, and is a member of the Iranian Studies Advisory Board at Portland State University.