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You owe your raised status to the humility of your chair

By Moji Agha
July 17, 2001
The Iranian

Poetry erupts suddenly or seeps out gradually from the deep well of meaning in infinite creative ways. When I read or listen to a poem I always wonder about the often mysterious birth story of its coming to be. In truth, each poem is a being and each being, a poem. Our great Khayyam says about creation and existence:

een bahreh vojood aamadeh beeroon ze nohoft

kas nist keh een gohar-e tahghigh besoft

har kas sokhani az sar-e soda goftand

zan roy keh hast kas nemidanad goft

My crude translation:

The ocean of existence

has emerged out of hidden mystery

and no one dares to pierce

this puzzling jewel.

In their awe, everyone has uttered

a few dumbfounded words

of nonsense

The way it actually is

no one can describe.

Another giant of the Persian literature and thought, Ferdowsi, has braved this ocean, or at least has ridden some of its awesome waves. His legendary determination and dazzling creativity in bringing the majestic Shahnameh to be is almost singularly responsible for the very survival of our language and culture. Screaming his frustration at the people's lack of appreciation for the immensity of his achievement he informs history:

bassi ranj bordam dar een saal-e si

Adjam zendeh kardam bedin Parsi

My crude translation:

I suffered much hardship

these long 30 years

but with my sweet Persian words

I brought the Adjam (non-Arabs, Persians) back to life.

With such giants in my historical consciousness, should I dare write a poem? Should I show it to people? Bravery and foolishness have been twins forever. I am also a child of my era, and of my circumstances, and if these masters and other Great Ones (such as Hafiz, Rumi, Roudaki, Sa'di, Attar, and ...) shouldered their responsibility in keeping our language and culture alive and vibrant, I should also do my little bit.

But with these saints of poetry and thought, who am I, with my puny thoughts and deficient talent? Well, such is the circumstances of my era: I am forever intimidated by their magnificent contributions, yet I can also benefit from the jewels that they so carefully pierced and left behind. I am also swimming in the same ocean of wonder as they did.

If I summon from the depth of my fear and awe my brave and foolish soldiers of reason, I soon come to recognize that there is no choice in this matter for me. I have no choice but to be free in my imagination. Free not to waste my few breaths on this backwater neighborhood of existence, but free to responsibly leave behind my few inarticulate words. At least I could do my best.

In my foolish bravery, I find no choice but to freely allow the words of MY wonder to emerge out of the well of MY meaning. Even if the meanings I have uncovered are just mere repetitions of what the masters have long pondered, and expressed certainly with much more eloquence and clarity, I still have no choice but to freely yet responsibly be the child of MY time and allow the expressions of MY experience to emerge from the mystery of My imagination, in MY awe-struck words. Afterall, I, in all my insignificance, am also the paradoxical microcosm of the universe.

So, I have decided to let my timid horse of imagination to take on the fearsome waves of the ocean of MY awe, so what that my "gift" is just mediocre poetry! Even more foolishly, and bravely, I have decided to utter my words of nonsense publicly -- sorry dear Khayyam, you thought me to live the moment as meaningfully as possible, because time is so so short.

I thought because each poem, each being, each story, has a story of its own, I should tell the story of this poem before sharing it. So, here it goes:

Many years ago, when I took courses in phenomenological psychology, my teachers talked about the ways to grasp the "essence" of a phenomenon. They used the example of a chair, and described that the essence of, the "chairness" of, a chair is "hidden" in its seat, and not in its arms or its back, for example.

Recently in one of my lectures about the nature of culture, I used the same chair example to illustrate that in our daily life our culture(s) -- defined simply as shared taken-for-granted experience -- is inevitably in the background of our moment to moment engagements in the world, in the same way that the chairness of a chair is "hidden" in its ordinary day to day "life" as a chair.

A few days after the lecture in conjunction with an assignment, I was asked to write a brief essay about leadership. As a person whose mother tongue is Persian, I am just fortunate enough to be drunk with the magnificent Persian wine of Ferdowsi's words. Let me first share his beautifully profound reflection about leadership:

Choneen ast rasm-e saraay-e dorosht

gahi posht beh zino gahi zin beh posht

My crude translation:

Such is the tradition of this cruel abode:

Sometimes your back touches the saddle

and sometimes the saddle is placed on your back.

So, one recent morning I woke up and these words emerged from my still groggy pen:

(originally titled "Leadership" for the essay)

Like the sweetness of a date

giving energy to tired life

the chairness of a chair

is hidden in the sweetness of its seat

giving rest to rushing legs.


Behold Chairmen of the world

risen to transitory significance:

As you sit in the shadow of the palm tree

remember you owe your raised status

to the essential humility of your chair

hidden deeply from the eyes of your pride.


So, Oh Leaders of the world:

Learn the invisible yet essential lesson of leadership

from your humble chairs

before you are dethroned.

Ferdowsi jaan, thank you for telling your story of wonderment. As you predicted, your sweet Persian words have kept my tongue alive, and I know that you don't disapprove of my writing in a another tongue so that your children of today and tomorrow (who just happen not to be born into the magnificent language you revived) can also take sips of awe from your sweet ocean. Thank you for giving wings to my horse of imagination.


Moji Agha is a Visiting Scholar in the Center For Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He recently founded a non-profit center for inter-cultural and interfaith dialogue. He has been a teacher of cultural studies, conflict resolution, and cross-cultural psychology.

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