You owe your raised status to the humility of your chair
By Moji Agha
July 17, 2001
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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.