Not bad for a mortal
A novel in verse
February 26, 2003
First chapter from Manoucher Parvin's Dardedel; Rumi, Hafez, and Love in New York (Sag Harbor, NY: The Permanent Press, 2003). See introduction See interview
Dardedel With New Friends
Tonight Professor Pirooz flies to Phoenix,
From New York where he's taught for so many years.
He has no luggage, no return ticket,
He just has himself and the ache in his heart.
At the airport he flags a taxi,
And to the sleepy brown cabby says,
"Take me to the desert they call the Sonora,
To that endless world where the tall saguaros grow."
The cabby studies the handsome stranger's sad chocolate eyes.
"At two in the morning, sir?"
"If that's what time it is," answers Professor Pirooz.
"It's a long drive," warns the cabby.
"I have plenty of time," says Pirooz.
"It'll cost you a pretty penny," adds the cabby.
"I have plenty of pennies, too," says Professor Pirooz.
So the sleepy brown cabby drives him deep into the Sonora,
On a road hardly driven, not even by day.
"Stop here," says Pirooz, surveying the nothingness full of things.
"You're the boss," says the cabby, his foot squeezing the brake.
Pirooz pays his fare, waves good-bye, and starts walking,
The sleepy brown cabby drives away.
Professor Pirooz has come to the Sonora to sing a song --
A song without sound, or words, or predictable notes.
He has come to sing this song in a palace of his imagination,
An endless desert palace without doors, walls, roofs, or floors,
A palace full of reptiles, bats, red ants, cactuses, and coyote,
All like him, thirsty, longing for a raindrop of salvation.
Yes, Pirooz has come to the Sonora to die,
To let the blazing sun rob him of his memory and
To let thirst and hunger finish him off.
And so he trudges the hard-soft sand toward a hill,
Toward two tall saguaros, standing side by side in the night.
Falling to his knees before these bony, silent cactuses, he says:
"I am a refugee tonight,
Among two new friends whose arms stretch to the unknown.
Ask me not why I'm in this otherworldly place alone,
Thinking of death -- my death.
Ask me not about causes and consequences,
Or other imponderable questions.
But ask me what I want and I will tell you that I am starved,
As you are perhaps starved, to be loved and listened to,
Just like the canaries who scream from their fancy cages.
Just like the homeless who scream from their cardboard boxes.
"My dear saguaros," Pirooz confesses,
"I need to dardedel with you tonight.
Do you know this beautiful word, dardedel?
Dardedel is soul talk, wound talk, and joy talk, to a kindred spirit.
It is embracing vulnerability without fear of judgment or shame.
It is confiding to stars who glow with understanding and never tell.
It is one soul uniting with another, freeing both, enriching both.
I sucked dardedel with my mother's milk,
Back in Persia, long ago, where the word was invented.
Back in Persia, long ago, where the word invented me."
"So now listen to me," Pirooz begs,
"As you would listen to a somber cello:
My home has disappeared behind years of exile,
I can barely mourn for losses I can barely recall.
My mother tongue has been conquered, word by word by English,
So that I have neither one language nor two, but two halves.
My two homes are at war, tearing my mind and heart apart.
I am a teacher dedicated to teaching truth,
Yet I am afraid to teach the truths I know,
For fear I may lose my welcome, even my job
So I must teach the Norm, the damn Norm,
As if it was the word of God.
I must dissimulate, dissimulate, dissimulate,
To no end, until I am a foreigner even to myself,
Until I'm an accent even to myself.
That is why I've come to your desert, my dear saguaros,
To die and be myself."
Cries Professor Pirooz: "Yes! Yes! I am despairing.
I am despairing that we humans, once such happy monkeys,
No longer make love, but make death,
With our endless copulating we sew and sew
An enormous quilt under which we will suffocate
From the poisons our sheer numbers spew.
So that the more of us, the less of us, until there are none of us.
I remember the lovemate I thought would be with me forever,
Buried breastless from cancer.
I see frogs born with no limbs, eagles without eyes or wings.
I see men of Science grinding daisies into bombs,
Children pouring honey into molds for bullets.
I see men of God, killing God's dreams, with God's own words.
I see my willpower wavering, that my warnings are nothing,
Piled on nothing, changing nothing.
So I am ready to be nothing before I am nothing, to die before I die."
Exhausted by his lament, Pirooz now gazes at the twin saguaros,
Silhouetted against a magnificent moon,
As stars by the billions twinkle their existence.
He is intoxicated by the solitude, by the unity with all things,
Even with the Pinacate beetles,
That when offended can be as stinky as a skunk.
He asks the two cactuses towering over him, "Did you hear me?"
Pirooz is not expecting an answer,
Not an answer his ears can hear, anyway.
But his ears do hear, as the taller of the two saguaros says:
"Yes, we heard you, Pirooz.
The moon and the sand and the bats heard you, too."
Then the shorter one says:
"But the question is, Pirooz, do you hear yourself?"
Pirooz is astounded, terrified and paralyzed,
As if facing a gargantuan pair of multi-headed green cobras.
He falls desert silent, trembling, sweating, despite the night cold.
Finally recovering, he somehow finds the courage to ask:
"How is it that plants speak without mouths or tongues?
"How is it you know my name?"
The taller saguaro chuckles softly, asking,
"How is it you talk to cactuses? When you don't know their names?"
Pirooz shrugs like his students shrug.
"I never knew that cactuses had names."
Now both saguaros chuckle, and the shorter one says:
"And we have never met anyone who talks to cactuses --
Certainly no one named Pirooz!"
The professor ventures a sheep's smile. "It is a Persian name."
Growls the taller saguaro: "We know it is a Persian name.
And we know what it means -- one who is victorious!
Which apparently you are not!"
"Right," answers Pirooz, almost sobbing, "Which apparently I am not."
The saguaros wait for the professor to say something more,
To complain some more, to explain some more.
But he just sits there,
With a melancholic grin on his melancholic face,
Whispering a song to himself without words or music.
Finally the taller saguaro leans forward, without bending its back.
"You asked us to dardedel, which surprised and delighted us.
But now you sit there like the other stones,
Neither asking nor telling -- only disappointing."
Pirooz asks their forgiveness with a pilgrim's bow:
"I was expecting you only to listen, but then you start to talk.
So to tell you the truth, my tongue is flabbergasted into silence."
The saguaros seem to look at each other without twisting,
Seem to agree without nodding.
The taller one says: "We are flabbergasted, too,
To find a Persian in an American desert,
Dardedelling with cactuses as if they were old friends.
Pirooz! You say you wish to open your heart,
Asking from us no more than to listen.
Even when cut into pieces, trees listen!
That is what trees do best -- listen and listen!
But when a man opens his heart, he opens other hearts, too,
Does he not, Pirooz?"
The professor nods and nods: "Yes, that is dardedel."
Pirooz feels the saguaros embrace him,
Even though their stiff arms have not moved.
The taller one says: "Speak Pirooz, sparing no sin or secret,
Out with everything! Confession without fear!"
"Yes! Yes!" sings Pirooz. "Yes! Yes! Without fear!"
Joy pours from the saguaros' leathery pores,
And the shorter one says: "Then I confess that my name is Hafez!"
Pirooz covers his dry lips with his sweaty fingertips:
"That is the pen name of Shamsal-Din Muhammad,
The great poet of my homeland, Iran.
One who remembers, Hafez means,
One whose heart holds every word of the Koran.
A cactus named after an old Persian poet. Just imagine!"
The saguaro named Hafez moonglows with joy:
"Not only is my name Hafez -- I am Hafez!"
Before Pirooz can ask the hows and whys bubbling inside him,
The taller saguaro says: "And I confess that they call me Mowlana!"
Pirooz squeals with astonishment: "Mowlana, The Master,
The name of respect given Jalalad-Din Rumi -- "
The taller cactus laughs loud:
"Yes, Pirooz! Just as Hafez is really Hafez, I am really Rumi,
The other old poet you were forced to memorize as a boy!"
"Forced but gladly so," Pirooz insists. "Forced but gladly so!"
And so they dardedel,
This mortal man who wants to leave this world,
These two wise spirits stuck in hot American sand,
Uprooted and reborn, like so many Persian immigrants in exile.
"So," asks Pirooz of them, "Just why are you here?"
Answers Rumi: "We are counting the stars."
Pirooz is puzzled: "Of all eternity's pleasures you choose to count stars?"
Hafez shrugs. "No one knows how many stars there are."
"But that is not true," the professor protests,
"Astronomers have estimated that there are -- "
Rumi interrupts him: "God's handiwork is not for estimating,
It is for knowing!"
Pirooz is defiant: "I would not waste my time
Counting the uncountable."
Then he takes a second to cool his anger, and with a grin says,
"Who knows! Perhaps the stars are themselves counting cactuses!
Perhaps they are just like people, prone to count everything!"
Rumi reminds him that he and Hafez are transcendent souls,
With toes rooted in the hot sands of eternity,
Unrestricted and unseduced by mortal time.
"We have no time to waste, and all time to waste," he says.
"Still, we must pass time and watch time pass us.
And if after we have counted these stars,
And we have discovered nothing more than their number,
We will at least know that."
Pirooz smiles, thinking he has them:
"Though their light still wanders in space,
Many of those stars no longer exist!
So you will end up with worse than an estimate,
You will end up with a sum that's incorrect!"
It is Rumi's turn to smile: "Hafez and I are in America.
Are we, or are we not, in America?
Are we not nothing but the ancient lights of our mortal selves?"
Pirooz sighs, and concedes: "Yes, If you and Hafez are standing here,
And still enlightening hearts and minds,
Then the stars are there, too, whether they actually are or not."
Pirooz now grins, and half seriously says,
"Perhaps when I am dead I will come and help you count."
But Rumi shows no enthusiasm for his offer:
"God wills both birth and death, and
God forbids murder, even if inflicted by self upon self.
Has God not made that clear from the start, Pirooz?"
The mortal professor shrugs, saying: "Search the Holy Books
And you will find that God is forever granting man free will
But forever snatching it away when man tries to use it."
There is a smile on Rumi's face now,
Though it is not a smile of happiness.
It is a smile of wisdom.
He says: "I see that you are not a man easily impressed, Pirooz,
With chiseled stone or scribbled parchments rolled tight.
I see that you are a Modern Man!
We had modern men in my time, too.
I was one of them myself, in fact."
Pirooz understands only too well what the old Sufi means.
"Unfortunately, the modern man thinks that almost
All important things are already discovered -- by himself."
Rumi's prickly face does not show it, but he is delighted:
"Not bad for a mortal, Pirooz!
But what I want you to understand is more weighty than that!
What I want you to understand is this:
A new day, a new night, a new garden, a new garden path.
A new thought and an old question resolved.
A new happiness and a new fatigue.
With each breath the world becomes new!
And we become new!
But in death one misses all which becomes new.
In death one misses using all he once knew.
Why is it, Pirooz, that you are tired of counting stars as a mortal?
Yet you wish to count them as a dead man?
Do you think the truths on our side
Are more true than the truths on your side?"
Pirooz is suddenly stricken by this question,
His mouth as wide as a cavern full of bats. "They are not?"
Rumi is stern, yet loving to the professor:
"Why would we be standing here as stiff thirsty saguaros,
Painstakingly counting stars if we knew how many there were?
You scoff at the Holy Books, yet God forbids suicide for a reason.
He gave you life not as a punishment -- but to sense His intentions.
He gave you eyes not just for crying -- but also to see and discover.
He gave you ears not just to hear -- but to listen and understand.
He gave you a tongue not just to talk -- but to taste and inform.
He gave you fingers not to poke and demand --
But to touch and love others with."
Without lifting his cactus arms, Rumi beckons Pirooz to his side.
"This is why you must not take your life.
This is why you must endure your exile -- with patience.
Why you must endure the fools who persecute you -- with patience.
Why you must continue to teach and be taught -- with patience.
Live on with patience, Pirooz! Live on with hope, Pirooz!
Death will come soon enough, Pirooz!
When you started this dardedel with us,
You said that you must die before you die.
Professor! You must live before you live!"
Just then the black desert sky is sliced by a knife of fire.
"Another star to subtract," Hafez sighs.
"That is not a star," says Pirooz. "That is merely a meteor,
A piece of cold rock sucked from space by gravitation."
Hafez is disheartened. "Not a star? Are you sure?
We have been subtracting them by the millions."
"It is just a rock," says Pirooz, "Not much bigger perhaps
Than the pebble we are standing on."
"Are you sure that you are sure?" asks Hafez.
Rumi pats Hafez on the shoulder.
"We must listen to this modern man.
He knows and knows that he knows --
Just as we once knew and knew that we knew!"
And so their dardedel turns to talk of the Universe:
To talk of Genesis and the genesis of Science.
To truths unprovable, to lies unassailable.
Finally Rumi asks: "In what truths, professor, do you believe?"
Pirooz looks up at the exploding stars and declares:
"In the beginning was Hell, and the Hell was a raging ball of fire,
Ignited by a big, big bang,
Exploding into an emptiness that had no ears or ends,
Flashing into a big darkness that had no eyes, mind, or heart,
Becoming an existence that had no consciousness.
And then this raging ball jettisoned stars just like sparks,
And this sputtering dust was congealed by gravity into worlds,
Our own Earth among them.
And the Earth presented the universe a child,
And soon this child stood up and questioned everything in sight,
Filling the lonely air with words and more words,
Creating a new self with tools, art, science, and a relentless curiosity.
Soon prophets appeared to reveal the intentions of myriad gods.
Holding high their Holy Books, they taught right from wrong,
Confirming Good and Evil in the Spirit of Man.
But their messages were conflicting and unsubstantiated,
Filling man not with reason but with hatred, doubt, and fear,
Forcing him to kill and kill and kill again
In the name of the phantom gods."
"Yes! Yes!" Hafez interjects, reminded of his own poem:
"Go ahead, and rationalize
The war of seventy-two nations.
Since they did not see the truth
They pursued only false tales."
Pirooz, eyes closed, continues: "Incubated in the minds of mortals,
Little by little the many little gods united into one big God,
Invisible but existing everywhere, omniscient and omnipotent,
Even in the vacuum of space presumably.
Exclaims Rumi: "Hell first, Creation next, God last?"
Pirooz nods vigorously: "And then man abandoned
This unhelpful God in favor of Science and Money."
Asks Rumi: "And you, Pirooz? You are one of these people?"
Answers Pirooz: "I am a product of my time, Mowlana,
Though the money part has never enchanted me much."
Rumi ponders Pirooz's words, both moved and unmoved by them.
Finally he asks: "Is not your Big Bang a story, too?
Just like the Holy Scriptures you dismiss?"
"Of course it is a story," Pirooz admits.
"But Genesis and Science are not equal stories.
Science is proven or disproven all the time,
While the scriptures claim beauty, truth, and morality for all time.
Rumi looks deep into Pirooz with his invisible cactus eyes.
"Science discerns only the form of things, the properties of objects,
Creating only a painting of what the senses sense.
But for true understanding don't we need God?"
Pirooz retorts: "Science is about facts and the search for truth,
Religion is about values and the search for meaning.
There is one science, but many faiths.
If the many faiths could unite into one,
And just prescribe values instead of claiming truth,
Then Science and faith not only could coexist,
But blend and peacefully co-inhabit the soul of Man."
Hafez has enjoyed this debate between
The Sufi master and the man of Science.
He says to Pirooz: "This Big Bang story of yours is a good one,
Yet it leaves as many unanswered questions
As does the Big God story Rumi and I were taught.
If the Universe began with a bang,
Where and what was the Universe before the bang?
And how long did it simmer before banging?
And why did it bang in the first place?"
Pirooz has wondered these things himself, of course,
And knows he cannot begin to answer Hafez.
He can do nothing but laugh at his own ignorance, and say:
"Do you have to make trouble even when you are a cactus, Hafez?"
See introduction See interview
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