Virtues one by one
Richard Jeffrey Newman
August 25, 2005
a translation of Saadi's Gulistan, the 13th
century Persian masterpiece, jointly published by Global Scholarly
the International Society for Iranian Culture (isicweb.org).
From "Padeshahan" (Kings)
The condemned prisoner chose not to beg for mercy. Instead, in
tongue, he called curse after curse down upon the head of the king,
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
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
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
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?"
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
in their orbits. The rest of him was gone, dissolved to dust in
years since his death. The king of Khorasan asked his sages to
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
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
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.
When he was asked what crime his father's viziers had committed,
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
they might try to kill me. So I had no choice. I took the advice
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.'"
The soldier kneeling before the king gave this report: The fort
taken; the enemy's forces were prisoners of war. By his majesty's
fortune, the entire district was now pacified and subject to
He was an Arab king, sick with old age and waiting to die. "This
not for me," he sighed deeply, "but for my true enemies,
the heirs to my
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.
An Arab king who was notorious for his cruelty came on a pilgrimage
cathedral mosque of Damascus, where he offered the following prayer,
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
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
"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
you forfeit the right to be called human.
From "Darvishan" (Darvishes)
In response to the praise being heaped upon him by the people he
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)
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
turquoise-like gems, and his epitaph has been carved in the most
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."
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
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.
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.