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Head to toe
The poetry of Abu Sa'id

February 12, 2002
The Iranian

It's permitted to fall in love twice, once with Hafiz, and then, with Abu Sa'id Abul Kheyr, without feeling a sense of betrayal of the first love. Of course, before Hafiz was -- as a matter of fact, before Rumi was or Khayyam was -- Abu Sa'id wrote his exquisite quatrains in eleventh century; he perhaps died 1040 A.D., which, considering his age of 83 at the time of his passing, he was really a tenth century intellect.

To put this in perspective, let me mention that William the Conqueror occupied English in 1066, and the first major book in the English Language, Beowulf (Old English), was perhaps written and compiled just a century earlier. At that time, the Middle English period and Chaucer are four centuries in the future, so that Abu Sa'id's dates coincide with the Old English period. It should be also mentioned that the Old French Chanson de Roland had just been composed and that the French Language was just splitting from the Vulgate Latin.

The Troubadour songs of Provence and the Breton Lais of Marie de France will not be composed for another two centuries. What is more, none of these western literary works is comprehendible today unless one has training in Old English and Old French -- Shakespeare and Dante are too modern to enter into our discussion -- but Abu Sa'id is as available today as he was at his time.

This continuity of intellectual and artistic energy of Iran is what distinguishes the Iranian culture from other traditions: one need not have a special training in language or traditions to enjoy Hafiz or Abu Sa'id fully. Abu Sa'id was himself immersed in the Islamic tradition of the time, and his early training was in theology and philosophy.

Later, as a cleric of reputation, Abu Sa'id incorporated his poetry into his sermons, thus marrying his art with his God, which resulted in a number of passion poems and mystical songs. His take on theology was unorthodox for the time because he preached tolerance and acceptance, and especially his quatrains speak of a God who is all merciful and all forgiving, even of those who do not follow the straight path of Islam, this, perhaps, raising eye-brows among the more dogmatic cleric.

I find Abu Sa'id's poetry equally as appealing as those of Hafiz, and for this I do not apologize although many might raise objection to my comparison, and I would like to hear from those who have constructive criticism of my translations of Abu Sa'id's poetry. As was the case with Hafiz -- my translation of 201 of his Ghazals will be published by IBEX soon; see "The clear mirror" -- I need help and advice to do justice to this grand Iranian poet. This collection will also be published in the future, but before that happens I must hone my skills and understanding of Abu Sa'id. Many of you can guide me in my mission to translate this poet.


I begged, "My idol, flower of my heart,
Come to me in my dreams; show your face."
She answered, "Lover, you sleep without me; then
You want to dream of me in your sleep?"


What a chasm: Our union and my forlorn state of mind!
A single precious pearl and an ant's comprehension!
Although unafraid of burning whole, yet I see
The disparity between a moth and the fire on Mount Sinai


O God, grace me with an open door:
Show me the path of salvation.
Your gift to me: freed of this world -- and the other;
Your vision suffices: erase the rest from my heart.


If destined to knock at the door of the tavern,
If fated to run the path around the Kabba.
These, preconditions of our existential self --
Blesséd the day You rescue us from our self!


Lover, I your guest will steal to your house,
Secretly, hidden from jealous eyes.
Empty your house for the guest to come --
Do not allow anyone but us in that house.


I'm all crying and groans tonight;
No patience bides, no reason rules tonight!
Yesternight in a dream-wink I imagined happiness:
Now, time to atone my happiness tonight.


The day he blazed the fire of love,
The lover learned the art of burning from his sweetheart.
This anguish, this fire came from the Friend --
Until the candle flames, the moth
(3) does not burn.


When the lover's absence bleed your heart,
Do not show the bloodied garment to the crowd.
You groan, not to be heard --
You burn, refusing to smoke.


How long will I suffer the burden of mean crowd?
Of my own meanness I'm spread like dirt at their feet.
Since my affairs will not right with prayers,
I'll thrice divorce this silken dome.


O Lord, withhold not your grace from us:
Ever sinful and rebellious we are.
Your nature, free of wants; ours, full of needs:
But You -- do not make us needing anyone.


I asked, "Why this separation?"
The answer came, "There's a reason -- listen!"
"I'm your eyes; no wonder you see;"
"I'm your soul -- no one sees a soul."


Come, come again -- whoever -- come again:
If a pagan, a magus, an idolater, come again.
Our threshold is not for despairing:
If a thousand times you break faith, come again.


Your crazed lover cannot tell a mountain from the desert:
Nor his head from his toe!
Anyone who finds you loses himself;
Anyone who knows you forgets himself.


In the school house you become a learner:
From the warmth of discussions you glow.
In the school of love, with all your learning
You become a wandering school child.


The world but a path, paradise a way station:
Both straws to discerning eyes.
If a true lover, pass both by:
The Friend will show you His path.

©All rights are reserved by the author.


Reza Ordoubadian holds a Ph.D. degree in English and linguistics. He has held a professorship at Middle Tennessee State University and Visiting Professorship at Umea University (Sweden). He has published numerous pieces of fiction and poetry as well as scholarly articles and books on both sides of the ocean. He was the editor of SECOL Review for 18 years.


(1) A reference to the blinding light of God that appeared to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai. Even in the Old Testament the symbolism is not lost that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the Creator and the created. To top

(2) The Moslem shrine in Mecca toward which the faithful turn to pray. It is the "House of God," a black stone in the middle signifying the residence. To top

(3) Persian metaphor for "moth" is "butterfly." I have used the English idiom, which does not change the meaning, but is more familiar. To top

(4) In Islam for a divorce to be irrevocable the man must pronounce his intentions three times. To top

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