“Now there is peace between me and my Creator,” said my Iranian friend Foroud, quoting Hafez, the grand master of Persian poet.
Foroud is a good friend but I avoid him. He makes me sad. He should not have been here, at a shisha bar in Northern Virginia.
“I would have liked to meet you in a tavern in Iran, with Omar Khayyam,” I said to him, “and a bottle of wine, as Khayyam recited his Kuzanameh.”
“You cannot find what you are looking for,” he said.
“What I cannot find is what I am looking for,” I replied.
He laughed. “I know you have read Rumi but do not use him to silence me,” he said.
Perhaps I wanted to show off a little but did not want to silence him. Every time I read these verses from Divan-e-Shams, I wonder how things never changed in our part of the world.
Centuries ago, Rumi came looking for the perfect man and had to leave the world, admitting that such a man does not exist. And we are still waiting for the messiah.
There are people, like Faiz, who tried to make us understand that there’s no messiah but we did not believe them. We still do not understand that “only we have the cure to our pains,” as Faiz said.
“The first step towards this self realisation would be to identify what we want,” I told Foroud. “Then we need to determine how to get it.”
“Yes, then we will sit and sulk, wondering if the find was worth the effort,” said Foroud. “See, what happened in Iran, how our dreams withered away.”
Now you understand why I avoid him?
“One of our poets, Ghalib, says that the search itself is worth the efforts, leave the rewards aside,” I argued. “Pontificator, leave aside the talk of paradise and its comforts,” I quoted Ghalib.
Foroud nodded but did not respond. I too, was lost in thoughts.
Khayyam had to look for “the thing” in the street of the pottery makers and declare: “The clay, the pot, the pot-maker and the buyer are all the same.”
And then he realised what we tend to ignore: “My father’s dust was in the hand of the potter.” Is this what we call reincarnation?
Hafez was wiser. He realised that the force that creates is the same as the force that destroys, and cried out: “Now there is peace between me and Him.”
Foroud dragged me out of my thoughts. “Look at these young men and women dancing inside the bar,” he said and called a young Afghan waitress to bring the shisha.
After a few puffs, he said: “Remember that poem of Faiz you translated for me, “these and there may be other disputes too but those softly parting lips, have you ever seen a better sight?”
“Not an exact translation,” I said, “but make your point.”
“I have not point to make,” said Foroud. “I am in a good mood and do not want you to spoil it, that’s all.”
“I am not in a good mood,” I said.
“Why,” he asked.
I told him about Rimsha Masih, the young Christian girl arrested in Pakistan because a mullah put some torn pages of the Quran in her papers. “She has now been released on bail but is still under police protection because people fear that the fanatics may kill her,” I said.
“Yes, I know the case,” said Foroud, “but what’s your point.”
“Incidents like this make me feel as if we wasted all those years, struggling for an ideal which never existed,” I said. “I guess it is impossible to take the beast out of man.”
“Do you know Ahmade Shamlu?” asked Foroud.
“The 20th century Iranian poet? Yes, I do,” I said.
“He was more disappointed than you are when he returned to Iran after the revolution,” said Foroud.
Shamlu was a major force in the intellectual movement opposed to the former Shah of Iran. In 1976, he left his country in protest against censorship and the suffocation.
But the Islamic government also considered him a traitor because of his liberal views. His popularity prevented them from arresting him, but the clerics didn’t allow publication of his works for many years.
“Remember the poem I recited for you, “They smell my breath to make sure I have not said I love you, Nazneen?” asked Foroud.
I told him I did and asked him why religious groups, whether in the government or in opposition, fear love, beauty and women.
“Above all, they fear women,” said Foroud. “They fear women because women empower men, they cause them to think and resist.”
But I was not listening. I was once again lost in thoughts, wondering why all unfortunate nations end up in the same pit. And how each fortunate nation has its own story to tell, of success, joy, and prosperity.
We, the unfortunate, have the same story of shame and disgrace.
Shamlu complained that lovers in his city had their breath tested to ensure they never say to a woman, “Darling, I love you.”
A lover in our cities is also asked to produce a certificate to prove he is allowed to love the woman he is with, a certificate duly endorsed by a Qazi.
Lovers in Shamlu’s city faced the Qazi’s lashes on their backs. Lovers in our cities were also flogged for the same sin.
They were disgraced in his city and they were disgraced in our cities. We both have rabid souls. We both have been infected by the custodians of our faiths.
These are unfortunate times for poets. These are unfortunate times for lovers.
“Lost in thoughts?” said Zalmay, an Afghan friend, who came late to the bar.
“Yes, he is,” said Foroud, pointing his fingers towards me, “I am enjoying the music and the dance.”
Inside the shisha bar, a group of young Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and Arab women were dancing on the bhangra beat. It was fast. It was enchanting.
So I also abandoned my thoughts and started watching the young crowd.
But this upbeat mood did not last long. This time it was Zalmay who forced us back into our gloomy thoughts.
“Nobody is committing a sin here. There is no alcohol, no pork,” he said, “and yet, for something as simple as this, we can get beheaded in Afghanistan.”
He then repeated the story of a party in Afghanistan last month where the hosts and their guests were beheaded for listening to music and for dancing.
“Stop, Zalmay, stop,” said Foroud, “enough of gloom. Come out of your past and enjoy your lives in America. Look at these young people, they also are from out part of the world and yet they have no gloom.”
“True, but they have not experienced what we did,” said Zalmay.
As we were talking, a young Afghan girl went to the owner of the shisha bar and asked him to stop music. She was holding the hand of an old waiter, Mohammed Bhai, a Bangladeshi.
“I just discovered that today was Mohammed Bhai’s birthday,” she said, “and the poor man spent the entire evening making pizzas and sandwiches for us.”
“Let’s celebrate,” the crowd shouted.
They also pushed us in the middle and started singing, “Happy Birthday to You.”
A young Pakistani brought a cake from a nearby bakery.
We went back to our seats, immersed in the happiness of the youth.
When Mohammed Bhai brought the cake for us, we asked him how old he was. “Sixty-five,” he said.
“You are still young,” Zalmay said.
“No, it is very old in Bangladesh,” said Mohammed Bhai.
“But you are in America,” said Foroud.
Then we poured soda in our glasses and said to Mohammed Bhai: “At every stage of your life, you are dear to us. We like you for the golden heart you were born with and it never got old.”
“Besides, we are young at heart, even if we look old,” Foroud said to him. Then turning to me he said: “What does your favourite poet Ghalib say about it?”
“My hands shake but eyes are still keen, leave the wine and the goblet with me,” I quoted Ghalib.
“There, there you go. That’s the spirit,” shouted Foroud.
“Thanks to these young souls,” said I, pointing to the dancers.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC