Some weeks ago, I came upon an amusing news item: a Hollywood director was planning a blockbuster based on the life of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, starring Leonardo di Caprio as the mystic poet and Robert Downey Jr. as his mentor and beloved friend, Shams of Tabriz. Not something, I thought, that I’d want to see except perhaps for curiosity’s sake; after all, most historical biopics are quite nonsensical, and, in this case, the idea of a poet’s life — Maulana Rumi’s poetry is deeply identified with the subtle poetics of the Persian language — being translated into an alien idiom was even more baffling.
Yet the poet the modern world calls ‘Rumi’ is probably best known to many through what may be called versions of his verse, particularly those of Coleman Barks; a film version would probably be about this Rumi that inhabits popular imagination. I was reminded of a long taxi ride from Istanbul airport with my Turkish interpreter, way back in 2009: she was enthusing about a novel she’d just read, The Forty Rules of Love, which intertwined scenes from the Maulana’s life with a modern love story. What intrigued me at the time was that a new generation of Turkish readers were discovering ‘Rumi’ through a fictional interpretation of his life, not through his poetry, and again in translation; most Turks don’t understand Persian, and those who are interested in mystic poetry tend to read Yunus Emre. Today, many readers in Karachi, Delhi and Dhaka, too, encounter Rumi’s Sufi thoughts in Elif Shafak’s novel, which went on to became a worldwide bestseller in translation. ‘Rumi’ has become an international name in the last two decades; but there as many versions of Rumi as there are translators. Mostly, we’re given an image of an ecstatic poet who spent his time whirling, dancing and uttering free verses, flouting convention and orthodoxies.
My own encounter with the poet — to whom I will continue to refer as Maulana — was rather different. At the age of 16, I found an abridged translation of the Mathnawi in my local library, and was immediately struck by the beauty of its opening lines, evoking a flute lamenting its separation from the reed bed. I took the book home, realising that I’d heard those lines recited and sung in Persian by my older relatives, and determined that day to read the poet in the original. I began, under my mother’s tutelage, to do so that day. Within a year or so, I’d learnt those verses by heart, along with another beautiful section of the Mathnawi which depicted Majnun in the desert, writing Laila’s name again and again in the sand and making her absence into a presence. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that those early readings of the Mathnawi led me to study both Persian and Urdu at university.
Like many people who vow to read Proust from beginning to end, I vowed to read the 1,500 pages of the Mathnawi one day in Persian. Till today the vow is unfulfilled: my Persian is serviceable but imperfect. I can, however, probably claim to have read most of the book out of sequence and with the help of a French translation, the best rendition of the magisterial work in a foreign language that I’ve ever read. It’s a masterwork in its own right: clear, concise, and entirely devoid of any tricks or embellishments, as the translator, who felt she should not attempt to replicate the subtle patterns of Persian prosody, concentrated on preserving essences and meaning.
Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch’s translations of works of Rumi and Allama Muhammad Iqbal include the first complete translation of Rumi’s Mathnawi into French — her crowning achievement
I came across the translator’s name by chance, in 2006. I soon knew she’d be my guide to navigating the deep waters of the Mathnawi. Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch was born in France in 1909; after getting a degree in law, she joined the Centre for Research in Sciences in Paris, and soon rose to be a director. She was, at the same time, writing her PhD on Plato. At some point an Indian friend of hers handed her a copy of Allama Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Deeply dissatisfied with her Catholic faith, De Vitray was drawn to Iqbal’s intellectual analysis of his religion, and to Islam’s universality, humanism, and uncluttered monotheism as the poet-philosopher presented it. She decided rightaway to translate the book into French; her English was perfect. She made contact with Iqbal’s son and with the government of Pakistan, and was to translate much of Iqbal’s work over the next few years. She also decided to study Persian in depth, and it was through the Javednama, which she later translated, that she first became aware of Iqbal’s huge admiration for Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi.
At the age of 40, De Vitray decided to convert to Islam, after a period of intense study. She adopted the name of Hawa Khanum, though she continued to use her original name for her writings. She taught comparative religion at Al-Azhar University in Cairo for five years, performed the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madina, and travelled all over the Muslim world, lecturing on Islam and Sufism. She also decided to devote the rest of her life to translating Maulana’s work, after abandoning her post-graduate research on Plato and, instead, completing a brilliant dissertation, which was later published as a book, Mystique et Poesie en Islam, in 1972 (a very abridged version, Rumi and Sufism, appeared in English in 1987). She collaborated in various ways with intellectuals in Africa, the Middle East, and Pakistan, but because she dedicated herself to translation and her few but extremely valuable original writings are in French, the Anglophone world ignored her. Her life’s mission was accomplished when, in 1990, she produced the first complete translation of the Mathnawi in French, nine years before her death.
The Mathnawi has been called ‘The Quran in the Persian Language’: Eva de Vitray, however, felt that the Quran was inimitable, and said that she’d rephrase that claim to mean that the book was a symbolic commentary on the holy book, and that the spirit of Maulana’s work was the guiding spirit of Islam.
Throughout her long career, De Vitray continued to write brief pieces illuminating varied aspects of Islamic literature and thought. One of my own favourites among her books is a collection of Sufi parables, tales and allegories, taken from Attar and several other mystic poets, as well as from the Mathnawi and other works by Maulana Rumi. The telling of fables, parables and tales — “the pathway of light” as she called it — was, in the hands of Rumi and Attar, a call to awaken the dormant emotions in us, to lead us to a recognition of our true selves and the way back to our deepest sense of home and belonging. In a brief, beautiful essay on symbolic interpretations of the Quran, she illustrates how the Mathnawi often patterns its narrative techniques on the enigmatic Sura Kahf, which, linking together ingeniously the stories of the Sleepers in the Cave, Moses and his Guide, and Zulqarnain and Gog and Magog, “reunites a certain number of fundamental themes … sleep; initiation; the waters of eternal life”, and the awakening of the soul from lethargy. On careful examination, these parallels are not randomly assembled, she says, but connected by a profound internal logic, as a brief quotation from a ghazal by Maulana, which glosses the Surah, illustrates.
Unlike many of her Sufi contemporaries, De Vitray did not set herself up as a teacher of syncretic sprituality; while she accepted that foreign philosophical influences, particularly Greek, had influenced the development of the traditions of Muslim mysticism, she did not agree with Western experts who claimed that Sufism predated the religion or was an unorthodox offshoot of Islam. She held that authentic mystic practices were founded in the recital of Quranic verses, and often pointed out that Maulana himself was immersed in the traditional rituals of prayer and fasting. You can be a Muslim and not a Sufi, she often said, but you can’t be a Sufi if you aren’t a Muslim. She herself was, on the evidence of her writings, both: she decried the tendency to hybridise Sufism, comparing it to a sloppy mixture of jazz with classical music, and equally deplored the fanaticism which, in her lifetime, she saw taking over Iran and rising in other parts of the world. Hers was the religion of love and compassion she found in the sacred texts she spent her best years studying; she sought to build bridges with other faiths, while she privately upheld the austere purity of practice that she felt Jalaluddin Rumi exemplified. Her last book was a slim volume called Prayer in Islam, which collects key verses from the Quran with others (that echo them) by her beloved Sufi saints and mystic poets.
In December 2008, nine years after her death, Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch’s remains were removed, as she had requested before she died, from a grave in Paris, and laid to rest with attendant honours in the cemetery in the precincts of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s mausoleum in Konya. It was on the occasion of the anniversary of his death, which is known to his followers as ‘Shab e arus: The Night of the Wedding’.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 7th, 2016