Tuesday, July 1, 2014

July, 2014 -- 166 years after Tahirih's appearance unveiled before 72 men gathered at the Conference of Badasht, Iran, an appearance hardly understood or accepted to this day

Rent Asunder

Táhirih shattered the crystal of imposed silence
and it has never been whole again 

rent asunder by her voice and her unleashed gaze
the crystal is now dangerous 

veils rip on its jagged edges 

did you know a veil could bleed?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Táhirih's Daughters, 1

collage by j.r-s.

A look at Táhirih and some of her literary daughters, for International Women's Month

  In July, 1848, Táhirih stood unveiled before 72 men at a religious conference in Badasht, Iran, breaking the great taboo. A woman's face had to remain unseen by anyone not related to her. Yet, although an avowed opponent raised his sword as if to strike her, Táhirih bared her face and raised her voice, announcing the dawn of a new era. Her deed was a piece of dangerous, living theater. But what else would one expect from a mystic poet of radical change who happened to be a woman? The religious leader Bahá'u'lláh was present at Táhirih's announcement and approved it. It was he who titled her Tahirih, the Pure One.
            Four years later, she was dead, strangled on an August night by a drunken henchman of the Minister of War. She was killed and buried secretly because many people compared her to Mohammad's daughter, the saintly Fatima. In fact, though deemed by some a harlot, others called her a saint and said her appearance unveiled fulfilled an Islamic prophecy that Fatima would be glimpsed, bare-faced, on the Day of Judgment, crossing the Bridge of Sirat (finer than a hair, stretched over an abyss.)
            We could say that all her life Táhirih walked a bridge over an abyss, claiming freedoms that belonged, in her world, to men, and living by them. Her husband was an instigator of her end; he hunted her down, he made sure she was arrested and imprisoned, he didn't stop until she was dead. The regime that killed her then went after Bahá'u'lláh. He would be stoned, chained, imprisoned, poisoned, exiled. Every effort would be made to silence him.
            Every effort didn't work. Bahá'ís today are of every culture and color, and function as a world community. Táhirih was one of the first women in the world to be a Bahá'í, and she's revered as one of the greatest of the dawn-breakers of the faith. She sang:
            Dawnbreak! Daybreak! Blessed be today!
            Revived, renewed, fresh off the loom, blessed be today!...

            Why wait? My robe is re-embroidered on this very morn.
            Why hesitate? The veil splits, sun's up, splendor is born...

            Before she was taken to her execution from the attic where she'd been under house arrest, she told a friend to remember her and rejoice in her gladness. She chose her fate. Her husband and sons could view her death as an honor killing. They considered her a disgrace; if she'd recanted her faith she would have saved her family's honor and herself. She chose to preserve her own honor by serving the cause of human oneness, putting the human family first. "Rejoice in my gladness" could be interpreted, "Rejoice in my act of love."           
            She did have a daughter. I think. Some historians affirm the daughter, some don't. Various personas and fates are attributed to her, so that she is the stuff of legend; tales already evolve about her as human imagination takes hold of herstory and comes to own it. But Táhirih has many daughters in spirit.
            Before we meet some of her literary daughters, I want to state my understanding that the real veil is silence. You don't have to be a woman to be veiled. Czech nobel-prize winner Jaroslav Seifert said, "If an ordinary person is silent, it may be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent, he is lying."
            Táhirih never lied. Neither did – neither do – her daughters. Foroogh Farrokhzaad, 20th Century poet, didn't sing of mystic love, but simply of love and unlove.  She revealed her heart to rend asunder Iranian social as well as literary veils. Like Táhirih, she died young, killed in a car wreck rumored to be suicide. With her free speech, she gave voice and presence to men as well as women. In her intensity, she achieved mysticism after all –
            ...and in the martyrdom of a candle
            there is a brilliant mystery
            which that last and most drawn-out
            flame knows, well knows...

            Simin Daneshvar wrote Savashun, arguably the greatest, most popular Iranian novel, and the first ever published by a woman. She died last year at the age of 90. Censorship and repression limited her creative output all her life and continued after her death, when authorities refused to allow her to be buried beside her husband. Savashun – in a way an Iranian Gone With the Wind -- is a saga of the loss of a beloved man murdered for his politics. It's final words:
            Do not weep, sister. In your home, a tree shall grow, and others in your city, and many more throughout your country. And the wind shall carry the message from tree to tree and the trees shall ask the wind, "Did you see the dawn on your way?"

            A young tree summarily cut down was Nadia Anjuman, a 25-year old Afghani woman who died in 2005 after one too many beatings by her husband. It was a so-called honor killing. Under the Taliban, she was disgracing herself and her family by writing poetry. And she refused to stop. She also wouldn't stop reading and discussing banned writers like Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. She wrote about oppressed women --
            O exiles of the mountain of oblivion!
            O the jewels of your names, slumbering in the mire of silence.
            O your obliterated memories, your light blue memories...
            ... Will one of your names, above the peaks, become bright as the sun?...

            If Nadia had silenced herself, she would have been saved. If Táhirih had recanted her faith, she would have been saved. Mahvesh Sabet is a 21st Century Bahá'í poet and educator held in Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj, Alborz, Iran. Like Táhirih, she refuses to recant.  She's one of the Yaran (Friends), seven Bahá'í leaders imprisoned since 2008. Family, local and world communities support them, yet the nature of torture/imprisonment is that each sufferer soldiers through alone. Mahvesh wrote 
            ...I perfume with poetry
            this stale camphor-tasting bread;
            and try to cast the ink of light
            on jaundiced faces, on bowed heads...

            ...I try to give hope of flight to these caged birds,
            Wing-bound and broken, trapped without words...

            Yes, but there's melody in poetry and it lives, giving voice to the voiceless. Táhirih's songs are still sung in Iran today, in the cave of the heart:
            I unloose my ambergris hair across the desert plain:
            one curl the wild gazelle ensnares.

            With kohl I darken my narcissus eyes and I darken
            day itself: I am the world's demise...

 Táhirih's Daughters, 2

A look at Táhirih and some of her social activist daughters, for International Women's Month.
            "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women." So Tahirih reportedly told her executioner in a Tehran garden on an August night, 1852.  She was strangled, thrown into a dry pit and covered with stones, never divested of her garments and, therefore, most likely not mutilated or violated by her killers -- but perhaps buried alive.
            The assassins, acting under the aegis of the shah and his prime minister, were spurred by a powerful cleric who happened to be Táhirih's enraged husband. Both husband and regime were sure they'd silenced the woman who condemned them to irrelevance by her poetry and deeds.
            Some of those deeds:
            In July, 1848, she bared her face at a religious conference of 72 men who were no relation to her, violating a deep taboo of her Islamic culture and immediately endangering her life.
            She shed her husband by repeating, "I divorce you" three times, arrogating to herself a right reserved for men.
            She left her family and traveled in her own caravan, first to fulfill her personal spiritual quest, and then to share her discovery with the world.
            She dressed in bright colors on the day of mourning for Imam Husayn, because it was also the birthday of the founder of her new Faith. She said it was a new era, time for rejoicing.
            She taught women to read and interpret scripture, and taught men, although from behind a curtain. She taught since girlhood, and her poetry and theological essays circulated among Iran's scholarly elite since she was a child.
            She was among the first women in the world to be a Bahá'í. The founder of her faith, the goal of her quest, was present when she bared her face during the conference. The men nearly rioted. Should they kill themselves? Should they kill her? Bahá'u'lláh calmly defended her. Enemies called her a heretic and harlot, but he named her Táhirih, the Pure One.
            After she was dead, her enemies assumed she was gone. But Bahá'ís of every culture and color remember and revere her today as a paragon of female virtue. 
            A new ideal of female virtue: human virtue, abiding by the truth that lives in one's soul. Putting her spiritual quest first, she left husband, sons and parents. Putting service to humanity first, she only went home under duress and then had to escape under threat of death. We can grant her the comfort of a daughter, possibly. Some historians say she had a daughter who was with her until her death.
            We know she has many daughters today, fighting repression. Some use veils, some don't. The veil is a symbol; it can symbolize subjugation or chastity or piety. It can even symbolize deceit. Depending on the wearer.
            Táhirih told a student, "Let deeds, not words, be your adorning." We could also say, "deeds, not veils." Shirin Ebadi, human rights lawyer, is under criticism by Iran's national press for various things, including not wearing a headscarf, although she's in exile. In 2003 she won the Nobel Peace Prize -- the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to do so -- for championing women's and children's rights. In 2008 she defended 7 Bahá'í leaders summarily imprisoned. Her latest book, The Golden Cage, tells of three brothers in conflict with one another, each caught in the prison cell of his own ideology.
            Mahnaz Afkhami, member of Iran's exiled royal family, established and runs the Women's Learning Partnership and the Foundation for Iranian Studies. As the Iranian Minister for Women's Affairs, she was in New York City when the shah was overthrown in 1979. She never went home. Her peer, a female Minister of Education, was accused of corruption on earth (among other fabricated charges) and executed, although she'd been retired for eight years.
            Like her younger contemporary and sister-exile, Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Mahnaz Afkhami sees women's rights at the crux of Iranian turmoil and believes that inevitably the tide will turn to favor woman, because it's human destiny.
            A much younger woman, Malala Yousefzai, of Pakistan, is in the news after the Taliban tried to kill her on October 12, 2012, when she was 14, for championing girls' right to education. She'd been publicly campaigning for education rights since the age of 11. Her courage undiminished, she's now in hospital in England, recovering. (In traditional Islamic societies girls of 11 are not necessarily young. They may be married and pregnant. Tahirih was forced to marry at 14, considered old.)
            Humaira Bachai, in Karachi, also champions female education. Her mother secretly sent her to school after fifth grade. Her father beat mother and daughter when he discovered it, but her mother, who is Iranian, sent Humaira to take her final exams, anyway.  Humaira, now 25, runs a high school with over 1,000 students and goes door-to-door convincing fathers to educate their daughters.
            Layli Miller-Muro founded the Táhirih Justice Center, with offices in Washington, DC, Houston and Baltimore, to protect immigrant women and girls fleeing violence. Raised in a Bahá'í household, she was studying law at American University when she learned of Fauziya Kassindja, a Togolese woman who fled gender mutilation and forced marriage. The U.S. government refused to grant asylum and imprisoned her under hopeless conditions. Layli found pro bono legal representation for her, and, with lawyer Karen Musalo, won the case, changing U.S. law. Karen founded the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. The book Do They Hear You When You Cry tells the story.           
            Fauziya said in a PBS interview that during her sufferings she wondered, "Why me?"  Later, she realized that because of what she endured her case and her cause reached many people, and she came to consider it the work of God.
            Táhirih said the same of herself. She didn't feel like a giant among woman; she felt vulnerable, fragile, alone – her strength was that inner truth that she refused to betray. She prayed, "Oh God, with this broken wing I desire to soar to the divine clouds, and with this weary heart recount the story of the world of paradise and purity.  But of course there is none except you to be my helper..."            

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Gift of Life

One of Barb's best portraits ever -- herself!

            March 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of my friend Barbara Stephens, great artist:  photographer extraordinaire.  And why was she such a great artist?  Because, I think, she was a great lover.  To love was her joy, and joy was the signature note of the tune of her existence.  A love object didn't have to be overtly joyous -- smiley-faced -- to give her joy.  It was beauty that did it, not air-brushed beauty but slight signs of love alive in hearts, moments of love flashing heart to heart, glance to glance, fingertip to fingertip. Or the simple Creator-love miracle of a wolf spider.  (Not that I personally saw much to be happy about in the wolf spider.)
                  She caught those moments and miracles, exalted in them and exulted them.  She was a fabulous portrait photographer, not just of people, but of everything that rang that note of joy within her.  No matter how grim her prospect -- dreary housing, cancer, empty bank account, ailing offspring  – she always came across something that rang the joy bell. If her photography mojo, as she called it, wasn't up to snuff, she'd simply find a subject, any subject.  She'd see a fly, even a mosquito, magnetize it with her lens, study it, look it up, learn its name and habits.  
        I was a bit spoiled by frequently opening emails from her to find gorgeous or at least intriguing images, but now and then I'd find myself face to face with a housefly (multiple eyes), or a deceased field mouse (lovingly bestowed upon her by her cat, who was her familiar).  I couldn't grant bugs and dead mice the Jainite respect that Barb gave them, so I think part of her joy in emailing them to me was that they annoyed me.  
            She was deeply mischievous and humorous, loved to tease.  Also loved to kvetch and worry.  Nothing of the saint about Barbara Dee Halpern (her given name).  And if her mojo failed and there were no fascinating hair balls (or something) around -- look out.  She could drive you crazy.  Now and then I got mad at her.
        And so we come to the nub of this little remembrance.  During the year when Barb was dying I got mad at her for a few weeks because I thought she was being "unspiritual" about her upcoming death.  Such a material girl.  She was enjoying to the hilt each moment of life that she could, and that included a lot of what-the-hell type shopping online.  With time I saw that she was savoring every chance she got to shower her love on the loves of her life, especially her son and daughter, her grand-daughter, her brothers, and others of her family, and those chances grew as they spent more and more time visiting and nursing her.  I also eventually understood that she was quietly dealing with her own inner torment at having to say good-bye to them and to life on earth, which she adored in all its materiality, its rawness and its exquisiteness.
            Some years before, she'd written me an email that I'd printed out and put in one of my prayer books.  It was about love.  While I was mad at her for dying -- because that's what I was really angry about -- I ripped up that email.  And I had no copy of it on my computer, or anywhere else.  So, later, when I wanted it on around March 3 or 4, 2011, shortly after she died -- 
          What's an idiot to do?  Gone is gone.  Then, one day I was meditating, doing that mindfulness thing where you sit and get with your breathing in its regular rhythm, and I felt illumination from within:  love light.  I thought, "This is what Barb was talking about in that email."  But what did she say?  I couldn't remember.  When I read it, I didn't really understand it.  I just wanted to understand it.
            For a few days I wondered how to verbalize the love-light.  I realized I'd perceived it while thinking about Joshua.  I was feeling a bit unsure of how to be his mother since he'd married and had a child.  While meditating you're stilling and quieting the mind, so you look at thoughts and let them go, no matter if they're highly charged or neutral.  But you acknowledge them.  So I had said to myself, "Here's Josh.  I just love him."  That's when the light shone.
            Love.  My love for my son.  My love for whatever and whomever I love.  It's not their love for me that gives me strength -- although, that too, and thank God for it.  But it's not their bad moods or bad feelings on some occasions that weaken me.  It's my love for them that is my power for good, salvation, refuge.
            After thinking this over for some days, I wrote something I could equate with Barb's lost email:  Love what you love with your whole heart – a sky, a leaf, a child, a cat, a friend, a lover.  Have favorites.  Dote on them.  Don't be afraid to admit how much you love, to feel how much you love.  If you're afraid to admit and feel how much you love, that's because you're afraid your beloveds won't love you back.  But they don't have to love you back.  The love in you and emanating from you is enough. Let your love widen and deepen and brighten; it's whole and nothing can fragment it, complete and nothing can diminish it.  It can only augment, it can't decrease.  When you grieve it teaches you wisdom, when you're afraid it gives you courage.  Simply love.  Trust your love, be your love, love your love.    Such love is intrinsic in life.  It's the love of life.  It's life itself.
            However, that isn't what Barb wrote.  That, I can never get back.  Like her, it was irreplaceable.  I can only thank her for writing it, but, more, for living it.  Thank you, my forever friend.

March 1, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Edible Ephemeral Art, Permanent Patterns

Uchhapur, India. A woman paints her wall in prayer to Lakshmi. 
Photo by Stephen P. Huyler, Meeting God, p. 67

       Looking at the photos in Painted Prayers: Women's Art in Village India, a book by Stephen P. Huyler, I'm dazzled by the edible, ephemeral art.  In some areas of India, each day before dawn women make paintings on the ground in front of their houses to fete a domestic goddess.  In other places they paint outer walls and doorframes during certain holiday and festival times, all in honor of her.  They use paint made of rice powder.           
       The art doesn't last.  Things eat it.  A young woman interviewed in the book says, "This powder itself is auspicious.  It feeds birds and small insects.  Holy puranas tell us to be good to other beings.  By these kolams (the daily designs made on the earth) we are sharing our food."
         The paintings aren't just effaced by hungry creatures; they're smudged by movement, the flow of existence.  Life doesn't stop because the art is there.  The rice powder paintings, whether white or colored by natural dyes, quickly disappear.
         Following custom, women make new paintings at the appointed times.  Paradoxically, the patterns for the paintings aren't edible and ephemeral.  They're handed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation.  They travel with brides from village to village.  They constantly change in individual hands.  In some regions where the women's art is particularly vital, women keep notebooks of patterns and are constantly creating and inventing.
         All in honor of Ma.  That's one of the names of the domestic goddess;  she's different in different places but she's one in her spirit of abundance and protection, and Ma seems to me a good universal name for her.  A primal syllable, frequently the first uttered by infants crying for nurture, protection, sustenance, guidance.
        Edible ephemeral nurture -- permanent patterns of existence -- spiritual and physical requirements – we ask those blessings of our Immortals, our guardian spirits.  Always, the old prayers; constantly, new prayers.  Admiring the ancient forms that make the designs for India's "painted prayers" I'm reminded of the Farsi alphabet, so I write --
            The Persian alphabet – letters waving
            o's and curves at me, words wending their
            way to me from right to left – knits new
            patterns for an old pet prayer,
            "Bestow upon me a heart diamond-
            bright," and i add, "that I may be like
            King Jamshid's cup of immortality
            and lift up my heart in turquoise hands."

This apple is long gone, but Apples remain.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Young Hero: Dreamer of Dreams

collage, jr-s 1998

           Today, from my Persian Poets Augury Box, I randomly picked a little paper roll-up, unrolled it, and read:

            The old man ran from the young hero's bow
            Straight down the mountain quick as he could go...
                   Ferdowsi, The Book of Kings, (transl. Dick Davis)

Persian Poets Augury Box
jr-s, 2011
         How apposite.  Lately I've been thinking about a certain cultural figure: "the young hero."  The Persian term for the young hero is javanmardi.  I came upon it while reading Peter Kingsley's In the Dark Places of Wisdom.  Kingsley equates the term with the ancient Greek title kouros (a word older than the Greek language).  For the young hero, chronological age is beside the point.  He's "needed for prophesy," Kingsley notes, "for receiving oracles, for the magical process of lying down in a special place at night to obtain messages from the gods through dreams."           
            Dreaming is a gift of the youthful spirit.  One who is old in spirit will talk a dream to death.  But the young hero (who may be 19 or 100 years old) can shoot down a visionless oldster (who may be 19 or 100 years old) in an instant.  So the oldster flees the young hero's bow. Which reminds me of Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom.  She's the best archer, hunter and warrior. She never loses a fight and is an eternally pure, flashing-eyed, beautiful maiden.  She/he -- doesn't matter – the javanmardi is evolved "beyond time," gone "to the heart of reality" to find "what never ages or dies," Kingsley writes.
            I'm glad to discover the expression javanmardi because it clears up one of the mysteries of my life:  I always wondered why the Bab and Baha'u'llah, even when past the age for it, called themselves and each other Youth. Now I have the cultural root:  the tradition of javanmardi or, in Arabic, fata.             
According to my current Farsi teacher the javanmardi spirit is passion, specifically bravery and the willingness to give oneself entirely, to be a sacrifice.  Javanmardi is a virtue, a godly attribute.           
            Javanmardi animates Tahirih's verse and that of her brother and sister mystics who have that spirit.  Someone always has that spirit.  According to tradition, true javanmardis live as earth lives, "often ignored and almost always misunderstood," to quote Kingsley, but they "keep existing because they have to."  We're never without them.  We can open our eyes, look through past and present time and find them.  One of my favorite poems, Ode, by young Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1844-1881), says it well.  It's a one-hit-wonder, but it's all O'Shaughnessy needed to do –

            We are the music-makers,
                 And we are the dreamers of dreams,
            Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
                 And sitting by desolate streams;
             World-losers and world-forsakers,
                 On whom the pale moon gleams:
             Yet we are the movers and shakers
                  Of the world forever, it seems.

            With wonderful deathless ditties
                 We build up the world's great cities,
             And out of a fabulous story
                  We fashion an empire's glory:
             One man with a dream, at pleasure,
                   Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
             And three with a new song's measure
                    Can trample an empire down.

            We, in the ages lying
                    In the buried past of the earth,
             Built Ninevah with our sighing,
                    And Babel itself with our mirth;
             And o'erthrew them with prophesying
                     To the old of the new world's worth;
            For each age is a dream that is dying,
                     Or one that is coming to birth.


Monday, December 19, 2011

TAHIRIH, the mystic poetry site

       I'm considering starting a new blog with the above name.  Having finished my bio. of Tahirih and suffered an extreme illness I realize the effects of Tahirih on my life and spirit are much deeper than I knew while working on the book -- although I did feel an indescribable amount in the course of the work.
       I've picked up my study of Farsi again, and, looking back over old notes, found a poem by Hafiz that I translated.  It's one that my late Farsi teacher, Mali, found as an augury for me in the Divan of Hafiz.  Mali was being my little green bird, so to speak.  Sometimes on an Iranian street one may come upon a diviner with a book of Hafiz's poems and a bird that's trained to pick out an augury for a client, a verse or an ode that will hint at what the day, or the week, or the month or year, or the life, will bring.  A green bird is thought to have special significance as a spirit harbinger.
        This is my augury from the time while I was researching, writing, praying, dreaming about Tahirih -- in my own very free and in-process translation.  I translated it back when Mali found it, and didn't understand at all how it related to me, at the time.  Now I must say, it has come true, is coming true.
My green bird, Mali
Your face is far beyond my eye,
yet I must picture you or die.
I'm the north wind, driven by your cry;
your shadow's royal stature stirs my
unfledged wings to dare to fly.
    (Will I survive today and fly
     into night, that curve of one of your curls?)
     By fire my heart is purified --
for just your mantle's swirl and sigh
I cut -- I cleave my heart -- I die.
                         -- from the Divan of Hafiz

        I would never have thought of myself that way, as a mystic lover, rending my heart for the sake of understanding and writing about a truly great mystic lover, Tahirih.  And part of me still says it's nonsense.  Is that an eternal tug-of-war that all seekers suffer?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rejoice in My Gladness is released!

          Just received my 25 complementary author's copies of my new book, the labor of many years, Rejoice in My Gladness:  The Life of Tahirih.  I can't express what an honor it was to write it and to be associated with it now.  My heart is very, very full.  Tahirih wrote:  "Every dawn to see my face the sphere of heaven shifts,/ uplifts its golden looking-glass..."  Somehow, researching and writing about her gave me a glimpse into that golden looking-glass.  I hope I've passed the glimpse on to the reader...

Since the link list seems rather user-unfriendly (inflexible, unpoetic, etc.) and I am sick of messing with it, I'm putting links here for the book:  www.bahaibookstore.com and www.amazon.com