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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings


The migration of the violets

کوچ بنفشه ها

by Mohammed-Reza Shafi-Kadkani

This is a poem about spring, and flowers, but it is not about flowers emerging through the leaf-mold under trees or clouds of daffodils upon the hills. Think rather of the scene in a city street, where one day, before Naw-Ruz, one finds that the handcarts are all selling boxes of violets ready for planting. We studied it in a class on Persian literature , at Leiden University, taught by Asghar Seyed-Gohrab. My translation is in “creative Commons.”

How lovely, towards the end of March,
the migration of émigré violets.

In one of the luminous afternoons of early spring,
unannounced, they bring the violets
from clammy shadows
into the perfumed satin of spring,
in little wooden boxes
with their roots and their soil (a mobile homeland).

A brook of a myriad murmurings
comes bubbling up in me.

I wish, I wish,
that on a certain day,
a man could take his motherland with him
like violets in dirt boxes,
wherever he wanted:
in the luminous rain
in pure sunlight.

~Sen McGlinn

tehran firesA poem that is fire,
by Nader Naderpour,
born in Tehran 1929, died in exile, 2000

شعریست در دلم
There is a poem in my heart,
شعری که لفظ نیست ‚ هوس نیست ‚ ناله نیست
a poem unarticulated, neither longing nor complaint,
شری که آتش است
a poem that is fire.
شعری که می گذارد و می سوزدم مدام
A poem that liquifies, that burns me continually,
شعری که کینه است و خروش است و انتقام
a poem of vengeance and retribution, a poem that shouts,
شعری که آشنا ننماید به هیچ گوش
a poem that will not fall familiar on any ear,
شعری که بستگی نپذیرد به هیچ نام
a poem that will not be bound to any name.
شعریست در دلم

There is a poem in my heart,
شعری که دوست دارم و نتوانمش سرود
a poem I love, though I cannot recite it.
می خواهمش سرود و نمی خواهمش سرود
I wish I could recite it, yet I do not wish to recite it.
شعری که چون نگاه نگنجد به قالبی
A poem that like a glance, cannot be confined in any form,
شعری که چون سکوت فرو مانده بر لبی
a poem that dies on one’s lips like the silence,
شعری که چون شوق زندگی و بیم مردن است
a poem like the longing for life and the fear of death
شعری که نعره است و نهیب است و شیون است
and a poem that clamours, a poem of terror and lamentation,
شعری که چون غرور بلند و سرکش است
a poem as tall and proud as arrogance,
شعری که آتش است
a poem that is fire.

شعریست در دلم
There is a poem in my heart,
شعری که دوست دارم و نتوانمش سرود
a poem I love, though I cannot recite it,
شعری از آنچه هست
a poem about the way things are
شعری از آنچه بود
a poem about the way things were.

This poem dates from 1954, just after the CIA-backed coup that deposed the democratically elected government of Iran, in which Mohammad Mosaddeq was the Prime Minister, and replaced it with the absolute rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Today, what can one say?
يزيد و شمر – به شام برو


The thief and the moonbeam

roof21This is a story from Nasrollaah Monshi’s version of Kalila va Demna, which he prepared for Sultan Bahraamshaah of Ghazna sometime after 1144 AD. Kalila va Demna is a cycle of fables, strung together by two jackals called Kalila and Demna, who have adventures and tell tales. The tales enter history as the Panchatantra, a Sanskrit text from Kashmir dated around 300 AD. Barzuyeh made a Pahlavi translation for King Anushirvan (a.k.a Chosroes I) in the sixth century, Ibn al-Muqaffa` translated that into Arabic in the eighth century, and Abu’l-Ma`alii Nasr-Allar Munshi made his Persian prose version from that.

The thief and the moonbeam is the second story told in the chapter for a physician (pages 49-50 in the annotated University of Tehran edition of 1343sh/1964-5 AD). We studied it in our class on Persian literature beyond Iran, at Leiden University, taught by Gabriella van den Berg. My translation is in “creative Commons.”

The situation is that one of the characters in the fable is being compared to a certain ignorant and unperceptive man:
One night, he went stealing with his friends. The master of the house woke from the noise they made moving about, and knowing that those on the roof were thieves, he quietly woke his wife and explained the situation. He told her: “I will pretend to be asleep, and you start to speak to me in such a way that they hear your voice. Then ask me as urgently as possible, ‘where did you get all this wealth?’” His wife did as he said, and the question was asked as planned. The man said,

“Don’t ask this, for if I tell you the truth, someone will hear and it will be revealed to the people.” His wife repeated the question and insisted urgently. The man said,

“All this wealth I have came from stealing, for I am a master of the craft. I know a spell: on moonlit nights I would stand in front of the walls of the houses of the rich and powerful, and say seven times, ‘shaulam, shaulam,’ and put my hand in the light of the moon, and I was carried to the roof in one movement. Then I would stand above an airshaft and say again seven times, ‘shaulam,’ and the moonbeam would carry me down into the house. Once more I would say shaulam seven times. All the coins in the house would become visible to me; I would take as much as I could carry and once more say seven times, ‘shaulam’ and go up through the airshaft of the house on a moonbeam. Thanks to this spell, no-one could see me and no-one suspected me. I acquired the wealth that you see little by little. But be careful that no-one learns this word, for that would do great harm.”

The thieves heard this and were very happy to have learned that spell. They waited for some time. When they imagined that the people of the house were asleep, the leader of the thieves said ‘shaulam’ seven times and stepped out over an airshaft. That was that: he fell down head-first. The master of the house had a club and hit him over the shoulders, and said,
“Have I worked hard all my life and earned wealth so that you can put it on your back and make off with it, you cur? Speak up! Who are you? The thief said,
“I am that ignorant fool: your beguiling words (lit: hot breath) have led me up the garden path (lit: have seated me on the wind), until I imagined I could lay a prayer mat on the surface of the water. As the flame seizes on dry tinder, fire has fallen on me. I’ve suffered a blow to the neck: now throw a handful of dust after me, so that I may be heavy.
The last idiom (اکنون مشتی خاک پس من انداز تا گرانی ببرم ) must have a history, and I would love to know it. Was throwing dust after someone’s heels the 12th-century equivalent of throwing your shoe at them? Has it something to do with funeral rites?


The eagle’s pride

haastseagleThis cautionary tale from Nasir Khosrow exists in many variants. Several versions are available on the internet:
search on روزی ز سر سنگ عقابی به هوا خاست
We studied it in our class on Persian literature beyond Iran, at Leiden University, taught by Gabriella van den Berg, using the version in the Divan edited by M Minuvi, Tehran 1372, page 499. Your suggestions are welcome – my translation is in “creative Commons”

One day an eagle rose in the air from the top of a rock,
spurred by greed he arranged his feathers.
Looking at his feathers so rightly arranged, he said,
“Today the whole face of the earth is under my wing.
When I reach the highest point, I can fly from the eye of the sun,
I can see a mere morsel deep in the sea.
If a midge but wriggles on the end of a leaf
that wriggling midge is seen by my eyes.”

He boasted much, and had no fear of God’s decree.
Now see, what cruel fate dealt out:
Suddenly, one strong bow struck from an ambush:
as fate and God’s decree would have it, an arrow sped straight at him.
That liver-piercing arrow entered the eagle’s wing
and threw him from his cloud to earth.
He fell to the ground, thrashed around like a fish,
then pulled his own feathers out, left and right.
He said, “What’s a wonder is, it’s made of iron and wood,
where does it get its swiftness and flight?”
He looked at the arrow, saw his own feather on it, and said:
“What am I complaining about? What came from me, returned to me.”
The moral is: banish boasting from your head
look at what came of the eagle who boasted.
–tr. Sen McGlinn, 2009


Rumi and the cross-eyed man

This is a fragment from Book 1 of Rumi’s Mathnavi. He introduces the story :

There was a tyrannical king among the Jews,
a foe to Jesus, and woe to the Christians.
It was in the first days of the age of Jesus,
(He, loving Moses, who was loved by Moses).
God had made the king cross-eyed, in how he acted;
those two Godly companions, for the king, were distinct.

bottle2The King is ‘cross-eyed’ (metaphorically) in that he sees Jesus and Moses as distinct, even contradictory. This is then illustrated by a story within the story, about a cross-eyed student, or servant, who looks at one bottle and sees two:

A teacher told a cross-eyed man, “Go in,
quickly, bring out that bottle from the room.”
The cross-eyed man said, “Which of the two bottles must I bring to you?
You ought to explain what you want in full.”
The teacher said, “Go: that is not ‘two bottles’,
uncross your eyes, see no multiples.”
He said, “Master, don’t make fun of me.”
He answered, “Throw down one of them.”
When one was broken, both disappeared.
The man had gone cross-eyed from impulse and anger,
There was one flask, two showed in his eyes;
when he broke the one, the other was gone.

Rage and desire will make a man cross-eyed,
rectitude transmutes the spirit.
When self-interest comes in, the virtues hide,
your heart throws a hundred veils over your eyes.
If the judge gives the bribe a home in his heart,
how will he distinguish wrong-doer from wronged?


Parvin E’tesami (1907-1941)

God’s weaver

web4This is a debate poem, between a busy spider and a lazy fellow, but beginning with an extensive section of description. I’ve translated just this introduction.

Such fables, in which animals or insects teach wisdom, are found in many world literatures, and the spider is a common enough figure in them. What makes this poem of particular interest is that the spider, and the idler, are not simply universal figures. The poem is also an allegory, the spider and the weaver represent something specific in Iran around the 1930’s. The question is: what do they represent? Is it the woman, who works indoors, her work unappreciated? The intellectual, tirelessly spinning lines? The mystic, detached from the world? The poet? The woman poet? And who is this lazy fellow: Iran itself, as a broken land, the Iranian male, the philistine who sees no point in intellectual work, mysticism, or poetry? Or is it the author’s male literary critics who found it hard to believe that a woman could write, and attributed Parvin’s work to others? See what you think.


An idler’s fallen in a corner,
firm in form but broken and anguished.
He sees a spider, hard at work above the doorway,
detached from all the world’s vicissitudes,
spinning determination’s spindle, ignoring
all but the path of exertion and work.
Fallen behind the door, but looking ahead,
always in ambush, for the sake of the chase.
Up and down, here and there
spinning threads as fine as hair,
hanging veils, seen and concealed,
gleaming saliva is wound into yarn.

Without words or argument, the spider gives lessons,
cooks up a counsel out of raw thread:
craftsmen set to work like this,
while the ball’s in play they play the ball.

Now tearing down, now building up,
now descending, now ascending:
the work gets done without a tool.
A hundred circles without a compass,
of angles no shortage, triangles too,
who taught this architect such craft?

How clever the trader, who makes such gains,
the warp and woof are both the same!
Dancing down and dancing up: one hour of yarn-winding, and then
an age as an acrobat, balanced on rope.
Humble, resourceless, head held high;
plain and simple-hearted, loving a challenge.
A master of maths, with its rules and its lines,
planning and making faultless fine carpets.


As for me: while it is tempting to think that this is the tale of the intellectual and Iran, I think the spider is the mystic and the idler an irreligious person. “How clever the trader, who makes such gains” refers to exchanging perishable benefits for a timeless happiness. The metaphors of descending and ascending, in several places, represent the soul’s journey from innocent bliss, via experience, to conscious bliss. But that’s just my reading.

~~ Sen McGlinn

2 Responses to “Literature”

  1. Kay Marie said


    The poetry section seems an apt place to leave a remark re: a poem you wrote in ?1983, the opening lines are:
    “Seven tenths of our blue planet lie embraced in the salt queens arms, we too bleed salt, and our tears find fragments of her crystal crown…”

    How do I know this beautiful poem? Well it had a long and circuitous route to my mailbox. I corresponded from time to time with Roger White whose never ending networking and encouraging of writers and poets enkindled my desire to write. In one of his letters he Xeroxed this poem and sent it to me, on the bottom it said; “to Roger White forwarded through a Heather Simpson…” Small world indeed! Here it is 20 some years later I find you have a website and salute you for your good works!!

    In the last letter Roger sent me before he ‘took leave’ he said, “I shall think of you often, breathe good thoughts your way, and if possible, from some future vantage point in the next realm, beam down guidance and protection” It has been said that we are all in a chain of Command binding the oaths together, while a rather think in this realm at times, ‘we’re in a chain of command binding the oafs together…I think Roger would smile at that!
    Thank you for your beautiful and sensitive soul!
    Kay Marie

  2. I too corresponded with Roger, about poetry, and how to take it forward. His “Notes postmarked ‘the Mountain of God'” has a few lines from my “New Vessels” – as a friendly wink to me but also as a reminder of a discussion we had about the possible shapes for longer poems or structures containing poetry. We were both looking for something more extensive and articulated than the individual lyric. I chose the journey poem, he tried the pilgrimage poem. By making the link I suppose he is also inviting readers and writers to see the two works as part of a (potential) genre, and perhaps add to it.

    There is more of my poetry at
    The ‘letter to Roger White’ is in the last category on that page.

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