As you’ve probably heard by now, Hollywood is making a new film about Rumi, the ecstatic Persian Poet who lived 800 years ago. The casting of Leonardo DeCaprio as Rumi is being criticized as a glaring example of Hollywood whitewashing.
At the same time, others are pointing out that Persians (Iranians) are actually the original Aryans and the Caucasus Mountains were part of the Persian empire, so why not cast DeCaprio?
For me, the controversy brings with it a more personal question: When did my relationship with Rumi begin?
To answer this, I first have to delve into the relationship Persians have with poetry. You see, I come from a culture in which poetry is as much part of a person as her very heartbeat. Poems are used in celebration, in welcoming sorrow and despair and even in resolving conflicts.
For Persians, poetry points to much more than a moment eloquently defined. It is one of the most powerful forms of communication and storytelling. It tells our common story weaved through the resilient and encrypted thread of verse. It has kept our spirit alive despite numerous invasions, wars, despotic governments and sanctions. We use poetry as a weapon to fight injustice and during the eight year war between Iran and Iraq that took a million lives and destroyed many more, we used it as our salvation. The words of poets like Hafez, Saadi, Ferdowsi and Rumi have been passed on from generation to generation and I cannot recall a time when they were not part of me. So in all honesty, I would have to say my relationship with Rumi began long before I was born. And in that I am not alone.
Having this perspective, the color of Rumi’s skin doesn’t really interest me. And it probably didn’t matter to Rumi either:
The Turk only knows how to be Turkish
The Tajik only knows how to be Tajiki
One moment I am Turkish, the next I am Tajiki
My question is, Can the Hollywood — that is, the west — really get the essence of Rumi without truly understanding the world from which he emerged?
We have to recognize that the flavor of mysticism in Rumi’s poetry comes through in the simmering stew of his Islamic roots, his experience as a refugee, his command of Arabic and Turkish, his love of playing chess and his reverence for the Old and the New Testament. What does Rumi look like if we take him out of the context that has given him this unique flavor? The answer is much more than skin deep. Let’s explore:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense
This Coleman Barks’ translation, cut off from its intricate context finds itself recited at wedding ceremonies, in therapists’ offices, meditation halls and on tattoos. When I speak of my love of Persian poetry, it is a common response to ask whether I know this poem. And frankly, until recently I hadn’t come across these verses in Farsi. I eventually did some research and found the verses.
از کفر و ز اسلام برون صحرائی است
ما را به میان آن فضا سودائی است
عارف چو بدان رسید سر را بنهد
نه کفر و نه اسلام و نه آنجا جائی است
For purposes of comparison I translated this poem using similar language to Barks’. Even so, I still arrived at a very different place. Not the attractive field where we drop all of our ideas and disagreements into the grass and have a picnic, but a stark desolate land of disillusionment:
Out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a desert
The desert beckons us as if it were the oasis
We long to hold one another in its lush grass
and drink from the clear spring
But don’t ask me to meet you there
For in that desert of disillusionment,
just as with wrongdoing and rightdoing,
you and I and even oneness
cease to exist
Here Rumi describes being at the edge of the desert of non-duality. Having gone through different stages of seeking, the seeker finds each stage an unsatisfactory mirage. When wealth, fame and love fail to bring happiness, one turns to spirituality. But that itself can become another mirage.
The desert beckons us as if it were the oasis…
In the New Age language of the west, non-duality tends to be seen as a sort of heaven. In this magical land, one can comfortably take a neutral stance towards conflict and become immune to the hardships of life. But Rumi sees right through this illusion.
But don’t ask me to meet you there...
To the seeker’s dismay, in this desert of non-duality, there is no grass, no clear spring and no lovers to be united. There is no family, no friends, no personal comfort and no You or I. Still eager for your jaunt into that grassy field?
Given this disparity between the two translations, can Hollywood tap into Rumi’s nectar and essence and represent his poetry in a way that would satiate both the Persians and the rest of the world? I remain skeptically curious. What I do know is that relying on scholars and limiting translations isn’t enough to do Rumi justice.
Think about it this way: What if we attempted to “free” Martin Luther King from the context of his Christian beliefs and the historical oppression of blacks in America? If we did, we would be denying two of the most important ingredients and driving forces that made Dr. King one of the most powerful figures in history. Similarly, to truly capture the essential Rumi, we cannot cut him out of the world that created him.
If Rumi had lived in the America we know, there would be little chance of him being a famous ecstatic poet. More than likely he would have been an utterly different creature. After all, it was Persian culture and the religion of Islam that were as much the muses for Rumi as his beloved Shams.
*To listen to these verses in Farsi, click here
This article was originally published in Elephant Journal.