Khayyam: an infinite pursuit

For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Played in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

I had committed to memory much of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by age two, perhaps earlier. This I know from a recording of me, around that time, reciting portions of the poet’s seminal work. My father loved Khayyam and so I likely received my first dose of the quatrains as early as my first vaccine.

I delivered the Rubáiyát with the intonations of a person who comprehended the gravity and context of the words, but had little understanding of the work and was merely mimicking the one with the real know-how, my father. He wasn’t alone in his love of the 11th century Persian poet and scholar. Khayyam’s straightforward inquiries engaged millions: He wasn’t in the business of story telling and teaching. Not a front for recording history or written in admiration of a royal, Khayyam’s work lacked the cloaks and ornamentation common to his contemporaries. Poetry was not a mode for Khayyam to show off his wordsmithery. Rather, it was a means for the thinker to explore philosophical questions. In just four lines—set to an a-a-b-a rhyme—, with what appears to be the epitome of simplicity, Khayyam delivers the doubt, uncertainty, bewilderment and mortality universal to all who exist.

In the afternoons of my childhood, when the sun saturated our Tehran living room with warmth, accenting airborne dust particles, the words of Khayyam often echoed through the house. The needle of our turntable traced the grooves of a vinyl producing sounds of collaboration between Khayyám, poet Ahmad Shamloo, classical vocalist Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, and composer Fereydoon Shahbazian in an album entitled Rubáiyát-e-Khayyám.

Shamloo’s tone and delivery, straightforward and pragmatic, almost terse and without accompanying music, highlights Khayyam’s realism and materialism, and burdens each stanza. When a recitation ends, a melody begins. Shajaryan’s earnest voice cushions the reading’s straight angles, alleviating some of the listeners’ load. At times, the two become a dichotomy of elements similar to those found in Khayyam’s deliberations—the gravity that is life and the levity necessary to seize the here and now. At other times, their dichotomy is only that of form, as they appear to sympathize with one another. Shahbazian’s score establishes an inventive space to combine and juxtapose sound and sentiment textures. The result is substantial and throughout the years, over many afternoons, we turned that LP over more times than I can count.

Our affinity for the album, like for any piece of powerful music, was due to the fact that the interpretations stirred up mysterious emotional responses in its listeners. In a section where Shajaryan sings, “may noosh ke omre javedanee in ast,” the urgent rhythm and rushing figurations of the melody and the accompaniment motivate the listener to “drink as this is the everlasting life…”and seize the moment. In another segment of the album, after Shamloo finishes reciting the quatrain that begins with “Afsoos ke be fayedeh farsoodeh shodim,” roughly translating to “Alas, that without warrant we’ve withered,” Shahbazian’s anxious pulsation in the background grows into an obsessively relentless repetition of a short, tormenting motive played by violins, evoking the feeling of the inexorability of fate.

By the time I left Iran at age 10, I had, many times, recited Khayyam’s quatrains—at festivals, talks, and poetry events. As I continued my foray into adulthood in the U.S. and in Kenya, I focused on other Persian greats—Hafez, Saʿdī, Molana and the likes—virtuosos of the embellished word—essentially pushing Khayyam into the background of my literary interests.

During my first year of college, I rediscovered the Rubáiyát in English. I was 16 years old and had purchased a copy of Khayyam’s quatrains at my local Barnes and Nobles in New Jersey. Even though we had a copy of the translations in Tehran and I’d perused it regularly, I never possessed enough understanding of the language to comprehend them. But years later, after bringing the text home, I became consumed with Edward Fitzgerald’s impressionistic transformations, often merging multiple poems into one essentially distilling the essence of Khayyam—philosophical materialism, nihilism, and hedonism—into English.

Soon, I’d marked many of the small volume’s pages with paperclips and Post-its and each evening when home from school, I’d linger on a page, and visualize the words into scenes, further descending into the bottomless spiral of Khayyam’s deliberations. One rubáiyii and in particular its last line became my fixation:

Alike for those who for Today prepare,
And those that after a Tomorrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!”

“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!” Here Khayyam and Fitzgerald ask—ironically through the voice of a Muezzin, the person who calls the crowd to prayer–what evidence there is for a better afterlife and a good one at that. This line of thinking is akin to what psychologists refer to as the Just-world Hypothesis, the necessity for humans to believe that if their actions are morally good, the consequences will be predictable and favorable. But through this dose of reality, Khayyam, a determinist, reminds us that no such favorable outcomes exist neither here in this world nor there, in the next.

Though the term agnosticism was devised several centuries after Khayyam, his texts are those of a person who was aware of the imperfect capability of humans to know. This uncertain approach, perhaps, stemmed from Khayyam’s skepticism: He realized that our knowledge is quite limited and that with its inadequate scope one should avoid claiming certainties. And if an individual can’t assert truths, how could one declare to grasp the unknowable?

Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.

In my 20s, my voice mature and my understanding multifaceted, my interpretation and recitation of Khayyam flowered. The running themes in the Rubáiyát took on starkness: The mysteries of creation, the pain of existence, our fate and its futility, possibility of a materialistic reincarnation and living in the now. Khayyam wondered how the elements arranged for us to be, why we were put into existence if our destiny was to vanish, and why fate was playing us as pawns? When tired of these musings, Khayyam turned to decadence, with the grape, not just to seize the moment, but also to forget the anguish that comes with being so aware.

How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

The boldness of these themes, too agonizing for us to ponder, and a mirror for our inevitable darkness, is how Khayyam excelled, as “the job of the artist,” according to playwright Arthur Miller, “is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

Further continuing my exploration of Khayyam, I asked my parents to send me his other works, such as his Norooz Nameh, history of the Persian New Year, and texts written on the poet. I also delved into his considerable mathematical and astronomical contributions. But the realities of existence continually had me back to studying the Rubáiyát —logical and expansive puzzles within the confinement of few words—reminding me of the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of its transient inhabitants.

For me, Khayyam has never been the poet to turn to when pining over a lost love or looking for delicate imagery. It is his inner uncertainty stemming from a position of contemplation that pulled me into and for so long kept me in Khayyam’s orbit: Over the years, I’ve taken every opportunity to re-read his work and collaborate on projects involving the Rubáiyát, visually depicting the quatrains, selecting a collection for a classical song cycle, and performing his work with other artists whenever the opportunity arose. But busy with other pursuits, it’s been a few years since I’ve revisited Khayyam.

Recently, my phone’s itunes radio set to a contemporary Persian musician, I stood in the kitchen washing dishes when, without warning, Shamloo’s voice echoed from my phone. I glanced over to the living room where my cat was basking in the sun that filled the expanse of my Brooklyn apartment, and that will continue to glow long after us, shut off the faucet and listened:

Ta key gham An khoram ke daram ya na
Veen omr be khosh deli gozaram ya na
Por kon ghadahe baadeh ke maalomam nist
Keen dam ke foroo baram bar aram ya na

Were it not Folly, Spider-like to spin
The Thread of present Life away to win—
What? for ourselves, who know not if we shall
Breathe out the very Breath we now breathe in!