Rumi and Sultan Walad, literary notes

By: | Post date: 2009-04-22 | Comments: 6 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek
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I’ll get into linguistic observations separately, but some literary notes here, including comments on the restoration of the text, and on its cultural particularities.

  • The use of the Greek theological term σκήνωμα “hut, tabernacle” for the mortal body is noticeable, and establishes that Walad had been talking about Christianity with the local Greeks, and didn’t just speak market Greek.
  • Dunno anything about Sufiism, but the language of the poems strikes me as homoerotic. I’m seeing a lot of denunciations of any such interpretation online, and I’m not particularly interested in getting into an argument on it. I will note though that this has affected the editing of the poem. In particular, the adjective λυγερός “slender” is commonly used in ballads and romances to praise the physique of women—it ends up a mere conventional reference. Seeing that kind of physical praise in the masculine gender gave me a start. It also gave Mertzios a start, which is why he emended καλή μέρα, λιγυρέ! πώς (εί)στε; καλά ‘στε; “Good day, slender (man)! How are you? Are you well?” to καλή μέρα, λιγυρή, πού ‘στην, καλώς την “Good day, slender (girl), where had you been? Welcome.” Since the very next verse addresses τσελεμπή çelebi, “gentleman”, the emendation’s pretty pointless. And the reading αγά, πού ‘σαι “where are you, agha” (probably severely anachronistic—would the Seljuks have had aghas at all?) looks pretty silly, once Dedes gives the much more straightforward (male–to–make) αγαπώ σε “I love you”.
  • The history of how the text was reconstructed is a lot of fun, and I tried to capture that by putting the different redactions side to side. It’s like sense slowly emerges out von Hammer’s morass, emendation by emendation. (Or sense dissolves away, if you read it the other way.) This may have made the page unreadable, for which my half-hearted apologies.

  • Mertzios’ emendations are sometimes brilliant, sometimes dumb. Making up “Bisna” as a Seljuk province in Gazal 81 (and hoping it might be Turkish for Bithynia) was pretty lame. And the emendation of ταφή “burial” to θανή “death” in the Rababnama is the wrong aesthetic: Mertzios wants to avoid two lines rhyming with the same word, but Persian poetry does that all the time. On the other hand, the turnout of pussy and dick in the same Gazal—ok, ok, that’s prurient (“très licentieux”, Mertzios admits), but it leads to a marvellous reading by Dedes. And there’s no way Gazal 885 would have had παντοδαπά “from all places”: much too learned for this text.
  • The earliest editions are much too inclined to read Classical words into the text in general (when they’re not referring to Saint Augustin). δοκάση “to wait” proposed for the Rababnama is Sophocles, it has no place here.
  • Dedes is at times more reluctant to intervene with the vocalisation than I’d have been. Gazal 81’s η ψιλή μου “my thin one” for ﺁبسیلیمو âbsylymw will make any Greek-speaker think η ψωλή μου “my dick”, and that’s what Mertzios had suggested. I’d have dropped the extra yeh. Gazal 504 κείτην may reflect the manuscript’s کیتن kytn, but it’s not Greek; and by spelling it like that instead of κοίτην “bed”, Dedes is admitting what is obvious from context: this must be κείνην “her”, which would read کینن kynn (one dot’s difference from kytn) or کینین kynyn.
  • The emendation of Gazal 81 by Dedes, after little hints from Mertzios, is brilliant, especially given how the previous editors had no idea what to make of it. Three elemental human urges—food, warmth, sex—gently chided by Walad, and contrasted with the spiritual urge to have a clean soul. The problem is, the emendation πείνασα εγώ θέλω φαγί “I’m hungry, I want food” corrects فنی fny to فغی fghy, and in so doing breaks the assonance: /ˈroðini ˈfeni faˈɣi ɣoˈni muˈni ˈluni/. I’m sure Dedes is right about πείνασα /pinasa/ “I have grown hungry” for بینسا bynsa, but if ghayn and nun have been confused, as Dedes suggests, they’d have to be confused by Walad himself. Do I have an alternative for fny? φαγίν or φαΐν [faˈʝin, faˈin] for “food” isn’t quite the right assonance as fny, and has the yeh in the wrong place—it’s fyn. Maybe Walad really did just confuse this one.
  • The poets ignore accent in their rhymes, which makes them sound like they don’t really rhyme in Greek. (That’s why I dismissed it as assonance just then.) But the Rababnama has the Cole-Porteresque (and typically Persian) χείλη εκεί ~ χίλιοι εκεί “lips there ~ thousands there”.
  • Dedes reports that the image of a drop becoming the sea, representing Man dissolving into God, is a commonplace of Persian poetry, since Saadi.
  • The smashed glass of Rumi is, again copying from Dedes, a recurring motive of Persian poetry, particularly the legendary Cup of Jamshid, used as a crystal ball. (So why smash it? Is this some “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” thing?)
  • Dedes doesn’t know whether Rumi’s Arabic is quoting the Koran or just imitating it: “O people, we came to you meaning to be sacrificed for your love. Since we have seen you our desires have become clear”. Assembled Wisdom Of The Interwebs? The only hits for یا قوم اتیناکم are to Rumi online, so it presumably is indeed an imitation.
  • The image I liked the best? “I see the sea, and others see mud.” Note the Early Modern Greek false friend: πηλός in the contemporary language only means “clay”. I don’t know what “You give no joy: give the wind” alludes to, so I may be more impressed by it than I should be.


  • George says:

    The use of σκήνωμα as “body” is startling indeed. But notice here the synthesis of Christian doctrine with a Pythagorean and Platonic metaphor: the use of “tent” as “body” originates in the concept of God ‘setting tent’ among us (John 1:14), while Rumi refers to “our body being a tomb of our soul” (as in Gorgias and Cratylus).

    Let me also mention here the use of σκήνωμα as “copse” by secular Byzantine writers such as Malalas and Tzetzes, as well as its most unusual use as “tomb” (non-metaphorically) by Niketas Choniates.

  • opoudjis says:

    In theory, but is where it would redirect to if the website email address was working. I’ll see what the hell is up to with my email redirection when I’m awake (τρεις το πρωί εδώ, κωλοβαρούσα στο φέισμπουκ). Χίλια ευχαριστώ πάντως!

    Thanks for refs. Since (alas and alack) I did not move to Greece or Germany (which was the only way I could keep being an academic linguist) I doubt I could do much more with them any more than blog some superficialities about them. But I am intrigued; this is after all a part of my home town’s history that has been blotted out. (Then again, Sitia did not have much of a history between 1650 and 1870 anyway—though I only found that out through Wikipedia last year 🙁

  • I tried three times to send the material, but something seems to be wrong. Is the address correct?

  • Well you see, I am a historian dealing with Ottoman history; I know only little things about Arabic literature, a little more about Persian, somehow better versed on Ottoman. So I cannot really speak on Rumi’s poems, since my Persian is too poor. The Cretan verses were sent to me by a Turkish colleague to have a look at the Greek parts. I am sending you by mail some material. A scholar that has dwelt much on aljamiado literature (Greek in Ott. script, and vice versa) is Yorgo Dedes of SOAS (London).

  • opoudjis says:

    … Ya (یا) Diver of Sinks, (1) Welcome to my pedantic abode, and (2) Cretan Muslim *anything* in Greek, or even semi-Greek? Want! Reference?

    There are some annoying lacunas in Greek reviews of what material is available in dialect. Cretan in Arabic script is one such blind spot; Cretan in Hebrew script was another. (I’ve just found out about the latter from a friend—no details yet, but I will post when I know more.)

    I’d clicked from my quick googling that there was controversy around, concerning how to read Rumi’s sexuality, but I defer to commenters…

    (Βέβαια γίνομαι οφθαλμοφανής να αλλάζω γλώσσα με το εξής, αλλά δε βρίσκω ημέιλ να σου το στείλω προσωπικά: ελπίζω πως θα βρουν τα ιστολογήματα περί Ρουμή και φιλοπερίεργοι μουσουλμάνοι, που ενδεχομένως πάντως να έχουν τις νοοτροπίες περί του θέματος που διεπίστωσα στον ιστό. Δεν έβλεπα ιδιαίτερο λόγο να τους γίνω προκλητικός, όταν η ομοερωτική αισθητική των σουφήδεν δεν είναι δα και το κύριο μέλημά μου. Τέλος πάντων, όπου οδηγήσει η συζήτηση, οδήγησε.

    Btw, I just assumed you were one of 40kos’ fearsomely clever commenters; I had no idea you deal with Arabic and Persian lit! Anything about these verses you found interesting? I’m curious about how consistent they are with the poets’ Persian verses—and whether the Western translators have missed anything…

  • Well, really an impressive blog! I would argue that yes, you are right on seeing homoerotic imagery in Rumi’s and Walad’s poems; it is a thorny issue after the change in attitude from the mid-nineteenth century onwards (see e.g. Dror Ze’evi, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900, Univ. of California Press 2006). I have seen similar mixed verses in some poems by a Cretan Muslim ca. 1800, closely imitating Rumi’s style but in a Cretan dialectal version.

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