Yet Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose! That Youth's sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the branches sang, Ah whence, and whither flown again, who knows! Omar Khayyam
If you linger too long in the world everything dissipates like a dream. Goethe Knots unravelled by the road, but not the knot of human fate. OK.
(Hafez readings - fāl-e hāfez فال حافظ)
Barbara Schwepcke has a talent for bringing poets and people together. She does it continually, across borders and more recently on stage in Berlin and now in London. To catch up with her is yet another matter. I caught up with her as she drove to Cambridge in high winds. A few days later we talked again when she was back in her London office. In my lockdown she was still moving, publishing new things and keeping alive what should not be lost. She was recently in India, Iran and Egypt. Barbara treads lightly but passionately in the footsteps of Lady Anne Blunt and Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868–1926). Gertrude Bell marked out territories in the desert sand and translated parts from the Divan of Hafiz (Hafez-e Shirazi, Persian poet, 1325-90) into English. As a result of her pro-Arab insights into self-determination in Mesopotamia she earned a seat at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris.
Today, Barbara’s interests are the music of poetry; the wisdom in its expression and like Goethe sees it as a strong contemporary unifying bridge of peace between East and West. Goethe galvanizes her, he is her catalyst. Barbara is, and isn’t, Suleica or Marianne von Willemer. Barbara is Barbara currently concerned with the plight of Muslim women who are largely confined indoors. Some such disturbing stories were poignantly described to us by a friend, including the difficult task of rescuing girls at high risk to get them to some higher degree of safety from abuse. Barbara Schwepcke, Founder of Haus Publishing and of the Gingko Trust is a cultivator of conversations between East and West in a contemporary spirit. They manage to bridge two time gaps equivalent to a millennium of Persian poetry and two centuries on from Goethe. As with Goethe she concentrates on cultural dialogue based on recognition and respect that we are all made of the same clay by potters with universal roots. Her work is of the utmost significance today in a world of spreading hate and bigotry, where fear of the Other, alien or migrant, command our daily reality and exacerbate racism.
Goethe sent his poetic ghazal, Gingko Biloba to Marianne or was it Suleica? To it he had pasted a gingko leaf. Goethe praised the “raised glass of Hafiz to happiness under the vine as he saw goodness in every blossom”. The beginnings of the East he saw in the West whose other end was the East, which makes an impact in his celebrated and Koranic in expression line: “to god belongs the Orient, to god belongs the Occident. Northern and Southern lands rest in the peace of His hands”.
Two German scholars, I should say two giants, have always impressed and intrigued me. By name they are Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, with so many things, ocean currents, squids and universities named after him and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) a writer and statesman whose works include: West–Eastern Divan or a collection of lyrical poems inspired by the Persian poet Hafez. Divan means a record of events and Hafez means someone knowing the scriptures. The Persian poet knew the Koran by heart. Humboldt used cosmos (Kosmos) a word from ancient Greek for his treatise attempting to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture. Almost a century later came Einstein with a unified field theory that attempted to place the physical forces within nature under one theoretical umbrella. By the age of 25 Goethe was a literary celebrity. At about 65 he added work that symbolized an exchange between Orient and Occident, Germany and Middle East as well as between Latin and Persian cultures and Christian and Muslim worlds. Goethe was inspired by the motto of Treasure trove of the Orient a German journal, editor Joseph von Hammer an Austrian scholar. His work The West-Eastern Divan published in 1819 was considered as indescribable magic by Heine and a peace be with you message from Goethe to the East.
One landmark on Goethe’s journey to close the gap, was his poem with the pasted leaves from the Gingko tree. Admit it he says the poets of the orient are greater than we are of the occident. Even so we are completely on a par with them in hatred of their counterparts! The Gingko is Barbara’s logo, a symbol of hope, long life and deep affection. Her new divan lifts a glass in remembrance of her beloved Mark. “Love listen to me at night, most of all at night”.
Poetry is a bridge, a unifier. Poetry lies at the heart of Arabic culture as a means to record belief, folly, wisdom and philosophy. From the time when wine symbolized the love of god and the Greeks held back the Persians, Asia in the East has helped the emergence of the identity of the West. As in eastern poetry so in this division there is a girl. It was Europa from Tyre, with her wide-eyed gaze that enchanted Zeus. In Persian poetry it is Suleica.
Goethe’s Divan consists of twelve books of poetry with different foci: parables, historical allusions, pieces of invective, politically or religiously inclined poetry mirroring the attempt to bring together Orient and Occident. Various poems have been set to music by Franz Schubert and many others and Suleica has become melodic. Now we have some new breath taking poetry: “I am searching for blood for my poem. My fingers grow sharp as I write it. I find Suleika in a refugee camp. The hot iron she carries burns and blisters her fingers. On the wall, a photo of her dead brother; I can see how her hands bleed as she does the dishes, how her beauty is there in the rags she wears”. What a way to weigh in on migration?
I was always fascinated by the Orient, 1001 nights, Aladdin, the wilder shores of love, the Orient Express and Omar Khayyam, thrilled by oriental music, which did something pleasant to the spleen and I was attracted by romance to Persian markets where love and I came face to face. It seems that the one given in both fact and fiction was the existence of a mysterious female. Today it is Helga (and real) known in China as the Lady of the New Silk Road. Yesterday, it was Hilda von Einem a fictitious goddess of the north stirring up a Muslim jihad against the Allies in the Grune Mantle and the many other European women drawn by legend, pulled by an eastern star towards the Wilder Shores of Love far from boredom. Yeats the Irish poet, Sailing to Byzantium would have found a little wine shop in Constantinople and talked to philosophers who would answer all his questions, probably in Greek.
Standing on the Bosporus and looking east is an experience to be felt in youth. Neither Yeats nor Goethe made it to the Orient, I did. And so did Barbara Schwepcke. We were a decade and more apart.
The history of Orientalism is rich in tales of Westerners masquerading in Oriental costume in assuming new identities as if wanting to become, and not simply to master, the Other; T.E. Lawrence on his camel and Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss explorer in Algeria, dressed as a man, a convert to Islam, who recast herself as Si Mahmoud Saadi at the turn of the twentieth century. It is Eileen who died with the partisans, several travelers in search of ethnography and a better understanding of the Balkans and its conflicts; Margaret who spent time studying archeology in Athens and almost two decades in Albania as did the better known Rebecca West and Edith Durham; in WWII some were drawn into British Special Operations. More recently a brilliant fictional CIA agent Carrie Anne Mathison covered in an abaya and with occasional outbursts of erratic behavior a result of a bipolar disorder plunges into the eastern alleys, sokakia, calderimia and souk. She is fighting terrorism, Russian meddling in American politics and a conspiracy within to take down the president.
When young a fertile imagination can develop and be used in a myriad ways; its restless imagination is an endless bridge to vast lands of otherness. It is capable of creating other worlds. In India cholera kills people like flies and an unhappy brat of a girl is sent back to Yorkshire and discovers a transforming secret garden. Greenmantle unfolds in two action-packed months during the First World War. Richard Hannay soldier-spy and the James Bond of his day, convalesces after returning from the Western Front only to be summoned by the Foreign Office, Intelligence. Leaving England, he takes a slow boat down the Danube to Constantinople passing Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade.
I found my first copy of the classic poem, the Rubaiyat by the 11th century Persian Omar Khayyam on a stall in a northern market and later gave it away to a girl. It was a brilliant translation-interpretation by Edward Fitzgerald. Khayyam was revered for his groundbreaking work in astronomy and mathematics. I was struck and maybe awestruck by his poetry of practical fatalism, its different advice of “do not today tomorrow’s pains endure but enjoy each given moment now. Come raise the wine glass high and do imbibe, for night and pain shall surely pass, so fast this caravan of life flits by”. At that time I had not yet tasted wine. Then I knew not the word ghazal but I read: “How swiftly does this caravan of life pass; Seek thou the moment that with joy does lapse. Saghi, why lament tomorrow’s misfortunes today? Bring forth the chalice, for the night shall pass”. Oscar Wilde saw the Rubaiyat as a masterpiece in the league of Shakespearean sonnets. Garcia Lorca used the form of the ghazal of Hafez as an acknowledgement of the Arabic influence on Spanish culture. I used it in my ode to COVID, which in lockdown, locked out wine.
Persia - Iran is a cradle of civilization with a deep and colorful culture. It dates back to 5,000 BC; the founding of Susa with early writing from approximately 3,000 BC. Over the centuries Iranians have made many contributions to science, art and to literature. In the 7th century the region was conquered by Arabs. Persians converted to Islam and started to use Arabic script for their language. Iranians recreated a united country in 1501. In our times the citizens of Iran changed from Persian to Iranian.
In Samarkand, Omar Khayyam was seen as an impious poet writing about wine and women and with a philosophy that mocked Islam. Arriving there from Persia, he was recognized by hooligans, denounced as an infidel and brought before a judge who recognized his genius; the judge gave him a small blank book whispering, whenever a verse emerges in your head write it down on these sheets. They will stay hidden. From this fortunate beginning a new legend emerged of a great poet saved and the birth of the Rubaiyat. The original manuscript was first held by the Assassins until their fortress is destroyed, lost and found over the years, passed down, it is now finally read by fish at the bottom of the Atlantic having gone down with the Titanic. What a story! It was written by Maalouf as a poetical link to philosophy, passion and geopolitics. Under similar geopolitical circumstances, Ippatia a pagan polymath was hacked to death by a Christian mob.
Hafez-e Shirazi was a Persian poet (1325-90) whose works in the Divan are regarded as a high point of Persian literature. His life and poems has been the subject of much analysis, commentary and interpretation. They have had a far reaching influence on Persian writing ever since. They have been translated into Latin, English and German. In Goethe they were transformative. Persian poetry is an expression of the human condition and its passions; the transience of life with intellectual and political contributions. Irony, the theme of hypocrisy, and a critique of religious and ruling establishments of the time are defining features of the poetry of Hafez. Satire developed during the 14th century, within the courts of the Mongol Period. In this period, Hafez and other notable satirists, such as Ubayd Zakani, produced a body of work that has since become a template for the use of satire as a political device.
Gingko now presents us with a new translation of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan as well as two others of three published handsome books. Barbara leaves her distinctive signature on all three. Her gaze looks East and the East-West Divan is once again just around the corner. Barbara is the force behind her team and in the organization of several inspiring celebrations as the festival organizer and Gingko publisher. The first was a celebration with Andrea Kidd at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, where the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a project uniting Israeli and Arab musicians, got underway in Weimar in 1999. It took place in 2019, two hundred years after Goethe’s publication and featured a poetic re-examination of Germany 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and East-West relations at a time of rising right wing politics across Europe.
In Barbara’s New Divan, Daniel Barenboim, philosopher of life, a musical genius and a citizen of the world quotes Goethe, and when people are divided by mutual contempt, neither can acknowledge that they are striving for the same thing. The second forward is written by Mariam Said whose father taught at Columbia speaks of the suspension of jarringly antagonist perspectives in the interests of music when for three weeks young Arab and Israeli musicians came together to discover the Other in the spirit of Goethe’s, whoever knows himself and others will come to know that orient and occident are not separate. But still one poetically persistent question remains, is the East veering away from the West offering its heavens to another moon? Is our world steering away from peace and towards potential devastation posed by nuclear weapons either by accident or by intent when both olive branch and gingko leaf lose their symbolism? Will the bridge collapse as COVID spreads dividing nations and becomes a super spreader, multiplier and an accelerator of all bad things? One answer is not if Barbara can help it. Barbara is enchanted with Goethe and her today’s poets. Her publication and promotion of poetry is timely. It provides direction away from lunacy.
The West is behind you but the East is not before me, two banks of one river. Weavings of the winds, sparks that can kindle imperial cities. Flames rage furiously, thoughts breathe, words burn, wine intoxicates. What can we do with this already made world? Underway is the way and we can only finish the journey. On every path from desert to town I wander with caravans, trade in shawls, coffee, musk. Through bazaars, past donkey carts lining the dirt road and rosary beads draped on the hand. With Crimson shades, Eastern roses, the Roses of Shiraz, the cup of Jamshid, obedient water and worlds contained within the wine. To sip, kiss over kiss. Rose of hope, the stupidity of hate and hope in harm’s way. Insane shadows, I tasted them, spoke them, though I said I wouldn’t. With ruffled locks near midnight you come in disarray. Return for a night as the moon turns full. Fiery eyes, the loveliest things she owns. Love, listen to me at night, most of all at night. Time will pass, all must change, what is human and what is stone? At dusk I stand beside the well, facing darkness of night, the terror of the waves. I read the cosmos as a sacred text, a perfume that is love, the first alphabet in Persepolis declares our human grace. A glance of the beloved! My ancient love is she asleep? Who lies beneath your spell, tonight? Loves, don’t take me home again, least of all to that house, especially not at night. I’m still looking for the man who used to burn inside my shirt, the hundred qualities of a camel, a lightning storm. Oh so rosy cheeks, those lily hands of sheer delight to poets, more precious than all the gems of Samarkand. Gardens are not for those who do not crave to know the flower’s soul. Singular experiences, multiple in meaning, listening to the stars. Upon the fates we will bestow the rose of hope. There are devils in the Orient, tyrants, but the bleeding finger is silent. I came to buy bread, 6 I am and haven’t left the street, renamed for the missile. Here the clock stopped. Truth bickered over by despots. Lies and misinformation rule the roost. 15 and hostage, held because of my deeper skin and darker hair. Carry my soul to the palm reader, take it to be fingerprinted. Return me to lemon trees in blossom and the cicadas call. The devil takes no interest in dried out bones that lie at peace. Earth has become a stray dog, kicked by a military boot. He fell through a smashed in anger mirror, finding himself on the other side, on the edge of a forest looking into a large swamp. Take me to the river where fish fall in love three times a day. Three times a day, they kill themselves. No better way to enter heaven, a return to stone, no heart. In the crimson shade of stars you’ll find my grief concealed in verse. Where are you from, again the same old question? I am a prophet of myself, without religion or followers. Not even on myself do I impose my invitation. To sit in burnt down places is commonplace. From today’s day, from tonight’s night, demand nothing but what yesterday brought. But up there on the roof a peacock, a peacock on the roof.
These are some words and phrases I hear when I think of Barbara. They tumble forth; different each time and I weave them together as a collage. They come mainly from the lyrical dialogue between East and West, her New Divan. My concentrated and freely branching cluster makes an effort to maintain rhythm, musicality and remain recitative, hoping to hear the poetry with its recurrent themes; the transience of life, the inevitability of death, and the importance of seizing the all-too-brief moment and the joyous errand we are allotted on earth. Everything is questioned, everything, which others take for granted: faith, the hereafter and life’s meaning; there is little confidence in religion’s promise, of heaven and hell and even doubt is expressed regarding the logic of God. It is infinitely philosophical.
My cluster is also a synopsis of Barbara’s numerous poets far removed from the typical graceful gilded covers of medieval Persian manuscripts, with a Greek bouzouki at the back and three peacocks with bejewelled tails stand, surrounded by intricate patterns and interwoven flowers. It is not by chance that UNESCO’s World Poetry Day is on the first day of spring as originally proposed by Mohammed Bennis of Morocco, a well-known Arabic poet.
My Khayyam is clear in his mind about man, and strange to tell among that earthen lot, some could articulate while others not. This life, certainly short, he cherished and lived it to the full telling us that when at the end arrives “Thyself with shining Foot shall pass, Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass, And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot, Where I made one - turn down an empty Glass!” He speaks of the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshid, Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose, And Jamshyd's Sev'n-ring'd Cup where no one knows; but still a Ruby kindles in the vine, and many a garden by the water blows. In the cup the hope of eternity still lurks.
While COVID’s “moving finger writes and moves on”, nothing of its dreadful passing can be cancelled out, tears shed can’t wash away the pain. Two benefits from breathing; in, extending life, out, bringing relief, from another Persian poet; more so if he has COVID-19 knowing that surviving the ventilator has a low probability. “The love between narcissist and mirror is mutual and he adores the law-any house he burns, anyone he kills, any massacre he orders is done in accordance with the law. Fake news, adulterated facts, money fiddling figures, jiggled statistics, lunacy designated as information and hate banners are carried through the streets”.
For the time being I am held for an eternity, “tell me where you are and I will bring you pen and paper, thread and needle, bread and oil and a drop of water”. From the many enforced and redirected changes of destiny without consent, emerge many of our problems today; to other places, plunged deep into the earth, beyond purpose with no one to return you home or back to the surface. All life should matter. There is a horrendous list of ruined lives from war, genocide, colonial misadventure, mass violence and state brutality against its own as well as against the other. “Something I fear, each hour is wrong”. Black lives matter. “Yesterday this day's madness did prepare; to-morrow's silence, triumph, or despair”. We can sink or swim. The messages can take us to a different world.
Barbara Schwepcke is allegro and alliterative, good at stringing things together, poetically and in her noble cause draws us with her as she “turns the earth towards paradise” and for the doubters of climate change with “woods stretching away, meadows and mountains rising up for when the flood comes, gentle streams and rushing rivers, seas and oceans full of fish and dancing whales”. She is driven and drives us to continue the dialogue across that bridge West-Eastern Divan started by Goethe two hundred years ago. One of her favorite stanzas is “know thyself and in that instant know the other and see therefore orient and occident cannot be parted for evermore”. She loves the gingko that eastern tree, more so its leaf that holds secrets. One secret is well known; she founded Gingko to promote lyrical dialogue, conversations that weave their way through poetry and she is succeeding. Her three enchanting books are a gift to be enjoyed by the reader and as reflections on German romanticism and humanitarian thinking destroyed by Nazism. Barbara is a free spirit telling us what the heart desires. In her book, “the East veering away from the west, offering its heavens to another moon” is not even on the agenda. Barbara Schwepcke imagines what can be; another world.
Gingko Trust: Goethe called Hafiz his twin and entered into a lyrical dialogue with the Other. His West-Eastern Divan was an attempt to broaden the understanding of the Islamic world. Today, two centuries on, Gingko seeks to advance the discourse. To this end the Werner Mark Linz Memorial Library of West Asian and North African Thought was established. The charity quickly became known as the Gingko Library, or simply Gingko. It was inspired by the poem Gingko Biloba by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
According to Goethe to be exemplary we must return to ancient Greece. Alexander invaded the Iranian empire when he was aged 22. He took with him an Aristotelian education. Justinian ousted Greek philosophers from Constantinople; many went East to give the Persian poets access to the works of Greece that were translated to Arabic and later passed on to the West. Dividing the desert from the sown is a simile to civilized-barbarian. Know thyself, and you will know the universe and the gods from Delphi. The lantern philosopher from his barrel at the entrance to the city would insult passersby as a means of pulling them up sharp, making them think. Shocking paradox aimed at unthinking believers is interlaced with Persian poetry.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The West-Eastern Divan, translated and annotated by Eric Ormsby, Hafiz, Goethe and the Gingko.
Inspirations for the New Divan, 2015-2019.
Barbara Schwepcke & Bill Swainson, Editors. A New Divan, A lyrical dialogue between East and West.
Search for Suleika, Abbas Baydoun from Tyre where Europa played.