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Uncle Sam’s Sufi tryst

Sufism has to be the flavour of the month. Not just here in India, but elsewhere in the region as well. After having tried guns and butter, ...

Written by Mohan K. Tikku |
March 18, 2005

Sufism has to be the flavour of the month. Not just here in India, but elsewhere in the region as well. After having tried guns and butter, the US government is now looking to Sufi poetry as a possible route to building bridges and winning hearts in Afghanistan. Later this week, the US state department is flying leading American poet and translator Coleman Barks to Afghanistan with plans to usher in Navroz with readings from Jelalludin Rumi’s poetry. This is part of a new initiative in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

The choice of the poet or the translator is no coincidence. In recent years, Rumi has become the most widely read poet in contemporary America; and Coleman Barks has played a major role in making that happen. His translations of the 13th century Persian poet have sold a record half million copies. His is also an eagerly sought after name on the mystic poetry reading circuit in the United States.

Barks himself is no establishment acolyte. His letter to George Bush earlier protesting over the invasion of Iraq was scathingly critical of American policies in West Asia. Over the years, Coleman Barks has developed an Indian connection as well. His interest in mystical poetry has turned him into a great admirer of Lalleshwari, the 14th century Kashmiri poetess, a selection of whose poems he has since translated into English.

He will be reading his translations to audiences in Kabul, Herat, Mazarisharif and Rumi’s boyhood home in Balkh. Barks’ own engagement with Rumi started in 1976 when fellow poet Robert Bly handed him a copy of the Persian poet’s verse with the exhortation: “These poems need to be released from their cages.”

He immediately got down to rendering the 13th century Persian compositions into contemporary American English. He admits, though, that his association with Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sri Lankan Sufi master now living in the United States, helped him capture the subtler shades of Rumi’s mystical thought.

He explains his phenomenal success with the Rumi translations in terms of a basic yearning for the ecstatic experience in Christian and western cultures: “It’s an interesting theory, but it’s still a real mystery why so many people have been carrying my books around, into boardrooms, corporations, airports.” His interactions with Afghans may help him make sense of that mystery.

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