Samarkand (Lebanon)

Samarkandby Amin Maalouf

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Samarkand. The very name breathes an exotic magic. When my friends Gary and Julia and I were kayaking in Japan, Samarkand was the perfume Julia and I used afterward. It came from the Body Shop and, of course, it has been discontinued.

Samarkand itself has survived several attempts to eradicate it. The city was raized by Chengis Khan once around the year 1000, and then rebuilt by Tamerlane around 1500. The old magic lingers, as it is now a World Heritage Site–the oldest inhabited city in Central Asia (500 BCE) and a crossroads of cultures.

I was surprised to see that Samarkand is located in the present-day Uzbekistan. In the time of Omar Kayyam, it was part of a Muslim world that stretched from Persia to Russia.

So what does all this have to do with Lebanon? The writer is Lebanese.

Who Was Omar Khayyam?

Omar KApparently this poet was quite the rebel. In a Muslim world, he was in favor of wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order. He wrote poems (rubaiyat) that questioned the wisdom of God, and then when he was called on the carpet for it, defended himself by saying of course he was a True Believer, or why would he be having a dialogue with God in the first place?

(I just heard a dialogue on NPR from Orman Pamuck (Turkey) about the difference in the Muslim world in ages past between public opinion and private opinion. Apparently the ruling classes’ public view on alcohol often differed from everybody else’s private views. It was a matter of what was safe to express in the open. Pamuck talked about the confusion and the difference between what is sincere and what is true. I didn’t understand that; presumably it makes sense if you are heavily censored.

Omar Kjayyam avoided politics, knowing they could get him killed. His lover Jahan was not so wise. She got wrapped up in the affairs of the Sultana of the day, because Jahan loved power. She was a court poetess, but unlike Omar, she was not adverse to having her mouth filled with gold coins in payment for her poems. She died when the palace was attacked by a rival faction for the throne.

Samarkand in the year 1000The poems of Omar Khayyam are with us today–the problem is that we don’t know exactly which ones were written by him and which were not. Over the centuries (Khayyam lived around the first millennium–1000 A.D.–) whenever poets wrote something seditious, they disavowed it and claimed it was from Omar Kjayyam. So…there is no way to tell which are his and which are not.

Interestingly, this book mentions Jamaladin, the son of Imam Shamil of Dagestan, the Chechin rebel fighting the Russians. He is a key player in the search for Omar Kayyam’s manuscript. It’s so Indiana Jones, complete with a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and a frantic flight from Tehran as an accused murderer’s accomplice.

TammarlaneIn college, I ran across this poem of Khayyam’s:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

And that was all I knew of him.

Who Are the Sufis?

Whirling Dervishes, different colorsI’ll be honest with you; all I really know of the Sufi religion is the line from the movie Jewel of the Nile where the dervishes reproach Danny DeVito for continuing along the path of greed to wanting to steal an actual jewel: “Ralph, Ralph, that is not the Sufi way…”

Apparently Sufi-ism is a mystic facet of Islaam. I wonder if that has paralells to Gnosticism within Christianity…?

According to Wiki, classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God”.

OmarAs I interpret that, to turning the heart away from all else but love.

The book is this amazing amalgamation of the works of Omar K., his life, his times, his challenges, the centuries after his death, the people devoted to finding his manuscript, and then what happened to it.

Rating: I would totally give this book five olives of Lebanon–and well worth the oil.

Wine, men, and song! Politics, censorship, and big government..no!

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