Reflections on Bidel and the Long Walk to Freedom

Below is the text which Sadie Harrison has used from Bidel’s 18th century Sufi poem, translated from the Farsi by Bruce Wannell, to compose  Par-feshani-ye ‘Eshq  ( The Fluttering Wings of Love) : 6 Pieces after  Bidel (2013).                

  1. The scents and colours of this garden pulse with love:

         Along with every rose, the nightingale’s fluttering wing. 

  1. Like clay pots on the waterwheels, all things under heaven

        Are heading up, or downward plummeting. 

  1. This imprisoning world has weight of fetter’s links:

         But promise also of justice and heavenly hyacinths. 

  1. Do what you will, in silence or speaking out,

        You see in this world’s garden roses in bud and blossoming. 

  1. This world’s pleasures may seduce to madnesses,

         Yet detachment too can be a carelessness. 

  1. The prospect of non-being helps us swallow life’s bitterness.

         To escape the imprisoning world, a virtual bridge can take hence. 

         Beyond even Resurrection we prisoners are led, Bidel,

        By the beautiful youth, Hope’s provocative loveliness.  

I am about to give the first performance of these exquisite pieces as well as the premiere of Neo Muyanga’s evocative hade TaTa (Sorry Father) in tribute to Nelson Mandela. I have been thinking about the many links between my own life and this poem as well as Mandela’s life.  First of all, there is my husband who grew up in Iran and has always read Persian poetry to me, initially in the beautiful mellifluous Farsi and then in translation. We play the game familiar to Iranians, asking Hafez a question and then randomly opening his volume of poems to find the answer. The poetry has such depth and wisdom; Bidel’s Sufi inspired verse is no exception.

Then Sadie just happened to choose the translation by one of my longstanding friends in the UK, Bruce Wannell, who speaks many languages,  has  travelled to Iran and is steeped in Persian culture. So two very personal connections there.

The words of the poem constantly bring me back to Mandela’s story; I have just finished reading his ” Long Walk to Freedom”. He speaks about the therapeutic value of gardening in prison; how he loved watching things grow, how it calmed him. He writes how even in his “imprisoning world”, he never lost hope of ” justice and heavenly hyacinths”. He was a man who never became detached; even in prison, he endeavoured to engage, to speak out or remain silent when it was necessary. He never lost faith in his destiny nor in life itself. He never lost hope.

Bidel speaks of the world as a virtual prison with the prospect of death as a release and a balm but most of us do not experience life with this degree of intensity. However  Nelson Mandela did; for many years he lived Bidel’s poem. For more years than those 27 he spent in actual prison; he was a “clay pot ” on the waterwheel, his fortunes “heading up or downward plummeting” . And yet, if the “scents and colours” of  his garden had not “pulsed with love”, he would never have survived intact to effect the extraordinary transformation of South Africa. In the end it was Mandela who was the “virtual bridge”.

But Sadie leaves out one verse:

Just as a full decanter gulps when it is poured

The heart that brims with sorrow moans till drained of self.

This is what worries me: is it only in times of extremis that a Mandela is possible? Is such greatness, such selflessness,  such integrity only possible when we are in the darkest times? When we are a little bit more comfortable, when our hearts are not brimming with sorrow, do we forget to be scrupulous? And yet the result of such  “carelessness” is catastrophic : the prison closes in again. Perhaps the celebrations this year will be a salutary reminder of what we have lost in public life . Ultimately we cannot afford to lose hope, especially when we are still so close to what Nelson Mandela achieved.


Neo Muyanga’s Hade Tata; sorrow amidst celebration


This is my very first blog and I am not sure that I am a natural blogger! I find it interesting that whilst I play  contemporary music, love modern art and architecture, read new novels and watch the latest films, I am resistant to other aspects of modern life! But wonderful Natalie Eskinazi who has built me a new website has encouraged me by creating a blog page so here goes…

I have been practising Neo Muyanga’s new piece Hade Tata (Sorry Father) which I commissioned. It is a highly evocative piece written in tribute to Nelson Mandela to commemorate the 20th anniversary in 2014 of democratic elections in South Africa. Neo lives in Cape Town and is also writing an opera about Mandela.

Perhaps this is why I have felt so reflective of late;  the piece poignantly expresses sorrow and trepidation in the midst of celebration. Muyanga communicates Madiba’s anxiety that he will not live up to the expectations of the world as well as our sorrow at having “fallen short of those hopes and dreams we once held sacred”. The music constantly alternates between joy and sadness.

I was thinking about this particularly on the 21st March. In South Africa it is Human Rights Day and a public holiday in remembrance of the Sharpeville massacre. But here in London it is a day which  our family  celebrates with joy; it is both my husband’s birthday and the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. This year I could not help but reflect on the gulf between these two yearly events which resonate in my calendar; sorrow amidst celebration again.

Again, in this anniversary year, the disparity between what we hoped for in South Africa and the present reality is painfully obvious. Yet there is still so much  to be grateful for.

I will never forget the elation of returning home for the first time after the dismantling of apartheid. So on the 26th April at Homerton College in Cambridge on the eve of that extraordinary day when everyone was able to vote for the very first time in South Africa, I hope to feel part of the celebrations by giving the premiere of Hade Tata. There will be sorrow at the loss of Mandela, an iconic South African, sadness at the corruption of his legacy but celebration of a truly great man and a prayer for a better future.