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.


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