A Glimpse into the Soulful Depths of a Remarkable Man
By Dan Futterman
In 1215, the Persian mystic, Attar, saw the eight year-old Jalal al-Din Rumi -- later to be known only by his last name, and as the greatest of Sufi poets -- walking through the streets of Nishapur behind his father. Rumi's father was an established teacher and mystic in his own right, but Attar was immediately struck by, and instantly recognized, the power of what followed him: his son. Watching the two walk towards him, Attar murmured, "Here comes a sea followed by an ocean."
I thought of that sentence repeatedly as I read (and re-read, with mounting joy) this book of poetry. Akbar Ahmed's best-known works -- the writings for which he has garnered so much deserved respect and acclaim -- are landmark investigations into the varied nature of Islamic faith. Besides his several wonderful plays, Ahmed has written most often in the voice of the scholar or diplomat -- a scholar with an obvious and deeply felt personal connection to his subject matter -- but one with the necessary journalistic reserve. Of the many things that make Suspended Somewhere Between such a treasured gift is the rare intense glimpse we are afforded into the soulful depths of this remarkable man. Ahmed's writings have, to date, been like a sea -- rich and full of life and well-worth exploring... Now, with this collection of poems covering a lifespan, we get the ocean.
The collection opens with what Ahmed tells us is "My first memory": his terrifying journey, as a four year-old boy in 1947, "escaping" with his parents "from Delhi/on the slow train/in that hot summer/and heading for Karachi." The subcontinent had been divided, Hindu and Muslim, and almost two million people would be killed in the fury of religious hatred that followed, each fleeing for the country, India or Pakistan, in which he would be part of the religious majority. Ahmed's Muslim family fled west. As he tells us in the poem, but for his mother's "intuition", his father would have been on the train before theirs, on which "everyone... was slaughtered... in the killing fields of the Punjab."
India 's loss of the Ahmed family was Pakistan's, and our, gain. It placed Ahmed in that painful position -- suspended somewhere between homelands, friendships, faiths -- but it was a position that afforded the best, perhaps the only, vantage point from which to clearly see the beauty and madness of the world. And it proved to be the ideal place from which to begin his life's work: to try to bridge the gap between cultures, and to introduce one set of people to another. With each poem in this book, we are struck by visions and sounds and people we have not met before. We are showered with a series of bright flashes illuminating the world of Ahmed: the streets of South Asia, the diplomatic and academic halls of Great Britain and America, the tortures and joys of faith and love and familial duty -- always from the point of view of a man suspended between -- half inside, half out.
In the gorgeous "will ever be", the young Ahmed worries that "an ancient Sanskrit curse "hangs over him in his adopted homeland. He struggles to find his authentic self and voice in this alien, often violent land where "our today’s stand splashed/in infant confusion/in instant chaos". Somehow, miraculously, Ahmed knows that "Ali's hand holds my sword."
Ahmed has spoken of the strong influence on him of the poets from his culture: Rumi and Mirza Ghalib and Iqbal. He's also a man who was educated under the vestiges of the British Raj -- first by Catholic priests at boarding school in Pakistan, and later at English universities. One can hear echoes of the Romantic poets -- Keats and Wordsworth and Coleridge. For this reader, however, while savoring this collection I was struck for the first time in many years with the same feeling I had when I first encountered the poetry of Frank O'Hara, written in New York City in the fifties. I was a high school teenager, and poems like "The Day Lady Died" made me desperate to get out of my hometown, to attend college in New York, to explore the city, find my own artistic path and voice and friends. Reading Ahmed's "walking the streets with the Dahta " -- about a night walk in Lahore -- these many years later made me terrifically regretful I hadn't visited that city when I was briefly in Pakistan several years ago. Ahmed's poem captures the same sort of flashes and moments and visions of transcendent beauty that illuminate O'Hara's great work. It awakened in me the same yearning to explore a new city, to lose myself in a new place, on new streets, among new people. What more can one ask of a poem, of any work of art?
One of my favorite of Rumi's love poems is titled Like This. Among its stanzas:
If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is,
or what "God's fragrance" means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot
the strings of your robe.
(From The Essential Rumi
trans. by Coleman Barks with John Moyne)
To those gorgeous stanzas, I'd like to add this one:
When he asks what the
the soul of a great man looks like,
when he asks how deep is the ocean floor,
show him this collection of poems,
(Danny Futterman's foreword to book of poems Suspended Somewhere Between by Akbar Ahmed. Futterman is Oscar-nominated writer and actor who played Danny Pearl in A Mighty Heart)