Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - BBC4's recent documentary

Sadeq Saba's recent documentary "The Genius of Omar Khayyam" was awkward to watch at times but saved only by a subject matter that is interesting because of its own virtues. Saba seemed more like an inexperienced rider, unable to rein in a vigorous and lively stallion, but thinking that its virtues somehow rub off on him. There is no doubting his genuine interest and enthusiasm for the subject, but one is left wondering half an hour into his documentary whether his overall aim was simply to glorify Persian cultural achievements at the expense of Iran's Muslim identity. In one scene, where he discusses Khayyam's poetry with a publisher, the familiar face of Iran's former Shah peers out seditously from the wall behind him. The parts of the documentary focusing on Omar Khayyam's mathematical and astronomical works were absolutely fascinating, but again Saba seems bewildered and the topic simply flies past his head. Another reason he may not have found this as interesting is the murky dividing line between his clean cut "Persian" civilization and the Islamic/Persian/Arab cosmopolitanism that Khayyam actually lived within.

At another point, it is quite telling to see one of the experts he interviews lament the one dimensional view of Khayyam as he is portrayed popularly, as a lover of wine and women. Yet the irony is lost on Saba when he begins and ends his documentary sitting in a wine cellar with a tasting glass beside him. Saba's Khayyam has been appropriated into a Green "revolution" style narrative, where the big bad bogeyman of orthodox religious authority is being challenged by the plucky original thinker and his defiance through hedonism; that Khayyam is telling his readers not to worry about some afterlife but to live joyously in the present - wine glass in hand and fair maiden close by. What Saba does not comprehend, and he does this I suspect because he selectively reads Khayyam, is that the Rubaiyat are not just about scorning an afterlife for the present - in fact even scorn is a harsh word. In section 32 of my copy of Fitzgerald's version, Khayyam ominously says this:

There was a Door to which I found no Key:

There was a Veil past which I could not see:

Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee

There seem'd - and then no more of Thee and Me.

These are profound philosophical ideas rooted in an Islamic philosophical perspective. The references to the door for which no key to be found tell us that there are things we cannot touch upon with anything that we have, the veil past which he could not see is death. In the Qur'an, the *veil* is removed on the day of judgement so that mankind can finally see. The futility of trying to push past this veil, of opening the door, is of a philosopher trying to make out what becomes of him, his thoughts, his person, once he dies. Other Islamic philosophers wondered about this such as Avicenna or Averroes. Averroes had a complicated idea of a group mind, a group consciousness that is the sum collective of the knowledge that humanity has accumulated. A bizarre precursor to the Hegelian Geist or Universal Mind, "some little talk a while of me and thee, There seem'd - and then no more of Thee and Me". It is as if Khayyam is entertaining ideas of his self being absorbed into something greater perhaps, or at least that the religious message of the prophets of destroying the ego can be attained beyond that forbidding door with no key. This is a continuation of his earlier theme mentioned in the Rubaiyat, of being "with Yesterday's Seven Thousand Years" (part 20).

In section 49, Khayyam says something that can be no coincidence:

The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,

But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes;

And He that toss'd Thee down into the Field,

He knows about it all - He knows - HE knows!

The Qur'an is also called the "Furqan" or divider. It divides between peoples, those who believe when they read it and those who increase in disbelief. His reference to a ball game is his reference to the hardships and conflicts which cause Man strife and suffering. This is a person who is not infected by the nonsensical idea that evil in the world means God does not exist. "HE knows!" why we suffer like this, why it does not matter which way an argument goes, or who wins and who loses. The "He" that Khayyam is talking about is beyond good or evil, in a Nietszchean sense, that is, that such questions are just on a different plane from what the "He" is concerned with. We and our morality, our demands and our accomplishments or tribulations are but flecks of dust, irrelevant. Again, the timelesness in Khayyam's writing comes in, a sense that we do not grasp all that there is. But "He" knows...

Saba does not comprehend that Khayyam is not being anti-religious or nihilistic when he proclaims "Drink! - for once dead you never shall return" in section 34. Again, Khayyam is drawing deep from the well of Islamic mysticism, that those who die in this world shall never return to it. But his constant reference to wine puzzles Saba, and even the answer given to him by one of the interviewees does little to dent his own one dimensional view of Khayyam as a womanizing drinker. Wine is always mentioned in Sufi and mystical Islamic poetry as expressive of a present, or of an ecstasy and joy in a moment. That in reaching our beloved, in attaining paradise, the muslim to Allah experiences the ecstasy of being close to the Divine. The Qur'an speaks of rivers of wine for those who reach paradise, the Prophet himself was offered a choice between wine and milk. Wine is not that radical a subject matter for poets who are Muslims or writing in a Muslim context, its prohibition notwithstanding.

Ultimately this documentary tells us more about Saba's own opinion on current geopolitical events and religion than it does about who Omar Khayyam the man really was. In doing this he has made a poor documentary of only limited benefit and one which will be, as expected, celebrated by the Middle East's many pseudo-intellectuals and rebels without a clue. Those people, to quote from the Qur'an, "who do not know". You can watch the programme on BBC iPlayer within the UK for another few days before it is taken offline.


Izzat Sajdi said...


Your blog is well structured and have good selected contents. I liked it.

Well done.

Izzat Sajdi

Maysaloon said...

Ahlan Mr Sajdi,
Thank you for stopping by and for your comments. I am glad you like it.


Robin said...

A brilliant essay, Wassim.

Maysaloon said...

Lak Ahlein ya zalameh! Where have you been? :) Thanks for the feedback no the post