The Caged Bird

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Here is a story from Persia and three American poems that reference the tale.

The great 13th Century Persian poet called Rumi visited a village where a merchant asked   “Master Rumi, my favorite possession is my bird.   But her wings and head droop every day, and no longer is my house filled with her sweet song. I have brought medicine and healthy food, yet nothing seems to banish its illness. Will you come to my house and see this bird?”

Rumi saw into the man’s heart.   It was hardened all around like stone, for the merchant was desirous only of his own gain. “This man’s heart is imprisoned in a cage,” he thought to himself. The merchant led the poet to his fine house and there by the window stood a large cage with a lovely plumed bird inside.   True to the merchant’s words the bird appeared to possess little vitality as though ill.   Then Rumi began to sing a song and as his soothing words fell upon the ears of the bird, first it began to twitter then at last began to join its voice to the melody of the poet. Then it let off abruptly and returned to its former state.

Rumi said to the merchant, “the bird is unhappy because it longs for its freedom.”   To which the merchant replied, “I will give the bird anything that it asks for that is within my power, but I cannot grant its freedom. I am traveling tomorrow for India and will return in forty days. Ask the bird if there is something that I can bring to it from its homeland.”

The poet whispered quietly to the bird who immediately began to flap its wings and burst into a short song.   The merchant was overjoyed to see his favorite possession restored to health.   Rumi then told the merchant that the bird would be fully restored if he were to do the following: While he was in India, he should visit the nearby forest where birds similar to his own live, and announce to them that one of their sisters is captive within his home.

Several weeks later, when the merchant was in India, he hurried out to the nearby forest.   He announced to the birds there, “one of your sisters lives captive in a cage at my home.”   No sooner had the merchant spoken these words, then one of the wild birds fell senseless to the ground from one of the boughs of the trees.

When he returned home to his village he approached the cage and speaking softly to the bird told it of the misfortune that he had encountered in the forest. “I have sad news for you my friend, for when I told the others of your captivity, one of your sisters fell immediately to the ground dead.”

As soon as these words were spoken, the bird collapsed and fell to the bottom of the cage. The merchant was aghast. “What misfortune is this! Now my bird is dead too!” he exclaimed. Sorrowfully, he plucked the dead bird from the cage and placed it by the window sill. At once, the bird revived, flew out the window and perched on a branch far out of reach of the merchant. “What is the meaning of this?” he cried.   Then, through the power bestowed by the poet the bird began to speak and the merchant understood its language. “You brought not sad news to me, but the way to my freedom,” said the bird, “for my forest sister showed by her action what I had to do in order to free myself.   O man, may your heart be set free to fly from the cage of your greed before it perishes in its captivity.”

Then the bird flew away, free at last.

Born on this day in the year 1849 in Maine USA Sarah Orne Jewett knew nothing of why the caged bird sings.  Her Canary is like a pretty but oftimes petulant slave, kept safe and well fed by the master, but demaning the little luxuries of life. Despite growing up during the US Civil War and seeing emancipation first hand she experienced it as a WASP with none of the concerns of inequality, poverty, lack of education, opportunity or outright discrimination.

How different is the reply from Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem “Sympathy” below.  He finishes with the iconic line “I know why the caged bird sings”. Dunbar was born in 1872 after the Civil War, after emancipation.  He was born in Ohio to parents who were Kentucky slaves before slavery was abolished.  Born free, but knowing so much about inequality.  Dunbar experienced the false promises of the Reconstruction Era and the gradual decline of Black Civil Rights into the Jim Crow laws.

The Dunbar line became the title of Maya Angelou‘s 1969 autobiography.  Born in 1928 Angelou is one of the most popular poets in the world today, and yet she also experienced the deep rooted inequality of the United States.  A century after emancipation the Civil Rights movement was still struggling for the rights of the slaves now free for 100 years.

A Caged Bird; by Sarah Orne Jewett

High at the window in her cage
the old canary flits and sings,
nor sees across the curtain pass
the shadow of a swallow’s wings.

A poor deceit and copy, this,
of larger lives that mark their span,
unreckoning of wider worlds
or gifts that Heaven keeps for man.

She gathers piteous bits and shreds,
this solitary, mateless thing,
to patient build again the nest
so rudely scattered spring by spring;

and sings her brief, unlisted songs,
her dreams of bird life wild and free,
yet never beats her prison bars
at sound of song from bush or tree.

But in my busiest hours I pause,
held by a sense of urgent speech,
bewildered by that spark-like soul,
able my very soul to reach.

She will be heard; she chirps me loud,
when I forget those gravest cares,
her small provision to supply,
clear water or her seedsman’s wares.

She begs me now for that chief joy
the round great world is made to grow,
her wisp of greenness. Hear her chide,
because my answering thought is slow!

What can my life seem like to her?
A dull, unpunctual service mine;
stupid before her eager call,
her flitting steps, her insight fine.

To open wide thy prison door,
poor friend, would give thee to thy foes;
and yet a plaintive note I hear,
as if to tell how slowly goes

the time of thy long prisoning.
Bird! Does some promise keep thee sane?
Will there be better days for thee?
Will thy soul too know life again?

Ah, none of us have more than this:
If one true friend green leaves can reach
from out some fairer, wider place,
and understand our wistful speech!

 

Sympathy; by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
when the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
and the river flows like a stream of glass;
when the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
and the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
for he must fly back to his perch and cling
when he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
and a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
and they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
when his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, —
when he beats his bars and he would be free;
it is not a carol of joy or glee,
but a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
but a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

 

Caged Bird; by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

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Happy Birthday Ibn Jubayr

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Born Sept 1st 1145 in Muslim Valencia Ibn Jubayr is remarkable for the journal he left of his Hajj.  Travelling through the islamic world at the time of the 3rd Crusade he encountered a world where lands were changing between Muslim and Christian rule and he wrote of the cordial relations that existed between the common folk while their armies slaughtered each other on the battlefields.

Because he kept an excellent journal Jubayr became a vital source for other writers.  When the ageing Ibn Batuta dictated his travels to his scribe the resourceful Ibn Juzayy used Jubayr as a source to fill in colour and detail in Batuta’s account.

Jubayr was secretary to the ruler of Granada.  A pious muslim he was forced by his lord to drink seven cups of wine.  Afterwards overcome by remorse the ruler filled the seven cups with gold dinars and presented them to Ibn Jubayr.  The secretary thus funded was able to afford the passage to Mecca to cleanse the sin of consuming the wine.

I love how Islamic poetry is turgid with verses extolling the ferment of the grape.  So common are these poems they have a particular name for them: khamriyyat.  I like this stanza from Abu Nuwas the 8th Century Persian poet.

“Don’t cry for Layla, don’t rave about Hind!

But drink among roses a rose-red wine,

a draught that descends in the drinker’s throat,

bestowing its redness on eyes and cheeks.

The wine is a ruby, the glass is a pearl,

served by the hand of a slim-fingered girl,

who serves you the wine from her hand, and wine

from her mouth — doubly drunk, for sure, will you be!”

 

Yarmouk

 

Heraclius was a Byzantine emperor who rose to greatness and then had the sad misfortune to live too long.  He took power in Constantinople in 610 AD when the Byzantine empire was on its knees and under siege by the Sassanid Empire of Persia.

He reformed and rebuilt the army and campaigned successfully against the Persians.  Then he triumphed at the Battle of Nineveh in 627 AD and the Persians withdrew from all their Byzantine conquests.  To add to his legend Heraclius recovered the Christian Cross from the Persians and returned it to Jerusalem.  Some Western Christians even called him “the First Crusader”.

The Persian Empire served as the cork which held the Arabic tribes contained in the Arabian Peninsula.  With the collapse of power in Persia, and the newfound impetus of the Arabs united by Muhammad under the banner of Islam, the game in the middle east changed completely.

As the Arab armies exploded out of the peninsula into Persian lands they began to threaten Byzantine Syria.  Heraclius responded by sending a huge army to the Levant to smash the desert peoples, who they knew of old as raiders and rustlers.

As the massive Byzantine army approached the smaller Arabic forces withdrew to the plains around the Yarmouk River the largest tributary of the Jordan and a natural barrier between Syria and Arabia.

On August 15th 636 AD the Byzantines met the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate and began a series of battles.  In what might be called the “First Six-Day War” the muslim forces did not simply defeat the Byzantines.  They decisively shattered the Byzantine forces and drove them out of Syria, Palestine and Lebanon entirely.

The Battles of Yarmouk are a textbook example of an inferior force decisively defeating a superior force through better generalship.  The hero of the hour was the Arab General Khalid ibn al-Walīd, a companion of Muhammad and a man almost unknown in the west.

Heraclius lived until 641, long enough to see all the lands he regained from the Sassanids lost to the Arabs.  In Arabic and Islamic telling Heraclius was viewed as a wise and learned king who recognised that Islam was the true faith.  He tried to convert his people to Islam but they resisted and he failed.  As a result he was defeated in battle.

 

El-Khatun

Bell

Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence

Born on this day, July 14th in 1868 Gertrude Bell is one of the most remarkable women in history. Writer, traveller, mountaineer, archeologist, historian, journalist, red-cross worker and most importantly she was a highly insightful political analyst.

Bell also translated the Persian poet Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, better known as Hafez in her book “Poems from the Divan if Hafiz” (1892).

She was a witness to and reporter of the Armenian Holocaust when the Ottomans committed a genocide wiping out 1.5 million Armenians.  She saw Armenian women traded in the marketplaces by the Turks and Kurds as groups of the men, boys and old aged were dragged off and murdered in the desert.

Bell is one of the very few representatives of the colonial powers who is remembered with any fondness in the middle east.  She was instrumental in the establishment of the boundaries of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  Her intimate knowledge of tribal groupings, loyalties and alliances paved the way for the division of the middle east.

Bell had a unique advantage over the French and British men involved in the process.  As a woman she had access to women.  Her Arabic title : al-Khatun is derived from Imperial Ottoman Harem politics and refers to a court lady who is highly politically astute.  A lady who works for the benefit of the state and who has the ear of the Sultan.  She was the Sheherazade to King Faisal in the creation of Iraq.

Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Pichot Agreement) was said to have hated Bell.  She was also unpopular with the Zionists because she opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Arabic lands.  She wrote of the Balfour declaration;  “It’s like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can`t stretch out your hand to prevent them“.

This is enough for me. (Poems from the Divan of Hafiz: Translated by Gertrude Lowthian Bell)

VI

A flower-tinted cheek, the flowery close
of the fair earth, these are enough for me.
Enough that in the meadow wanes and grows
the shadow of a graceful cypress-tree.
I am no lover of hypocirisy;
of all the treasures that the earth can boast,
a brimming cup of wine I prize the most.

This is enough for me !

To them that here renowned for virtue live,
a heavenly palace is the meet reward;
to me, the drunkard and the beggar, give
the temple of the grape with red wine stored!
Beside a river seat thee on the sward;
it floweth past, so flows thy life away,
so sweetly, swiftly, fleets our little day.

Swift, but enough for me !

Look upon all the gold in the world’s mart,
on all the tears the world hath shed in vain;
shall they not satisfy thy craving heart?
I have enough of loss, enough of gain;
I have my Love, what more can I obtain?
Mine is the joy of her companionship
whose healing lip is laid upon my lip.

This is enough for me !

Most Powerful Persian

Prince

A Mughal Prince in a Pavillion Surrounded by Ladies

Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, Bardiya, Darius the Great and Xerxes were the first five Achemenid Emperors of Persia.

Who could be greater than the King of Kings the ruler of the four corners of the earth?

Atossa.  Cyrus the Great and his wife Cassandane gave birth to four children; Cambyses, Bardiya (Smerdis), Atossa and Roxana.

Atossa was the eldest daughter of Cyrus.  Sister to emperor Cambyses and to the short reigning emperor Smerdis.  There is a very believable theory that Darius, a senior official of Cambyses, rose to power by assasinating both Cambyses and his brother Smerdis.  The official account is that Cambyses murdered Bardiya and hid the crime.  Then Cambyses cut himself with a sword and died of gangrene.  An imposter pretended to be Bardiya, and because only a handful of people knew about the murder, he might have gotten away with it.

So Darius and a crack squad of hit men stormed the palace and slayed the imposter Smerdis.

This story helps Darius portray himself as a good guy, and someone worth inheriting the mantle of King of Kings.

But he had no validity and no connection to the royal line.  So in a well trodden political move he justified his rule by wedding Atossa, the blood of the royal line.  She gave him a son, Xerxes, not his first son, but a son of the blood.  Xerxes was a grandson of Cyrus, nephew of Cambyses, and further cemented the rule of Darius the Great.

Atossa, daughter of an Emperor, sister of two Emperors, wife of an Emperor, mother of an Emperor.  How powerful is that lady?  And yet we know very little about this amazing woman.  It is said that Atossa had “a great authority” in the royal court.

In the west there has always been a great fascination with the goings on in the royal Harem.  This is dominated by male fantasies of exotic eastern ladies, profligate sexuality, nudity, decadence and a focus on the pleasures of the flesh.  In the West our knowledge of the Harem comes from The Arabian Nights stories and from  suggestive glimpses of the closeted lives of the seraglio which may be no more than the wild tales of sailors and travellers.

The truth of the harem was  far more down to earth.  If you read carefully you will learn that the ladies of the harem were not immune from economic necessities.  We have records of them engaging in trade and investments, using palace Eunuchs as intermediaries.  They represented a powerful 5th column in the politics of the empire.  In a world where access is power the ladies of the Harem had some of the best access possible.

Think of the Harem in ancient times like a modern professional political lobby organisation in Washington.  You pay them to buy access to votes.  In ancient Persia there was undoubtedly a long line at the desk of the head Eunuch of the Harem.  His effectiveness and his wealth were determined by his relationships with the right ladies of the court.

In this world it is clear that the almost unknown Atossa was the most powerful person in the history of the Achemenid Empire.  Daughter of Kings, Sister of Kings, Maker of Kings, Mother of Kings.

The Offended Moon (La Lune offensée); by Charles Baudelaire (Trans William Aggeler, 1954)

O Moon whom our ancestors discreetly adored,
radiant seraglio! from the blue countries’ height
to which the stars follow you in dashing attire,
my ancient Cynthia, lamp of our haunts,

do you see the lovers on their prosperous pallets,
showing as they sleep, the cool enamel of their mouths?
The poet beating his forehead over his work?
Or the vipers coupling under the withered grass?

Under your yellow domino, with quiet step,
do you go as in days of old from morn till night
to kiss the faded charms of Endymion?

— “I see your mother, child of this impoverished age,
Bending toward her mirror a heavy weight of years,
Skillfully disguising the breast that nourished you!”

Harun al-Rashid

Sinbad

Born on St Patricks Day, some 300 years after St. Patrick lived, Haroun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest Caliph of the Islamic world.  He presided over the Abassid Caliphate in its golden age when it was the centre of learing, enlightenment, literature, arts and science.

He corresponded with rulers as far away as France, presenting Charlemagne with a clock that was so ingenious the Franks believed it to be possessed, so many and complex were the chimes it sounded.  A good an generous friend he also proved a stern and powerful enemy.  He brought the Byzantine empire to heel and his name was feared throughout his own empire.

His name may translate as the “orthodox” or the “right guided” and for Sunni Muslims he represented a powerful bastion of the islamic faith.  So powerful indeed that the Christian world suffered the crisis of iconoclasm at this period.  Seeing the success of the armies of Islam orthodox christians questioned if religious icons, images and statues were in fact idols.  Heads were smashed from church altars, icons were thrown onto fires and emperors were dethroned based on their belief.

Legend has it that al-Rashid would don a beggars cloak and walk the streets of Baghdad or Raqqa and eavesdrop on the conversations of the ordinary folk to better understand how they perceived him and his rule.

In the West we know of this great Sultan because of a book.  “A thousand and one nights”, or the “Arabian Nights” is a collection of tales from the Asian world, originating in Arabia, India, China and Persia.  They include characters known by every Western child, The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali-Baba and the forty thieves, magic flying carpets and many many more fantastic and magical tales.

At the heart of the tale is the evil sultan, thought to be modeled on Al-Rashid.  Each night he takes a bride from his harem and after taking his pleasure has her killed.  The interlocutor of the 1001 nights is Sheherazade, the wife who beguiles him with storytelling instead of pleasures of the flesh.  Instead of killing her he spares her for one more night, for one more story.  And so the tales unravel over the course of many years until he of course falls madly in love with her.

From this book we have a wealth of art, music, dance and not a few pantomimes.  It was the inspiration for hundreds of childrens authors from E. Nesbit to J.K. Rowling.  Poetry of Yeats, Longfellow, Tennyson and Archibald Macleish stories of O. Henry, James Joyce and Charles Dickens.  Al-Rashid is a thread that runs trough every weave in the fabric of literature.

The wiser wooer posts them to her

Desert

Meet in Desert Waste

A Valentine; by Lewis Carroll

Sent to a friend who had complained that I was glad enough to see
him when he came, but didn’t seem to miss him if he stayed away.

And cannot pleasures, while they last,
be actual unless, when past,
they leave us shuddering and aghast,
with anguish smarting?
And cannot friends be firm and fast,
and yet bear parting?

And must I then, at Friendship’s call,
calmly resign the little all
(trifling, I grant, it is and small)
I have of gladness,
and lend my being to the thrall
of gloom and sadness?

And think you that I should be dumb,
and full DOLORUM OMNIUM,
excepting when YOU choose to come
and share my dinner?
At other times be sour and glum
and daily thinner?

Must he then only live to weep,
who’d prove his friendship true and deep
by day a lonely shadow creep,
at night-time languish,
oft raising in his broken sleep
the moan of anguish?

The lover, if for certain days
his fair one be denied his gaze,
sinks not in grief and wild amaze,
but, wiser wooer,
he spends the time in writing lays,
and posts them to her.

And if the verse flow free and fast,
’till even the poet is aghast,
a touching Valentine at last
the post shall carry,
when thirteen days are gone and past
of February.

Farewell, dear friend, and when we meet,
in desert waste or crowded street,
perhaps before this week shall fleet,
perhaps to-morrow.
I trust to find YOUR heart the seat
of wasting sorrow.