The Nightingales of Wilde and Hafez


Oscar Wilde had the collected works of Hafez in his prison library. Hafez, the fourteenth-century Persian poet who wrote ghazals about ecstasy, faith, and love, whether carnal or spiritual. But what did Wilde learn from Hafez?

In “The Rose and the Nightingale,” Wilde tells the story of a philosophy student who wants to give his beloved a red rose, but there are no red roses in his garden. The nightingale begs a tree to give the student a rose, but the tree replies that there is only one way it can produce a red rose: the nightingale must sing all night with her breast against a thorn so that her blood flows into the tree. Ultimately, her sacrifice is in vain. The beloved spurns the gift. The student, who was never a true lover, tosses the rose into the street. The only lover in the story was the nightingale, and she is now dead.

Wilde must have come across numerous references to nightingales and roses in Hafez’s poetry. In Persian tradition, the nightingale takes the rose as his beloved and sings to her. In Farid ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, the nightingale initially refuses to leave his rose to seek the Simorgh. A ghazal in Hafez’s Divan begins with a nightingale nourishing a rose with his blood (though this poem’s translation says “his,” the Persian pronoun has no gender). Other ghazals by Hafez portray the nightingale as the quintessential lover. Did Wilde, like so many others, weep at these verses?

The beloved of the nightingale is not named in Wilde’s story; we know only that she sings of love. She wrongly assumes the student has the same capacity for love that she does. For her, love is more important than life, and she gives her life so that the student’s love can be fulfilled. It is a mercy that she never learns that her sacrifice was in vain. Wilde’s nightingale story, while exquisite, is cynical compared to those of Hafez. That could have been the result of persecution in his life or his sardonic personality.

A subspecies of nightingale that is common in Iran is called Luscinia megarhynchos hafizi. Were these birds named after the poet who described them with such love and delicacy? (I have not found the answer so far, but I hope to one day.) This subspecies is also called Luscinia megarhynchos golzii. Gol is the Persian word for flower or, more specifically, rose. Just a coincidence, or are lover and beloved united at last?


Braided Essay (Still Unnamed)

mostar 054

I’ve been working on a rather long braided essay, the pieces of which are tied together by the topic of music. I won’t post much of it here because I want to publish it elsewhere, but I wanted to provide a taste: here are a few paragraphs from two different sections of the essay.

(From a section set in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Behind me, a woman fills her bottle from a spout on the stone-roofed fountain. Closer to the Adriatic Sea, Mostar is hotter than Sarajevo and the fresh, cool water, available to everyone, is most appreciated. Next to the fountain stand medieval tombstones, some with round turbans carved onto them. The dead are never far. Flashes of hot pink, orange, and red billow behind the tombstones, next to the mausoleum. The souvenir shop sells pictures, tapestries, and clothing, including belly-dancing costumes—evidently for tourists who assume that every country with Muslims also has belly dancers.

(From a section set in Córdoba, Spain)

The smooth claws of a curious pigeon grip my hand as I gaze on the earth-colored and white walls below. Water cascades down the fountain, joining the bubbling pool with a crash. The wind picks up and a stream of water splashes onto the concrete, spraying my face; the pigeon flies away. I stand and look around. Palms and orange trees line the streets and courtyards.

Walking through the streets, I see, smell, and hear the traces of Ziryab, the architect of Andalusian culture. Sweet-smelling cafes and restaurants where meals begin with soup. Honeyed desserts of walnuts and sesame. A couple playing chess by a reflecting pool.

Misophonia – in five voices

This is a ghostwriting exercise in which I attempted to write an article using the voices of five famous people or characters – one for each paragraph. The voices are those of Christiane Amanpour, Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Colbert, Alex Jones (yes, I went there), and Bernard Black. Can you match the voices with their paragraphs?

pjimage (1)

Let’s talk about misophonia. No, it doesn’t mean eating miso soup while talking on the telephone – but that would really annoy someone with misophonia. The word misophonia comes from Greek and means “hatred of sound.” It’s also called “sound-rage,” which coincidentally was the name of my metal band in college. A person with misophonia has intense emotional and physical reactions when they hear certain trigger sounds. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, and it’s difficult to diagnose because it’s a mental problem and not a hearing problem – a person with misophonia has normal hearing, but sounds affect their brain or nervous system differently. It was officially recognized in 2001 – before that, it was just called being a social curmudgeon.

People suffering from misophonia are triggered by many different noises. Roughly 80% of triggers are mouth noises, such as gum chewing, slurping, crunching, talking with one’s mouth full, sucking and loud breathing. Repetition is also a factor, and people with misophonia often develop visual triggers as well – merely seeing someone pacing, chewing silently, fidgeting or bouncing their legs may trigger a reaction. Reactions are both emotional and physical, and can include intense rage, anxiety or panic, a desire to cause physical harm, disgust or hatred, leaving the room or dinner table and even suicidal thoughts.

If someone you love has misophonia, know that they really do mean it when they say a noise bothers them. Their emotions are valid, and their needs are valid. If they ask to eat in another room, be sympathetic. It’s not that they don’t love you; it’s just that the trigger noises are too much for them and they might be afraid of acting on the emotions that come up and going crazy in front of you. Don’t take it personal – they don’t see it that way. Remember they will have to deal with thoughtless people every day who won’t take them seriously, so make sure you’re not one of them. Even though more people are becoming aware of this disorder, lots of people still respond like this:

“We live in a world of trigger warnings. They’ve got these millennials all coddled with their safe spaces, and microaggressions, and PC jargon. That’s the old news. The new news is that just eating your dinner could be a trigger for some people. Misophonia, they say. What is misophonia? It’s an excuse for so-called sufferers to whine about everyone else. What’s next, a war on chewing gum like Singapore? This laundry list of phony disorders is just the beginning. Next we’ll have people claiming disability just because they can’t cope with real life. Total bull! The doctors who diagnose all this crap are puppets of the government, and what they want is a dumbed-down population that can be easily controlled.”

Ignore rubbish like this. You need a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and a place where people will leave you alone. There is no cure for misophonia, but you can live a perfectly normal life if you stay away from filthy monsters who eat crisps in your space. Some clinics have developed programs like counseling, sound therapy and exposure therapy. Join social media support groups so you can complain about your triggers without actually having to go out among people. If you need any medication, just ask your therapist – or the local pub.

Your Melancholy Masterpiece

This piece was inspired by Picasso’s painting “The Weeping Woman” (shown below), and his relationship with its model, Dora Maar, who was a painter, activist, poet, and amazing surrealist photographer. This is an inner monologue from the perspective of any woman (or maybe some men too) who have ever been told they were too sensitive, and/or who have been in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

Your Melancholy Masterpiece

You called me the Weeping Woman. An irrational, overemotional basket case. You love it because it makes me weak; you hate it because it makes me dangerous. You took the liberty of giving me a name. What about the name I gave myself?

An inferior specimen of an inferior sex. You would cherish me if I were only a better person, more in control of my emotions and more dutiful. If I would give up those foolish and improper pastimes. If I were someone else. Docile, impeccable, and pliant as a doll.

You call me a crazy bitch after pushing all my buttons in quick succession, lighting a fire and spewing gasoline. Then you stand back and wait for the opportunity to say, “You’re too defensive. Why are you crying? Oh right, mental illness runs in your family. No wonder you flew off the handle at me!”

I wasn’t always this way:

There were sunny days
I sprouted, I blossomed, I reigned
Reveling in my power
Dappled with paint and accolades
I could do anything
I could be anything
You plucked and fixed me on your wall
Where you could examine me
Your flawed private muse
Take me down when you wanted me
You never saw me as I am
You don’t love me as I am

I wanted to die in that closet. I locked myself in the bedroom while you pummeled the door. My head was pounding until I thought it would burst. We had fought again, and I died a little inside. You will never feel it. You always laugh when I insist I hate crowds because everyone else’s energy flows into me. Discord makes me physically ill. Are you blind that you don’t see you’re poisoning me?

You say my family is low and my friends are low. My tastes are low, and I am low. “I’m only trying to help you. Don’t you know what you could be if you did your proper duty, if you spent time with the right people?” Am I really such a villain in your mind? I know I’m no prize angel, and that’s why I need to change. I’ve already given up so much of myself for you and it’s never enough. You tear off pieces of me with your teeth until there’s nothing left, and ask me again why I’m crying.

You scorn my intensity and dark moods. They’re disturbing. A woman shouldn’t be crying about the genocide in a distant country. “What can you do about it anyways? Are you going to fly over there and help them? Where’s my shirt? Where is my lunch?” I know it makes you angry when I don’t cut the onions small enough and when there’s a crease in your collar. Fighting fascism means neglecting your needs.

You wanted me to do something with my appearance so I’d be fit for decent society but when I did, you asked me who I was trying to impress. I don’t fit in with your social circle. “Say something. Why do you sit in the corner like that?” But when the little woman shows her claws and expresses an opinion, it’s “Why did you say that? Don’t you know that what you say reflects on me?” They’re all waiting for me to break. I really did fall down the stairs, I swear.

Llorona, you’re barred from grace
Your past will haunt you always
I will press it against your throat
No one wants you lurking near
With your silence and somber face
Your wailing sets my hair on end.

“What’s wrong? Aren’t you taken care of? You have no grounds to be offended.” You tell me no one else can ever love me, and you’re right. No one would want me, pitiful, used, and broken as I am. I’d be cast out with the trash, forgotten, relegated to a houseful of cats.

I know that I’m only valuable because I’m yours. What would I do without you? How would I survive out there? You’ve stripped me and clipped my wings, and I’ve forgotten how to hunt. Is it too late? Can I soar free again?

Art is in my blood


Art is in my blood.

I remember my dad teaching me to color when I was young, and now I see how much my young daughter enjoys coloring. It would be an honor to provide art classes for her if she wants them. Watching her, hazy memories gradually materialize.

Much later, teachers started telling me I had talent. I suppose I was good for my age. But really, it was a fierce passion. I adored the smooth feel of chalk pastels in my hand and the saturated hues of them on paper. Having paint on my hands was a point of pride, and a reminder of what was waiting for me at home. Most of my best memories of high school involve art somehow.

In those days, I used my face, hair, and body as a canvas as well. I suppose now I have to look like an adult, whatever that means these days, and hold it all inside. At least most of the time.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Renaissance and Baroque painting, with a few notable exceptions. I adore impressionism and abstracts, in bold colors with high contrast.

When I went to college, I didn’t make much time to paint, and I didn’t take art classes. I figured I could pick up later where I’d left off. I wasn’t going to be a professional artist, after all. I should focus on my “real” future.

Of course, I couldn’t pick up where I’d left off. I’d lost all the ability I had. That is one of the biggest regrets of my life. I can barely draw a chair or a hand now, and it’s agonizing. I want to start taking classes again. Naturally, I would have to start all over, but maybe it would come back to me and I’d be able to progress quickly. Later. I should focus on my “real” future.

But still, art is what I see when I close my eyes. Splashes of color and how they fit together, what could be done with them if I dared. Soon. This time, I mean it.

*The painting at the top is Terra-papers by Leonora Carrington

Greed, the Father of War


Greed, the Father of War

In the prologue of his novel The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins describes the storming of Seringapatam, which took place in 1799. During the battle, a British soldier named John Herncastle brutally murders three Indian men in order to confiscate a large, yellow diamond, called the Moonstone, which he coveted. I remember thinking at the time, “How can someone value a diamond over human lives?” Of course, that thought was immediately followed by the realization that most of the killing that happens, and has happened, in the world is due to greed – due to someone, or a group of people, believing that their personal comfort is more important than another person’s life or well-being. Humans are inherently selfish creatures, after all. Cartoonist Boardman Robinson depicted Greed and Pride as the father and mother of War (see picture above).

Collins’ account of Herncastle and the diamond is fictional, but the battles fought between the British and Indians were real. Why did the British take over so much of India in the first place? To protect the business interests of the East India Company. The economic stability for a British company was deemed more important than the self-determination and well-being of the local Indians. Of course, the British also saw themselves as a civilizational and missionary force in their colonies, but those were not the real reasons they were there. Were the Opium Wars fought in the interest of enhancing the well-being of East Asians?

The British are not the only culprits. Many other European countries colonized parts of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, wiping out or enslaving the original inhabitants, stealing land and resources, bringing diseases and foreign intoxicants, and overturning local leadership. Today, countries continue to fight each other over land and resources, especially oil. Do those in charge ever stop to think that the owners of these resources are also human beings, and that they deserve to live in safety and comfort?

In The Moonstone, several human lives are sacrificed for the sake of a diamond. In our times, blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds, fund militants and utilize unpaid and/or forced labor. Child labor, unpaid or underpaid labor, and forced labor is an issue in many industries, including chocolate, cotton, clothing, and electronics. By buying chocolate without a Fairtrade label, I could be giving money to someone who beats underage workers who were tricked into taking a job on a cocoa farm, and who are now not allowed to leave. By choosing the cheaper chocolate, am I not placing my own comfort and enjoyment over the lives of others? Do I know who harvested the cotton for my clothes, or who stitched the fabric? Do I know where all the components of my computer came from?

With our modern lives, it is next to impossible to answer all these questions with certainty. The supply and production chains are too long and non-transparent. Most of us cannot imagine life without computers, mobile phones, airplanes, plastic, and sugar. Most of us do not know how to make our own clothes and, even if we did, we don’t know how to weave the fabric from ethically-sourced cotton. Because of this, we are all guilty.

*The above photo was found on Wikipedia: