The Nightingales of Wilde and Hafez

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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?

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Words Unsaid

I wrote this last year. It is loosely autobiographical: the party happened, but we left immediately and there was no conversation. The thoughts are mine.

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Words Unsaid

I am late. Mother of the year. But when I found out about the preschool Christmas party for parents—and they specifically said “maminky”—it was too late to change my work schedule. So, I am the last mom here. The school is packed, and I don’t like crowds. I feel boxed-in. How long should I stay? Is half an hour enough to be polite? I have chocolate chip cookies. I put them down next to all the intricate Czech Christmas cookies.

Drinking that Coke Zero was a bad idea—caffeine always makes me nervous. So does skipping lunch. The teachers and children have prepared a program for us. All the children come out and line up, singing and playing instruments. Well, except for my kid. She immediately ran off and hid behind me. She doesn’t like crowds either.

I should talk to someone. My Czech is basic, but I don’t like forcing people to speak English with me. Do I look aloof? I’ve been told a few times that I look aloof. I’m not aloof; I’m uptight. I’d really prefer to talk to one of the teachers, but they’re swamped. The mom in the red shirt looks friendly; maybe I should go talk to her.

I say dobrý den and introduce myself. I was right; she is friendly.

“This party is nice,” I continue. “They decorated well.” You doofus! Couldn’t you think of anything better to say?

“Yes, they did,” Red Shirt (Crap; I forgot her name already!) answers. “Is this your daughter?”

“Yes, this is Arvaneh.” I don’t know why I gave her a name that’s so difficult for Czechs.

It takes Red Shirt a few tries to get it right.

“And is that your son?” Call me Captain Obvious.

“Yes, this is Honza.”

“He looks like he’s having a good time. Does he like this school?”

“Yes, he’s made a lot of friends here. Does your daughter like it?”

“Yes, she does.” She is very reserved like me and hasn’t made any friends yet. I don’t know how to help her.

I decide to change the subject. Dale Carnegie says people love talking about themselves. “So, are you from here in Prague?”

“No, I was born in Moravia, but I came here for school and stayed because I found a job. Do you like Prague?”

“Yes, I like it a lot, but I get homesick. Especially in the winter!” I smile. This is true. But I also feel a lack of sensitivity here. But maybe that’s all big cities. Maybe it’s just everywhere now. And I’m afraid of going home in today’s socio-political climate, and where is “home?”

“What do you do here?” Red Shirt asks.

“I’m an English teacher now, but I’m trying to change careers—to some form of writing or editing.” I’m getting closer to 40 but still don’t feel like a real adult. You look like you have the adulting thing down, and you’re probably younger than me.

I don’t really want to talk about myself. “What do you do?” Probably an office job, surely something stable.

“I work at Raiffeisen Bank.” Bingo!

“And do you have other children?” I ask. I’m sure you’re a much better mom than me. You seem “grounded.”

“Yes, I have another boy; he’s seven years old now. Do you have any more?”

“No, just Arvaneh.” Even with just one, I’m afraid of screwing up. I don’t know much about kids. I had no experience with them before. All I have to offer her is love, and it’s not enough. I couldn’t even get her to take a bath last night and she watched Masha and the Bear for way too long, and I let her do it because I like hearing her laugh.

“So, what does Honza like to do?” I’m running out of things to ask. How long have we been talking?

“Oh, he’s into cars. And buses, planes, fire trucks, tractors. Typical boy stuff.” Oh really?

“Arvaneh likes tractors too. And animals. Do you like the Museum of Agriculture?” I lurk on their page looking for free events.

“We’ve only been once. But he sits on the tractors when we visit my parents in the country. He likes animals too; we have a dog.”

“Oh, what kind?”

Red Shirt mentions the name of a dog breed I don’t recognize and asks if we have any pets.

“No. I’d like to have a cat someday, but we can’t now. I’ve always had cats.” I pause. “Those cookies look good,” I say, and proceed to take a few for my plate. “Which ones did you make?”

“I made these.” She points to the Linzer cookies.

“Oh. They look pretty.” I can’t pinpoint the exact difference, but the ones I had in Germany were better. I never eat the Czech ones.

“Do you bake Christmas cookies?” she asks.

I prefer American sweets. ”No, I usually make a gingerbread cake for Christmas. Or pumpkin pie.”

“Pumpkin pie? What’s in it?”

“Well, it’s usually made with pumpkin puree—I use the Hokkaidos—sugar, eggs, milk, and lots of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove.” Actually, my recipe is vegan, but I’m not going to tell you that because you will think I’m being pretentious or condescending. “And we serve it with whipped cream.” I use the spray can. I know how silly it sounds to use that stuff on a vegan pie, but I really can’t be bothered to make coconut whipped cream. The minute they put coconut cream in a spray can, I’m on it!

“Sounds interesting. I only use pumpkin for soup.”

I smile and nod. Your lipstick is perfect. I wonder if that color would look good on me. I’ll look for it at DM next time.

”Oh, I’d like to talk to Arvaneh’s teacher while I’m here. It was nice meeting you!” You’re a nice person, but I’m out of things to say.

“You too, have a nice Christmas!”

Between my broken Czech and the teacher’s broken English, we manage to have a conversation. I kill enough time that I feel comfortable saying a general na shledanou and leaving. The nervous energy has built up inside me and the walk home will do me good. If my daughter wasn’t with me, I would run. But I’m glad I went. Those people are nice—it’s me that’s the problem.

 

Photo courtesy of RitaE on Pixabay

From the Ashes

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From the Ashes (excerpt from my short story)

Zora felt the hot pressure flood behind her eyes again and willed the images away. The taxi would arrive soon and there was no time to redo her makeup.

The sound of a news broadcast caught Zora’s attention as she waited in the lobby. “His life is pretty well ruined.” The TV screen displayed the curly-headed and chinless face of Brock Turner, round eyes staring blankly into the camera. “Those who say, ‘Oh, he’s not really being punished,’ it seems to me, are missing the point.” Zora frowned and dug her short fingernails into the underside of her arm and shuddered as the action awoke a stray memory of other fingers clutching that same arm. A flash of yellow from outside pulled her back and she hurried out the door.

As the taxi crawled through the traffic toward Midtown Atlanta, Zora gazed out the windows, taking in her surroundings. She filed each image away like a keepsake in her mind, inwardly preparing answers to questions no one would care enough to ask her. Zora saw glossy-leafed magnolias in full bloom, the silver of ultra-modern condominiums, banks, and hotels, red stone churches, a wall plastered with concert posters – one of them depicting a woman in chains…

Zora willed herself to stay focused, and looked out the other window. “I’ll see you later tonight,” she whispered to herself as the car glided past the Fox theatre.

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?

Greed, the Father of War

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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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boardman_Robinson#/media/File:The_Father_and_Mother.jpg