O mnie

Jestem jak droga polna, niczyja,  którą się mija,

Co nigdzie wiodła i wieść nie będzie, choć idzie wszędzie.

Dzieli mnie zawsze, tak jak tę drogę,
miedza od nieba,
a poco jestem pojąć nie mogę, bo mnie nie trzeba!

Nie byłem nigdy sobie, czy komu,
drogą do domu –
i dobrze życzę każdej godzinie
kiedy już minie.

Contact me

Ryszard Antolak

antolak@antolak.co.uk

 

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The Soviet GULAG. Illustrated

Danzig Sergeyevitch Baldaev, a Soviet KGB officer who worked in the Siberian GULAG system secretly made a series of 200 drawings , outlining scenes he had witnessed during his term of office. The GULAG system was in operation until the 1980s when Gorbachev finally closed them down.

The drawings are uncomfortable and shocking. Yet also a reminder of the horrors of Stalinist Russia, lest we forget.

Conditions in the Soviet GULAG were worse than in Hitler’s camps, according to those inmates who had been in both.

When prisoners died, their bodies were dropped through holes in the ice. With the coming of spring the ice on the river melted and swept the corpses into the Arctic Ocean.

 


Prisoners had to live on a bowl of thin soup and 300 grams of bread a day.

 


The women’s barracks were searched every single night. Women were ordered to strip and guards would search for knives and drugs.

 


Prisoners were punished if they resisted orders, refused to work or attacked guards. Dogs were set on prisoners who disobeyed.

 

In the Kolyma camps in North-eastern Siberia, holes were punched into the skulls of dead prisoners before they could be buried.

 

Millions of women, so-called rich peasants or “kulaks” died through starvation, slave labour and illness.

 

All new female prisoners were required to undergo a medical examination. They were made to stand naked in front of a panel of officers. Each was examined and assigned a job in the camp. Officers selected “lover slaves” who were given domestic instead of hard labour.

 

Corpses of dead prisoners were placed in mass graves. These were pits blasted out of the permafrost with dynamite. Their bodies were covered in ammonia and bulldozed over.

 

Drawings from the Gulag By Danzig Baldaev 
© FUEL Publishing (2010) ISBN: 978-0956356246
 (© Danzig Baldaev / FUEL Publishing)

Ksenia Nekrasowa.

Jak mogę pisać?
Papier jest taki mały
a smutki świata takie wielkie
………….
Jak mam zmieścić całe niebo
w moim małym notesie?

Przez większość jej życia, Ksenia Niekrasowa żyła w skrajnej nędzy, bez nawet własnego łóżka, zależną od hojności przyjaciół. W ciągu życia, opublikowała tylko jedną szczupłą tomikę wierszy. Wydobywana i odrzucana przez większość jej rówieśników, wzbogaciła życie całego pokolenia poetów.

Jej głos był wyjątkowy w literaturze rosyjskiej dwudziestego wieku: prostym, naturalnym i dziecięcym. W czasach, kiedy rosyjska poezja zmuszona była do przestrzegania ustalonych norm politycznych i ideologicznych, Ksenia Niekrasowa była zwolennikiem wszystkiego co było intymne i domowe, małe i osobiste. Była przyjacielem drogowych kwiatów, ludzi chodzących do domu z pracy, drewnianych domków z kurczętami przy drzwiach, kwitnienia lilii i dzikiego czosnku.
.
Tak jak jej poezja, była ona niewinna i dzika, oryginalna i niekonwencjonalna.. Poezja była dla niej jak oddychanie. Pisała je na jakiekolwiek kawałkach papieru które prezentowały się: na biletach autobusowych albo na listach zakupów.

“Czy to moje wiersze?
czy ja sama?
To wszystko jedno:
różnica jest tylko w postaci.
Oprócz tego
nie ma nic
tylko zwiędłe płatki kwiatów
na podłodze”.

W wyglądzie fizycznym była skromna i mała, o ciemnych, ciekłych oczach. Jej zniekształcony wygląd, ubóstwo i dziwne przyzwyczajenia zaczęły szeptania że była psychicznie chora. Jej głos, zawsze w małym kluczu, miał wyraźną jakość śpiewu, jakby ktoś opowiadał bajkę dziecku. Składał się z okrągłych samogłosek i długich, ekspresywnych pauz. (Wspaniałe były te przerwy). Kiedy recytowała wiersze, poruszała palcem jak by prowadziła niewidzialną orkiestrę.

Jej wiele opowiadania o “idyllicznym dzieciństwie” były bez liczne; lecz prawda była inna. Nie wiele poetów miały życia przeplątane taką tragedią i trudem jak ona. Opuszczona przez rodziców w bardzo młodym wieku, spędziła formacyjne lata w państwowej sierocińcu. Potem została adoptowana przez starego nauczyciela.

Była w życiu Ksenii jakaś ciemna tajemnica, bardzo często powtarzana. Miała niewyraźne wspomnienia o wizyty przez bogato ubraną kobietę w sierocińcu, która przyniosła jej obfite i kosztowne prezenty. Pamiętała o jakimś klasztorze w lesie, gdzie zgromadziła się ogromna grupa ludzi błogosławiąc jej obecność z biciem brawem. Czy wspomnienia były prawdziwe? Nie wiadomo. Ale fikcje, w których żyła Ksenia Niekrasowa, były dobre znane. Wiele lat po śmierci, dzikie opowieści wciąż krążyły, że była nieślubną córką ostatniego Cara, lub alternatywnie, córką Rasputina.

Jeżeli była kiedyś szczęśliwą, wojna zamieniła wszystko w popiół. Wraz z mężem i z młodym synem, znalazła się w Azji Centralnej, zmywana w rozległej fali uchodźców uciekając niemieckiego zamachu. Choroba, głód i desperacja były wszędzie. Podczas ciężkiego zbombardowanie, wpadły do ​​niej latające kawałki drzewa z podłogi, zabijając syna, którego trzymała w rękach . Dłonie które trzymały dziecko, otrzymały moc wybuchu. Ksenia nigdy już nie odzyskała pełnego opanowania nad rękami. Wkrótce potem, jej mąż zachorował psychicznie. Nie mogła już obchodzić się z nim. Całkiem załamała się.

Gdzie jesteś…?
Ile razy muszę wołać do ciebie?
Jak długo mogę czekać na odpowiedź?
Gdybym miała sto rąk
Szukałabym ciebie
Przez wszystkie drobne liści trawy
I przesiałabym wszystkie ziarnka ziemi
Przez palce
Aby znaleźć znowu twoje oczy.

Teraz zaczęło się najciemniejsza pora jej życia: niekończące błądzenie po nieznanych miastach, spanie w ruinach opuszczonych budynków, szukając kawałków chleba, aby zapobiec głodu. Nieuleczalne bóle głowy stały się częściej i cięższe. Czasami, fala depresji były całkiem nieznośne.
Deszcz mocno uderza na dach
Noc taka czarna za oknem!
I znów te myśli –
Przerażające pająki
wychodzące z ciemnych zakątków
O Boże!
Gdybyś Ty przynajmniej istniał!

Samotna, bez przyjaciół i rodziny, pojechała do Taszkientu, gdzie przez jakiś cud, została znaleziona przez lokalną rodzinę, która zlitowała się na nią i dbała o jej potrzeby. W rezultacie, jej zdrowie zaczęło się poprawiać, a w jej głowie wyjaśniło się. Przyszedł dzień, kiedy mgła wyłoniła się z oczu i mogła pisać w swoim pamiętniku:

Jak piękny jest świat!
Jeśli trochę samotny
wśród tych gwiazd i skalistych planet “

W Taszkencie spotkała Annę Achmatową, która rozpoznała jej niezwykły talent i dostarczyła ją listom wstępnym do ważnych poetów. Ksenia była pełna radości. Zaczęła ukrywać najśmielsze nadzieje! Wkrótce, marzyła jechać do Moskwy, gdzie, na polecenie znajomego, próbowała dołączyć się do Związku Pisarzów.

Miała szczęście w znalezieniu pisarzy, takich jak Stefan Szczupaczo i Leonid Sobolew, którzy walczyli, aby przyjąć ją do Związku. Najbardziej lojalna była jej przyjaciółka, Michaiła Swietłowa. W jej przemówienie do Unii, mówiła o rozpaczliwych okolicznościach Kseni. Ci poeci, którzy nazywali ją niewykształconą i naiwną, byli zazdrośni o jej talent.

Nadszedł dzień, kiedy prezes Związku Pisarzy, Aleksander Fadejew, zaprosił ją do swego domu. Ksenia przybyła z fiołkami skręconymi we włosach. Czekała przed domem kilka godzin, zanim znalazła odwagę wejść do środka. Fadejew nie znał ją cale, ale znał dobrze jej wiersze. Kiedy w końcu ją przyjął, był ona dla niego rewelacją. Fakty z jej słabości, zraniony głos, a przede wszystkim czystość jej poezji, wywarły na jego tak mocno, że trzymał ją przez wiele godzin, nie pozwalając jej odejść, prosząc ją o recytowanie jeszcze jednego, a jeszcze innego wiersza.

Kiedy nadeszła pora odejść, powiedział jej z ufnością, że nigdy nie słyszał poezję recytowaną z taką wielką miłością. “Nie martw się, Ksenia”, dodał: “nadejdzie Twój czas. Miej wiarę ”

Ale nie stało się!. Członkowie Unii odrzucili jej członkostwo. Powiedzieli, że jej poezja była naiwna i zbyt śmieszna. Jej puste wiersze były dzikie i chaotyczne i nie mogły być traktowane poważnie. Wielu z członków dotykały głowy palcami i wspominali bajki o jej szaleństwie. Więc Ksenia wróciła do wynajętego pokoju (w piwnicy Związku Pisarza), do pokoju, w którym nie było nic poza wilgotnym materacem, do wąskim jej pokoju podobna do szafki do przechowywania pościeli. Powiedziała swoim przyjaciołom: “Siedzę tu na podłodze, wkładam moją deskę na kolana i piszę. Żyję wystarczająco dobrze “.

Od tego czasu nie spodziewała się niczego. Prosiła nikogo o nic. Przekonana była, że jej zbawienie pokaże się w kartkach jej notatników, w których opowiadała treść swojej duszy.

Dotknęłam twojej dłoni
I wszystkie bzy rozkwitły
głóg ukrył ciernie w rozkwicie
I w mgnieniu oka
Cały świat zmienił się wiosną …

Od tego czasu odmówiła wszystkie publiczne zaproszenia. “Nadzieja”, powiedziała, “znajduje się wśród ubogich ludzi, nie pośród tych którzy wygodni są w świecie”. Zaczęła teraz poświęcać coraz więcej czasu wśród artystów, którzy wzięli ją serdecznie do serca. Karmili i ubierali ją, zapłacili jej rachunki i dawali jej, gdzie mieszkać. Wielu z nich (takich jak Ilya Glazunov i Robert Falk) malowały jej portrety.

W słynnej (1950) obrazie Falka, Ksenia jest ubrana w czerwonej sukience flanelowej i nosi naszyjnik pereł. Poetka zrobiła naszyjnik z wysuszonej fasoli połączone ze sobą z kawałkiem nici (i była z je bardzo duma). Ta czerwona suknia, rozsławiona w późniejszych wierszach, była prezentem Lilii Jahontowej.

Ksenia spędziła ostatnie dni życia w skrajnej biedzie, czekając, aby jej wiersze zostały nareszcze opublikowane.

Pod koniec życia, urodziła dziecko, największą radość jej życia. Ksenia miała wspaniałe plany dla synka, ale miała za wiele kłopotów materialnych. Zostawiła synka w sierocińcu, podczas kiedy szukała mieszkania. I właśnie wtedy, kiedy przygotowywała mały pokoik dla nich, upadła z drobiny, i nigdy już nie wyzdrowiała.

Pisał o niej Nikołaj Aseyev,
“Czekaliśmy bardzo długo, aby ktoś, z jej wizją, pojawił się. I kiedy nareszcie to stało się, kładliśmy każdą przeszkodę w jej drodze “.

Zmarła 17 lutego 1958 roku w wieku 46 lat.

Prawie dwadzieścia lat później, Unia Pisarzy radzieckich przyjęło ją jaką pośmiertnym członkiem organizacji.

Myślę, że będę żyła długo
Bo jestem kawałkiem Rosji
I rzeki soków sosnowych
Przepływają przez moje żyły ……

 

© Ryszard Antolak

Campaign for “i” instead of “I”.

Contrary to what your school teacher probably told you, there is no grammatical reason for capitalizing the word “I”. The practice crept into English literature gradually at a time when ideas of the self and individuality began to be seen as more important than those of community. Prior to the 14th century “I” was consistently written in lower case as “i”, and no-one had any problems with it.

English is the only major language that capitalizes the word for “I”. All other languages use lower-case letters to denote the first person singular subjective pronoun. Some even capitalize the first letters of their word for “you” as a sign of respect (placing “you” above “I”, out of politeness).

Capitalization is associated with importance and superiority, as with capital cities, capital ideas and, (indeed), Capitalism.

To capitalize the word “I”, and not “you”, implies (however subtly) that I am superior to, or more important than, you. Capitalization of “i” is a symbol of egocentricity, of attitudes of superiority of self over others : a persepctive that overflows and informs other areas of relationship in English-speaking societies. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Make efforts to write “i” instead of “I” (and “You” instead of “you”) for a whole week and feel the psychological shift of perspective in your mind. It is very powerful.

We live in an individualistic culture. In the interests of equality (and politeness) the words for “you” and for “I” should be on an equal footing. Both should be written in lower-case letters, or both should be written in higher case.

So be a revolutionary! Ignore what your school teacher told you and insist on using “i” in all your personal e-mails and written communications. It is progressive to do so. And if you think you will be laughed at, think of adding a postscript stating that in the interests of equality and fairness you promote the use of “i” over “I”.

Support the campaign for “i” over “I”. Sign the petition to make “i” acceptable in written English. Be a trend-setter.

The Zoroastrian Houses of Yazd

Sometimes old buildings possess the virtue to express far better than words the fears and uncertainties of nations or religious groups. The old Zoroastrian houses of Yazd are one such example. Civil and religious persecution have dictated the style and pattern of their unusual architecture. Memories of repression are encoded in the design of their thick adobe walls. They are voices frozen into stone.

Yazd is situated on a high, arid plateau at the interface of two mighty deserts (the Dasht-e Lut and the Dasht-e Kavir). It was once an important station on the Silk Road, famous for its fabrics and textiles (1). For many years, its splendid isolation protected it from political upheavals in the rest of Iran. After the Mongol invasions that saw the total disappearance of Zoroastrian populations from the provinces of Sistan and Khorasan, Yazd emerged unharmed, protected by its vast expanses of featureless desert. It became a haven for Zoroastrians from all over Iran. In this city of walled gardens and turquoise domes they continued to practice their religion and customs relatively undisturbed. Most of them still spoke Dari, once the official spoken language of the Sassanian court, later confined solely to the Zoroastrian populations of Yazd and Kerman (though fragmented into countless local dialects) (2). The pleasant oasis city drew many artists, poets and sufis to the safety of its walls (3)

The region’s prosperity and isolation lasted until the beginning of the eighteenth century whereupon two hundred years of political and religious turmoil ensued which decimated the population. Yazd suffered attacks from Afghans, Zands and Afshars, to name but a few. The Zoroastrian population was subjected to additional hardships. As a religious minority subject to discriminatory laws, it found it had as much to fear from its Muslim neighbours as from the foreign forces armed against it. It took extra measures to protect itself, a fact reflected in the community’s unusual domestic architecture (4).

Yazd is famous for its unique sky-line of badgirs: tall, elegant wind-towers intended to catch the slightest movement of air and direct it downward into cool underground chambers. The houses of the region have great vaulted talars that open out onto spacious courtyards containing pleasant water features and gardens. But the older houses of the Zoroastrian population are significantly different from those of their Muslim neighbours.

In 1963 when professor Mary Boyce arrived in the region to study them, she discovered gloomy, fortress-like buildings virtually devoid of any furniture or greenery. They were low and airless. No badgirs adorned their roofs. The primary consideration of the builders had been defence. The ideal solution would have been to build upwards, erecting high, tower-like houses as are found (for example) all over Scotland. But in Iran, Zoroastrians were not allowed to build their homes any higher than a man could reach (or any taller than the houses of Moslems). They could only build outwards and downwards, creating dark honey-combs of subterranean rooms with adobe walls several feet thick to withstand attack. The Zoroastrians were physically greater in stature than their Moslem neighbours (“mighty men”, as Mrs Boyce calls them) and they could well have put up a fight if they had to. But it seldom happened. The penalty for killing a Moslem was certain death: to kill a Zoroastrian meant incurring only a modest fine, usually waived by the authorities. Better, therefore, to prevent attacks in the first place

Entry to the houses was via a single door from a narrow lane just wide enough to allow a fully-laden donkey to pass. The Law stated that the door of a Zoroastrian dwelling could be secured by only a single hinge, so a series of doors had to be built (one after the other) in the interests of safety. Finally, at the end of a gloomy corridor, a narrow door – the smallest of them all – led into a bare, central courtyard or rikda.

There were no widows. Sometimes glass bottles could be seen protruding from the walls of the entrance lane. But these served as spy-holes rather than windows, defence being uppermost in the minds of these persecuted inhabitants. The only light to enter the house was through the tiny courtyard or via irregular gaps in the doors or ceilings. In some of the buildings the courtyard had been covered over completely to prevent intruders gaining access from the roof. The result was total darkness and oppressive claustrophobia. It is ironic that Zoroastrians with their sophisticated theologies of light should have been forced to live in such shadowy, enclosed buildings.

Bicameral fortresses
The oldest standard form of Zoroastrian house described by Mrs Boyce dated from the early nineteenth century. All other houses were variations on its basic design. It was known in Dari as a do-pesgami (or “two-chambered” house) on account of its two open pavilions facing each other across the rikda. These were known invariably as the pesgam-i mas and the pesgam-i vrok (the ‘great’ and the ‘small’ pesgams) (5). Both had domed roofs to help minimise solar gain and speed up the loss of heat from below.

The pesgam-i mas (or “great pesgam”) was so called not because of its size, (which was often smaller than the pesgam-i-vrok) but on account of its greater significance. It was the room set aside for religious observances and where the ritual vessels, the afrinigan, the bowls and spoons etc., were kept. It was never built facing north (the direction of evil); and was always hidden from the doorway so that no non-Zoroastrian visitor might set eyes upon it. Clay rectangular pots in which grasses were sown at major festivals were secured high up in its corners, a welcome relief from the monochrome grey of the house.

The great pesgam was considered pure (“pak”) and hence no-one in a state of ritual impurity could enter it. Its floor was of plain earth. Brick, being a man-made material, was considered unsuitable as it offended the Zoroastrians’ feeling of harmony with Nature. The age of a house could often be estimated by the height of the great pesgam’s floor. This was always higher than the floors of the rest of the house, a consequence of the fresh layer of soil that was spread upon it every year during the Farvardagan festival (the festival that welcomes back the spirits of the dead). (6)

Opposite the pesgam-i mas was the pesgam-i vrok (or “small pesgam”), a secular pavilion dominated by weaving looms with threads strung from wall to wall across the room. Zoroastrians were forbidden by law to practice any skilled trades, and hence were forced to rely upon weaving (as well as some farming and cattle-droving) to earn a living.

There were various other rooms around the periphery of the house, all of which Mrs Boyce describes meticulously in her article. What is striking about them is their emptiness: the almost complete lack of furniture, decoration or even cupboard space. In the bedroom, clothes and linens were stored in cotton bundles along the sides of the walls as if its inhabitants were ready at a moment’s notice to flee for their lives. This was often the truth, for persecution was endemic. In their haste they often buried valuables under the floors, hoping to retrieve them at a later date. This knowledge gave rise to the belief that all old Zoroastrian houses contained “buried treasure”, and ensured that they attracted the attention of potential burglars. Somewhere in the house, however, there was usually a panahgah (a concealed room) where valuables, wine – and even children – could be secreted in times of trouble.

Another room commonly found in these buildings was the ganza-yi punidun. It was nothing more than a simple stone hut. Women would pass the first few days of their menstrual periods here, segregated away from the men. But by the 1960s this architectural feature of Zoroastrian homes was already passing into memory. Mrs Boyce once asked a young Zoroastrian girl what purpose she though the structure might have served, and received the reply that it was probably “a hen-house”!

The only heated room in the whole house was the long narrow kitchen (or pokri) with its aromatic bread ovens. The weather in Yazd could be bitterly cold in winter, so the family would often congregate here in the evenings. Its fire was never allowed to go out.

Many of the laws discriminating against Zoroastrians (and other religious minorities) in Iran were still in force at the end of the nineteenth century. A Zoroastrian had to dismount from his donkey when approaching a Moslem. He was not allowed out of his house on rainy days because the water from his clothes might “contaminate” believers. He was compelled to wear distinctive garments to identify him as an outsider. He was not allowed to wear a hat or shoes, unless they were torn. Even eye-glasses were forbidden him. Subject to the notorious jaziya tax (7), he was kept firmly in poverty: a second-class citizen in his own country.

But when restrictions upon them relaxed at the beginning of the twentieth century, Zoroastrians again began to improve and upgrade their homes. The do-pesgami developed into chor-pesgami (or four-pavilioned) houses, upper stories were built, courtyards opened up and badgirs added. Water ponds and gardens began to appear to grace the inner courtyards. Life began to return to normal once again. Mrs Boyce reminds us at the end of her article that:
“Persia, with its love of gardens and flowers, was Zoroastrian before it was Muslim; and it was poverty and oppression that forced the Yazdi Zoroastrians into their small bare, fortress-like homes, without a blade of greenness to relieve the monotony. [But] as soon as pressure on them slackened, they created houses with gardens again.” – Mary Boyce, 1964

Notes
1. Marco Polo, who visited the city in 1272 called it “a noble and considerably sized city”. It was famous for Yazdi, a silken fabric embroidered with golden threads.
2. Dari differs from Farsi in possessing fewer borrowings from Arabic. Over the centuries, Dari speakers have experienced extensive political pressure to yield up the
language. Today there are less than 10,000 of them worldwide, most of them in Kerman and Yazd. Dari belongs to the N. Western Iranian language family and is related to Kurdish Gilaki and Balochi. It is not equated with the Dari spoken in Afghanistan.
3. A few of these Sufis built influential monasteries in the district. Some of them, like the monastery of Sheikh Ahmad Fahadan, can still be seen today in Yazd.
4. The Zoroastrians of Yazd distinguish between two kinds of Moslem: the najib (kind, generous) and the na-najib (the opposite of najib). They attach these names to several villages in the district and travel considerable distances to avoid contact with na-najib communities.
5. Mrs Boyce sought out the correct Dari words for many of the domestic objects she wrote about in her article. She was helped by two primary source books:
Soroushian, Jamshid. Farhang i behdinan. Tehran 1956, and
Ivanow, W. The Gabri dialect spoken by the Zoroastrians of Persia IV. RSO, xviii (1939)
6. These basic house designs are peculiar to Yazd and are not found among the Zoroastrian houses of neighbouring Kerman. If they once existed there, they probably disappeared in the 18th century after the massacre of the Zoroastrian population by Mahmood the Afghan.
7. The heavy poll tax inflicted upon most non-Moslems.

Source:

The Zoroastrian Houses of Yazd. by Mary Boyce in
Iran and Islam (In memory of Vladimir Minorsky).
Edited by Bosworth, C.E.
Edinburgh University Press. 1971
Printed in Great Britain by T. & A. Constable Ltd. Edinburgh. Scotland. UK
(ISBN 0 85224 200 X)

© Ryszard.Antolak
antolak@blueyonder.co.uk

Iran, King Kong & Paradise Lost

In the latter years of his long successful life, Merian C. Cooper – the creator of the epic film “King Kong” – developed an inconsolable longing to return to the Zagros Mountains of Iran and live out his remaining days among the Bakhtiari nomads of the region. The idea haunted him periodically. All he needed, he used to tell his old friend Ernest Schoedsack, was to “buy horses, a few flocks of sheep”, and (because of his growing frailness) “get a couple of good Persian doctors”. But the dream with all its endless possibilities was never realized.

Cooper had first visited Iran in 1924 to film the movie “Grass”, a documentary about the Baba Ahmadi branch of the Bakhtiari tribe. Their epic journey over the mountains between Ahvaz and Isfahan every year in search of grazing has been described as “the greatest migration in modern history”. Images of tribesmen throwing themselves into the rushing Karun River (along with their livestock), and footage of them climbing the glacial face of the massive Zardeh Kuh in their bare feet, thrilled audiences all over the world. Grass became Cooper’s first commercial box office success, and on the strength of it, he was given money to complete other film projects (of which King Kong became the most famous).

In real life, Cooper was bigger than any of his movie creations. He was distinguished as a Hollywood film producer, movie innovator, explorer, war hero, adventurer, pioneer of commercial air flight and much more besides. The new biography of him by Mark Cotta Vaz is entitled “Living Dangerously” and this is a very fitting title. Because for most of his life, Merian C. Cooper lived “on the edge”, at the extremes of life: he needed to take life-threatening risks in order to feel truly alive. Life in Santa Monica and San Diego bored the pants off him and he was forever planning to escape.

In 1924, from his tent high up on the Zagros Mountains, he had written in his diary: “You risk your skin, and in the moment when life balances with death, no matter how afraid you may be, you get a touch of the animal value of existence … wind and rain beats on your face as you brace yourself … some man trusts you above all other men and you realize what friendship means. These are the seconds which give zest and fire to existence … These are the moments when conscience and memory alike are drowned in the fine, physical or spiritual beauty of life…” (Vaz p6)

Cooper had experienced those heightened moments of existence before (in 1920) when as a volunteer in the Polish Air Force, he had flown dangerous missions against the invading Soviet armies. He had also experienced such moments on his journey with the Bakhtiari. He even envied one of the Bakhtiari leaders, Haidar Khan, who seemed to embody everything Cooper was looking for in life. (Some of Haidar’s qualities later found their way into the character of King Kong). But he could never find the heightened awareness he so craved anywhere else (except, perhaps in his cinematic imagination) although he longed for it until the day he died.

Cooper’s two companions during the filming of “Grass” — both Americans — were the boyish, excitable Ernest Schoedsack (who did most of the camera work), and the enigmatic Marguerite Harrison, who put up half of the money for the enterprise.

The three characters had met four years earlier in Poland, during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. Cooper had been instrumental in creating the Kosciuszko Squadron: a group of young American airmen who had volunteered to help Poland in her hour of need. From their flimsy wood and canvas airplanes, they had bombed and strafed the advancing Soviet armies of Semyon Budienny, which were attempting to turn Poland into another Soviet Socialist Republic.

Shot down over the Ukraine, Cooper was captured by the Russians and dispatched to the Gulag. There, he was saved from starvation through the intervention of Marguerite Harrison (a mysterious American spy who may also have been working for the Soviets). He eventually escaped, and after crossing the northern Russian wastes with two Polish friends, found safety in neighboring Latvia. He returned to Poland a war-hero, and was decorated (along with his squadron) with the highest military honor the country is able to bestow: the Virtuti Militari.

Marguerite Harrison had put up half of the money needed to produce “Grass”, but only on the condition that she was allowed to take part in the expedition, something to which Schoedsack objected. (During the journey, he was constantly irritated by her habit of applying make-up before every filming and generally treating the expedition like a family holiday). But his objection was over-ruled, and on December 14th 1923, the three Americans arrived in Shustar by boat to start filming.

Every year, at Norooz, the Bakhtiari nomads, 50,000 men, women and children (together with half a million animals), began an epic journey over the Zagros Mountains in a search of grazing. In their path lay two great obstacles: the treacherous fast-running Karun River (half a mile wide) and the snow-clad Zardeh Kuh mountains, fifteen thousand feet high. They divided themselves into 5 separate groups, each taking a different route across the mountains. Cooper and his companions accompanied the Baba Ahmadi branch of the tribe from the start of their migration north of Ahvaz all the way to the plains of Isfahan, filming the whole journey with hand-cranked cameras supported on shaky tripods.

In the course of their journey, Cooper came to admire Haidar Khan, the tribal leader of the group. He was particularly impressed by the older man’s physical presence: very hairy, “like a gorilla”, Cooper remembered later. But in the presence of his nine-year-old son Lufta, the chief’s whole demeanor changed and he would become soft and gentle in speech and actions. The relationship between this father and son became the central focus of the film Grass.

The first obstacle for the group, the crossing the dangerous Karun River, took almost a full week. It was achieved by constructing flimsy rafts from inflated goatskins, a method Alexander the Great had used two thousand years earlier. So strong were the currents, that several tribesmen were swept away and ended up smashed against rocks. At one point, Cooper and Haidar, both stripped to the waist, raced one another across the river to the opposite bank, the older man surging ahead to win and uphold the dignity of his tribe. Cooper was exhausted by the swim, but Haidar, to Cooper’s amazement, returned time after time to help others on the other side. “Here, in danger,” Cooper observed (clearly overawed by Haidar’s natural physical powers), “[is] a man, by glory!”

Cinematically, the highpoint of the journey was the crossing of the snow-clad Zardeh Kuh, the last great barrier to the land of grass. The Bakhtiari left their tents and other belongings behind in order to travel more lightly and began their ascent of the almost sheer glacier face of the mountain. Most of them attempted the climb barefoot. They were assaulted by wind and snow. At night, they slept out under the stars. Cooper thought he was living a maddening dream. Finally, having reached the summit, they looked out before them and saw a sea of grass stretching across the horizon in a vast, tight arc of green. Cooper wrote in his diary: “Here was the prize of the gallant fight. Here was the land of plenty. Grass and life!” (Vaz 129)

The journey across the Zagros changed Cooper forever. He came to idealize the way of life of the Bakhtiari people. He was acutely conscious of the immensity of their possessions: the sky, the grass and the mountains disguised as clouds. He was also saddened (and angry) at the realization that their way of life was coming to an end; and the modern world was coming to throw this culture of a thousand years onto the dung heap of history. Something of his anger went into the final scenes of “King Kong”, when the giant gorilla, threatened by the flashing weapons of modern technology (guns and planes) makes his final, defiant stand on the topmost pinnacle of the Empire State Building.

Cooper later admitted that despite the millions of words written about the symbolism inherent in “King Kong”, the film was really just a whopping great yarn. Nevertheless, it was one that resonated with audiences all around the world who saw in it something more than mere surface gloss.

The film script for “King Kong” was written by Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth, who based the dialogue on conversations she remembered between Schoedsack and Cooper on their voyages of exploration. Her husband, (Schoedsack), did most of the camera work. Marguerite Harrison, the “unwanted woman” on the Zagros expedition, was the inspiration for the Fay Wray character. The personality of Kong himself was partly based on Paul du Chaillu’s description of the death of a gorilla in his book “Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa”, which Cooper had read as a 6-year-old boy. The gentle, human side of the animal’s character was modelled on Haidar, gleaned from glimpses of his relationship with Lufta (his beloved son).

Despite all his many accomplishments, however, Cooper always felt that he had left something of himself behind on the plains of Isfahan. In 1947, he began to make preparations for a re-make of “Grass”, but hastily abandoned it after learning that metal bridges now spanned the Karun River and a railroad had been built through the Zagros Mountains. The Wilderness had been brutally destroyed! There was no where else on earth to explore. Cooper, always the adventurer, turned to the only uncharted area left – the human imagination (which for him meant the cinema). He explored that exotic realm with all the creative resources at his disposal, leaving behind him a bright catalogue of marvelous and unforgettable films.

Ryszard Antolak

Reference

Vaz, Mark Cotta. Living Dangerously. The Adventures of Merian Cooper

Powrót na Sybir

Kilka dni temu Tadeusz Kotlarz powrócił na Sybir. Pierwszą podróż przed sześdziesięcioma pięcioma laty odbył jako więzień polityczny. Tym razem pojechał jako turysta z Anglii by odwiedzić miejsce swojej skrzywdzonej młodości.

W lutym 1940 pół miliona obywateli Polski, po lufami karabinów, zostało wyrzucone ze swoich domów, wprowadzone do bydlęcych wagonów, i wywiezione na obrzeża Związku Radzieckiego. Rodzina Pana Kotlarz wylądowała w Khristoforovo, koło Kotlasu, w rejonie Syberii Lalsk. Miał wtedy czternaście lat.

“Szukałem wzmianki o deportacjach w Rosyjskim internecie”, mówi Pan Kotlarz “gdzie natknąłem się na Irinę Dubrovinę”. Jest przewodniczącą małej oganizacji pomagającej byłym więźniom obozów pracy w rejonie Kotlas. Wysłałem jej e-mail i nawiązaliśmy kontakt. Potem przyznałem że chciałbym tam pojechać.

Spotkaliśmy Tadeusza gdy przyjechał do Kotlas z Iriną Dubroviną. Wygląda na dużo mniej niż swoje 80 lat. Sorężysty, grzeczny, dobrze ubrany, typowy Europejczyk, od razu nas ujął. Odbył całą drogę z Nottingham (Anglia) samolotem przez Warszawę do Petersburga, a potem 24 godziny pociągiem do Kotlas. To aby odwiedzić miejsce w którym spędził dwa lata swojego życia.

“Musisz być w odpowiednim wieku by zrozumieć chęć podjęcia takiego trudu” wytłumaczyła Irina Dubrovina.

Chcielićmy pokazać Tadeuszowi cmentarz “Makarikha” gdzie pochowani są wygnańcy. Przypadkiem dołączyli do nas młodsi ludzie którzy przyjechali z Archangielska w poszukiwaniu informacji o obozach.

Jak staliśmy przed małą pamiątkową tablicą Irina opowiedziała nam o tysiącach Polaków którzy tu zginęli. Tadeusz w zadumie kiwał głową od czasu do czasu, potwierdzając. Czasami dodawał kilka słów po Angielsku, Polsku czy Rosyjsku.

Wzięliśmy go do muzeum w Kotlasie by zobaczyć wystawę współczesnych Niemieckich malarzy. Tadeusza jednak bardziej interesowały eksponaty z życia Rosjan z okresu w którym tu przebywał.

Następnego dnia wybraliśmy się samochodem morderczo wyboistą i krętą drogą do Khristoforiovo. Nie mieliśmy mapy i nie było drogowskazów.. Kilka razy zagubiliśmy się na leśnych dróżkach jeżdząc godzinami w kółko. Dzień mijał a my nie mogliśmy odnaleźć celu.

Ostateczne, jakimś cudem trafiliśmy. Ku zadziwieniu Tadeusza pozostały ślady dawnego obozu. Drewniany barak, dawniej biuro administracji gdzie więźniom nadawano pracę, ocalił się. Wyglądał tak samo jak przed 60ciu laty. W tym miejscu wygnańcy wyładowali się z bydlęcych wagonów w których przyjechali z Polski. “Był to pierwszy obiekt który zobaczyłem kiedy tu przyjechałem po trzech tygodniach podróży”, tłumaczył Tadeusz. “i nadal tu jest. A tuż przy torach stały dwa baraki (drewniane szopy), większa i mniejsza. Mieszkaliśmy w tej małej.” Dziś śladu po nich nie ma.

“Zycie było ciężkie. Musieliśmy coddziennie pracować, od rana do późnej nocy. Ci co pracowali dostawali 400 gramów chleba i coć co wygądało na zupę. Dzieci i starzy ludzie nie dostawali niczego. Wspierani byli przez rodziny. Nasza rodzina przywiozła ze sobą trochę rzeczy z Polski. Moja matka sprzedawała je lokalnym ludzim za kartofle które nieraz były zepsute. Wiele osób nie przetrwało zimy”.

Po uwolnieniu rodzina państwa Kotlarz (matka, ojciec i czworo dzieci) wyruszyło w długą drogę do Chelyabinska by szukać pracy. W podróży napotkali Polskich żołnierzy szukających rekrutów do Polskiej armii w Tatischevo (koło Saratov). Rodzina natychmiast zmieniła kurs i wyruszyła w stronę Saratov, spędzając zimę jako robotnicy w kołhozie.

Tadeusz Kotlarz zawsze chciał powrócić na Syberię by odwiedzić miejsca zapisane w swojej pamięci, miejsca które po dziś dzień prześladują go w snach. Teraz kiedy te miejsca odwiedił może ponownie przeżyć swoje wspomnienia.

W 1940tym roku pół miliona mężczyzn, kobiet i dzieci ze Wschodniej Polski, uznanych za “niepożądanych” przez rząd Sowiecki, zostały zesłane pod karabinami do lasów Syberii. Wielu zginęło. Ci co przetrwali nigdy już nie zobaczyli swoich ojczystych stron.

Anna Starczewa

Ryszard Antolak

Tłumaczyła Marta Wajda-Spohn

Forugh Farrokhzad: Wild Soul

[She] loved as in our age
People already do no longer; as only
The wild soul of a poet
Is still condemned to love
(Pushkin)

Ever since her tragic death in a car accident in 1967, Forugh Farrokhzad has been drawing thousands of visitors to the Zahir-al-Doleh cemetery in Tehran. They come to lay flowers, recite poetry and light candles on the grave of the poet who has become an inspiration to women, not only in Iran, but wherever women’s rights are severely curtailed. If she had survived her car crash, the poet would have celebrated her seventieth birthday this year.

Forugh Farrokhzad was one of those poets for whom Poetry (with a capital P) was not solely about the “writing” of “poems” or versification, but about living life to the full without compromise or equivocation. She once wrote:

“I believe in being a poet in every moment of my life. Being a poet means being human. I know some poets whose daily behaviour has nothing to do with their poetry. In short, they are only poets while they are writing their poetry. When they have finished writing, they turn back into greedy, indulgent, oppressive, short-sighted, miserable, and envious people. So I do not believe their poems. I prize honesty in life, and when I find these people making fists and various claims – in their poems and essays – I get disgusted, and I doubt their veracity. I think to myself, “Perhaps it is only for a plate of rice that they are screaming.”

Forugh Farrokhzad, and also Marina Tsvetaeva, (with whom she is often compared), believed one could be a poet without writing a single line of poetry. For these women, Poetry was a vocation, a way of life: a unique way of perceiving the world (and ourselves with it) as a seamless unity of being. Just as the written poem uncovers hidden connections between apparently disparate elements and unites them into a meaningful work of art; so the poet gathers up the scattered elements of his own life and makes from them a new living entity, open to infinity. He makes a poem out of the details of his life, and attempts to live it with all the heightened passion and intensity of feeling he is able withstand.

Forugh knew the consequences of dedicating her life so completely to Poetry. As a woman, it meant renouncing the traditional roles of wife and mother Iranian society required of her. On a more personal level, it meant abandoning her only child whom she loved to distraction. She made the choice in full consciousness of the consequences, writing about it with her characteristic brutal honesty:

I know a weeping child mourns
The loss of his mother,
Yet, tired and despairing
I set out on the road to Hope.
Poetry is now my love. Poetry my lover.
I leave everything behind to follow it.

Her actions, which remain as controversial today as they were during her own time, had tragic repercussions for her life as well as her sanity. As the years went by, she became increasingly haunted by the enormity of what she had done: that “sin” (as she called it) which she both detested and exalted at the same time.
I sinned a sin of pure pleasure,
In an embrace that was fiery and wild.
I sinned in the arms of one
Who was hot and avenging as iron.
In that dark and silent seclusion,
I sat dishevelled by his side.
As his passion was poured upon my lips,
and I lost the sorrow in my shattered heart…
I sinned a sin of pure pleasure,
next to a shaking, stupefied figure.
God only knows what I did
In that dark and silent seclusion!

But her poetry became enormously enriched as a result. She showed a generation of Iranian women that their lives did not have to revolve around their children or the kitchen sink. In the details of her own life, she demonstrated the possibility of extracting the utmost from every moment of existence.

It has been said that the poet’s main task is to make us aware of the breath of eternity that hangs over all that is truly alive. If this is the case, then Forugh Farrokhzad fulfilled her role as “eternity’s hostage, captive to time”. She gathered up the shattered morsels of eternity that lay within her own soul and held them up to us in “wet and trembling hands” (Pasternak)

Her poetry (like her life) veered wildly to the far-flung borders of passion, which she documented with meticulous honesty and ruthlessness of vision. Her life was tragically brief. She lit up the literary sky magnificently for a brief moment, and then went out forever. But that unique light was never forgotten.

Every year on the anniversary of her death (February 14th), people gather at her graveside in their hundreds to light candles, lay flowers and mourn her passing. The sky comes down among them to lay a covering of soft snow. After so many years, Forugh Farrokhzad is still sorely missed.

I will come, I will come
I will come again
and this time my hair will smell of the soil;
and my eyes will be black
with the knowledge of the darkness;
I will come again
carrying the branches I have gathered
in the woodlands behind the wall.
I will come, I will return,
I will come again,
and the entrance will be filled once more with love;
And I will greet once more at the gate
All those who are in love
And the girl who is waiting at the gate;
I’ll greet them all once more.

© Ryszard Antolak

Where the Bee Sucks

I remember summer afternoons, walking home from school through meadows choked with thousands upon thousands of wild flowers. Every blossom seemed to vibrate with humming bumble-bees: they were everywhere.

We would catch them in jam jars and hold them captive for an hour to two while we argued about which of us had caught the most, the largest, the loudest. We feared them a little for their sting, of course, but knew they would attack only once (and as a last resort) in an act of suicide (unlike the hostile wasp). We never harmed them, some vague instinct in us recognizing their value, their innate sanctity even. No-one ever killed a bumble bee except by accident.

Today, the meadows of my childhood have been replaced by housing estates. But in my own garden, which cannot contain the abundance of flowers it has produced this year (poppies, primulas, poeny-roses, azaleas, lilacs, etc.,) there is an eerie silence; and there are hardly any bumble-bees.

I have always admired the humble bumble-bee, respected it. It is a gentle, industrious, endearing, fat, hairy little beast, far friendlier than the commercially-useful honey bee (It is also solitary, and so does not swarm like its cousin).

Sometimes, (like this morning) an occasional one will blunder into my bedroom through an open window and get itself caught in the lace curtains. I flatter myself it has come to visit me rather than losing its way, for many poets in antiquity were said to have been visited by bees: it was a sign of the Bestowal of Great Wisdom. Pindar was one such poet honoured in this way: they brought honey to his infant lips. Even Plato, though no poet (and seeking to exclude poets from his grim Republic) was visited by a swarm of bees at his birth. (“The Wisdom of the Bees” is also much spoken of in Celtic legend)

The bumble-bee at my window, however, had probably just got lost and needed some help. It has no brain, only a double chain of neural ganglia. But who needs a brain when you have a heart like his: so much in love with the colours, the scents the textures and the tastes of heavenly blossoms? I am reminded that the ancient Egyptians, who preserved many of the internal organs of a dead person for use in the Afterworld, discarded the human brain altogether. It was one of the few organs left on the embalming room floor. Every Pharaoh went into Paradise brainless (along with his all his Egyptian subjects). But then perhaps Paradise can only be attained by those who have renounced their calculating, chattering minds and have tuned their hearts instead to vibrate, like bees, to the colours and shapes of eternity.

My errant bumble bee is impatient to return to paradise. I wonder how he perceives my garden, his compound eyes magnifying and multiplying everything he sees. His senses must become saturated with colour. He must occasionally become drunk on what he sees and giddy with ecstatic joy. Perhaps this is the meaning of his continual murmurings.

Our word for “Paradise” comes from the Persian word for a “garden”. We (humans) find so much beauty and symbolism in flowers that we often forget that they were created solely for the insects and not for us. Without the beetles, the bees and the mayflies, our landscapes would be drab and monochrome just as they were in the era of the dinosaurs. Our ideas of paradise would also have to be radically revised.

A real-life inhabitant of paradise, a paradisiac, a hairy bundle of love, I capture my errant bee in a wine glass and release him outdoors. He makes a direct bee-line for the lilac bushes, muttering loudly to himself.

Who will sing his praises once the bumble bee has disappeared forever from our landscapes? It is slowly being killed off (I am told) by a tiny parasitic mite that burrows into its flesh. Soon, in this corner of the world, there will be no more summer meadows filled with the onomatopoeic murmurings of innumerable bees. What an incalculable loss!

© Ryszard Pulkiewicz Antolak

Slow Education.

Ever more strongly, teachers are encouraged to hurry children along as quickly as possible from one level to the next, through every successive grade and every examinable hoop we can measure.

The aim appears to be to destroy the child’s ignorance and innocence as ruthlessly as we can, to take away his raw experience of the world  (his experimentation and play with ideas) by filling him with facts and unquestioned certainties.  In a nutshell, success  seems to be measured by how quickly we can transform a child into a mini-adult. There is no time to be “just a child” any more: no time for fun, play, exploration, active imagination, reflection and experimentation. We have to get him or her to the next level.WHAT’S THE BIG RUSH?

We dont judge a peice of music by its brevity. We don’t  think that Chopin’s Minute Waltz is somehow superior to Mahler’s 8th Symphony just because it gets to the end quicker. So why do we value speed in education? Whats’ all the rush about? Is it merely the existence of school league tables (“my school is better than yours”) that is driving thus rush to achieve targets? Or is it something else? In our so-called developed world, speed has become a measure of value. We have fast food, fast internet, rapid communication systems etc. And now, alas (I hope not), fast education.

The process of Education (the way we do it) should be just as important as the outcome. Yet “the outcome” the “measureable result” seems to carry much more weight in Education. Reaching the “target” all too often overshadows the means and methods by which we achieve it.

We  demonstrate that we have reached a target by formal assessment. The problem with Assessment, however,  is that  it  kills creativity. It does this  by an insistence on “right answers”; by a lack of interest in children’s questionings; by making children work alone, by a diet of bite-sized tasks, and by a lack of ownership or interest by the child.  Assessment built around the fast recapitulation of unquestioned certainties kills Creativity dead.

Today’s certainties, are tomorrow’s fallacies. Today’s unquestioned certainties are all too often irrelevant tomorrow. Perhaps instead, we need to think of equiping children with the values and skills they will need for a future no-one can imagine.  Perhaps we would be better advised to teach habits of mind to cope with uncertainies, so that pupils become comfortable in confusion (because they can deal with it).

Many years ago, the poet John Keats coined the famous phrase Negative Capability, which he defined as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”

Mysteries. Uncertainties. Now here are couple of words we don’t often hear in educational circles. Mysteries. Why can’t we (as teachers) spread and deepen mysteries instead of teaching contemporary facts (that are nearly always wrong in the long run)? Mysteries force us to use our own minds instead of passively accepting the products of others. Facts make us consumers of information. Mysteries allow us to develop our own minds.

SLOW EDUCATION

It was with great delight, therefore, that I recently read about the growing Slow Education Movement, which resonated deeply with my own ideas.. One of the leading proponents of the movement in UK is Professor Guy Claxton, professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester.  His book “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind”, suggests that the default model of modern-day thinking is fast and unreflective. i.e. HARE brained. Exclusive amounts of conscious thinking at the expense of careful rumination undermines perception and understanding. He advocates instead for other, more reflective,  ways of thinking to occur i.e. Tortoise Mind.

Claxton’s belief is that the importance of Literacy and Numeracy has been overemphasized at the expense of more general learning skills. Children need different kinds of skills to call upon, he says, so they can cope with the world outside and the world of the future.

The building blocks of these skills and habits, (what he calls “Learning Power”) are:  Curiosity, Exploration, Courage, Experimentation,  Imagination, Discipline, Sociability and Thoughtfulness.

These cannot be hurried, and require a brake on the frantic urge always to progress, always “to rush to the next level” to the next Grade. Slow Education, in contrast, allows time to play with ideas, to imagine alternatives, to create, to reflect on what has been learned and to experiment,.

Guy Claxton is my hero of the week.

At the Grave of Farid-al-din Attar (شیخ فریدالدین عطّار)

Neishapur, north eastern Iran

Mausoleum of Attar, Neshapur.
© R.Antolak

Grandfather. Don’t you recognise me?

The journey has been long and difficult to reach you.

They’ve covered your tomb with a glass box, so I can’t touch you. But I circle around you, my hand gliding over the smooth surface. How lightly you seem to sleep,. If I were to blow on your embers, would the ashes splutter into life and burn like a raging wildfire?

How many years have passed since I first opened your “Conference of the Birds?”. It was so beautifully coloured! Remember? Every time I took it down from the bookcase , the illustrated covers opened like the wings of an exotic bird, impatient to begin its flight. That was the start of our journey together. That was your voice calling to me. “This is our only purpose in Life. Like moths, we follow the light. We hover around the candle flame.  And when we are ready, we plunge in and set our wings on fire.”.

The story resonated in my being. My fascination with it continued for years, like a piece of music in which you hear ever deeper meanings and harmonies the more you listen to it.

How much of the story I understood then, I don’t know. It was not something that could be grasped intellectually: it was experienced like music or dance. Over the course of my life it formed and reformed in my mind, taking many shapes and meanings.

Surely everyone has heard the story, in one form or another.

The Conference of the Birds is the tale of a journey by the many birds of the world in search of their King, whom they have never seen: the legendary Simorgh. After many perils and mishaps, only thirty bedraggled birds, led by the hoopoe, arrive at their destination on Mount Kaaf. There they discover nothing but a pool of water in which they can see their own reflections. In time, the disappointed, but brave, survivors begin to understand that perhaps the journey itself had the real destination of their flight. The wisdom and skills they had gained in overcoming their own doubts and imperfections had turned each of them into their own Simorg, their own “king”.

Grandfather, I am like one of your birds. And you are my destination.  Look. I have flown thousands of miles to find you here, at the end of the world, in ancient Nishapur. But, of course, we both know you are not really here. You are too alive to be confined to any place. In many ways, it is true to say that  you are the one who is alive, and I dead.

Do you know that your countrymen have built a garden around you surrounded by a wall. It stands alone on a sandy plain, like a ship grounded on an evaporated ocean. There are roses, and tall swaying poplars; and a tiny mausoleum of turquoise tiles to hold your bones. It is a lovely place,  beautiful beyond any singing of it.

Headstone of Attar,
© R. Antolak

Your gravestone is a recumbent rectangular slab of black stone covered in Arabic letters. What does it say?  Let me see:

Here lies the tomb of a man so eminent, that the dirt stirred by his feet would have served to wash the eyes of the universe”.

At last! They have recognised your worth; as they never did in your lifetime. In front of the slab is a narrow upright pillar shaped like a giant cricket bat, twice as tall as a man. What does it represent? No-one can tell me. It doesn’t matter. I haven’t come to view stone and dust. Stones, civilizations, religions all crumble or fade eventually.

Around you lies Neishapur, the most famous city of the eastern world. All that remains of it are traces of mud walls stretched out over the semi-desert, barely distinguishable from the earth itself.  The city around you has crumbled away, but your words have survived. And they continue to inspire millions.

When the people of Neishapur accused you of heresy, you stood silent and didn’t protest, biting you lip, because you knew your own worth. When they confiscated your property and banished you from the city, you accepted it, saying that possessions and comforts were for children, not for grown men. And when you died by a Mongol sword (for your insolence in telling the truth), your soul rose into the air like a flock of birds the size of a continent.

Grandfather, everything you wrote you wrote was about events in the soul , and not the empire. So they did not always understand you. Honours, recognition or rewards were beneath you. You knew your own worth, and didn’t need the recognition of wealthy or powerful men.

Beloved grandfather. Why are you still silent. Don’t you recognise me? We have been through so much together.  Remember the journey we set out upon twenty (thirty) years ago? You led, and I followed Remember the continents and seas we traversed? And then higher still, we flew on, until the illusions of solidity and permanence vanished. Nothing remained but death herself. And you, always ahead of me, were not afraid. Until, your body fell to earth exhausted and spent. We love our bodies, but they cannot last the course. They blow away like dandelion down. So I must continue the journey without you, in the direction you have shown me.

You taught me that the secret of life is to jettison all hope (of Salvation, of Joy) and to have no Fear. Stand your ground and lick the face of the lion who confronts you. Accept no promises or rewards of salvation. Set your sights beyond the horizon. The journey is all there is. Don’t even seek a destination. We both know that home is an illusion. Everything we love is unreal. All there is, is the sky and the wings to carry us.

There are friends who accompany us, at least for some of the journey: brave, unsubmissive souls. But few can last the course. They are reluctant to give up their comforts; they make excuses for returning home. They are afraid.  Thankful for their companionship, we wish them well. But we do not stop. For the flight is not for everyone.

We must leave cleverness and intelligence behind. Reason is too constricting. Our childish brains make us believe so many silly things. No-one enters Heaven by cleverness. Happiness, sweetness, stability, property, comfort, desire, and joy -we kiss them all goodbye because they hold us back. We believe that salvation lies in holy books or grand houses or the beauty tangled in a woman’s hair. But desirable as they are, they are prisons. We realize this eventually, often when it is too late, near the end of our lives.

So, we turn our attentions only to the flight and the wings that can carry us – feathers, hollow bones, soft down. Who would think such nothings could carry you to the sky?

If there is a meaning in the journey, it is contained in the stories we tell of what happened  on the way, stories often exaggerated to better bring out the atmosphere of Truth. Eventually, even the journey takes second place to the feeling of comradeship and unity that grows between the travellers. We understand that the goal of the journey all along was the companionship of the others who have become, through the course of the flight, both the landscape and the goal of the entire expedition.

What are we in the end but candle flames, flickering before the greater fire of the sun; swallows swooping over wheat fields; crane flies dancing above a patch of grass in the evening light?

I breathe the cold morning air of Neishapur. My veins have begun to flow in great rivers. And I feel, at last, alive!

Grandfather, I kiss your cheek. I kiss your hand. Grandfather, leave me your blessing.

Attar Neshapuri  1145- 1220 AD

© Ryszard Pulkiewicz Antolak