My cultural legacy has revealed itself to me in unexpected ways. As a child of immigrants who came from a community of once-immigrants, I picked up some family mythologies via after-dinner stories, and some traditions through our special occasion activities. Being Saiyed meant being more than Indian and Muslim, not only descended from Persian missionaries to the subcontinent, but also a member of the family of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Being Saiyed meant sometimes being contrary just to be contrary; cooking, appreciating, and sharing good food; and holding family closer than you held yourself.
When Rumi came to me, he came not through any of my literary uncles or in my mother’s bedtime stories, but through Coleman Barks—on a shelf, in the poetry aisle, at a Barnes & Noble in Louisville, Kentucky.
As a Gujarati Muslim, I’m not confident that my claim to Rumi will be well received. But, in retrospect and in my own defense, I can say Rumi had always been there, even before that day at the bookstore. He was in the qawalli music my dad blasted in the minivan on road trips; he was in the metaphors for love-drunkenness in Bollywood songs; and he was in the Sufi celebrations—“blasphemous,” they said at my American Islamic Sunday school—that my father’s side adhered to back home in Navsari, the town settled by my many-greats grandfather when he arrived from what is now Iran.
The American-not-Indian college freshman I was didn’t realize any of this. At the time, I was a student of literature insomuch as I’d read a lot of Nancy Drew and a little less Dostoyevsky and Donne. I had yet to meet the writers who named and explored familiar-to-me experiences of dissonance as an American—Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison—when I serendipitously picked up the book that led me to begin naming my own brand of dissonance, Coleman Barks’s Rumi: The Book of Love.
I cannot tell you now exactly what words I read, standing in the poetry aisle, likely with a latte in one hand and the book open in the other. I do know I did not buy the book that day, but went home with a new name at my lips—Jelaluddin Rumi. For years after, I read his poems online, specifically seeking out “versions” by Barks. (Sorry, Mr. Barks—I did spend time in bookstores, but I didn’t spend much money on books.)
Unlike more literal translators, Barks made available Rumi’s emotional depth. The breathlessness of free verse; the vague, incessant longing for the Beloved; the unexpected imagery of markets, moons, and rooftops—all of these felt at once familiar and distant, offering up to me what I did have and what I might have had. I hand-copied entire Rumi poems onto computer paper to adorn my dorm room walls, I cut and pasted verses into e-mails to my mother when she seemed over-worried about my living away, and I tried, unsuccessfully, to memorize “In the Arc of Your Mallet.”
I still return to Barks’s Rumi when my mind feels unsettled and begins buzzing. The words, searched for on my iPhone or at my bedside in the books I’ve now purchased, remind me to celebrate the momentous occasion of simply existing. With these words, I make sense of my experiences: music is the sound of separation; overwhelmedness is but a guest; the heart is as incisive a tool as the mind.
This Rumi fit me like an over-stretched glove—a provision of warmth within distorted contours, too tight in some spaces and loose in others. I still don’t quite know what to make of the circumstance: a white American man brought me something that, if not for a painful history of physical, economic, and epistemic violence and displacement, should have been mine. Similarly, I don’t know what to make of having learned yoga—not a Muslim practice, but one nonetheless tied to my roots in the subcontinent—from white women who chanted mantras and didn’t try to pronounce namaste correctly. Neither do I know what to make of having read Edward Said’s Orientalism while at Oxford University, a center of Orientalist research.
I can’t make anything of any of this; I have nothing to work with. I feel only an empty non-loss at not having a thing I never had but maybe could, maybe should, have had.
Coleman Barks has been criticized for appropriating, simplifying, and erasing the Islamic and historical underpinnings of Rumi’s work. Intellectually, I understand this and am deeply uncomfortable with any work that repackages and decontextualizes non-Western cultural production for Western mass consumption. Experientially, Barks’s work did not reduce my understanding of Islamic literature to an appreciation of lovely words, an exercise in mindfulness, or an exploration of desire. I read Barks as a comfortable and devout Muslim—not as a New Age seeker of spirituality but as a seeker of voice. Finding Rumi led me back to my father’s qawalli CDs and to understanding that Bollywood made more than musical rip-offs of Western films. Rumi led me to Rabiah al-Adawiyah, Omar Khayyam, and Hafiz, to Rabindranath Tagore and Mirza Ghalib; led me not only to great literature, but to an exploration of the breadth of Islamic religious practices and historical experiences—to al-Ghazali and Ibn Battuta.
I have emptiness even where I’m sure I should feel guilt; I didn’t get around to looking into any of this until I happened across Barks in an establishment that’s just a now-nearly-gone blip in the history of middle-American consumption. The imperialism, appropriation, and consumerism that led me to Rumi might have made me angry, but instead I feel uncomfortably grateful that Barks brought me something I wouldn’t have found myself.
I must and do critique the contexts that shaped the moves that led me to a childhood embedded in an adopted culture—mine by birth in a time and a place, but not by legacy. I found Jelaluddin Rumi by way of Coleman Barks, by way of the conquests and losses of history. Decisions made by empires, by corporations, by families, and by other people led me to that bookshelf in that poetry aisle at that Barnes & Noble in Louisville, Kentucky. Not a direct road to Rumi, perhaps, but one that ended by illuminating other paths I had missed because I’d chosen not to look and because they’d been deliberately obscured from my view.