A somewhat apologetic note to the reader: the following is an experiment on my part; what little poetry I’ve published here has been rather different. Written deep in the night in a bit of a blur with all the perhaps too obvious (or not) echos and influences whirling about in my head, and polished up in the morning, which is how these things usually come to be, I suppose. Enjoy.

________

When you sleep into the dream world, you might—might—see me. Spit three times in your left
Hand—or is it the right one?—and make sure. Abjure.
Wake it up, lit. Take your heart’s writ, tear, and sprinkle
The bits of the words on the tip of your tongue, encausticate them. Honey’s a fix, sure, but
Some wounds, they only take their mirrored selves—a lesson?
Others, warm milk and honey, perhaps. The bees, they know, ask ‘em, but take mind,
They’re liable to sting, even, perhaps, in a dream. Or not.
If you wake up, and you’re already smiling, take it as a token,
A very good sign. Not the sort that leaves you flat-backed and singed—not that good.
St. Patrick’s Purgatory, the wet stones traprock, blink and you’ll miss them, the good folk there—
Well, he said. Some days sure it don’t rain. Though this damp don’t help your cold none, son.
Cut and burn, your labors pass. Wind on the weary uplands, up and out.
What you saw, anyway, was me in the stars, swinging the scythe, harvesting
Sounds and portents. Now we’re away on the far ends, the utmost limit,
And a scraggly juniper tree at the start of old field succession, digging roots
Into the old star stuff, left alone. The heavens. Man, it’s deep, deep I say.
Straight from that hunkered down isle within an isle, to that bower, I took, mad Sweeney beside,
And sheared all day, found rest under that tree. Sweeney flew on. Now, stick around, we’ll
See all that, and see what we see, so. Prop your eyes open, sleep, and dream.

The below brief text is excerpted from a short Ottoman Turkish manual of Sufism by Mahmut Hüdayı, an important shaykh, and indeed early organizer, of the Celvetiyye ṭarīqa, the adherents of which mostly lived in the Anatolian and Rumelian parts of the Ottoman domains. Much of Mahmut Hüdayı’s output was in Arabic, but a substantial number were in Ottoman Turkish- not quite a colloquial register, but more likely to be read and understood by a wider number of people in Anatolia and Rumelia.

This passage is emblematic of one of the prevailing themes in the work from which it is excerpted: the importance of having a shaykh (in this context, a spiritual master/instructor) and being constant in honoring and obeying him. While such sentiments were hardly new in Sufism in the sixteenth century, there were also a seemingly increasing number of people who contested, explicitly or implicitly, the authority and knowledge of living shaykhs. By the eighteenth century it is easy to find many people practicing what was essentially a ‘privatized’ mystical Islam, with little need for a shaykh or regular communal life. Such a possibility is clearly not in view for Mahmut Hüdayı, however- quite the opposite, as is clear from the following passage.

If the shaykh enjoins as a duty any service (khidmet, mod. Turkish hizmet), [the disciple] ought to carry that service out, without delay, without adding any other business to it, without asking for explanation of cause or detail, and without stopping. It is related about a shaykh that he asked one of his disciples: ‘If your shaykh sent you off to do some service, and on the way you passed by a mosque in which they were performing congregational ritual prayers, what would you do?’

The disciple answered, ‘First, I would carry out that service, then I would perform the ritual prayers.’ The shayhk commended his answer. The intended moral from this [antecdote] is the bestowal of great care in service [to one’s shaykh]; it is not, God forbid, the disparagement of ritual prayer!

Mahmut Hüdayı, 1543 or 1544-1628, Ṭarīqat-nāme, Princeton Islamic Manuscripts, New Series no. 307, fol. 128-129.

Words, loose stock of the tongue,
Jump of a thing.
Clutch of rabbits scattered
Out of the weeds. You make,
And they flee.

Sitting here afloat, pockmarked and saltstreaked cordgrass
Shivering up in the gathering morning heat,
I search for a word for the waters under me.
Creek, the map says, but flowing up,
Against the world’s plane,
Reached by the moon, hard to believe,
Like the best things that also are true.
I listen.
Everywhere, motion and sound, just above silence—
An infinite city in reduced scale, plunging
The five or six feet down in the turbid flow, then into
The mud, the worn-away of the ages,
Ancient Appalachians crumbled,
Creatures great and small alive in the bubbling wash,
The ten thousand things circling in and out.
I hover overhead.
I’d say I’ll withdraw, but there is no real away,
Only a slight difference of distance.
Every moment, earth, under
Moon, self, triangulated, over, below
The waters. Here, and everywhere.

The below passage is from an introductory ‘handbook’ of Sufism in Arabic by the seventeenth century Aleppine Sufi Qāsim al-Khānī (d. 1697). His description here is hardly original, rather, it represents the shifting through and representation of centuries of Sufi thought and practice. At times his writings reflect a concern with theological ‘deviance,’ a particularly acute concern for Sufis like him who sought to defend and perpetuate the long tradition of Sufism- including the many theo-philosophical developments of the thirteenth century, such as those associated with Ibn ‘Arabi. Many of these beliefs and practices came under increasing scrutiny in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere from the sixteenth century onward, even if such critiques did not become truly mainstream until much closer to our own age. al-Khānī seeks to defend such beliefs as ‘oneness of being,’ while also decrying allegedly incorrect interpretations of such beliefs, for instance here:

That which benefits the wayfarer in his journey is witnessing (shuhūd) of oneness of being not its gnosis. Witnessing is a state (ḥāla) necessarily realized from struggle, privation, successive exercise, lowliness, poverty, and need. And this state does not benefit the wayfarer unless there is with it following of the Shari’a, for if there is not with it following of the Shari’a, then it is damning zandiqa [heresy or deviance].

The passage below is less concerned with fending off theological error; rather, it presents a pretty traditional Sufi understanding of spiritual journeying: the passage through successive ranks of ‘veils’ preventing human cognizance and connection with God. As it is written in a straight-forward, pedagogically-inclined manner, I will leave off further commentary of this fine example of early modern Sufi teaching.

And the greatest of the veils that are between the servant and his Lord are the veils of sins, because they are darkness. As for veils other than them, to be sure the servant should hasten to dispel them, although they are luminescent, not totally veiling the servant. For the likeness of the veil constituted by sins is the likeness of an encompassing wall between you and your goal, and you cannot see essence or trace, due to its preventing, nor shape—which is different from the luminescent veils. They are like glass, with what is behind them being seen, obscuring and revealing by their increase or decrease. If the glass is increased greatly, then the intended object behind it is hidden, though the hiddenness of what is behind the wall is not the case here—at least the shape of the object can be discerned. All of this is what can be seen with the eye of the senses.

The heart is likewise. So long as its eye, which is called discernment (al-baṣīra) is veiled by the darkness of disobedience, which is called overcoming, imprinting, and sealing, it does not see anything of the lights of the Unseen, and has no awareness of what sin and evil does to it.

Then if one turns from what one is in, the veils of sins are lifted from his heart, and he beholds divine things, and begins to feel fear concerning his punishment, and hopes for reward, and persists in obedience to God, and turning away of evil deeds. Now he is veiled with luminescent veils, which are his dependence upon these deeds, for he now believes that he is the one who brings them into existence.

Then, after that, God lifts this veil from him, through the blessing (baraka) of acts of obedience, and he sees that the grace upon him belongs to God, for God causes him to be successful in these deeds, and that he is insufficient in giving thanks for them, and that the effective Giver is God. If God desires of someone good, he invests him with the garment of pious fear (taqwa) so as to make sound his presentation before His presence—and nothing of good or evil is by the hand of the servant, rather, all is by the hand of God.

Then, when this veil is lifted from his heart, he imagines that he has attained to God, for there is spiritual delight in this station. But if the hidden subtleties encompass him, this veil too is raised from him, and he does not cease cutting through the veils, one after another, as per the arrangement of stations and gates as in this book, until he attains to true station, the stopping place of the Most Veiled—so understand!

Do not believe, because of the likeness of the veils to panes of glass, that God is a thing which can be seen by the perceiving eye—for He is free of that. God take in hand your guidance!

Qāsim al-Khānī, al-Sayr wa al-sulūk ilā malik al-mulūk

The following effusive description of Ottoman Constantinople/Istanbul is from the pen of Timothy Gabashvili, a Georgian cleric who embarked, in the mid 18th century, on a long journey across the Ottoman realms visiting sacred sites, various Orthodox communities, and other sights and places along the way, all of which he would later describe in his Georgian-language record of his pilgrimage. Timothy’s perspective is a somewhat unique one: Georgia in the mid 18th century was still within the Ottoman orbit, but was being aggressively courted by an expansive Russian empire. Timothy himself had previously visited Moscow and the new city of St. Petersburg. Yet in much of his narrative his treatment of the Ottomans is remarkably positive- all of his interactions with Ottoman officials were amiable and productive, and the relationships he managed to forge enabled the success of his pilgrimage. In a relatively few short years- unbeknownst to Timothy or anyone else- the Ottoman world would change a great deal, and a pilgrimage of this sort, and the relationships that made it possible, would be forever lost. In 1756, however, a pious Georgian pilgrim could still feast and drink with Muslim Ottoman notables, and wax poetic in praise of the the Ottoman incarnation of the City of cities.

Panorama of Istanbul, Ottoman, late 18th – early 19th century, 58 x 27.1 cm, SHM 12449 – İ.1285 / From the Sadberk Hanım Museum, Istanbul

*

Now, I’ll say something about the city of Constantinople. The lure of the city’s radiance has spread its beauty to distant parts of the world and even the capitals, because in no other place can one find Asia and Europe together. Among them, running down from the Black Sea, there flows a narrow sea like a river. It runs, with spouts of foam. Constantinople is founded on it and on the mountains by the hand of Sabaoth. The mountains are lavishly covered with spruce trees and Lebanese cypresses. The city has been built on both sides of the sea that flows in a narrow stream. The structure of the walls, the towers and the battlements are splendidly coloured. The windows of the palaces sparkling in different ways, resembled Eden.

Some of the palaces, vaults and bazaars of the city were covered with lead, the gilded roofs of the palaces and springs shone like the sun shining on the city, and the colour of other buildings in the city was scorched clay, or purple, a hue also like the sunset. The ships in the city stood erect like the trunks of poplar trees. Among the groves of selvinu, ghaji, and cypress trees, there was a glimpse of the royal palaces, and the buildings were veiled in the forest of pine and spruce groves. This capital seemed to me like the brightest among the stars, like a rose among the flowers of Eden, like a jacinth among the precious emeralds, like the rainbow in the clouds, and Augustus Caeser among the kings. I found it very difficult and sad to be leaving Constantinople, as I, who had come here after a great many sufferings and hardships, would never see it again. My eyes and my mind competed in emotion when viewing this marvelous city

Timothy Gabashvili, Pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, 1755-1759, trans. by Mzia Ebanoidze and John Wilkinson

 

Below is a wonderful sampler of music, via Baltimore-based Canary Records, from across the Balkans, culled from albums produced from the 1930s to the 1970s, so ‘modern,’ but not that far removed from the pre-radio, pre-recording, pre-nationalist past. One of the enduring legacies of the Ottoman Empire is the vast, diverse, yet inter-related soundscape of music practiced by the various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups that dwelt in and moved across the Ottoman realms, carrying and transmitting and sharing their musical traditions, to the extent that no musical tradition remained sealed off from others. One can hear that multiplicity and interconnectedness in this lovely sampler; another good example, drawn from recent field recordings, is the album Mountains of Tongues, an assembly of contemporary ‘traditional’ music from the Caucuses, a region that, like the Ottoman Empire (which indeed included parts of the Caucuses) was and is a tapestry of traditions and identities.

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