Sometimes it can be challenging to explain a thirteenth-century Persian poem with its arcane allusions and self-referential imagery to the modern audience like my cat. One thing, however, that she really loves about Rumi is the internal melody and the musical rhythm in his poetry, which gives supreme joy to the reader or listener, even if you are not paying any attention to the meaning. Take these couplets, for instance.
You are the drop, you are the ocean, you are the kindness, you are the fury
You are the sweetness, you are the poison, pray do not torment me any more.
You are the grain, you are the trap (alluding to the practice of leaving grains in traps to lure birds), you are the wine, you are the cup
You are the ripe one, you are the raw one, pray do not leave me raw.
By evoking these contradictory imagery – by showing that the beloved is both kindness and fury, for example – Rumi is demonstrating the all-encompassing nature of love. Notably, Rumi’s discussion of love is usually divine rather than human.
Or these couplets:
O my light, o my joy, o my wealth of Mansur (Mansur was a tenth-century mystic, who was executed by authorities for claiming he was divine. Rumi often alludes to him as someone who had attained the highest level of spirituality.)
Give heat to my sap so my grapes turn into wine.
Tell that moon-faced prince (the moon is a common metaphor for the beloved’s face), tell that magical eye
Tell that sweet-natured king, those drunk with your love pay their respects.
Hence what I have learnt from my cat is that although Rumi’s beautiful poetry is dense with meaning and there is a lot to unpack in his writing, it is possible to enjoy his poetry purely on the aesthetic level.
He was my friend, Durgut, for a long time. Although I had learnt to read the written word at a very early age, I was not so precocious with the wheel – that famed invention which supposedly changed the history of humankind. I only learnt to ride a bicycle as a means of transport at the age of fourteen. It would take me another six years to be able to move a mechanised motorcycle between my legs. This was considered slow progress by the standards of my native land where children were known to tame mighty engines with numerous wheels at the tender age of eleven.
I had just started college when my grandfather bought me my first bicycle. It was a sturdy five-foot cart horse, not as popular in those days when most kids of my age preferred the fancy mountain bikes or at least the bottle-green made-in-China ponies. In other words, something you could use to transport rocks rather than boast before your paramour.
I was obsessed with the stories of Ottoman sailors, admirals and corsairs, the terror of the Middle Sea, the scourge of the Infidel. There was the cool-headed Oruç Reis and his younger and more famous brother, the gaudy, red-bearded Hayrettin Pasha. But the one who monopolised my attention in my early teens was the rash, hot-tempered Dragut. This ‘Uncrowned King of the Mediterranean’, had defeated the Holy League led by his Venetian counterpart, Doria, many times. With these stories in my head, naturally, I imagined myself on board a sixteenth-century Ottoman ship and after having sailed on an unnamed Man ‘O’ War, I got my bicycle christened, or rather mussulmaned Durgut in a local painter’s studio by getting those letters at its back ‘El-Durgut‘.
It was a rather unusual name and many a time I was stopped on my tracks by some curious soul and enquired about the name. Once it was the ever-stoned Bali and his more sober nephew, Farouq, who asked me the question. “Durgut was an Ottoman admiral who fought against the gavour,” I told them. “He won many naval battles against blablabla.” I was carried away in my enthusiasm. As I moved away, I heard the uncle ask the nephew. “What was he on about?” “He says he’s got dugger-khot (fornicating donkey) written there.”
This was not the only remarkable incident that I went through with my friend, Durgut. I rode him to my first romantic rendez-vous. I still remember that summer evening, when I was waiting for her impatiently, repeating the formulae I had spent hours practicing before a mirror.And I was on the seat of that same two-wheeled beauty when I felt those formulae falling on the ground, turning into dust and ashes, meaningless syllables, as soon as I saw her emerge at the end of the street, slowly gliding on her soft feet, her dark locks undulating in the breeze, giving it the scent, the glow, the charm that street still holds.
Once I was on board that same bicycle, that illustrious scion of velocipede, when I had a chat with a guava-vendor in a crowded bazaar. I was waiting for a friend by the cart of the said merchant when I had by chance a glance on the piece of paper he was using to make a receptacle for his exotic fruit. It had a poem in Turkish by Nazim Hikmet Ran. The title was Baba (father). I asked him if he knew what the poem meant. He looked at me in a bewildered way. “How do I know, putra, my son?” “It’s in Turkish and it’s about his father, baba.” His creased, sun-eaten face radiated with a smile. He tore me the piece of paper and said, “I buy these in Angrezi (English) because Urdu papers come with sacred names on them. I don’t want to be responsible for any blasphemy if someone steps on that sacred written word.”
Durgut helped me carry the hefty gas-cylinder every month when we ran out of cooking-gas in the pre-gas-supply days, my heart pounding with each bump, each jolt, in case I dropped that potentially lethal container of odiferous gas. And every time I brought it home, I would open the door of my home proudly as proof I was a grown-up finally.
That faithful friend of my mine, that rash, foolhardy sailor passed away last year.
He is an old man, perhaps in his sixties. From his immaculately clean clothes and the confident way he carries himself, you can easily tell that he holds a prominent standing in his community. People consult him probably when they are are in need of advice, guidance or words of wisdom. I can imagine them listening to him intently, their heads low in respect whilst he pronounces his well-weighed words slowly chewing on his phrases, with brightness in his smiling eyes.
I first saw him during a trip to my local supermarket. He was sitting comfortably on a bench under a tree with his chin placed on his hands tightly wound around his cane. He looked at my dog, who likes to help me choose my weekly supplies, and laughed. I smiled at him and went in.
“Where are you from?” he enquired when I came out of the market.
“From G.,” I named my neighbourhood. He thought for a moment before asking again.
“No. Where were you born?”
“Far from here. In the East.”
“They don’t like dogs in the East.”
It took me a few seconds before I could fully comprehend him.
“I know that because I worked in the merchant navy,” he explained.
“I like dogs,” I said while untying my furry friend, who was panting with excitement as if he hadn’t seen me in ages.
“Dogs are dirty, impure. God says dogs make you impure if they touch or lick you. They are greedy. They only like you for food. ”
I noticed his face brightening up with a smile that probably reflected inner peace before he ignored me to attend to another man, perhaps someone who deserved his attention more than I.
A few days later, I was teaching my son names of ‘livestock and birds of the air and every beast of the field’.
“İşte kedi hanım ve bu işte köpek efendi,” I pointed to Lady Cat and Sir Dog.
“He’s not going to hear enough Urdu if you keep speaking Turkish to him,” my wife complained.
“Ye rahĩ bi billi aur ye rahe kutte miã,” I said, instantly realising that I had never heard the word kutta or dog in Urdu being pronounced in such a respectful way. In fact, I had almost always heard it as a swear word. It saddened me to think that my love of dogs couldn’t be expressed in my mother tongue and that the man’s best friend could only be discussed with scorn.
I felt as if I had sworn in front of my six-month-old baby and went back speaking to him in Turkish with the comfort of a secondly-acquired language that your own mother tongue cannot provide you.
A recent trip through the small provincial town of C. brought many memories to my mind. This town, once known for its inventors, is now mainly famous for tall poplar trees and a Sunday market, where the local farmers proudly display their gangrenous potatoes and handmade tea-towels adorned with embroidered rodents. Snugged between the equally unknown towns of D. and B. and irrigated by the muddy Thames, which supports its terrain as a serpentine backbone, C. is the place Fates had chosen for my first voyeuristic experience.
My first year in the Isles of Rain was spent in Essex, where I arrived from the East in the winter of 06. I spent my first few months to understand the climate and the accent of that most curious place. However, by the arrival of the summer I found myself capable enough to find a part-time job in order to support my frequent trips to charity bookshops, having sufficiently mastered the accent; the climate was still a mystery to me. After failing at the tricky art of separating opposing spectators during friendly and not-so-friendly football matches and two sleepless nights at a croissant-manufacturing factory, the overwhelming and lingering smell of which managed to put me off from eating the baked crescent for nearly two years (one year, seven months and a few days, to be precise), I managed to find a position in the field of ‘Events Security’. The work was simple. I was meant to stand at specified locations for allotted number of hours, maintaining minimal interaction with the participants of these events. I even managed to succeed the trial, which was providing the same standing services during a rock festival, named Rock Ness, thanks to the Anglo-Saxon partiality to painful puns.
Following a hiatus of a month after the aforementioned rock-security assignment, one day I received a call from my employers. I was told that there was a standing position available for me at a certain date in August at a bookshop in the town of C., if I was interested. I was meant to guard some books from the toffee-smeared hands of local children and had been chosen for the said position as both C. and I were located in Essex at that point of history. The job was supposed to take place on a Saturday, in the late evening, an hour or so before the inauguration of a book about a bespectacled boarding-school student, who dabbled in necromancy, kept a barn owl as a pet companion and defeated the forces of evil, represented by a noseless man in a monk’s robe, who must not be named for inexplicable reasons. Needless to say that the prospects of standing in a bookshop and ogling at all the volumes therein were sufficient for me to nod my approval at the position offered.
On the assigned day, I took a train to C. in the afternoon. The bookshop was located in the eastern part of the town and there was already a queue of village imps dangling outside the shop doors, when I reached there. Having been escorted to my assigned position, I was shown two tables laden with an unidentified mass that I was meant to keep under cover until being notified by the manager of the shop. A girl in an outlandish outfit was playing a supposedly magical tune on a flute near the table. After putting up the resistance for an hour or so, the manager gave in and the doors were thrown open to the besieging hordes of the bibliophilic urchins, who displaying an impressive skill at finding their prey, took no time in invading my corner. Before long, small curious fingers were attempting to uncover the books. “You’re not supposed to touch these books,” I warned the fingers, realising with an awe an inability at competently communicating with the precocious children of C.
After the work had finished and we had said farewell to the last lingering urchin, it was already past midnight. I assembled my few belongings and strolled down to the station with the contentment of having accomplished an assignment to satisfaction. However, upon reaching the station, I found it shut for the evening, and realised with a dull sense of apprehension that I had missed the last train to London and that the next train to depart would be the one in the next morning. I had five hours to kill. I decided to spend them by wandering about the town. There was no question of finding an accommodation as that would mean spending more than what I had earned that evening.
There was, however, not much to see in the little village. All the inventors were long dead and I couldn’t tell a poplar from a beech in the dark (tree-spotting is not my forte). In half an hour I had managed to circumnavigate the town. Finding myself near a public park, I decided to venture in. There was nothing special about the said place. I sat on a bench near a children’s playground and contemplated about the adventures of the bespectacled wizard.
I had been in the park for hardly an hour when I noticed two shadows staggering towards me. I froze on my bench and feeling vulnerable being exposed without a safe place to retreat, fumbled in my bag to find some weapon. I was still considering the means to transform a softcover novel and a carton of mango juice into something lethal when the staggering duo sat on a bench at some distance, paying no attention to me. One of them was staring at the celestial bodies, emitting heavy sighs every now and then, whilst his companion, whom I believed to be of the female persuasion, was attempting to find something she seemed to have lost between the star-gazer’s legs. This continued for some time before the two changed their positions, the man having lost something whilst the woman was observing the orbits and galaxies. I admired the passion this astrophile couple seemed to have for the skies and the indifference they showed towards me.
After spending an hour or so trying to look at the sky in various positions, the couple left the park hand in hand, leaving me to contemplate the phenomenon of human curiosity. The next morning I took the train back to London and described the incident to a housemate, who told me that the astronomical activity I had witnessed was called ‘dogging’.
“There is a crow cawing on the wall. We’re going to have some visitors today,” my aunt used to say every now and then. It was the pre-email era when the usual way of communication was post, a system so reliable that guests would arrive before their letters did and then in the culture I grew up, it wasn’t (and perhaps it isn’t still) a social no-no to visit someone unannounced. Although I never attempted to comprehend the relation between a crow and guests, it never amazed me either whenever my aunt’s prophecy turned out to be correct. In other words, it was one of those things that I had to accept with blind faith. This prophetic symbol of corvidae, it seems, was once also prevalent in the Greco-Roman mythology, where a raven or a crow is employed by Apollo, the god of prophecy, to announce doom or death (perhaps a Greek euphemism for uninvited guests).
Crow was not just a herald of visitors, its fame also rested on being an unusually wily bird. The idea can be traced back to ancient times where, for instance, a famous fable by the sage, Aesop, has a thirsty crow using pebbles to quench his thirst (a modern version by the Urdu satirist, Ibn-e Insha has the crow being defeated by the same pebbles in an unexpected twist). I remember another allegory where a mother crow is teaching her little chick to beware of the stratagems of another wily creature, the human. “If you see one of them bending down to pick a stone, fly away. Don’t think about it. Just fly away,” she advises her little one. “That’s all good, mum. But what if they’re already carrying a stone in their hand,” the little chick asks innocently. “Well, if you can already foresee that possibility, then my son, you won’t be harmed by man’s tricks,” the mother crow, bursting with pride, pats her chick on the back. There was even a proverb in Lahnda, rather unsavoury and absolutely incorrect politically, which went something like, “the wiliest is a barber among humans and a crow among birds, or he who lacks an eye, or a leg or an arm” (bandeyan vich nayi, ate pakhuan vich kaan,
ya oh jaindhi akh nayin, latt nayin ya baanh). This mistrust of the disabled was perhaps rooted in the mediaeval idea, once commonly upheld amongst the ignorant, that a disability was a sign of the divine ire.
Crow is also one of the man’s first teachers. According to the Islamic mythology, when Cain, the first slayer of his brother, killed Abel, he was anxious to hide his deed from the world and that’s when a crow showed him by scratching and digging the earth how to bury the dead. Ted Hughes recalls the role of Crow in the Beginning:
When God, disgusted with man,
Turned towards heaven,
And man, disgusted with God,
Turned towards Eve,
Things looked like falling apart.
But Crow Crow
Crow nailed them together,
Nailing heaven and earth together
(Ted Hughes, Crow Blacker than Ever)
I think it is about time we had an exposé on Indian takeaways! No, don’t worry I’m not talking about cat meat in your Korma. I merely invite you to join me on a culinary journey to discover the origin of the names of some of the dishes on a Brit-Indian takeaway menu.
There has recently been a controversy where Sweden admitted that the quintessential Swedish meatballs were actually introduced to Sweden from Turkey. Some sources claim to have encountered 291 varieties of meatballs, known as köfte in Turkey, the land which lent Charles XII of Sweden his recipe of köttbullar. Although the Turkic culture has helped spread meatballs across the continents from Kashgar in China to Malmo in Sweden (not to forget your local Ikea store), these balls of joy do not in fact originate from Turkey, but are prevalent throughout Central and South Asia and the Middle East. In Urdu they are known as Kofta, derived from the Persian verb koftan (kuftan in modern Iranian Persian), which means ‘to pound’ or ‘to ground’.
The meatball drama got me thinking about some of our much beloved Indian takeaway items in Britain and their origins. Many of my informed readers will know the legends behind the Scottish origins of the Britain’s national dish, chicken tikka masala. So let’s see what else is down the rabbit hole!
Let’s start with a classic. Curry!
Everyone loves a good curry. Well, you might be astonished not to find anything called curry in Northern India or Pakistan (although these days the term may have been imported under the British/Western influence). However, the closest-sounding dish is called karhi, a vegetarian dish prepared with gram-flour and lussy, which has no immediate resemblance to the British curry. In fact, the resemblance is almost as similar as that between the British kedgeree and its etymological ancestor, khichri, a dish made of rice with moong lentils (and not with fish and eggs).
Korma and Keema
Korma (or qorma) is the Urdu rendition of the Turkic qavurma/kavurma, which simply means dry-fried whereas keema (or qeema) is the Urdu form of the Turkic qıyma/kıyma, meaning minced. The verb kıymak (to mince) is a common leitmotif in the Anatolian folk songs, in which lovers gruesomely swear to sacrifice their lives for their beloved by being minced. As you may have guessed, the Turkic roots of these names reveal the Central-Asian origins of these dishes. In fact, before the settlement of Turkic-speaking Muslims in India in the 13th century, Indian cuisine was predominantly vegetarian.
Interestingly, qeema can also be used to perfect one’s Urdu. When the famous Pakistani actor Shafi Mohammad Shah was enquired about how being a Sindhi speaker he had acquired his cut glass Urdu accent, he owed it to the table manners of another veteran actor, Uzma Gilani. “She wouldn’t pass qeema to you, unless you pronounced the ‘q’ in the proper guttural way,” he reminisced with a chuckle.
Don’t be alarmed to see this foreign-sounding word on your takeaway menu. Brinjal is a colonial word for aubergine, derived from the Portuguese brinjela, and still used in Indian English. The actual word for aubergine in Urdu and Hindi is bengan. Another instance where an English word has been adopted in Indian English for a vegetable is the word for okra, now locally known as ‘lady fingers’, although I must confess I have yet to see a woman with green fingers (except figuratively like my wife, who is having a lot of success with her newly-installed artificial lawn).
Tandoor is the clay oven used to cook bread and was once abundantly found in the Middle East and South Asia. The word in pure Urdu and Persian is tanur, ultimately derived from the ancient language of Babylon, Akkadian. I have fond memories of my frequent visits to the communal tandoor as a child, where the ancient tandoorchi would turn the uncooked dough into crispy and puffy flatbread. Although the communal tandoors are dying out in villages and small towns, major restaurants have started showcasing them as a sign of authenticity.
Poppadam is the South Indian variety of crispy bread, known as paparr in Pakistan and Northern India. Interestingly, paparr is not eaten as a side dish in Pakistan. In fact, as far as I believe I have heard the name more often used in the notorious Urdu tongue twister ‘kacche paparr, pakke paparr, kacche papparr, pakke papparr‘ (raw paparr, cooked paparr etc.) than in any other context.
Naan simply means ‘bread’ in Persian. However, in Northern India and Pakistan, naan is a special form of yeasty bread, with the non-yeasty types called roti and chapati. The type of naan called Peshwari is a British corruption of Peshawari, after the city of Peshawar, famous for its keema or sesame naan (although, again you would be lucky to find the British variety with coconut in Peshawar, a city located far, far away from the sea or any other source of coconuts).
So, for those of you who made it this far, you will be excited to know that we might do another excursion down the long winding road of Indian delicacies. Hopefully, this will be a big enough selection for your next order until then.
What do elephants, popcorn and farts have in common? Probably nothing. Except that the Persian word for popcorn is chos-e fil, or ‘elephant’s farts’. Interestingly (and not surprisingly), the origin of the word doesn’t have anything to do with elephants or their wind. The word is in fact derived from Chesterfield, the first brand of popcorn that was introduced in Iran. Folk pronunciation corrupted it into chos-e fil.
It is, however, not any ordinary type of flatulence. Persian is one of the few languages to make a distinction between a silent and a loud fart. The word for the silent variety is chos, whilst the louder version goes by the name of guz (pronounced like ‘goose’). Thus, the actual meaning of the term is ‘elephant’s silent farts’. Well, I’ll leave you to ponder on the implications of a language that needs two words for a fart.
This popcorn emitting elephant has been masterfully brought to life by Nadia Barbu.