The Tomb of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi—known as Mowlana in Persia and everywhere else as Rumi—in Konya, Turkey [June 2011]
STARING at the SUN
[ Presented live at the Litquake Festival in Sausalito, October 2011 ]
In a fragrant manicured garden outside the tomb of a 13th century Sufi poet known as Rumi—“the Roman”—I watch spring rain clouds dissolve into sunlight and remember a conversation I had with a Gypsy forty years ago.
We’d met at the pharmacy where I worked an evening shift. I remember being impressed that he was a real Gypsy—a Rom. His deep-set eyes burned like coals. When he’d smiled, exceptionally white canines flashed between a neatly trimmed moustache and a chin that looked cleft by an axe. He’d bought a pack of Marlboros one mid-September evening as I was closing up, and asked me how things were going at school. I’d given him an earful as we walked toward campus. Went something like this:
“Three years of intellectual jerk-off, and I’m more ignorant now than before I started reading shit about Pre-Raphaelites, Neo-Platonists, and Post-Modernists. But hey, there’s the draft. Another year in school looks a hell of a lot better than catching lead in the Mekong Delta. So, until I learn to levitate, I guess I’m stuck in a world where Nixon says who you have to fight, and the Catholic Church says when you’re allowed to fuck.”
We’d paused beneath a lamppost on the flagstone path and the Gypsy had appraised me like a falcon as he offered me one of his smokes. “Maybe you should just surrender.”
“To Nixon or the Pope?”
“To the path.” He said.
I looked around stupidly, “What path?”
“The one right in front you.” He’d extracted one of those strike-anywhere matches from his shirt pocket. “Take another look.”
I was on the same path I’d walked every day of the week, the same oaks forming a vaulted green mantle over my head. But I’d never realized how luminescent their leaves were in the diffused halo of lamplight, how delicately they were shaped, how sensuously they moved with the gentle breath of evening. I’d never listened to those cicadas playing castanets to the full moon, while moths—dazzling bits of kinetic energy—danced in time around the globe over my head, and fireflies blinked like stars in infinite blackness. Had it always been like this?
“About 700 years ago,” the Gypsy said, “a Persian named Rumi wrote, ‘Do not look at my outward shape, but take what is in my hand’." He’d flicked the sulfur tip of his match with a thumbnail and I watched it ignited in slow motion, flare like the sun in my face, blot out everything but his eyes. “You can light up the world,” he’d said as I lowered my cigarette into his metaphor. “Or you can be like this…”
He blew almost imperceptibly and an arabesque of smoke dispersed into the darkness. I’d stared for a long while at the withered, burnt-out matchstick.
The Gypsy had grinned savagely. “Your life, your choice.”
And that was my introduction to Mowlana—“Our Master,” as Rumi’s students called him. Now, forty years later, I’m looking up at the conical turquoise turret pointing towards the sun like a djinni’s finger above his tomb in Konya, Turkey. Beside me, an American professor of Islamic Studies is giving his students a hagiographic spiel about the dervish poet’s life.
Jalal al-Din Muhammad Balkhi was the son of a Sunni preacher in Khorasan [now in Tajikistan and Afghanistan]. To get out of Genghis Khan’s way, his family migrated west to Konya, capitol of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum—hence the moniker given to him by western readers. He was sent for traditional religious training in Syria before returning home to assume leadership of his father’s madrasah. By his mid-thirties, Rumi was a husband, father, and highly respected religious scholar. And then, just as his renown was peaking, he met a traveling salesman dressed in black one afternoon in the marketplace.
Curious about the books he was reading, the merchant asked the Master, “What are those about?”
Rumi dismissed him. “They are something you wouldn’t understand.” At which point his books burst into flame and he jumped back. “What’s happening?”
The man who would become the Master’s master replied, “Something you wouldn’t understand.”
Mowlana’s students considered Shams al-Din i-Tabrizi an outrageous, uneducated poser—perhaps because their Master was so mesmerized by the wild mystic that he neglected the rest of them for the better part of 18 months. And although Rumi never revealed any details of their intimate relationship, the time he spent in retreat with Shams changed all his ideas about religion, poetry, and life. So much so that Rumi attributed his first collection of ghazal, or lyrical poems, to his teacher: Divan e-Shams.
A young girl in the group giggles. “Oh, please! They were like so gay.”
Her professor looks embarrassed, tries to correct the girl’s misconception: Rumi’s longing for his “beloved” was in no way synonymous with Douglas’ “love that cannot speak its name,” he assures her. Rather, Mowlana came to realize that Shams mirrored the divine spark in his own soul, ergo he and Shams and the Beloved were always one and the same.
But the girl is unconvinced. “Doesn’t anybody get it?”
I get it.
I get how I’ve so often tried to squeeze new experiences into boxes labeled with preconceptions. I get how uncomfortable I’ve been with any truth that didn’t fit my neatly defined belief system. And I finally get what the Gypsy was trying to tell me on that summer evening forty years ago: Everything you think you know is wrong.
After Shams had opened his pupil’s eyes, Rumi taught his own students that the heart of their religion is truth without form; that the outer skin, the dogma, the rituals are all obscurations—that you have to scrub the dust off a lantern in order to see its inner-light. The merchant in black had revealed this secret to the Master—in Arabic, Shams means: “the Sun.”
Inside the cavernous domed shrine, I queue up with a throng of women wearing colorful esharp, all snapping mobile phone images of Mowlana’s draped sarcophagus capped with its green cartoon-like turban. “No photo!” shouts a beleaguered guard—in English. Men in knitted kufti attempt to prostrate before the Master’s tomb. “No pray!” another docent admonishes, as if Papa Ataturk is watching over his shoulders.
I laugh, recalling Rumi’s own epitaph: “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”
Like Shams, the Gypsy just disappeared—one day he’d been living in a studio apartment above Paulson’s Rugs, the next he was gone. Years later, I looked up his surname and found that it came from dragoman, an interpreter or guide in the Eurasian territories once ruled by the Romans—or Rum, as the Seljuk Turks called them. And I’d also discovered that the “path” he’d pointed out was not for the faint of heart. By contrast, my angst-filled college years now seem like a stone soul picnic in strawberry fields.
Watching mosque lamps glitter on the catafalque beneath Rumi’s coffin, I can still feel the electricity that pulsed from the Gypsy’s flame on that summer night, still taste the sudden awareness of unlimited possibility stretching out before me like a spiral galaxy. And I still shudder at the despair that shrouded me as I stared at that burnt out match—as if he’d extinguished the Sun just to wake me up.
 Shah, Idries, The Way of the Sufi (London: Penguin Group, 1968), frontispiece
 ibid. p.119