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The "Women's Mosque", Üsküdar, Turkey, June 2011

[ Published in 2009 by Rashani Réa ]

“Who’s Rashani?”

The sheet of paper had been handed to me thirty seconds earlier by Michele Ryan—equal parts transpersonal therapist and spiritual teacher—in her office overlooking the winter green California hills above Tomales. There were only seventeen typewritten lines on the page held between my thumb and forefinger, but the verse had driven a sharp hook directly into my heart. There is a brokenness, it began. And by the time my eyes had reached the end, the words were blurred through a veil of tears.

“Tell you the truth,” Michele shrugged, “I don’t know. Can’t even remember where this came from. People send me stuff all the time, and I keep the best of it in a folder. With a name like that, she might be a Sufi.” It made sense. The poem had a distinctly feminine quality to it and yet somehow defied gender, transcended even history. It spoke a universal language that bypassed intellect as well. It was a hallmark of the great Sufi poets: Hafiz, Saadi, Khayyam, and, of course Rumi, who had just topped the charts as best-selling poet in America—only seven hundred years after he picked up his pen in Persia. But I’d never heard of Rashani. Neither had Camille Adams Helminski, author of the anthology Women of Sufism. “She’s not one of the classical authors like Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya,” Camille told me, “but maybe a contemporary writer.” Maybe in Iran, I thought. Maybe Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or even Indonesia. A pseudonymous poet whose work would have exposed her to persecution—even execution—a heretic in the finest Sufi tradition, a gadfly to the oppressive Wahhabi and Salafi extremists who seek to purge Islam of nonconformity and universality. Maybe it would be better if Rashani were not exposed, remained an enigmatic crusader opening minds and hearts from beneath the safety of her hijab or burkha. I let it drop.

Over the next decade, I shared Rashani's verse with perhaps a dozen friends who had reached a crossroads, a moment of openness in which those seventeen lines could bypass their minds and enter their vulnerable hearts. And their reactions were not surprising. Some cried. Some were simply left speechless, simultaneously shattered and renewed, as if they’d had their hearts broken in one moment, then swept up into the gentle arms of their beloved in the next. Reassuring to know it wasn’t just me.

Although I abandoned my search for the mystical poet, the poem itself became a catalyst. It prompted me to embrace change, open to possibility, engage in adventure. Those ten years became a time of pilgrimage, an exploration of sacred places, and an inquiry into the nature of sacredness. When I felt it was time to write my own story, put that journey into perspective, I began with a poem—seventeen lines of verse:

There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken . . .

“Who’s Rashani?” asked an editor with whom I was working. A phantom, I explained. “Well, you can’t just reprint someone’s poem without permission,” she informed me. I told her about my exhaustive and abortive search a decade earlier. “Have you Googled her?” I blinked, stupidly. And that is how I eventually discovered who Rashani Réa is.

Sadly, Michele Ryan didn’t live long enough to learn that I’d finally found the mysterious author of “The Unbroken.” But I had to laugh at the way I’d imagined Rashani, created her in the image and likeness of a mystical saint, only to find she is very much flesh and blood, very much a woman of this earth. And even though she claimed no formal connection to a traditional tariqah, Rashani had apparently been, as the Sufis say, selected as a vehicle for al-Haqq’—truth that transcends form.

I wrote to her, mostly to report on what her poem had done to me, never really expecting to hear back from someone with so many irons in the fire of life. I told her, "During a very dark time, in which I felt hopeless and lost and in despair, it was as if someone had seen directly into my heart and translated all the pain and love and hope that dwelled inside me—that is me . . . If you wrote nothing else in your life, this one piece would stand as an extraordinary achievement. More than anything I have ever read, it has touched me, spoken to me, spoken for me, inspired and illuminated me. At the risk of crossing the line of skepticism, it has transformed me."

To my surprise, and delight, that note opened a dialogue resulting in this inadequate introduction to a most remarkable life and, without a doubt, the most extraordinary seventeen lines I’ve ever read.

"Reason,” wrote Jalal al-din Rumi, “is powerless in the expression of love.” Forget both your optimism and your skepticism. Leave intellect to its discursive chores and allow this expression of love to penetrate your heart—like a hook attached to a soaring kite.

There is a brokenness

out of which comes the unbroken,

of shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow

beyond all grief which leads to joy

and a fragility

out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space

too vast for words

through which we pass with each loss,

out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound

whose serrated edges cut the heart

as we break open

to the place inside which is unbreakable

and whole,

while learning to sing.

— Rashani Réa

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