Reading the Ruins

Whew, it’s been a while since I’ve posted! It’s been a busy year. Anyways, I’m giving a talk with my colleague Samer Ali on two poems written on the arch of Ctesiphon; see the announcement below.

Reading the Ruins: Two Poems on the Arch of Ctesiphon

Samer Ali, associate professor of Arabic language and literature, U-M; Cameron Cross, assistant professor of Iranian studies, U-M

Tuesday, February 7, 2017
4:00-5:30 PM
1644 School of Social Work Building

On the banks of the Tigris river, the Sasanian Empire left an iconic monument called the Arch of Khosrow (Taq-i-Kasra or Iwan Kisra), whose vault towered like the heavens at 121 feet. Two poets, al-Buhturi (d. 897) and Khaqani (d. 1190), gravitated toward this site and composed two timeless odes, one in Arabic and the other in Persian, on the Arch as a memorial to a bygone civilization — or the very idea of civilization itself. In these poems, we find that Time (and Fate) play an ominous role, crushing the genius and labor of human beings on both an individual and collective scale. How, then, do the two poets respond to this? How do the ravages of Time generate new ethical and political imperatives for humanity? In this workshop, we place the poems in conversation with each other in order to address these and other questions of art, life, and meaning.

Professors Samer Ali and Cameron Cross will present and discuss their own translations of these poems.

Ayyuqi – The Death of Golshah

Here’s another poem I’ve been working on, the Varqa & Golshah, written by ʿAyyuqi in probably the 1030s. I don’t really have the chops to try anything fancy—no time for rhyme—so the only requirement I set myself is to keep within some kind of iambic beat; iambs are one of the easiest rhythms to work with in English, so I felt that it was something I could attempt. Here is the [spoiler alert!] death scene of Golshah. If you have any comments about how this kind of translation works for you, or suggestions of other approaches I might try, leave a comment or send me an email!

  1. The King of Syria Goes With Golshah to the Head of Varqa’s Tomb
  1. He brought the lover beside her lover—two loves united is fine and good—
  2. And all the city turned towards the ardent lover’s grave, the one who searched for love.
  3. Golshah proceeded, mourning, wailing, weeping, ripping her hair,
  4. And when she arrived at Varqa’s grave, a wish to die came over her.
  5. She tore her clothes and beat her hands against her breast; from the tall camel-litter, she fell upon the dust,
  6. She rolled in the dirt like those who’ve lost their wits, or helpless slaves in a tyrannous hand,
  7. That silver cypress broke her ruby belt, lamenting, tore the circlet off her head,
  8. Her burning heart melted Berber rings, her grief sewed shut the eyes of joy;
  9. At times she sprinkled dew upon the tulips with her eyes; at times she spread ambergris on the earth with her locks.
  10. The love-lorn one who only loved was now a howling reed,* a scoured face.
  11. She went and tightly held the grave, placing her tulip cheeks against its side,
  12. And cleansed the dark earth with so many tears, her rosy face turned muddy from the dust and the water.
  13. She said: “O worthy one! What plan is this that you’ve prepared?
  14. What of our pledge with you this way, when you will never be my guest again?
  15. You used to say: ‘When I come back, I will, from time to time, renew my thoughts of you.’
  16. What’s with you now? What made you quit the road halfway and make the dust your new abode?
  17. If fortune’s tied your fortunes up in knots, well, here’s your love—she’s come to see you!”
  18. “My dear beloved; my handsome, faithful lord,” she cried,
  19. “Until I join you in the earth, I will not turn—I will not keep my heartache secret!”
  20. She said these words, and then and there she mingled musk into the withered earth.
  21. She spoke: “How much must I endure of this injustice? When will fate release my heart?
  22. What good is youth to me? Now why should I live?
  23. By what fell omen was I born from my mother, that I should be tormented as long as I live?*
  24. My soul’s been hounded by a bitter fate; not a day passed that it wasn’t bound in heavy fetters.
  25. The artless, faithless heavens stole from me a man who made my love and life forever new.
  26. From birth, the spheres raised us together and joined our hearts in love,
  27. And when we grew attached to each other, and set our hearts on union,
  28. We never saw that mutual joy; the one who holds my heart has gone below the clay.
  29. Without you now, my soul, my dear beloved, the stirring world’s become my prison.
  30. I hope his recompense from God on Judgment Day will be a painful torment for his crime;*
  31. He drove the two of us apart and made our two hearts twist in pain.
  32. Now, striving for your pledge with me, you suddenly gave up your sinless soul and went below the earth.
  33. My loyalty’s no less—I’ll surrender my life and lay my face upon your face.”
  34. And there the kind and rose-faced beauty stayed: screaming, wailing, and lamenting,
  35. Driving the blood out of her heart. The world, the age, mourned over her,
  36. And all who came upon her on the road were transfixed by her sorrow.
  37. They all gathered around her, men and women, young and old,
  38. The Syrian army, the lords of Syria, all wept from grief like weeping clouds,
  39. Their faces streamed with blood to see her sad and painful sobs.
  40. At last, her life was gone, her mind went blank; the lofty cypress branch fell over.
  41. Her breath stilled in her chest; her spirit was completely sundered from her body.
  42. That beauty placed her face upon the soil, saying, “I’ve come for you—are you there, my friend?
  43. I’m without hope; don’t turn away, for I am weary. I’ve brought the pain and love of my heart with me.”
  44. She spoke; the world shattered love. At once, her comely face relaxed,
  45. Her eyes grew dark; the people’s eyes shed blood for her.
  46. She left the world, that idol of Qandahar, in close pursuit of her devoted friend.
  47. Such are the world’s affairs, in all respects, and so they shall remain; that’s the long and short of it.
  48. The two lovers, in their love, left the world in grief and sorrow,
  49. Neither one saw but fastness from the other; they did not tread the path of sin and cruelty.
  50. In striving for each other, they gave up their lives. Such is the way, the root, the essence.

* Could also be رای, “howling mind”
* Safa’s edition reads زاده, but MC suggests زنده which I like more
* Note that she is talking about her father here; there might be a lacuna in the text

۱۷. رفتن شاهِ شام با گلشاه بر سرِ گورِ ورقه

  1. مر آن دوست را برد نزدیکِ دوست * کجا دوست با دوست یکجا نکوست
  2. همه خلق از شهر داذند روی * سوی گورِ آن عاشقِ مهرجوی
  3. همی رفت گلشاه زاری کنان * خروشان و مویان و گیسوکَنان
  4. چو زی گورِ ورقه رسیذش فراز * بجان داذن آمذ مرو را نیاز
  5. بزذ دست بر بر سَلَب کرد چاک * ز بالای عِماری آمذ بخاک
  6. بغلتیذ بر خاک چون بی‌هُشان * چو مظلوم در دستِ مردم‌کُشان
  7. بنوحه ز بیجاذه بگشاذ بند * بکند از سر آن سرو سیمین کمند
  8. ز تَفِّ دلش حلقه بَربَر بسوخت * همی اندُهش چشمِ شاذی بدوخت
  9. گه از دیذه بر لاله بر ژاله راند * گه از زلف بر خاک عنبر فشاند
  10. شذ از اندُهِ مهر آن مهرجوی * خروشنده نای و خراشیذه روی
  11. بُشُذ گور را در بر آورد تنگ * نهاذ از برش عارضِ لاله‌رنگ
  12. ز بس کاشک پالوذ بر تیره خاک * گُلِ روی او گِل شذ از آب (و) خاک
  13. همی گفت ای مایه‌ی راستی * چه تدبیر بوذ آن کی آراستی
  14. چنین با تو کی بوذ پیمانِ من * که نایی دگر باره مهمانِ من
  15. همی گفتی این چون رَسَم باز جای * کنم تازه گه‌گه بروی تو رای
  16. کنونی چه بوذت کی درنیمِ راه * بخاک اندرون ساختی جایگاه
  17. اگرزد گره بخت بر کارِ تو * حبیب اینک آمذ بدیذارِ تو
  18. بگفت ای دلارام و دلبندِ من * وفادار و زیبا خذاوندِ من
  19. همی تا بخاک اندرون با تو جفت * نگردم نخواهم غمِ دل نهفت
  20. بگفت این سخن را و با خاکِ خشک * بیک جایگاه اندر آمیخت مشک
  21. همی گفت جورست ازین جور چند * اجل کی گشایذ دلم را ز بند
  22. چه بر خوردنست از جوانی مرا * چه بایذ کنون زنگانی مرا
  23. بچه فال زاذدم من از ماذرم * که تا زاذه‌ام بعذاب اندرم
  24. روانِ من مُدبِرِ شور بخت * نبوذست یک روز بی بندِ سخت
  25. کسی کِم بذو تازه بُذ عیش و عمر * ربوذش ز من چرخ غَدّارِ غُمر
  26. از اوّل بیک جای ما را سپهر * بپرورد و پیوسته مان کرد مهر
  27. چو پیوسته گشتیم با یک دگر * دلِ خوذ نهاذیم بر وصل بر
  28. ندیذیم از یک دیگر کامِ دل * شذ آن یارِ دل‌دارِ من زیرِ گل
  29. کنون بی تو ای جان و جانانِ من * جِهانِ جَهان گشت زندانِ من
  30. مکافات یابذ ز ربِّ کریم * گُنا را بمحشر عذابِ الیم
  31. کی ما را ز یکدیگران دور کرد * دلِ ما دو بیچاره رنجور کرد
  32. کنون چون تو در عهدِ من جانِ پاک * بداذی شذی ناگهان زیرِ خاک
  33. من اندر وفای تو جان را دهم * بیایم رخم بر رخت بر نهم
  34. بذینسان بتِ گل‌رخِ مهربان * خروشان و مویان و زاری کنان
  35. همی بوذ و می‌راند خون از جگر * زمین و زمان بُذ برو نوحه‌گر
  36. هر آن کس کی اندر رسیذی ز راه * ز زاری شذی بسته آن جایگاه
  37. ز برنا و پیر و ز مرد و ز زن * بگردَش درون ساخته انجمن
  38. همه لشکرِ شام و سالارِ شام *  زغم گشته گریان چو گریان غَمام
  39. ز آن نالهٔ زار وز درد اوی * همی خون چکانیذ هر کس بروی
  40. چو جانش تهی گشت و مغزش تهی * نگوسار شذ شاخِ سروِ سهی
  41. هوا زی دم اندر برش بسته شذ * روان از تنش پاک بگسسته شذ
  42. ناذ از برِ خاک روی آن نگار * بگفت آمذم سوی تو هست بار
  43. نُمیذم مگردان کی آزرده‌ام * غم و مهرِ دل با خوذ آورده‌ام
  44. بگفت این و از دهر بگسست مهر * ز ناگه بر آسوذ آن خوب‌چهر
  45. چو هُش از تنش ناپدیذار گشت * بدو دیذه آن خلق خون‌بار گشت
  46. ز دنیا برفت آن بتِ قندهار * بعقبی بَرِ آن وفادار یار
  47. چنین است کارِ جهان سر بسر * چنین بوذ خواهذ سخن مختصر
  48. دو دلبر بر آن دلبری از جهان * برفتند با حسرت و اندهان
  49. ندیذه ز یک دیگران جز وفا * نرفته براه خطا و جفا
  50. بداذند جان از پیِ یک دیگر * چنین باشذ آیین و اصل و گهر

Rudaki #3

Source: Dīvān-i Rūdakī Samarqandī: bar asās-i nuskhah-i Saʻīd Nafīsī, Y. Brāgīnskī. Tihrān: Nigāh, 1997; p. 109. Not a robāʿi proper, but a remarkable poem in two lines of hazaj: ⏑ – – – | ⏑ – – – | ⏑ – – – | ⏑ – – –

زمانی برق پر خنده زمانی رعد پر ناله
چنان چون مادر از سوکِ عروسِ سیزده‌ساله
و گشته زین پرندِ سبز ساخِ بیدِ بُن‌ساله
چنان چون اشکِ مهجوران نشسته ژاله بر لاله

zamāni barq por khanda zamāni raʿd por nāla
chenān chun mādar az suk-e ʿarus-e sizdah-sāla
vo gashta z-in parand-e sabz shākh-e bid-e bonsāla
chenān chun ashk-e mahjurān neshasta zhāla bar lāla

Now the lightning’s full of smiles
Now the thunder cries and wails
As a mother mourns a girl
A bride of thirteen years
The ancient willow’s tassels
From this are silk and green
Still dew upon the tulips
Like distant lovers’ tears

Rudaki #2

Source: Dīvān-i Rūdakī Samarqandī: bar asās-i nuskhah-i Saʻīd Nafīsī, Y. Brāgīnskī. Tihrān: Nigāh, 1997; p. 117.

با آن که دلم از غمِ هجرت خونست
شادی به غمِ تو ام ز غم افزونست
اندیشه کنم هر شب و گویم یا رب
هجرانش چنینست وصالش چونست

bâ ân ke del-am az ġam-e hejrat xun-ast
šâdi be ġam-e to am ze ġam afzun-ast
andiše konam har šab o guyam yâ rabb
hejrân-š čonin-ast vesâl-aš čun-ast

– – o o – – o o – – oo –
– – o o – o – o – – oo –
– – o o – – o o – – oo –
– – o o – – o o – – oo –


although my heart is blood(y) from the pain of separation
my joy [reading “am” as “ma-ra”] in [my] pain for you exceeds the pain
i worry every night and i say o lord
(if) separation [from him/her] is like this, what is union [with him/her] like?


My heart is bleeding
From a painful separation
At which I feel pleasure
Exceeding my pain

Each night, I brood and wonder
And say to God,
If I’m like this while we’re apart,
What then when we’re together?

Rudaki #1

In an effort to continue to work on my translation skills, I’ve lately begun the habit of translating a short piece of poetry every couple of days. I’ve been posting my drafts on Facebook, but I thought I would share some of my polished versions here. This is the first roba’i in Sa’id Nafisi’s edition of Rudaki’s divan.

در رهگذرِ باد چراغی که تراست
ترسم که بمیرد از فراغی که تراست
بوی جگرِ سوخته‌‌ عالم بگرفت
گر نشنیدی زهی دماغی که تراست

dar rahgozar-e bâd cherâgh-i ke to râ-st
tarsam ke bemirad az ferâgh-i ke to râ-st
bu-ye jegar-e sukhta ‘âlam be-gereft
gar nashenidi zehi damâgh-i ke to râ-st

I fear your fire’s burning out
For in the emptiness you left behind
Only howling wind remains
Can you smell it? The world
Reeks of burnt and blackened hearts
Can you sense anything at all?

New music page

Another fun announcement: I just created a new “Music” page for this site, where you can listen to and download some of the folk / fiddle music I recorded during my college years. I hope to keep adding to it, but for now there’s two albums available.

House of Flesh (Yousef Idris)

In 2008, I translated the short story House of Flesh by Yousef Idris (Bayt min Laḥm, originally published in 1972) for a class project. To accompany the translation, I wrote a short paper introducing the work and its author. I did not consult the translation by Denys Johnson-Davies (cf. The Essential Yusuf Idris, AUC Press, 2009, pp. 219-225) until after I had completed mine; I found that comparing the two offers a useful illustration of the different approaches and strategies one can bring to a translation.

Arabic and Persian diacritics for Ubuntu keyboard

I’ll inaugurate my new site with a blast from the past. It may be useful for someone out there.

Some years ago, I started playing with Linux, specifically Ubuntu, and one thing I had to work at to get running was a good layout for Arabic and Persian transliteration. Some of the default international keyboards that come bundled with most Linux distribution carried most of the diacritics I need, but usually they were tucked away in awkward places and none of them included ayn and hamza, so I had to build my own layout. As far as I know, there are no easy GUI programs out there to create a custom layout; you just have to go in the old-fashioned way and edit the text file. Fortunately, it’s pretty simple. Each line begins with a code that defines the key; typically, this will be A (for alphanumeric), A-E (rows 1 to 5, bottom to top) 1-12 (key position in the row, going left to right). After the key is defined, you can offer up to four values, which will correspond with what the key will produce by itself, with Shift, with AltGr (usually the right Alt key), and Shift+AltGr respectively. So, for example, let us consider the following line:

key <AD07> { [ u, U, uacute, Uacute ] };

So from the code, we know that this key on the alphanumeric keyboard, fourth row from bottom, seventh from the left. If you found the letter “U”, good job. Now we see that by itself, it produces “u”, with Shift “U”, with AltGr “ú”, and with Shift+AltGr “Ú”. You can substitute these names with their Unicode equivalents; for example, the Unicode ID for “Ú” is U00DA, so you could erase “Uacute” and replace it with “U00DA” and get the same character. I did this when inserting my characters, simply because I didn’t know all their names and you can be absolutely precise when picking your character.

Installation: In Ubuntu, and I assume most Debian-based flavors of Linux (if not more), the keyboard layout files are located in /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols. If you don’t find it there, look it up for your system and it should be fairly easy to locate. Now the first thing to do is decide which keyboard you want to modify. I chose the US “alternative international” keyboard, since ‘alternative’ is a good word to describe what we’re doing. First thing’s first, you’ll want to backup your keyboard, so in case you run into any problems, you can restore the original without any hassle. All this will have to be done through the terminal using the sudo command. Here are the steps you’ll go through:

  1. Open a terminal
  2. Type cd /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols (or the appropriate directory)
  3. Type sudo cp us us_backup (this makes your backup)
  4. Type sudo gedit us (or choose your favorite text editor)
  5. Once the document is opened, search for “Alternative International” group (it was the third one down, for me)
  6. Highlight the text from partial alphanumeric_keys down to };
  7. Delete the text and copy the layout below in its place
  8. Save the document, quit, and log out
  9. When you log back in, go to the “Keyboard Layout” preference, hit the + button, and add English (US, alternative international) to your list of layouts
  10. If you run into problems, you can always sudo rm us and then restore the original by typing sudo cp us_backup us

Here is the code to copy over:

partial alphanumeric_keys
xkb_symbols "alt-intl" {

name[Group1]= "English (US, alternative international)";

include "us"

key <TLDE> { [ grave, asciitilde, dead_grave, dead_tilde ] };
key <AE01> { [ 1, exclam, exclamdown, questiondown ] };
key <AE02> { [ 2, at, U02BE ] };
key <AE03> { [ 3, numbersign, U02BF ] };
key <AE04> { [ 4, dollar, sterling, EuroSign ] };
key <AE05> { [ 5, percent, onehalf, onequarter ] };
key <AE06> { [ 6, asciicircum, U00A7, dead_circumflex ] };
key <AE07> { [ 7, ampersand, U00B6, dead_hook ] };
key <AE08> { [ 8, asterisk, U2022, U00B0 ] };
key <AE09> { [ 9, parenleft, dead_breve ] };
key <AE10> { [ 0, parenright, dead_abovering ] };
key <AE11> { [ minus, underscore, U2013, U2014 ] };
key <AE12> { [ equal, plus, multiply, U00F7 ] };

key <AD01> { [ q, Q, dead_belowdot ] };
key <AD02> { [ w, W, U02B7, U1D5B ] };
key <AD03> { [ e, E, U0113, U0112 ] };
key <AD04> { [ r, R, dead_acute, dead_grave ] };
key <AD05> { [ t, T, U1E6D, U1E6C ] };
key <AD06> { [ y, Y, U1E6F, U1E6E ] };
key <AD07> { [ u, U, U016B, U016A ] };
key <AD08> { [ i, I, U012B, U012A ] };
key <AD09> { [ o, O, U014D, U014C ] };
key <AD10> { [ p, P, leftsinglequotemark, rightsinglequotemark ] };
key <AD11> { [ bracketleft, braceleft, leftdoublequotemark, guillemotleft ] };
key <AD12> { [ bracketright, braceright, rightdoublequotemark, guillemotright ] };
key <BKSL> { [ backslash, bar, notsign, brokenbar ] };

key <AC01> { [ a, A, U0101, U0100 ] };
key <AC02> { [ s, S, U1E63, U1E62 ] };
key <AC03> { [ d, D, U1E0D, U1E0C ] };
key <AC04> { [ f, F, U1E0F, U1E0E ] };
key <AC05> { [ g, G, U0121, U0120 ] };
key <AC06> { [ h, H, U1E25, U1E24 ] };
key <AC08> { [ k, K, U1E35, U1E34 ] };
key <AC09> { [ l, L, U1E2B, U1E2A ] };
key <AC10> { [ semicolon, colon, dead_diaeresis ] };
key <AC11> { [ apostrophe, quotedbl, dead_acute ] };

key <AB01> { [ z, Z, U1E93, U1E92 ] };
key <AB02> { [ x, X, U1E95, U1E94 ] };
key <AB03> { [ c, C, U010D, U010C ] };
key <AB04> { [ v, V, U0161, U0160 ] };
key <AB06> { [ n, N, U23D1, U23D2 ] };
key <AB07> { [ m, M, U2014, U23D4 ] };
key <AB08> { [ comma, less, dead_cedilla, dead_circumflex ] };
key <AB09> { [ period, greater, dead_abovedot, dead_caron ] };
key <AB10> { [ slash, question, U0331, U0304 ] };

include "level3(ralt_switch)"

// Keyboard layout by Cameron Cross for Arabists and Persianists.
// Dead characters (use AltGr):
// ~ = grave and tilde / 3 = macron / 6 = circumflex / 7 = hook / 9 = breve / 0 = abovering
// ; = diaresis / ' = accent / , = cedilla / . = dot above / ? = combining macrons below and above
// q = dot below / r = grave and acute / < = circumflex / > = caron
// Special characters (activated with AltGr):
// All vowels have macrons; s t d and z all come with dots below
// 1 = ¡ ¿ / 4 = currencies / 5 = percentages / - = en/em dash / = math characters
// 2 and 3 = ʾ and ʿ (Arabeezi style)
// y = ṯ / f = ḏ / x = ẕ / g = ġ / c = č / v = š /
// k and l = ḵ and ḫ (two alternatives for transliterating "kh")
// w = ʷ and ᵛ (for Persian خو)
// p [ ] = quotes (‘’«»“”)
// n and m = metrical signs ⏑ ⏒ —⏔

As you can see from the comments section, this keyboard is very specifically tailored to my needs. I borrowed elements I like from the US International, UK, and Macintosh layouts, plus some of my own ideas. I write a lot about poetry, so I designated “n” and “m” for metrical units. I also prefer to avoid digraphs in my transliteration, so I have all these special characters for “th”, “kh”, “sh”, “ch”, and “gh” around the center of the keyboard (see comments). The Arabeezi system of 2 for ق (which is often pronounced as hamza, hence ʾ) and 3 for ع is pretty intuitive for me, so I kept that, and I love the Mac’s handling of – for en and em dashes—which I use all the time—so those are there. I will point out that this keyboard is not ideal for Turkish, although you can use AltGr+9+g for ğ and AltGr+.+i for your dotless ı. On the other hand, once the layout is successfully installed, you can go back and tweak the file with your own Unicode characters as you like. Save your changes in a separate text file, so that if you ever upgrade your system, you can just copy and paste it into the document like you did before. Piece o’ cake.

For more information, check out the following sites. I especially liked the one by the fellow medievalist who works on Anglo-Saxon literature.