A Sufi Valentine ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A Sufi Valentine

A Sufi Valentine, poems by Rumi, Hafiz and Ali Alizadeh, film by Bill Mousoulis, performed by Ali Alizadeh. La Mama Theatre, until June 20.

I am inclined to favour Sufism, as it is the only religion sensible enough to build shrines to poets. It is often called the mystical heart of Islam, and its prophets speak of a path of love, knowledge and action, in which the heart is regarded as the organ of spiritual knowledge and vision. It is the Islamic version of Christian Gnosis, the unmediated union with God, though perhaps it bears a closer relationship to the love mysticism of mediaeval Christianity, which took its inspiration from the Song of Songs.

Given this, it is easy to see why many Sufi mystics, like the Gnostics and the mediaeval mystics, were persecuted as heretics. Sufi poets such as Hafiz of Shiraz were often outspoken in their criticisms of tyranny and dogma. And in the great Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds, Farid Un-Din Attar outlines the steps towards enlightenment, the Way of the Sufi, through a series of narratives. Many of these speak of love that flies in the face of social, sexual or religious convention - commonly homosexual love, forbidden in the Koran, but also love between those of different religions, or of different social status.

These connections between secular politics and sexual transgression remind me why love was outlawed in the totalitarian society Orwell envisioned in 1984 - its anarchic desire cleaves too easily to demands for wider freedoms. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to equate the love of the Sufis with the sexual mores of, say, Sex in the City, for the contemporary notion of sex as commodity would be anathema to Sufism. Unlike ascetic Sufi philosophy, this empty libertinage objectifies the body and so alienates sexuality from the self and the other; Sufism seeks the unity of soul and body and, through the purifying fire of passion, the dissolution of the ego and eventual unity with the divine.

In A Sufi Valentine, Iranian-born Melbourne poet Ali Alizadeh places himself squarely, if agnostically, in this aesthetic tradition. And not without what might be taken as a certain arrogance - for this half hour performance, he puts himself on the bill with two of the greatest Sufi poets, Rumi and Hafiz, who hail respectively from 12th and 14th century Persia. But as Yevteshenko said to young poets: "Be equal to your talent, not your age. / At times let the gap between them be embarrassing. / Fear not / To be young, precocious..."

Despite the excuse of youth, there is neither embarrassment nor precocity in Alizadeh's performance. A Sufi Valentine is what is sometimes grandly called cross-media art - that is, it incorporates elements of a poetry reading, theatre and film - but what is most striking about it is its simultaneous humility and ambition. As theatre, it is without pretence: Alizadeh enters the stage, lights some candles on a table, sits down, opens a book and, with clarity and feeling, reads some poems. As he reads, Bill Mousoulis's film is projected on a screen next to him, as a visual and partly sonic counterpoint to the poems. The film is without dialogue, and tells four simple narratives: the meetings of two pairs of young lovers, an exiled poet and a dancer hesitating before her dance. They are all portrayed in instantly recognisable and deliberately banal suburban contexts: alone in a bedroom, waiting for a bus, sitting in a cafe, walking into a gym.

The effect is to place the poems among the human minutae of contemporary existence. This placing struck me as utterly consistent with the Sufi admonition to "live reality"; the enlightenment of Sufism is an immanent rather than transcendent path. The film does not aim to be illustrative; instead, it explores how the desire which inflames the dancer, the poet and the lovers is common to them all, and is at once contemporary and ancient. The rhythms and shifts of Mousoulis' film, perhaps inevitably given the literalness of the medium, are coarser than those of the implied emotional narrative of the sequence of poems; film is simply unable to reflect the many-angled meanings within these deceptively simple poems. I felt this especially at the end: after a brilliant initial flowering, the ecstatic moment does not sustain itself, and merely repeats and diminishes.

Alizadeh gives the poems their weight, without any urge towards empty oration. For me, it was a treat also to hear traces of the Persian, those rhythms and sounds that are inevitably lost in translation. What remains with me are these lines of Alizadeh's, which perhaps best express the impetus towards resistance that he has taken from the Sufi tradition:

I Carve with the Pen’s tip
ready to cut
and release the poetry
of confession
and the alphabet
of absolution
so that I unlock the coffers of language
so that I print freedom
on the pages of this fucking prison.

1 comment:

miles said...

the great religions are the ships
poets the life
boats
every sane person i have known
has jumped
overboard
that is good for bussiness
isn't it
hafiz?