Sunday 28 November 2010

Tongues of the Hidden

  You blow away the hats of worldly status
And shatter the coronets of power with royal ease...
With the eyes of a deer you tame the lion of the sun
And the fold of your brow razes the arc of Jupiter

These are the words of Shams al-Din Muhammad, also known as Hafez of Shiraz, born 1315. But when I read these lines, I think of Kate Middleton preparing to tame the lions of English royalty, with her charm, her ease of gaze and lifted brow. 
Hafez, means one who knows the Qu'ran by heart, but the ghazals of Hafez are no literal interpretation of Islam. In fact, the saying goes, every Persian home has a Qu'ran and a Hafez. Hafez' concern is for the world of beauty and nature, for that which cannot be seen, and thus was he titled lesan al-ghaib, or the tongue of the hidden...
When the wise man views the leaves of the green tree
Each leaf is a sign of God's creation.
Islam is at a deeply painful confluence in our times. Words have become weapons. So it has been a pleasure to return to the poetry of the Shahnameh exhibiting at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Book of Persian Kings, was written by Ferdowsi in 1010; its epic style and its author are comparable only to Homer in ancient Greece. And from Ferdowsi to Nizami to Hafiz, I found myself meeting Jila Peacock, a half Iranian doctor and artist extraordinaire. She has shaped ten animal poems from the metaphysical poet's work, each using the Nast'aligh script, which can be read both phonetically and iconically. In the world of Islamic Art, calligraphy is the highest form of artistic expression. In a culture where the word is the icon, calligraphy remains the only art to evoke the essential character of the Islamic world in a continuous tradition.

And so, naturally, when I asked Jila Peacock to sign my copy of her book, Ten Poems from Hafez, she wrote my name

Shayesteh (the Iranian phonetic way)
Shaista (the Indian English way)
and in Naskh, (the meaningful way).
She said she thought my name meant Outstanding.

But we know that Shaista means.... Fighting!!!

Wednesday 24 November 2010

The Irony of Seeing

I have not been sleeping well lately. Actually, most nights I can't or don't know how to fall asleep at all. Long after dawn breaks, I eventually lose consciousness, but I feel as though I have travelled eons in those first hours. I find it almost impossible to unplug myself from the world of Other People's Stories. There are so many faces in my mind, so many voices, strangers for the most part, but for one essential, often tragic or dramatic moment, imprinted on my soul. Do you feel this way? With news streaming and swirling from around the globe, and networking sites, blogs, books, and articles, opinions have opinions and there is so much to concentrate on all the time. So many to pray for, so many to worry for, so many to be glad for. How does one manage to extricate one's mind from today's visually and verbally intense communication? I cannot retreat to a monastery - I already live in seeming solitude. I cannot bring myself to read less - I already read far less than I ever did. Or at least it seems that way, because then, there were 'only' books. Now... 

And it won't subside. How can it? Why should it? This is global awareness. And it is vital. I have to find a way to stay deeply interconnected, without losing my mind entirely to the sea of human suffering, human thought and voice. 

Perhaps it is winter. Perhaps I have not walked in the garden enough. Perhaps I should follow in father's footsteps, and just walk, walk blindly out into that human sea, knowing the grave responsibilities that surround me, but pretending anyway, that I am free. 

I remember now. Faith.

from Gregory Colbert's Ashes and Snow Project 

Sunday 21 November 2010

Lost and Found

For a few years now, my father has been sent voluntary social workers, who kindly lend their time to helping father 'get around'. I remember the first gentleman; he was Buddhist, and spent much time discussing Pema Chodron and mindfulness in between demonstrating the art of filling a cup of tea with boiling water, without burning one's fingers. Difficult art when you can't see. Then there was a lovely lady who had just returned from Bali, on a silent yoga retreat. She discussed yoga nidra, which father is now entirely adept at. But it is Helena, the most recent of helpers, who has really changed the world outside the doorstep from Out There in the Darkness to Adventureland!

So despite it being November and misty and the walk a carpet of sodden leaves, my father has been taking to long, long walks Out There. And returning home, tired and unscathed. Then yesterday... past the first bridge, the round ball on the end of his white cane snagged in one of the hedges, and Dad lost his concentration. Scratching about, examining the sharp exposed point, he was interrupted by a female voice who floated into his space, retrieved the renegade object and fixed it back onto the cane. Et la, on he went. Next, some oddly shaped object in his way; he found he could lift it up, and so he flung it away. Then there were cats eyes and metal posts. (Well, someone sauntered up and told him so. "Sorry mate. Road works here.") And on past the second bridge where my father, unphased, decides to investigate the open gravel courtyard of the Great Shelford church. Something large and metal in his way again. A car? Out of the silent church, but now where? The curb is too wide. Can't be the pavement. A man appears. He directs my father back to the church and disappears. Just at Hope Cottage where the red phone box stands, my father is accosted by two young, well-spoken police officers. "Er... excuse me, but.. er, where exactly do you wish to go?" Father, at his most urbane, simply replies, "Oh I'll be making my way home soon enough." But The Police insist they deposit the wandering soul to his doorstep immediately. "Please, don't trouble yourselves," says Dr Tayabali, polite as ever, a touch amused. Really rather wishing to get back to his walk.
They escorted him home. I wish I'd seen my mother's face when she answered the door! But she recovered very quickly and of course, as is her style, invited the police in for a cup of tea.

Dad reckons he mistook the road for the pavement. The easiest thing in the world to do. They feel the same to one's feet. The road away from and to home is a series of obstacles and requires much concentration. Much like life really. Sometimes it seems easy enough to prepare and equip oneself for the unknown. And sometimes, not.

Thursday 18 November 2010

If (only a love song)

If I dreamed a dream
and that dream was you
I would pray that I dreamed again.

If I schemed a scheme
of incomparable lies
Would you recognise the truth within them?

If I am the bow
that loosens the arrow
Are you the shield or the cushion?

If I am the sugar
in your cup of tea
Would we need a stirrer to sweeten?

If I write the song
and you play the music
Would the words need to be spoken?

If I was a stream
and you were the sea
Forever I'd flow to you unbroken.

- Shaista
This poem marks my 200th blog post. Everyday, somewhere, marks a day of auspicious happenings. Today, one of my oldest childhood friends is donning her red sari as I write, and with her hennaed hands, she will accept a ring, and with her hennaed feet she will walk seven times around fire, and pray.
May their sentiments be auspicious. May they live a graceful life that is full of mutual love and warmth. May they be able to see for a hundred years, live a healthy life for a hundred years and listen to the music of spring for a hundred years.

Monday 15 November 2010

The Bell That Sounds Aung, Aung, Aung....

Getting angry at each other
in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes
and look into the future.

Three hundred years from now
Where will you be my dear,
where shall I be?

- Gatha for the Beloved One,
from a Vietnamese poem

"If you can suffer, you can gain. What is valuable cannot be obtained without effort."
"Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' - grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure."

(Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate).

In my 2006 poetry journal, I have a picture of Daw Aung San, sitting outside in her small garden, reading. Her back is erect, softened only by the flowers tucked prettily into the nape of her neck. I refer to this picture in my mind many times, when I feel the weight of my own various exiles begin to push down on me. Grace under pressure, grace even as I suffer, these are the bells that sound Aung, Aung, Aung.... and I remember to breathe, straighten my shoulders and smile.

Friday 12 November 2010

Outside, Inside

A sad love curls around me
like a cat with no name,
I knit on into the darkness.

When the wind howls without,
and my feet stay within,

I bow low into the darkness.

Just a quiet prayer
on a winter breeze
to the homeless body and soul;
Just a merciful thanks
on nights like these
for the warmth of a roof
and the snug of a bed;
while over by the River Cam,
just the evening star lies ahead.

Lamp lit, soul lit,
still the sad love persists,
so I bow deeper
into the darkness.

- Shaista Tayabali, 2010

I dedicate this poem to my friend Jonny Butterworth, who is a Human Rights campaigner, and has just set up an NGO called Just Fair, promoting justice and fairness through economic, social and cultural rights for everyone in the UK. ESCR are relatively new to the UK, and Jonny is campaigning for their direct incorporation into UK law.

poem participating in One Stop Poetry
image: 'Down and Out in Cambridge', John Glover, Cambridge Drawing Society Exhibition

Friday 5 November 2010

Friend, don't forget

Friend, don't forget, I am always in your footsteps,
I, won't forget, I am always in your footsteps

Sunset, where English trains
roll slowly by like
patient caterpillars
on country soil,
I am travelling forward.
Here, where the winds
howl low
through patient conifers
that wave at me,
I see beyond the leaden sky

to the green spires of Prague
to watery whispers of Venice
to flowers tended carefully
on window sills in Graz.

 And I am walking, toes between sand,
red rust sand, and open fence
through curlicues of Cambodian dreams
crossing borders, homes and streams
to remind you

Friend, don't forget, I am always in your footsteps,
I, won't forget, I am always in your footsteps.

- Shaista Tayabali, 2010

My first picture is of a child whose name I do not know, whose life I do not know, whose eyes I cannot see, but who already inspires my poetry. Happy Diwali to the little lights that are our children everywhere.

photograph by Rizwan

Tuesday 2 November 2010

The Good Doctor

Last night the Little Shelford annual bookclub meeting was held at the Olde Post Office. We rang the bell (like Pooh does outside Owl's), and sat down in a circle beside the authoress of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows: A Family's Journey of Love and Loss in Nepal. The book had circled the members last year while I was in hospital, and one of the lovely ladies had mentioned that perhaps Mum might find it difficult to read at the time, so it had simply passed us by.

Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth is charming and self-effacing, the kind of doctor a patient is fortunate to encounter. She is author of several books in different genres, but this, her autobiographical work, delves into the heart of a painful dilemma - to submit to the admonitions and gloomy prognostications of her fellow Cambridge doctors, or abandon the Western view and offer her son David a cheerful and dignified chance at life.  Here is an excerpt in Dr Jane's words... 
The one sympathetic hospital doctor in Cambridge had advised us to treat David normally and we took this as a licence to take him on his first trek; at the age of four months, we packed up David’s heart medicines and tubes and headed up over precipitous drops and wobbly rope bridges to explore drippy forests and medieval hill-forts. The mountains were spectacular and healing. Strangely David’s heart disease protected him from the effects of high altitude. Our arrival in each mountain village was heralded by choruses of, ‘Children have come!’ We’d be surrounded and David taken from his carrying basket to be handed around for all to cuddle. He glowed in all this attention. He smiled and burbled appreciatively at all his admirers. Nepalis helped us see David’s qualities and talent for laughter.
It was interesting as you can imagine, thinking about my long journeys down the very same corridors of this very Cambridge hospital. I told Dr Jane that I don't write about my experiences with doctors (well, except the blue-eyed surgeon of course). She wondered why not. Perhaps I might, now. Particularly the good doctors. They deserve to be honoured, as human beings more than anything else.