Reviews

Wonder and Wine in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam

A review of Juan Cole's new translation.

During my last summer vacation before the start of my studies at university, I nervously walked into Prospero’s Books in Crouch End. As a teenager, bookstores terrified me as much as they fascinated me. In those vast rows of books, I saw a reflection of my utter ignorance of all the things I thought I needed to know to be considered ‘clever,’ which I’wined resolved to become at a particular point that lingering, aching summer. To my seventeen-year-old self, cleverness meant reading piles of boring old books and thus being able to quote their [largely dead French] authors sans guilt at dinner parties. One pretentious (and very pretty) girl or other was most likely responsible for that mad idea of mine. I left Prospero’s with the little book in my sweaty hands, and it would change my life rather than kill a few good afternoons. Back in the sunshine on the high street, I looked for a cafe where I could sink my teeth into The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam — and also enjoy a much-needed pee.

Although I’d never read any of Khayyam’s poems before, the eleventh-century Iranian polymath was no stranger to me. A year earlier, I wrote about some of his mathematical contributions in a report for a twelfth-grade statistics course from Hell. Khayyam-inspired illustrations that hung about my great-uncle Heshmat’s house in my childhood days (and still do) and his massive, ever-open copy of the Rubáiyát (lit. ‘Quatrains’) were still fresh in my mind. I was therefore perhaps overdue a read of the Rubáiyát, which very aptly came into my life at a time when, in addition to wanting to be clever, I was also trying to make sense of the cosmos and figure out what would happen when I croaked. In my bedroom at my grandparent’s flat, my copy of the Rubáiyát had the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada for company.

Unlike other Persian-language poets like Rumi, with whom I instantly became enamored a year later (and disillusioned with shortly afterward), it took some time before I came to appreciate Khayyam’s philosophies and worldview. As I’ve written in my book With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes, Khayyam at first left me feeling somewhat deflated. I wasn’t religious, nor did I have a religious upbringing of any sort, but I did believe in God (in the bearded-old-man-in-the-sky sense) and Heaven. While Khayyam did not outright deny the existence of God, he had his questions and concerns about such a supernatural being, and was strongly skeptical, to say the least, of the idea of an afterlife. 

“Khayyam,” he asks himself in one quatrain, “who said there shall be a Hell? Who to Hell has been, and from Heaven come again?” Khayyam laughs at the thought that he’ll live it up after death, especially in an Islamic paradise filled with lusty women and wine — the very things that orthodox Islam in Iran proscribed. Doubtful of the promises made by the religion he happened to be born into, he only concerns himself with this life, whose transience he both bitterly laments and is determined to make the best of — with prodigious amounts of booze. 

Many years after having first read the Rubáiyát and no longer brooding over the questions it posed, I found myself humming a particular quatrain I’d heard the poet Ahmad Shamlou (d. 2000)  recite and Mohammad Reza Shajarian sing on a collaborative album. “Drink wine,” it begins, “for life everlasting is this; the fruit of your youth’s labors is this.” I translated the poem into English in my head. Days later, I took a stab at another one, and before I knew it I was on my way to translating the Rubáiyát in its entirety. I did so more for fun and the challenge it presented than anything else. It was only in 2016, five years after I finished my initial draft (with the help of my aunt Tiraneh and my mum) that I thought about actually publishing my translation as my first-ever book.

Given the fact that Edward FitzGerald’s Victorian-era take on the Rubáiyát still remains the most popular English version by far, one may wonder why the likes of me, and, more recently, Juan Cole, have decided to present our own. Aside from the challenge it presented, I felt a new English translation was much needed. While FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát is an English classic in its own right, it isn’t a translation but rather a riff on the original Persian poems. As much as I admired A.J. Arberry and John Heath-Stubbs’ very precise translation (the one I picked up at Prospero’s), I felt it lacked much of the Persian’s poetic beauty. Accordingly, I tried to reconcile the two approaches and pen a translation that was not only as accurate as possible where words and meaning were concerned, but also prosody.

Cole, too, cites the issue with FitzGerald’s version as an “argument for a new translation.” That said, he hasn’t replicated the AABA rhyme scheme that defines the Persian robai, and opted instead for a more modern approach. “When I read the Omarian poetry,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “it often begs to break out of its formal cage and spread across the page in exuberance. I hold that in English the sense of the quatrains, ironically enough, is often best conveyed if put into free verse or a conversational iambic metre.”

For all the liberties he took with the Rubáiyát, though, it is largely thanks to FitzGerald that Khayyam has fared so well in the West. I touch on such “literary fortunes” (as my great-uncle Mozaffar would term them) in my 2018 piece on the Rubáiyát’s legacy for the BBC, and Cole goes into greater detail in his introduction. In Iran and elsewhere in the Persian-speaking world, he is still revered for his poetry as well as his discoveries in mathematics and astronomy. He’s also proved to be somewhat of a controversial figure given his views on religion and the afterlife, as well as his insatiable yen for wine (and the good life in general). In response, some have tried to portray Khayyam as a Sufi Muslim, claiming that the wine he extols at such length and in such detail is metaphorical rather than literal. Others have understandably held him in disdain. A recent case in point is the Islamic Republic, which, according to a 2019 article, began removing Khayyam and other Persian literary giants from school textbooks. The article did not mention Khayyam’s being a full-blown wino as the problem, but it’s plausible to assume that this at least partly triggered the decision, especially given the government’s ban on the use of the word ‘wine’ in schoolbooks in 2016.

To describe this decision as unfortunate is to put things euphemistically, for if there’s one poet Iranians — and everyone else, for that matter — should be reading now, in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s arguably Khayyam. Khayyam imbibed as much wine as he did because of the precariousness of life, the fickleness of fortune, the unsubstantiated and often debatable promises of religion, and the swift, unstoppable passage of time. As such, the Rubáiyát is more relevant than it has ever been in recent decades. The pandemic has brought many things to the fore, from the ineptitude of governments the world over in redressing such crises and the shortcomings of capitalism to the trials of solitude and loneliness. Above and beyond all else, however, it has warned us of our fragility and mortality and the stark uncertainty as to whether or not there we will be here tomorrow — just as Khayyam did nearly a thousand years ago. In this sense, the Rubáiyát core messages and themes are universal, and that Khayyam continues to be read today the world over has not little to do with this fact. His drunkenness aside, who can argue with the sage when he says:

As the New Year’s spring clouds wash the tulip’s visage,

Arise, and fill the wine goblets with firm resolve;

For this grass on which you recline today

Shall sprout tomorrow from your ashes tall.

All translations by the author.

POETRY TRANSLATION
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam
By Juan Cole
I.B. Tauris
Published April 30, 2020

Joobin Bekhrad is the founder and former editor of REORIENT and the Canadian Desk Editor of ArtAsiaPacific. He has also contributed to a host of other notable publications, such as Columbia University’s Columbia Journal (where he served as Online Guest Editor in late 2016), The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Times Literary Supplement, Paper, The Guardian, The Independent, Forbes, GQ, Vanity Fair, CNN, and the BBC, been interviewed by ones like Newsweek, Monocle, PRI, and the CBC, and seen his articles translated into a wide variety of languages. In 2015, Joobin was granted an International Award for Art Criticism (IAAC) by London’s Royal College of Art. In addition to his many articles, he is also the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat from the Persian into English, a novella (Coming Down Again), a novel (Guguli), a book of essays and stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and five volumes of poetry (The Sailor; Turncoats of Paradise; Down the Twilit Hill; Elsewhere; and Lovers of Light).

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