What’s lost in translation doesn’t hurt this poet’s popularity. BY RACHEL AVIV
Several years ago Kabir Helminski, a sheikh of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism, received a call from Madonna’s producer, who wanted to hire his troupe of whirling dervishes for a music video inspired by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. Helminski read the script, learned that a guy would be lying on top of Madonna while she sang “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” and wrote a polite letter declining the request. He also sent a package of books so that the singer might get a better sense of Rumi’s teachings.
Like many Persian literary scholars, Helminski, who runs the Threshold Society, a Sufi study center in California, has had little success in convincing Americans that Rumi is about more than transcendent sex. (Madonna later recited Rumi’s poems on a CD, A Gift of Love, along with Goldie Hawn and Martin Sheen.) One of the five best-selling poets in America, Rumi, who was born 800 years ago in what is now part of Afghanistan, has become famous for his ability to convey mystical passion: his lovers are frequently merging into one, forgetting who they are, and crying out in pain. Yet his religious work—one book is popularly called the “Koran in Persian”—is often ignored.
To uncover and celebrate his heritage, UNESCO has declared 2007 the Year of Rumi; conferences about his work are being held in Istanbul, Kabul, Tehran, Dushanbe, and Ann Arbor. One of the featured speakers in Ann Arbor this fall will be Coleman Barks, an American poet who is largely responsible for Rumi’s American popularity as well as his reputation as an erotic soul-healer. Born in Tennessee, Barks freely admits to not knowing Persian (scholars call his best-selling works from the translations of others “re-Englishings”). While his poems are far more elegant and accessible than any previous English renditions, they tend to turn holy scenes into moments of sexual passion. Sometimes he takes...