Archive for September, 2014

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Michaelmas Magpie… and Daisies

September 29, 2014

A magpie cackles atop an oak tree at sunset.

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And has a good look around.

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Over there…

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Look

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Down there…

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Michaelmas Daisies!

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Yes, it really is Michaelmas Day. Autumn’s here.

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Nymphs Bathing: Flash Floods in Fareham

September 18, 2014

Maybe it’s because I’d been at the Maasdam the night before, but I had a bit of a weird dream in the early hours this morning. It was a blustery, grey day and I was walking along the shoreline at a place supposed to be Lyme Regis in the dream, though it had elements of Seaton and every other seaside town I’ve been to.

The tide was right in and there was no beach to speak of. I was trying to negotiate a near vertical rock face without getting my feet wet, waiting for each surge of waves to pass before proceeding laterally along, towards a grassy bank and a picket fence by a road.

In spite of the unsettled conditions, to my left was swimming a woman – possibly naked – who seemed at ease bobbing up and down on the swell. I think this painting by Paul Delvaux, called Bathing Nymphs (1938), captures the ambience of that dream.

Nymphs Bathing

Somehow, I made it to the bank and the fence without getting wet, clambering over it to reach the road.

The weather’s been pretty fine the last few weeks, pretty sunny and dry – the driest start to September for over twenty years, apparently. I expected it to be the same today.

Driving to work this morning, I thrilled to a flight of swans or Canada Geese (I couldn’t get a proper look without colliding with something), about a dozen or so, which flew low and fast, silhouetted against the grey skies.

Later, out on route, I was aware of rumbles of thunder and wondered if it would rain. Claude Debussy’s three-movement orchestral composition, Nocturnes, came on the radio, the opening bars of Nuages (Clouds) attuned to the sombre sonority of the weather. Occasional flashes of lightning would soon follow, and it was raining by the time the second movement, Fêtes (Festivals), started. I sat tight in the van after the rain started lashing down in sheets. It was now the third movement, Sirènes (Sirens) and its wordless female chorus. Had my dream of the swimming siren pointed to this?

The rain passed within the hour. It had taken a few of us by surprise. I heard there’d been flash floods in Fareham.

Paul Delvaux Les Femmes devant La Mer 1943

Paul Delvaux Les Femmes devant La Mer 1943

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Fag-butts in Moorgate

September 13, 2014

A nod to The Clash’s ‘Sten guns in Knightsbridge’. This short post is more of a link to an old post on social cleansing and working class memory in London, which I’ve just revised: here.

Keats' birthplace in Moorgate (pinched from here).

Keats’ birthplace in Moorgate (picture pinched from here).

Affronted by the sterile cleanliness of the charter’d streets around Moorgate and the hustle and bustle of ‘men-in-suits’, someone I know and love took to flicking fag-butts to the ground as a gesture against this well-presented image, the shiny decor of misery.

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Fountain and Tomb… and Mulberry Tree: the Garden of Sheikh Zubair

September 7, 2014

I wonder what considerations governed the planting of a mulberry tree next to the Hartley Library of the University of Southampton? Perhaps it was associated with the original Hartley Institution, founded in 1862, from which the modern university developed.

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I remember that it grew in the oldest part of the campus, close to a small brick archway through which ran a stone-flagged path, which passed beneath the overhanging branches of the tree. Every summer the red fruit from the tree would speckle the path, and every summer the path would be cordoned off by plastic tape because it was hazardous to walk on. It was this seasonal encounter that led me to deduce that it was a mulberry tree in the first place.

The tree is still there, as I was pleased to discover last weekend; but its surroundings have changed. After years of continuous redevelopment of the campus – which has claimed two pubs in Burgess Road: The Gate and The Crown and Sceptre – the mulberry tree is set back further in the verdant grass and there is absolutely no risk of anyone taking a tumble on the flagstones, which have vanished. The wall and archway – remnants of a walled garden, I suspect – have gone too. Instead, a brick path skirts around beyond the range of any fallen berries.

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Why have my thoughts turned to this particular tree lately? It’s partly because of sadness and outrage at the terrible and tragic plight of the persecuted religious minority known as the Yezidi, in northern Iraq. In exploring their fascinating religious tradition, which could be described as an evolving syncretism of animist, pagan, ancient Babylonian, Mithraic, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Jewish and Christian beliefs, I’ve discovered that the mulberry tree has some numinous significance for them. Looking at pictures of their holiest shrine, the Tomb of Sheikh Adi at Lalish, I noticed the number of gnarled old mulberry trees erupting through the cobbles of the courtyard of the sanctuary.

Mulberry

A tree growing in the courtyard of the tomb of Sheikh Adi, picture from this travel website. I believe it is Dara Laile, a Tree of Leile, a mother of the Yezidi and a wife of Shakhidi Jer (the son of the Jar) see here (p.37).

The mulberry is, perhaps, most famous in European literature for its role in Ovid’s version of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, summarised here

Pyramus and Thisbe is the story of two lovers in the city of Babylon who occupy connected houses/walls, forbidden by their parents to be wed, because of their parents’ rivalry. Through a crack in one of the walls, they whisper their love for each other. They arrange to meet near Ninus’ tomb under a mulberry tree, by a cool spring, and state their feelings for each other. Thisbe arrives first, but upon seeing a lioness with a mouth bloody from a recent kill, she flees, leaving behind her veils. When Pyramus arrives he is horrified at the sight of Thisbe’s veil, assuming that a fierce beast had killed her. Pyramus kills himself, falling on his sword in proper Roman fashion, and in turn splashing blood on the white mulberry leaves. Pyramus’ blood stains the white mulberry fruits, turning them dark. Thisbe returns, eager to tell Pyramus what had happened to her, but she finds Pyramus’ dead body under the shade of the mulberry tree. Thisbe, after a brief period of mourning, stabs herself with the same sword. In the end, the gods listen to Thisbe’s lament, and forever change the colour of the mulberry fruits into the stained colour to honour the forbidden love.

Ovid, Metamorphoses (summary adapted from here).

Caxton_Ovid,_1480

The first English translation, printed by William Caxton in 1480 (from here).

It attests to the longevity of a complex of beliefs and practices that this story – at least 2,000 years old – associates a mulberry tree with a spring and a tomb, in this case the tomb of the legendary founder of the city of Nineveh, capital of the mighty Assyrian empire. This presents an intriguing parallel with the locative ‘grammar’ of many venerated mulberry trees in the present-day Yezidi tradition, which encompasses the Nineveh plains of Mesopotamia, as well as Anatolia and Armenia. Their sacred places, ‘where human and divine spaces are said to meet’ (Acikyildiz 2010: 131) are spread throughout their villages in these areas. Most holy springs ‘are close to sacred trees… generally the olive, fig or mulberry trees from which votive rags are hung’ (ibid.). Indeed, the Yezidi’s chief pilgrimage site at Lalish, the Tomb of Sheikh Adi, is no exception for being built by sacred springs. For me, this tragic story must surely have been an integral part of the complex of beliefs and practices within which Yezidism evolved, including an outlook on the world which could be described as ‘shamanic’ or animist. The fact that the love of Pyramus and Thisbe is forbidden by the rivalry of their respective families resonates still in the current, bloody religious rivalry which places bounds on love across the divide.

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Jane Hathaway remarks that the mulberry tree has certain mythological and religious connotations in a variety of cultural contexts. For instance, the tree is linked with the Bektashi Sufi order, to which the Ottoman Janissaries traditionally adhered. When Hajja Bektash Veli was appointed to Rum, or Asia Minor, ‘he threw a flaming mulberry branch into the air as a signal to the dervishes in Anatolia; the branch landed at the threshold of what would become Hajji Bektash’s house outside Konya in central Anatolia. There, it immediately sprouted and grew into an enormous mulberry tree that is said to be still burning at its tip’ (Hathaway 2003). The tree would later mark the site of the tomb of the fifteenth-century Bektashi leader, Balim Sultan (ibid.). A parallel to this tradition revolves around the tree in the churchyard of the Patriarchate of Pec in Kosovo. Reputedly, it was planted by Saint Sava (1169-1236), founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who brought a mulberry branch from Jerusalem (ibid.).

Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

An old mulberry tree at the Naqshbandi compound in Bukhara, in modern Uzbekistan, is said to have grown from a walking stick that the Sufi theologian  Baha al-Din Naqshbandi had brought back from his hajj to Mecca (Müllerson 2007: 160).

In the Hindu tradition, in Kashmir the centuries-old Puran Raj Bhairav temple in Sazgaripora, Srinagar, is dedicated to Bhairav, another name for Lord Shiva. Inside the complex there is a mulberry tree that is venerated and worshipped by Pandits. There is also a sacred spring surrounded by a circular plinth platform where devotees would sit for prayers (here).

A musical instrument traditionally made of mulberry wood is the tanbur, a kind of long-necked lute from Central and South Asia. For many centuries its pear-shaped body was carved from a single piece of wood. The Kurdish tanbur and its melodies were used in spiritual gatherings (Zekr, Jam) of the Ahl-e Haqq for meditation and chanting purposes ever since the 14th century. Up to the 20th century the instrument was considered so sacred that it was not to be played for people outside of the Ahl-e Haqq order. Its melodies and modes were so heavily guarded that they were only passed down from master to disciple (see here). The Ahl-e Haqq believe in 1001 incarnations of the Godhead in a series, including Moses, David, Jesus Christ, Ali, the Imam Hussein and Baba Yadgar. The Tomb of Baba Yadgar, in Nineveh province of northern Iraq, is their holy place, a goal for pilgrimage.

painting of female musicians from Hasht-Behesht Palace in Isfahan

Painting of female musicians from Hasht-Behesht Palace in Isfahan

It was in the light of the tree’s recurring connection with ‘Sufi psychogeography’ that I entertained the thought that the Bard may have had an interest in Sufism, after I discovered that the mulberry tree reputedly planted by Shakespeare in his garden was the earliest known point of pilgrimage for tourists drawn to Stratford. I was astounded to find that it has indeed been proposed that Shakespeare did have an interest in Sufism, a proposition based on an interpretation of his plays by respected Shakespeare scholar and Sufi mystic, Martin Lings (see here), following a line of evidence entirely independent of my arboreal train of thought.

Sheikh Zubair

Sheikh Zubair

I’ll conclude with the story of a mulberry tree that grew in the walled garden of an ancient Sufi lodge, which features in a childhood memory related by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, recalled in his book, Fountain and Tomb; he describes ‘what amounted to a mystical vision of the lodge’s shaykh, who declaimed a cryptic line of Persian, then vanished’ (Hathaway 2003: 138).

There, under the central mulberry tree, stands a man, a dervish unlike those I’ve seen before. He is great with age but extremely tall, his face a pool of glowing light. His cape is green, his long turban white. Everything about him is munificent beyond imagining. I look at him so intently that I become intoxicated, the sight of him filling the whole universe. It comes to me that he must be the owner and overseer of the place, and I see that he is loving, not like those others. I go up to the wall and say most respectfully,

“I love mulberries.”

Since he doesn’t answer, doesn’t even move, I assume he hasn’t heard me, so I say it louder.

“I love mulberries.”

I believe that his single glance takes in every-thing and that his deep, melodious voice says,

“My nightingale, khoon deli khord wakuli hasel kared.”

Then I think I see him tossing me a berry. I bend down to pick it up. I find nothing. When I stand up again, the place is empty. Darkness veils the inner gate.

(Mahfouz 1998:11).

 
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References
Acikyildiz, B. 2010. The Yezidis: the History of a Community, Culture and Religion. London: I.B.Taurus.
Hathaway, J. 2003. A Tale of Two Factions: Myth, Memory, and Identity in Ottoman Egypt and Yemen. Albany: SUNY Press.
Mahfouz, N. 1998. Fountain and Tomb. (Trans. Soad Sobhi, Essam Fattouh, James Kenneson). Boulder: ThreeContinents/Lynne Reinner.
Müllerson, R. 2007. Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game. Abingdon: Routledge.