In her debut collection Shahr-e-jaanaan, Adeeba Shahid Talukder asks: What would happen if we smashed the unjust barriers between profane and sacred, wretchedness and beauty, human and God?
On a spring morning in 10th Century Baghdad, the Persian poet and mystic Mansur al-Hallaj entered a state of spiritual ecstasy and cried out: ana al-Haqq, or “I am Truth.” Tattered and aging, the teacher of Sufism was known for his many eccentric, grandiose utterances in moments of rapture. Because al-Haqq is among God’s divine attributes, Mansur’s proclamation enraged the religious orthodoxy of his time. In dissolving the boundary between human and God, Mansur was seen as a heretic and a threat to the social order. He was arrested and confined, then tortured and hanged for blasphemy as thousands watched.
Poets have alluded to Mansur’s death countless times. In Urdu literature, his death symbolizes oppression by the powerful of the good, the pure, and the passionate. It is the fate suffered by anyone who dares voice their dissent in a suppressive society. Mansur’s martyrdom also raises important questions: Who has the power to determine a society’s values—in this case, morality and the realm of what is Islamically acceptable? And what does it mean to not conform to those measures? This idea of the exclusivity of God, the godly, and those who possess the claim to Truth also haunts many of my poems.
Mansur is among myriad legendary figures whose fame is derived from an act of dissent. Greek legend holds the figure of Prometheus, who is said to have stolen fire from Olympus and brought it to humanity, and in doing so incurred the wrath of the gods. In his essay “Paihlaa baaghi, paihlaa siyaasii khaidii” (“The First Rebel, The First Political Prisoner”), the Pakistani writer Sibt-e-Hassan compares Prometheus to Satan, who also, according to the Qur’an, sinned by refusing God’s command to bow to Adam. Though Prometheus is celebrated, Satan has historically and literally been demonized.
In my poetry collection Shahr-e-jaanaan (Tupelo Press, 2020) my criticism is less of religion and more of the way religion is manipulated through its symbolism and designations of morality. When I speak of God in my poems it is the cruel, wrathful one that humans have created out of expediency. The God who enables their own cruelty and gives them the power to arbitrate morality. It is the God humans hide behind so they can play God.
…how many candles
were lit in search of you, snuffed
when you were found?
they hold you still
force us to bow down.
In Islam, satan or shaitaan is a despised Qur’anic character who came under God’s wrath, but he is also an element of our own nature, a reality of our existence we cannot shed. As a concept, shaitaan represents the human propensity towards evil when one does not make an active effort to suppress it. To assume perpetuity in Truth, righteousness, or good, whether in oneself or in another, is to create a space for evil. Infallibility, like absolute Truth, cannot be claimed.
When we consider the monotheistic God, the dilemma of our fallibility should resolve itself. By worshipping none other than God, we keep ourselves from bowing before other humans and allow only a higher, more merciful, more intangible force to see our vulnerabilities. But because the concept of God is vulnerable to human corruption, it is necessary to critically examine the ideals of morality we’ve come to accept. Whose morality are we practicing? Who stands to benefit from it, and who suffers?
In the mind’s waters,
a blurring, a refraction.
There, we were brimming,
we were multitudes,
but they saw our darkness
and named us Dark.
— “The Gods of the Age”
“The gods of the age” is my translation of the phrase “zamaane ke khudaao” from the 1973 Hindi film Laila Majnu. The movie is a retelling of the Arabic legend of Laila and Qays, the two lovers who fall passionately, transcendently for one another, but are forbidden to meet. Qays, unable to bear separation from his beloved, runs through streets and bazaars, crying out Laila’s name and composing verses for her. In ridicule, townsfolk call him Majnoon: “mad” or “possessed by djinns.”
In the film, the townsfolk chain Majnoon as he struggles, hair wild, robe torn and smeared with dust. As they jeer and pelt him with stones, Laila implores, in lines that I quote in the poem “For Majnoon,” “Koi patthar se naa maare mere diiwane ko,” “Do not throw stones at my mad lover.” She throws herself onto his wounded body:
He is mad, she pleads. He is mad.
I am to blame: It was I
who stole his senses.
bring me to the scaffold.
In Shahr-e-jaanaan the concept of “the gods of the age,” which occurs across many poems, acknowledges that in addition to the deities we consciously worship, there are many more powerful individuals who play God in society. They are the rulers, government officials, and corporate entities who decide the fates of millions. They are the elites who watch civilization as entertainment, who spread terror and destruction without bearing any consequences. They are the tyrants who oppress dissidents to preserve their power, whose entranced devotees extol hyperbolically and exempt from basic laws of morality.
How can I write darkness light,
a storm a spring breeze,
a human God?
— Habib Jalib, “[To Write] Darkness Light”
The gods of our age say all prisoners deserve their fates, that they are confined because they are morally corrupt and unfit to live within society. The dominance of this narrative compels societies to expel captives from holiness, virtue, and humanity altogether. The crowd that stood on the bank of the Tigris, and watched Mansur as he was tortured and executed, believed the rulers’ narrative about him: that by claiming divinity Mansur had committed a grave sin, and thus any cruelty towards him was deserved, or even by God’s own command.
Mansur and Majnoon are important figures in my writing because their stories are also about the othering and pariahing of the mentally ill. Both go mad with passion for their beloveds—Majnoon for Laila and Mansur for God—and lose any consciousness of this world and its brutality. They become easy targets for the gods and the mobs who worship them, who exile them from the circle of respectability and strip them of their right to life. Why did the gods stone Majnoon and hang Mansur? It was because they could: because the mad are few, because they are vulnerable in the moment of madness.
In the City of the Beloved, who has remained pure?
Who now remains worthy of the executioner’s hand?
Friends! Gather your broken hearts and set out!
Let it be us, once again.
— Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “Let us today enter the bazaar in shackles”
But who sees more clearly through the water: The mad or the sane? And what separates the respectable from the deviant, and the holy from the profane? In Sufi mystical tradition, to achieve a state of fanaa is to end oneself in the beloved, to annihilate the ego in the path of love. Some say that by declaring himself God, Mansur was celebrating his own effacement and proclaiming the intensity of his devotion to God. By some accounts, the prophet Muhammad himself was called a madman when he brought forth his revolutionary ideas and spoke of receiving revelation from God. Some even say he was stoned.
Madness is a vulnerability I, too, hold. I, too, once called myself God. I wrote many of my poems in Shahr-e-jaanaan as an attempt to conjure up the sense of sin, delirium, and danger I felt in the days before I was first diagnosed as a Bipolar patient. I wanted to remember the ecstasy of being God. It was a time where every occurrence felt magical, romantic, and divinely ordained, and I found meaning even in glass bangles breaking at my wrist. It was a time when everything I wrote was scripture, and my purpose was to descend heaven upon earth.
They told me
to stop. They told me
I was no prophetess.
But I was,
for I was wrathful.
— “Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved”
Like Majnoon, my own madness was birthed from passion. Each time I found new love, I felt a dangerous joy that turned me unstable and then manic. Most of my relationships were incredibly short-lived because I said things and behaved in ways that destroyed them irreparably.
But wasn’t love worship, and I, God? And in its loss, wasn’t it ritual to run through deserts and forests, howling and singing verses?
It was so cold that night, and we found you at last in Roosevelt Island, dancing on
the rocks. You laughed and laughed, said you would feed all the fish in the river. Who,
now, will marry you?
— “You’re getting older, and there are such few boys”
My diagnosis was an othering; in just a moment, I was separated from respectable society and seen differently by the ones I loved. No longer in the realm of the sane, I was more spectacle than human. When I looked back, I was frightened of myself. In mania, I would upturn the laws of my own life, destroy what I had built of it—sever relationships, make disastrous decisions, endanger myself, and embarrass myself in public settings. When medication brought me down, I would sink into a profound depression. As I descended, my own actions would be recounted to me by friends, partners, and family. I would feel humiliated, revulsed with myself. I would apologize, again and again, for what I had said and done. I would fall in my own eyes.
Why did you show them the light in your eyes?
Why did you let your wine-cup spill?
In the days and months afterwards, I would barely speak out of heavy mind and lack of confidence, and spend hours pacing every day trying to think myself out of my mind’s maze. During one depressive episode, I dropped out of my classical singing and kathak classes because my vocal range had been reduced to nothing, and I felt so agitated I could barely move my limbs. I slept until 4 p.m. every day, and only woke when my mother and sister dragged me out of bed and forced me to brush my hair and shower. When I looked in the mirror, I felt so hideous that I would begin crying. I had dared to call myself God, and this, I thought, must be what hell was: a violent retribution, a way to put me in my place. My most recent depressive episode lasted close to eight months. I cannot explain how it feels to be so severely depressed for that long, and it is a miracle I survived. When I gained a bit of stability, I had to rebuild my life from the rubble.
At the end of this street, Washington Square is white— its lamps empty, its bushes
translucent. The chess players are shadows. They no longer call me Princess.
— “Of Water”
My husband is my first romantic partner who witnessed me in mania and continued to love me fiercely. I wrote most of the poems in my chapbook What Is Not Beautiful (2017) in the first few months after our marriage, and many of them centered around the disconnect between being loved in this way while finding myself utterly wretched, unsightly, and unlovable. The title of the collection refers to my most recent expulsion from the realm of beauty as I came down from mania, and the desperation with which I implored its gods to let me back in. Many of the poems in Shahr-e-jaanaan center around beauty as well, because to me it is a visible sign of holding something of God. The beloved of Urdu poetry—the idol, the ideal of revolution—has always been devastatingly beautiful.
hair falling in torrents, roses
When you climb
the scaffold’s branch
all the bewildered
lovers will wake; search,
search the half-lit lanes.
— “Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved”
What Is Not Beautiful is filled with images of mirrors—witnesses of the Self. At the time I wrote those poems, a single glance at one could break me. My relationship with mirrors has since evolved. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, I have learned that what I see is not a true image but a distortion and a projection of my own mind. In theory this knowledge—this power over my own image—should bring me peace. But the truth is that it distresses me and I actively resist it. That I cannot trust mirrors translates to a difficult fact: I, once again, learn that I cannot trust my own mind. To contend with my mind, to compel it to let me feel beautiful, is to destroy my idea of its infallibility. It is, in the strangest way, an annihilation of the ego.
When the gods of the age look through the water in the half-light, they are not seeing us as we are. Yet these are the entities who are defining us and writing our narratives. If minds are vulnerable to distortion, how can we trust a narrative written by a few, in the service of a few? When individuals are pariahed and punished, what is the basis of our beliefs? Who holds the power? Who defines justice?
Those whose religion is hypocrisy and deceit—
give them the courage to sin, the audacity to investigate.
— Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “Prayer”
To claim Truth or elevate oneself to God’s height are dangerous acts that signal moral corruption. But even taken literally, Mansur’s claim was at worst nonsensical—perhaps even hubristic— but no more than that. Mansur did not claim actual power, and indeed was powerless as he was held prisoner and executed. If, as is more likely, he entered a state of rapture and felt himself one with God, did he commit actual harm to the society in which he lived? Who here was playing God, claiming Truth? Whose narrative reigned?
A cry of ana al-Haqq will rise—
who is me, and who is you
and God’s creation will reign—
who is me, and who is you.
—Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “We will witness”
It is, perhaps, a function of dichotomy that the designations of absolute good and an absolute evil and of ruler and subject strip narratives of nuance and offer diluted ones instead. But for those of us who hold Truth sacred, it is our moral responsibility to pay greater attention to the voices and stories of the powerless and challenge ourselves to interrogate what we have come to accept. This, lest we become the gods who sentenced Prometheus to a life of torture or the mobs that lynch the innocent under the deception that they are protecting righteousness or those who self-flagellate because their society has deprived them of worth.
In Shahr-e-jaanaan I ask, out of madness and rapture: What would happen if we dissolved our prisons of hierarchy, smashed the unjust barriers between profane and sacred, wretchedness and beauty, human and God? Fanaa: to see God in ourselves, to bow before the Gods in each other.
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With gratitude to Willem van der Mei and Christopher Lucka for our conversations.
All unattributed excerpts are from my forthcoming book, Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved (Tupelo Press, 2020). All translations from Urdu are my own.