Do memories of who was by your side between the two sanctuaries
cause claret-tinted tears to make your eyes this blurry?
Or is it cool levanters blowing into them? Or the lightning strike
you see illuminate the mountain near his city where you’d hike?
Your hands say stop and stem the flow your eyes keep pouring out
and you urge your heart to wake up but it refuses to turn about.
Do you think one gushing with love can hide their desires
between the mist of its tears and the smoke of its fires?
Passion has you weep at every meagre shadowy trace,
leaves you sleepless thinking of the willow on the mountain face.
How can you deny love with these witnesses against you –
anguish that’s left you sick, tears you can’t see through?
The proof is in lines etched along the curve of each cheek
tinged red like crushed berries your yellow asters streak.
Yes, spectral visions of my beloved still rob me of sleep
Love extinguishes brief pleasures with enduring grief.
O my friend, reproachful of debilitating love: I’m sorry.
But if you’re fair, don’t be too harsh in blaming me.
I hope you’re spared from ever feeling this transparent
and exposed to critics – ailed and afflicted with lament.
I can’t bear to hear any good advice you’ve come to give,
You know a bereft lover is to logic like a sieve.
I’m old enough to know better but still didn’t heed
my own experience; I’m unable to cede.
Notes on this poem
For years, while a disciple in a Sufi order, I recited ‘Qasida Burda’ so often I committed much of its ten chapters to memory, even though they’re in a language I don’t speak but know, in the way many Muslims of South Asian heritage come to know Arabic – enough to read its script and puzzle out some meaning. ‘Qasida Burda’, or ‘The Poem of the Cloak’, is an honorific title the poem gained through the lore surrounding it. The story goes that the Sufi mystic Imam Busiri became paralysed and composed the poem as a means of intercession. He saw a vision of the Prophet Muhammad, who was pleased with it – helping complete a hemistich in the third chapter – and placed his cloak over the Imam as a sign of acceptance. The poet awoke cured of his paralysis.
Mystical visions aside, on a purely worldly level, if any poem could be said to be alive, particularly in the hearts of common men and women, it is the Burda. It’s recited regularly the world over by millions of people, out of spiritual devotion, as an oLering of praise but also out of love. It is above all else a love poem. I left the Sufi order, am entirely estranged from devotional practices and quite comfortable in a marriage of convenience with religion now, but the sometimes joyful, sometimes haunting renditions of the poem, its music and magic, have stayed with me and never fail to move me.
My translation of the first chapter remains quite faithful to the language but less so to the religious elements – you could say I’m following a Western tradition of mangling Sufi poems by stripping them entirely of Islamic context. Fear not, translations of the poem that retain historical references and religious context are easy to find. The first I read was by the American scholar Hamza Yusuf, in a beautifully produced little hardback accompanying a CD set by the Fez Singers. You can find that version on YouTube and you should. The sheer variety of musical styles of the Burda serve as a perfect example of how Eastern poetry belies the Western dichotomy of poetry versus song. Words can be and are both – and the Burda is both brilliantly.
– Naush Sabah