I am in awe of the protesters in Tunisia and Bahrain and Egypt and Libya and Iran and Yemen and the Sudan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Their yearning for freedom is so great that, day after day, they put their lives on the line. I pray particularly for those in Libya and the Sudan, whose rulers are proving to be particularly ruthless.
I was recently reading Rumi, the great 13th century sufi poet from Persia, and came across this wonderful poem about “the ache for freedom” (as translator Coleman Barks calls it). Rumi’s beautiful description of camels stands in for the loveliness of humankind. When we hear a poet articulating our deep longing for freedom, we may tear our clothes and fall to the ground. Or, as events in the Middle East demonstrate, we may snap our ropes and venture out into new realms:
Jami’s the Camel Driver’s Song
A sufi was on the path of clarity. Every day he walked
the desert, and every night
he walked and slept in the emptiness of God’s custody.
One night he came upon
a merchant’s tent and felt the need for conversation. He
lifted the tent flap
and saw a black slave in chains, unable to move, but shining
with intelligence like
the moon. “Help me,” the slave whispered. “My master will
not refuse a guest. Ask
him to set me free.” The merchant welcomed the sufi
to his tent and brought
food. “I cannot accept your generosity until you release
this poor man.” “I will.
But first listen to what I have suffered because of him!
I used to have many purebred
camels, beautiful animals with humps like mountains, swift
as the wind over steep
and flat, powerful as rhinoceri, tall and dignified as
elephants. Their crossing
and recrossing this desolation were the source of my
existence, their bells my most
wished-for sound. As they traveled, this camel driver sang
songs. The camels heard
and carried their loads with courage and discipline. This time,
though, when we unloaded
them, they fled in every direction, vanished in the desert,
all but the one still
tied outside my tent.” The sufi said, “Let me hear the camel
driver’s song.” The master
gestured, and the slave began. The visitor sat politely
watching the tethered animal,
but as longing deepened in the song, the night walker
tore his clothes and fell
on the ground, while the last camel snapped its rope and
escaped into the darkness.
The illustration, “Camel,” is by Svetlana Prohogin, whose website you can visit here: prozhogin.org/painting