Deserts in Persian Literature
By: Mahin Tajadod, 1994
The Persian mystic tradition compares the spiritual quest to the crossing of desert valleys. Sufism enumerates seven of these valleys: quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity, amazement and annihilation. The path is perilous. Asceticism to purify the soul; the disavowal of carnal passions; the renunciation of earthly desires--all these thorns wait on the mystic's path.
Gold, the possession of goods that flatter the eye and the heart and stir envy and desire--all the world's vanities--appear as mirages in the path of the thirsty voyager.
Every caravan needs a guide to cross the desert; no-one would be so foolish as to venture across the sandy wastes without someone to lead them. Similarly, the Iranian mystic tradition requires seekers after truth to seek the help of pirs, masters who can show them the way. No disciple would risk setting out on the path of devotion without the help of an initiator to instruct him and pass on the necessary knowledge. Like a caravan-leader who holds a camel by the reins to steer the beast and its rider through dangerous passages, the spiritual master takes in hand the chain of the proselyte's instruction.
Attar, the great twelfth-century Persian poet, describes in The Conference of the Birds a journey these creatures make when they decide one day to set off in search of their king. Guided by the hoopoe, a bird rich in mythological associations that was Solomon's companion and that knows how to avoid mirages and espy waterholes from afar, they set off for the mountain called Qaf, home of the Simurgh, ruler of the birds. Many of the travellers cannot stand the heat, the hunger and thirst and, fearing the unknown, prefer to return to pleasanter lands. Others have the courage to endure the journey and its perils. For want of food, water and shade many die en route. Only thirty birds--in Persian, si-murgh--reach their goal, flying over Qaf and meeting the object of their quest in a mystic communion.
"And so those thirty birds contemplated the face of Simurgh in the reflection of their own faces.... They saw that it was truly the Simurgh, and if they turned their regard on themselves, they saw that they were the Simurgh too. Finally, looking one way then the other, they realized that they and the Simurgh were in reality one."
Ogres and fairies
In Persian legends and poetic epics, the desert is also the land of ogres, genies and fairies. In his Incantation of the Simurgh, the twelfth-century Iranian philosopher Suhravardi explains how to avoid the ogres known as doual-pa that leaped onto travellers' shoulders and would not come down until they had strangled them with their legs. "As the traveller passes, the doual-pa suddenly throws out its legs and grips him around the throat, so hindering his progress that he can no longer find the Water of Life. But I have heard it said that a man can be delivered if he goes aboard Noah's Ark and takes in his hand the staff of Moses."
The genies known as djinn also inhabit the desert: they can be recognized by the clogs they wear, and they are less dangerous than ogres or demons. Peris, fairylike creatures who are the personification of beauty and grace, only appear after nightfall. The story goes that Nasir ad-Din Shah, who ruled Persia from 1848 to 1896, used to dress carefully every evening, then set off on his favourite horse to the desert to meet the most beautiful of these fairies.
Whether the flesh is forgotten or the mind becomes doubly sensitive to its prickings, whether the spirit grows drowsy or gains in lucidity, the desert is first and foremost a mirror in which one can see the world and maybe also glimpse the face of God. The only certainty is that sooner or later you will see yourself.