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Dylan and Rumi: A Common Destiny Centuries Apart
Mar 1, 2017

Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature. Dylan is undoubtedly one of the most popular folk singers and composers, not just in the United States, but around the world. So, arguably many of his fans already knew he was from Minnesota, but not many knew he was born to a Jewish family and his paternal grandparents were immigrants from the Kars province of north-Eastern Turkey. His grandmother’s family name was Kygryz, which is the name of a central Asian Turkic nation. His maternal grandparents came to the US from Lithuania.

This new finding – new for me, at least – sparked in me a light which shone back to Rumi.

In the West, many of us know Rumi for his poetry and sema dance. But few of us know the fact that he was born in a city called Balkh, which is today a part of Afghanistan. And when one sees the images of today’s war-torn Afghanistan next to the image and message of Rumi from 800 years ago – one cannot help but think: “how unlikely could this have been?” Not many of us also know that Balkh was one of the leading, if not the top, centers of knowledge and progress in the world 800 years ago – until invaded by forces from the east.

Construction is so difficult, but destruction is so easy. Images of the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria, both before and after the recent heavy bombardment, serve as a living – or a dead – example of what could have happened to Balkh.

After his city became the new target for invaders – and due to what appear to be some internal political conflicts – young Rumi and his family had to leave Balkh. They journeyed west, to the center of what is now Turkey. His real name was Jalaladdin Muhammad; “Rumi” came from this new land – Diyar-i Rum, the land of Greeks.

And now many of us are asking: wait a second, is Dylan a Turk? Lithuanian? Was Rumi Persian or Turkish? Or did he say Greek? This is the nature of being an immigrant – one human with too many identities.

Rumi was an immigrant. Bob Dylan was born to an immigrant family. Rumi’s parents fled the massacre looming from the east. Dylan’s grandparents fled the pogroms in Odessa in 1905.

I sometimes think of the young Rumi in Balkh. Perhaps he was terrified, fearing an imminent attack; sleepless at night, waiting for a possible raid at dawn. It’s hard to imagine: fearing a massacre and losing loved ones, despite having committed no crime. 

I also think of Dylan’s grandparents in Odessa. After decades of persecution and harassment, they surely feared for their lives and made plans for self-defense – and perhaps even to leave their homes.

Victor Hugo, another literary genius, had to spend many years in exile because of his advocacy for freedoms and opposition to tyranny in his homeland, France. This is what he wrote in one of his famous novels, Toilers of the Sea, itself a product of exile:

Volcanoes cast forth stones, and revolutions men, so families are removed to distant places; human beings come to pass their lives far from their native homes; groups of relatives and friends disperse and decay; strange people fall, as it were, from the clouds -- some in Germany, some in England, some in America. The people of the country view them with surprise and curiosity. Whence come these strange faces? Yonder mountain, smoking with revolutionary fires, casts them out. These barren aërolites, these famished and ruined people, these footballs of destiny, are known as refugees, émigrés, adventurers. If they sojourn among strangers, they are tolerated; if they depart, there is a feeling of relief. Sometimes these wanderers are harmless, inoffensive people, strangers -- at least, as regards the women -- to the events which have led to their exile, objects of persecution, helpless and astonished at their fate. They take root again somewhere as they can. They have done no harm to any one, and scarcely comprehend the destiny that has befallen them.

The story of all humankind is no different, at least as narrated in holy scriptures. Adam and Eve’s descent was in a sense exile from home, from the Garden, from the Beloved. As sad as it was, there was a wisdom behind this exile, the fruits of which were the exceptional voices of love and compassion: Abraham the Friend of God, Moses whom God spoke to, Jesus the Word of God, Muhammad the Beloved of God… peace be upon them all. Ironically, these giants of love were never immune from exile: all had to flee their homelands to take root in another place.

But when you want your light to be visible centuries from today, you have to be prepared to pay the price: emigration from the heavens, emigration from your homeland, emigration from the beloved one; taking refuge in a foreign land, taking refuge in a lover, taking refuge in the Divine. 

As Rumi tells of his own experience, this is a journey from “being raw to being cooked, and then to being burnt.”

In addition to Rumi’s extensive scholarship and spiritual friendship with Shams, the sun, it was perhaps his status as an immigrant that helped him transform his outer knowledge to inner wisdom; that enabled his liberation from the uncomfortable clothes of what we thought religion was and allowed him to attain its true essence. His exile enabled his specific alchemy of knowledge and love, helping him to go beyond metaphorical love (aşk-ı mecazi) to real love (aşk-ı hakiki).

It is a journey of awareness and appreciation of the favors of our Lord, none of which we can deny (Qur’an 55:13).

Immigrants and the sea

In his Mesnevi, Rumi narrates the story of a sailor and a linguist. An arrogant linguist boards a ship. He asks the sailor, “Do you know any grammar?” The sailor replies in the negative. “What a pity, says the linguist, you have spent half of your life in vain.” The sailor is sad, but he keeps quiet. After a while, a terrible storm breaks out and the ship begins to sink. The sailor asks the now-frantic linguist, “O grammarian, do you know how to swim?” To which the now-frantic linguist replies in the negative. “What a pity,” says the sailor, “For it means that you will lose your entire life!”

This story speaks a lot about immigrants. First, there are hundreds of them drowning in the sea every day. Second, these immigrants are more often than not thinking people, advocates of freedoms and rights, doctors, academics, and journalists who are risking their lives for an honorable life in peace. Perhaps there are many Rumis and Bob Dylans among them, great souls who might remind us of our common humanity.

Rumi was an immigrant.

According to the United Nations’ records, the number of refugees in 2016 is greater than at any other time in history.

For the many of us who are not close to active conflict zones, immigrants are nothing more than a news item. For many others, immigrants are fellow friends to remember in prayers and be concerned for. A very lovely couple from the latter camp, who are very dear to me, recently sent me a wonderful book of poetry, titled Looking for Home: Women Writing about Exile. My friends sent in their message one of Jesus’ liturgies, from Mark 10: 29-30: “‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’”

Independent of this beautiful gift I received, my wife told me around the same time that she and her American friends from her book club had chosen a novel for the month. It is by a very young writer Yaa Gyasi, and it’s titled Homegoing.

I was far away from home when my father passed away. Comfort came in the form of flowers a dear friend picked from his garden, and in all my friends' efforts to share my grief.

I am an immigrant. My friends make it feel like I am home.