Pakistan, 1994 – This Sufi poet here was offering his heart for a kebab, but I was a vegetarian at the time…

Would your departing lover consider it original to the point of taking you back if you sang love songs in which your throbbing heart would be compared to a sausage on a barbecue grill? Probably not, yet this is one of the commonest metaphors -obscured by the politeness of the well meaning Western translators- that one finds in that Sufi poetry, whose mere mention is enough for many people to ecstatically show the white of their eyes: the pained heart seen as a piece of kebab.

This and other such crude metaphors can even turn Sufi poetry into comical entertainment, were one to read it in the original. But, outside the field of old-fashioned “Orientalism”, Sufi poetry in the West has always been read through the filter of sometimes much-too-clever translations.

Most Sufi poetry is written in Persian, the language of Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Sa’adi, Hafiz and Nizami (and others, and others). The Persian tongue and the prestige of its literature produced imitations of Sufi poetry in languages deeply influenced by it: Turkish, Pashto, Kurdish, Urdu. There is little Sufi poetry in Arabic worth mentioning.

Sufi poetry possesses a stock of ready-made formulas, building-blocks that the poet combines at will, but which in themselves have, most often, nothing interesting or imaginative: endless lamentations in a fixed setting where usually figure the gul (rose) and the bulbul (nightingale). These, of course, figure prominently in the corresponding poetry of the West, that of the Troubadours, the difference being that for the Troubadours those formulas  were mere ornaments adorning a permanent formal and linguistic quest, while the Persian (and Pashto, etc.) Sufi poetry is very often a string of tranquilizing lieux-communs, and this includes even a good deal of Rumi’s and Omar Khayyam’s stanzas.

The heart as kebab

It is very common, for instance, that the burning heart of the lover be called simply “a kebab”… Like Sufi poetry, the kebab originated in Persia, and for the Sufi poets, as for many of the inhabitants of today’s Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, the kebab is the food par excellence. I couldn’t find any glorification of the pilaf rice in Sufi poetry, but there is a lot of roasting going on, prudely hidden by our translators under dignified maiden metaphors.

Thus the Pashtun poet Abd-ur Rahman, who describes himself as suffering from a long-standing love heartburn, ignored by those around :

زمانئ د رحمان زره دئ کباب کرئ

له احوال ءئ څوک نه دئ خبر دار


Plain translation:

”Time turned Rahman‘s heart into a kebab,

Nobody has any idea of its state.“


Aaah, but Major H. G. Raverty translated this :

”Cruel fate hath scorched the heart of Rahman;

Of its state no one hath any conception.“


No kebab here in the translation, and see how dignified it became in English. Still, there is nothing metaphoric in Abd-ur Rahman‘s ”kebab“; he clearly means a piece of meat roasted on a spit. The fact that so many elevated spirits could be obsessed with kebab has so embarrassed the translators, that some of them have ennobled the kebab even when it plainly meant… kebab. Thus, the great erudite Reynold Nicholson, in his translation of Rumi‘s Divan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz renders the first verses in the lame VIII-th stanza:

مرد خدا مست بود بئ شراب

مرد خدا سبر بود بئ کباب


”The man of God is drunken without wine;

The man of God is full without meat“,


when in fact the second verse means actually :

”The man of God is tranquil (or uncomplaining) without kebab.“


(We leave aside here Rumi‘s debatable taste is rhyming in the first two verses of this stanza ”sharab“ -wine- and ”kebab“. )

We thus see that even when ”kebab“ means ”kebab“, the distinguished Western translators have replaced it with ”meat“, or ”viands“, or anything that would sound more elevated and spiritual.

Darling, how would you like my kebab? Well done? A point? Rare? Saignant?