Contact me with questions about Selections From Saadi’s Bustan.
(Please note: This book is now out of print and, as far as I know, the publisher has no plan to reprint it. If you would like a copy of the book, contact me and I will be glad to send you a PDF file of the uncorrected proof. If you would like to see the book reprinted, please go to Global Scholarly Publications’ website, contact Parviz Morewedge, Executive Director, and tell him how you feel.)
Benjamin Franklin, Plagiarism and the Parable Against Persecution: How Saadi’s Bustan Came To America
Sometime between 1757 and 1762, at a party in London, Benjamin Franklin asked his host for a copy of the Bible so he could make a point in a conversation he was having about tolerance. When the book was brought to him, he opened it near the beginning so that it would look like he was reading from Genesis and “read” (actually, he extemporized, though his audience was not aware of it) the following text:
And it came to pass after these things, that Abraham sat in the door of his tent, about the going down of the sun. And behold a man, bowed with age, came from the way of the wilderness, leaning on a staff. And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, “Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy feet, and tarry all night, and thou shalt arise early on the morrow, and go on thy way.”
But the man said, “Nay, for I will abide under this tree.”
And Abraham pressed him greatly; so he turned, and they went into the tent, and Abraham baked unleavened bread, and they did eat. And when Abraham saw that the man blessed not God, he said unto him, “Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, Creator of heaven and earth?”
And the man answered and said, “I do not worship the God thou speakest of, neither do I call upon his name; for I have made to myself a god, which abideth always in mine house, and provideth me with all things.”
And Abraham’s zeal was kindled against the man, and he arose and fell upon him, and drove him forth with blows into the wilderness. And at midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, “Abraham, where is the stranger?” And Abraham answered and said, “Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy name; therefore have I driven him out from before my face into the wilderness.”
And God said, “Have I not borne with him these hundred ninety and eighty years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his rebellion against me; and couldst not thou, that art thyself a sinner, bear with him one night?”
And Abraham said, “Let not the anger of the Lord wax hot against his servant; lo, I have sinned; lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray thee.” And Abraham arose, and went forth into the wilderness, and sought diligently for the man, and found him, and returned with him to the tent; and when he had entreated him kindly, he sent him away on the morrow with gifts.
And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, “For thy sin shall thy seed be afflicted four hundred years in a strange land; but for thy repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with power, and with gladness of heart, and with much substance.”
This “Parable Against Persecution” would become one of Franklin’s best-known and most-anthologized pieces of writing, used in everything from grade school readers to manuals on translation. Its origins, however, would result in accusations of plagiarism. Bishop Jeremy Taylor had told precisely the same story, nearly one hundred years earlier, as the conclusion to his book, Discourse On The Liberty Of Prophesying. Once this fact was known, Franklin’s enemies and detractors lost no time in suggesting that he had stolen the story from Taylor. For his part, Taylor claimed to have found the story in a Jewish book, but no one was able to find the story in the Torah or the Talmud or any other book of traditional Jewish learning, and so the question of whether Taylor had been entirely honest in citing his source also arose. Finally, in the early 1800s, Taylor’s source was found in a text published in 1651 by a man named George Gentius. The purpose of Gentius’ book was to convince the leaders of his community to be more tolerant of the Jews, leading them to Christ (which, of course, everyone at that time wanted to do) more through kindness than coercion. As a way of illustrating his overall thesis, Gentius told in his epistolary dedication the same story that Taylor and Franklin told, attributing it to someone named “Sadus,” though without naming Sadus’ religion or nationality. So it was not unreasonable for Taylor to think that Sadus was Jewish and that the story had originally come from a Jewish book.
Sadus, however, was not Jewish; he was Saadi, the thirteenth century Persian poet, and the story Gentius and then Taylor and then Franklin told came originally from Saadi’s masterpiece, Bustan. (Interestingly, in a parallel narrative involving Franklin’s Parable and its source, Frances Gladwyn, who had translated Saadi’s work into English, published a piece in a 1789 issue of The New Asiatic Miscellany pointing out that Franklin’s parable and Saadi’s poem told almost identical stories.) There are some small differences between Franklin’s version of the tale and my translation of Saadi’s original, but the core of the story is clearly the same. The poem is the first in the chapter called “Justice.”
Don’t Knot The Rope Of Generosity
I’ve heard that once a week went by
when no one wandering the world
stopped at the tents of Allah’s Friend,
whose practice was to eat his meals
only at the proper time
unless a poor or homeless person
came to his door. So he stood outside
his tent and looked around. At the edge
of the valley he saw a man whose hair
age had powdered white, sitting
bent and lonely in the desert
like a willow. Abraham
called out his warmest welcome, “Light
of my eyes! Please, honor the salt
and bread of my table! Eat with us!”
Recognizing Abraham for who he was,
the old man sprang to his feet,
eager to accept the invitation.
Abraham’s attendants gave
the lowly guest a seat of honor,
called for the table to be set,
and took their own seats; but when
they said together “In God’s Name…”
no words escaped the old man’s mouth.
Abraham spoke, “I do not see in you
the passion and sincerity of faith
that men of your age usually express.
Aren’t we obliged each time we eat
to thank the One who filled our plates?”
The old man answered, “I will not speak
of God except as I have learned to do
from my teachers. I am Zoroastrian.”
Once God’s favored messenger found out
the destitute old man was just a gabr,
he chased him like a stray dog from the tent.
(The pure of heart cannot abide such filth!)
But then, from Heaven, the voice of God’s reproof
came down, “Dear Friend! I have fed this man,
and given him his life these hundred years,
but you, in a single moment, were filled with hate.
Why refuse him hospitality
just because he bows before a fire?”
Don’t knot the rope of generosity
just because you find, in this person, fraud
and deceit; in that one, trickery and cunning.
Saadi was born in the city of Shiraz sometime in the early 13th century. The Sufis claim him as a Sheikh, though whether he was in fact a practicing Sufi is something that scholars of his work seriously doubt. No one, however, disputes that he was deeply sympathetic to Sufi ideals. Saadi was known as a traveler, though our understanding of the extent of this travels has changed over time, and travel is probably the most important framing device, in narrative and metaphorical terms, to appear in Bustan. Indeed, the introductory poem presents the book as a gift he is bringing his fellow citizens on his return to Shiraz from a trip abroad. Reading the book is itself a kind of journey, one that takes you back and forth between the external world (the first two chapters are called “Justice” and “Generosity”) and the internal one (there are chapters called “Humility,” “Contentment” and “Gratitude,” for example). One of the most remarkable aspects of my experience translating Bustan was discovering just how apt so many of Saadi’s poems are in our current political situation, both national and international. Here, for example, are the first few lines of the first poem of the chapter called “Justice.” No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, it’s hard not to see in these lines advice that today’s rulers would do well to take to heart.
I’ve heard that with his dying breaths Nushirvan
advised his son Hormuz on how to rule:
“Guarantee the poor their peace of mind.
Do not allow your privilege to bind you.
None who call your kingdom home will be
at peace if privilege is all you live for.
No judge will find a shepherd innocent
who slept and let the wolf among the sheep.
Go! Stand guard! Protect their impoverished lives.
The crown you wear would not exist without them.
A tree, my son, is nourished through its roots.
Just so, a monarch draws his kingdom’s strength
through those he rules. Do not betray their trust
unless you have to; you’ll find yourself rootless.”
What People Have Said About Selections From Saadi’s Bustan
Selections from Saadi’s Bustan has not been reviewed. Until it is, I am going to place here a copy of the blurb Bob Holman wrote for the book. It is, of course, written in the tone of unqualified praise that blurbs are supposed to be written in, but it also portrays pretty accurately the nature of the book’s content, including the introduction. Whether or not I have succeeded in bringing Saadi into English in a way that does him the kind of justice Holman claims for me is a question that will only be answered by others, over time.
Having the Bustan in an English translation will finally allow Saadi to take his place beside Rumi and Hafiz and complete the Divine Trinity of Persian poetry. To take on the task of translating this work is like taking on the Bible, or the Quran – the Bustan is first, huge, second, filled with subtle and hidden wisdom, and third, affords no real precedent. Richard Jeffrey Newman is an explorer here, traveling in the far reaches of Muslim mysticism. His text reads clear, story-filled, delightful, striking just the right balance between contemporary and classic. What shines through is Newman’s depth of understanding: there is a wisdom in these pages that makes them sacred, yet there is also a system of ethics that makes them a How To for the Soul, and to tease out these meanings requires a master translator. In the front matter of the book, Newman makes a brilliant analysis of his peers who have been busily translating Rumi and Hafiz as if the meaning of words didn’t matter, only the magic of the dance. Clearly, this method of freestyling would never do with Saadi, and we’re fortunate to have this extraordinary work in our hands as the author meant it. Should Newman’s rigorous methodology be applied to Rumi and Hafiz – and I hope it will be – I believe we will be able to approach ecstasy on its own terms, not their translators’. Having a contemporary translation of the Bustan is an important step in Muslim-US relations, a milestone in literary history.
And Heaven Let The Oyster Do Its Work
God, who is pure, created you from dust;
like dust, therefore, practice humility.
Don’t be greedy; do not consume the world;
and even if you’re most unsatisfied,
don’t lose control. You’re made from dust, not fire.
When fire lifted its head in arrogance,
dust threw itself, helpless, to the ground,
and since one was arrogant and the other humble,
the former was made into demons; the latter, humans.
A drop of rain fell slowly from a cloud.
Shamed by the sea’s apparent endlessness
it said, “Where there’s an ocean, who am I?
If such vast water exists, I do not!”
But while it held itself in such contempt,
an oyster took it in and cherished it,
and heaven let the oyster do its work
until the drop became a kingly pearl.
It rose so high because it first bowed low,
banging at non-being’s door
until at last it came to be.
With As Good An Eye
I’ve heard the story told that Darius,
whose lineage is blessed, rode off one day
far from his hunting entourage and saw,
running towards him through the pasture, a man.
“A foe I have not seen before,” the king
decided. “I’ll nail him to the ground with this,”
and he placed a poplar arrow in his bow.
“Lord of Iran and Tur!” the man cried out.
“May the evil eye never fall upon you!
I am your stable master, here to serve you!”
The man’s voice brought the shah’s memory
back to the name that went with his face, “You
were foolish to run at me like that.” A smile
played across the royal lips. “An angel
protected you. The bowstring was nearly
to my ear.”
The stable master also smiled,
“Because you’ve treated me so well, I won’t
withhold advice from you that you should hear:
It neither makes us safe nor commands
respect if the king cannot distinguish
enemies from friends. Your high position
carries this responsibility:
that you should recognize each one who serves you.
You’ve seen me many times at court, and we
have talked about your horses and their grazing.
How then does it come to be that now,
when I have rushed to serve you here, with love,
you see mortal danger in my approach?
If you ask me, O my king, I can bring
from a herd of one hundred thousand horses
the single beast you want to ride that day.
This detailed knowledge drives my herdsmanship.
Tend your own flock with as good an eye!
Disorder will bring ruin to this land
if its emperor cannot outthink a shepherd.”
Better You Should Kiss Us With A Pun
As I and some companions roamed the desert,
we heard talk of a man in Outer Byzance
whose roots dug deep in clean soil, whose learning
and whose travels, at least by reputation,
compelled us to visit him. When we arrived,
he kissed us each on our head, our hands and our eyes
and seated us with dignity and honor.
Then he sat down himself. His wealth — servants,
fields, fancy clothes — surrounded us, but he,
like a fruitless tree, was not a gentleman.
The fire beneath his pot stayed cold throughout.
He did not sleep and did not sit to rest,
proclaiming the tahlil all night, reciting
the tasbih. We also stayed awake till dawn.
Hunger did not let us close our eyes.
In the morning, he girded his loins, opened his door
and labored once again at the gracious
kissing he’d starved us with the night before.
A sweet and pleasant man who traveled with us
said, “Better you should kiss us with a pun:
Instead of your fair welcome, poor men prefer
the hearty fare of a full table. Don’t
take my shoes to make me feel at home.
Give me bread. Use the shoes to hit me
on the head.”
True men become preeminent
by giving lavishly. They do not keep
the night alive with empty-hearted prayers.
(Those who do are like the Tartar sentries,
scanning the night with ever watchful eyes,
while in their hearts nothing lives.) To be
a gentleman is to be generous,
which means providing food: words expressing
hospitality are headless drums.
Death Alone Puts Out The Fire
I recall a night when my eyes just wouldn’t close,
and I heard a moth saying to the candle,
“It’s right for me to burn: I am the lover;
but tell me, why are you weeping and burning?”
The candle replied, “My friend, you silly thing,
don’t be naïve: I’ve lost my sweet companion,
honey, and since Shirin abandoned me,
like Farhad, grief’s flames scorch me head to foot.”
As the candle spoke, her pain ran in rivers
down her yellow cheeks, “You are a fraud;
you have no business loving. You lack courage;
you can’t stay still; you fly from a single flame,
half-baked, while I remain till all of me
is properly done. Love’s blaze may have singed
your wings, but look at me, from top to bottom
I am burning.” The candle debated like this
while the men gathered around it, and when the night
was only partly gone, one among them,
with a pari’s face, put the candle to death.
Then it said, smoke swirling at its head,
“Love, my boy, ends just like that. You’ll learn,
if you’re a lover, that death alone puts out
Don’t shed tears at the grave of someone
thus murdered by a friend; rejoice instead
that the friend accepted him. If you’re infected,
don’t cleanse your mind of love’s sickness. Rather,
like Saadi, cleanse yourself of all
other purpose. A true lover will fight
a storm of stones and arrows to reach his goal.
Beware! Don’t try to sail that sea! You’re warned!
But if you go, give yourself to the storm.
Accept That You Have Neither Gold Nor Silver
A honey seller whose smile was sugar-sweet,
igniting hearts throughout the selling day,
and who himself, with girded loins, was sweet
as sugar cane — he had more customers
than flies; and if, just suppose, he’d held up
poison, they’d have taken it from him
like nectar. Now, in a lazy fellow watching
the honey-seller at his business, jealousy
was growing, and so, the next day, he too
went from town to town to sell his wares.
Honey was on his head, but vinegar
was on his face. He wandered far, crying
from street to street, but not a single fly
settled on the sweetness he tried to sell.
Night fell and he hadn’t earned a penny,
so he sat himself dejected in a corner,
his face a sinner’s on hearing God’s judgment,
his brow a prisoner’s locked up on a feast day.
His wife teased him playfully, “A sour-faced
man gives bitter honey.”
An ugly temper
takes a man to hell; a handsome nature
guarantees you paradise. Go!
It’s better to drink warm water from the bank
of an irrigation ditch than the cool rose water
sold by a man with a curdled face. It is
forbidden to taste the bread of a man who folds
his eyebrows like a tablecloth. My friend,
don’t make life harder than it has to be.
A rancid temperament will bring bad luck.
Accept that you have neither gold nor silver.
Can’t you, like Saadi, at least have a pleasant tongue?
Only With Earth
I’ve brought back from Basra a true wonder!
You’ll never guess what it is! A story sweeter
than the ripest Basra date: A few of us,
dressed in the patched cloaks of the just, walked past
the edge of a date-plantation. One of us,
a man degraded by his gluttony,
intent on stuffing his gut with all he could eat,
cinched his robe tight around his waist and climbed
one of the trees, from where he fell, landing
hard on his neck. Not every load of dates
exists to be consumed or carried off.
“Sack-belly” ate, ill-fated as he was,
and died. The village leader caught up with us
and asked, his voice harsh with accusation,
“Who killed this man?” I said, “Don’t speak to us
like that. The wretch’s belly pulled him down
from the branch!” The man whose heart is shut tight
possesses an expansive gut. The belly
binds your hands and chains your feet; it’s slave
rarely worships God. It’s true the locust
is nothing from head to foot but belly.
Still, the small-bellied ant can pull him
by the leg. Now go! Make your insides pure.
Your belly will be truly filled only with earth.