I had the privilege some time back whilst lazily browsing through the internet to stumble across a unique poetic voice in Western Islam; Aziz Tash.  When one pictures Western Islam the vision consistently returns to Muslim minority communities in Britian, France, America, etc., but rarely is attention paid to the old Muslim communities that have been established in the West for centuries in such places as: Bosnia, Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria. 

There might be a myriad of reasons for this attitude as historically the powerful Western nations never considered Eastern Europe or the Balkans a part of the true West.  They were thought to have been tainted by the beast from the East: Muslims.  Geographically they were very close, but in the psyche of the mind they were alien, thought of as barbarians and uncivilized.  Non-Muslims are not the only ones guilty of this; Muslims as well have often ignored Eastern European countries when discussing Western Islam, either out of ignorance or preconceived notions about these communities who are thought to be only nominally Muslim. 

Aziz Tash is one product of these age old communities.  A Bulgarian Muslim or a Pomak as Bulgarian Muslims of Turkish descent are known, his presence speaks to the diversity of Islam in the West and highlights the fact that Islam and Islamic culture has been, and is, ingrained deeply within the soil of the West.  This is an important fact to note especially in today’s climate because there is a growing campaign to revisit, minimize and obscure the history and presence of Islamic contribution to Western civilization.

 

Aziz Tash writes his poetry in Bulgarian and so as with any translation we are left to wonder what is lost in translation, but his translator Marta Simidchieva has in my estimation done a brilliant job in balancing the unenviable task of conveying the multilayered essence and meaning of Tash’s poetry.  His early poetry is a constant movement that is not quiet or subtle, but raging and violent.  Grounds for a Sky, his first collection, is an expression of the circumstances of growing up in a Bulgaria that was under the yoke of Communism and which sought to forcibly repress and eliminate the Muslim identity through such programs as the Revival process.  Allusions to the loss of identity and demographic change litter the book.  “Recurrent images of a purging “flood” evoke the tidal wave of popular protests in the fall of 1989, which swept away authoritarian rule in Bulgaria, as in the rest of Eastern Europe (“Before a flood”). A major component of that “flood” were the mass demonstrations of Bulgarian Muslims, demanding the reversal of the Revival process.”[1]

 

Tash’s latest work carries two titles “Rain Apocrypha/At 22” which speaks to the duel identity of the Poet and abounds with Islamic religious references and imagery.  This is somewhat of a departure from Tash’s past work in which one would find imagery and religious references from the shared stories of the Abrahamic religions and even overt Christian references.  This is not an indication of some sort of isolation or zealous enthusiasm to spread the faith but rather an explicit acknowledgement and reconciliation of someone seeking and exploring.  We see the explicit philosophy of Tawheed, or oneness and unity relayed to us through such poems as “The Dervish, his jugular veins, and…”  It is a universalism in which humanity is exalted along with the rest of creation which are all ‘words from God.’

 

The part that I loved and touched me was the opening of Rain Apocrypha which echoes the popular saying “If the mountain would not come to Muhammad, Muhammad would go to the mountain,” in which Muhammad (pbuh) meets the Rhodopes

“1.The mountain did not go to the prophet: He himself came to the Rhodopes, caressed the stones, and fell asleep in their arms. When he awoke, the Gypsy maiden was leaning over him, reading quietly the lines on his palms. The prophet looked at her.  He didn’t even lift a hand to check on his ribs, for he was sure that she was a part of him.  And then I understood the saying about Mohammed and the mountain: The mountain always wanted to come, but first he had to tear it away from his eyes, in order to see it and to understand that he was a part of it.”

Here you had the complete ordinary humanity, gentleness of the Prophet’s character exemplified in this encounter, almost magical meeting with the Gypsy maiden.  There is a deep meaning in this as well as it symbolizes the meeting of Islam and Bulgaria by the Prophet actually coming to the Mountain.  It also “counters…the Bulgarian grand-narrative that Islam was introduced in the Rhodopes through violence and forced conversions.”[2]  One also notices that there is an evolution in the writing of the poet.  The focus has shifted from the deep rage of Grounds for a Sky and now instead memory has turned to themes of “self discovery and reconciliation.”[3]

 

Muslims and non-Muslims will find in the poetic voice and style of Aziz Shakir Tash, a unique and singular poet expressing tragedy, remembrance and forgetfulness, our oneness and unity in diversity.  The Muslim will find in common the themes of reverence to creation, primordial exile, our inevitable return to the beginning and the images and terms of the Quran and its emphasis on contemplation and the importance of seeking.  When in the future we see an anthology of Muslim Poetry and Poets coming out and being taught at universities, Aziz Shakir Tash is a poet whose voice can not be neglected or ignored.

 

References:

1. http://www.isim.nl/files/Review_16/Review_16-52.pdf

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

 

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