:: Article

Far from home: A review of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear by Hasan Sijzi

By Saudamini Deo.

After the Days Disappear review

Hasan Sijzi, After Tomorrow the Days Disappear, translated by Rebecca Gould (Northwestern University Press, 2016)


Since it is my fate to be killed by grief,
I am severed from sorrow, stars, and time.
Observe Hasan: far from his beloved,
Unaware of his heart, far from home.
– Hasan Sijzi, Ghazal 1

 The world witnessed one of its worst humanitarian crises in the last few years, a crisis which continues today, and will perhaps continue for many years, long after the headlines have disappeared. According to UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2014 was the highest since the Second World War. In an attempt to flee growing violence, political instability, religious extremism and poverty in their native countries, thousands of people died in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe’s safer shores. All the while, European member states debated this “migrant crisis” in pure political terms, talking about refugees and migrants in absolute numbers. In the figures of thousands and millions, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important number: one. Wisława Szymborska wrote in her poem, ‘Hunger Camp at Jaslo’:

History counts its skeletons in round numbers.
A thousand and one remains a thousand,
as though the one had never existed.

Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (1253-1330), as he is known today, descended from immigrants who had come to South Asia while fleeing the Mongol invasions, choosing Delhi as their new residence due to the opportunities and peaceful existence it offered. Delhi was under the rule of the Delhi Sultanate established by the Ghurid dynasty (originating in modern day Afghanistan). Sijzi’s full name, Amir Najm al-Din Hasan Dihlavi ibn Khwaja Ala al-Din Sistani, shows that his father was from Sistan, an area encompassing eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan. Hasan Sijzi began writing poetry at the age of thirteen; his major influences were Persian poets of the Middle Ages: Sadi, a pioneer of the ghazal, and Abu Said Abu al-Khayr, author of mystical quatrains. After Tomorrow the Days Disappear marks Hasan Sijzi’s first book-length English language appearance, in a deft translation by Rebecca Gould.

In her introduction to the book, Gould writes, “Hasan Sijzi entered the world at a moment when Persian culture in India had yet to become Indo-Persian in the sense that it is understood today. … Although the literary form called the ghazal already had a long history in Arabic and Persian literature, it had yet to make a major impact on the Indian subcontinent.” The ghazal is instantly recognisable, in any language, for its use of the radif, or what can only be termed a refrain in English. The most distinctive element of the Persian poetics, a radif is a word or short phrase repeated at each line end after a given rhyme (from the tenth-century onwards, and in later poetry with Persian models). Gould rightly notes that the radif does more than simply recur, and its repetitions generate a kind of rhythmic variation in meaning. Where it occurs, the radif appears twice in the first couplet, and then at least once at the end of every other couplet. The literary possibilities, and the layered complexities of the radif are exemplified in the many ghazals presented in the book. Take, for example an excerpt from Ghazal 22, using the radifdigar”. In the English translation, many words and phrases are used to render the various meanings of this one Persian word: “don’t move from the place where you are”, “another one”, “nothing”, “aside from…”:

Dont move from the place where you are since I cant leave you
I am a slave to your face. Dont think of another one.
Whoever looks at your face sees vegetation and flowers
The people of paradise need nothing else.
Aside from your grief, no ones sorrow is in my heart
Aside from love of you, there is no chaos in the city.

In the Persian original, digar creates a sonorous and precisely measured rhythm while conveying its polysemy. In its formal demands and need for a precise semantic weight, the radif is perhaps much more difficult to master than the Anglophone rhymes. Its difficulty is noted in the twelfth-century treatise of the Persian critic Rashid al-Din Vatvat, Gardens of Magic in the Nuances of Poetry, where he writes that the use of this device is a proper test of a poet’s talent.

After the Days Disappear

Apart from radif, there’s also the rhyming letter harf-e-qafiye that Hasan Sijzi has incorporated into his verses. Ghazal 40 makes use of the Persian letter nun by placing it not at the end, but elsewhere in the poem. Gould observes that this particular ghazal uses words ending in n (the Persian nun) throughout, “Qanun (law) occurs twice in the second distich and at the beginning of the third … other rhyming words such as aknun (now), maknun (hidden/latent) and … majnun (madness/the legendary lover of Layli).” The use of the two meanings of the word Majnun is striking. In a story that entered the Arabic from oral sources and that has travelled across continents and centuries, Majnun is the famed lover of Layli (or Layla, in South Asian parlance), a lover so much in love that he does not just go mad, he becomes an equivalent of madness itself.

Oh, Layli, you drive your followers camels toward the Kaba
You see how the guardians of the shrine are crazier than Majnun

In claiming that the guardians of the holy shrine are crazier than Majnun, the poet is perhaps indicating that such attraction can subvert a social order. But in the end, Sijzi writes that in the middle of all this chaos, he remains calm, his heart’s “disposition is a hidden door” – to eternity, to the ultimate knowledge that rises above worldly desires.

The poet’s disposition to the eternal knowledge, the “hidden door”, brings us to another important aspect of Sijzi’s poetry, that of Sufi thought – of mystical union. Islam entered the Indian subcontinent in the early eighth century, bringing with it immigrants and refugees, whose interactions with the native cultures of the subcontinent has moulded much of its present culture, known for its diverse ways of being and various modes of understanding. But it was only under the Delhi Sultanate, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, that the influence of Sufism is apparent. Not only was Sijzi writing during this period, but from some accounts he spent most of his adult life in Delhi, and most importantly, he was one of the disciples of the famous Sufi saint of the Chishti order, Nizamuddin Auliya (another famous disciple was Amir Khusro, a lifelong friend and rival of Sijzi’s – also a great contributor to Indo-Persian and Hindustani culture and thought). In Sufi philosophy, there are two stages of ishq, or love: Ishq-e-Majazi, the metaphorical love, the love a person has toward God’s creation, usually denotes the illusory nature of romantic love, but it also includes love towards another human being, for this world, for material things; the second is the highest form of love, the True love, the Divine love, Ishq-e-Haqeeqi. It is the love one has for God, transcendental, beyond this world, where one becomes one with the One. It is through Ishq-e-Majazi that one can reach this ideal love. It is under the influence of this philosophical thought that Sijzi was writing his poetry, and so like other Sufi poets, his poetry is marked with this blurring of romantic and divine love. Gould writes in her introduction that Hasan and his contemporaries viewed spiritual longing through the prism of worldly desire, and many meanings can be unfolded in the verses that seem to be apparently dealing with erotic desire.

My fate lies between good fortune, morning time, and my lover.
The bringer of morning brings light to my eyes.

His fresh moustache conquers the cosmos.
Coloured by evening, his mole deceives fate.

Others leave behind gold and silver reserves.
Hasan leaves behind descriptions of his lover.

Another defining feature of Persian poetry, and thus Sijzi’s verses, is the use of the pen name or takhallus in the concluding verse known as the maqta. Traditionally, keeping with the norms of the Persian poetics, the poet refers to himself in the third person while addressing an imagined reader/listener. The takhallus also conferred fame and, sometimes, authorial position and identification to the poet. Sijzi’s use of it is most captivating in ghazal 1 (radif: juda, or separated), in which the takhallus in the maqta offers the poet to signify this alienation of self through not just content, but also through form.

After Tomorrow the Days Disappear includes 50 ghazals, 17 quatrains (rubaiyyat), 2 fragments (qitaat), and one ode (qasida). Rebecca Gould has anchored her translations in the original Persian by providing the original radif in Persian and roman script (with an English translation), allowing readers with no knowledge of Persian to identify and understand the original structure and variations in meaning afforded by just one word.

Not only is After Tomorrow the Days Disappear a valuable addition to the corpus of world literature in translation, making available to a much larger audience poetry of one of the pioneers of a form that has captivated the Oriental and Occidental imagination alike, but it is also a timely book, appearing in English at a time when the world and its many ideologies needs it. When myriad political debates inevitably lead us to the question of necessity and “tolerance” of migration, it is important to remember that over thousands of years, it is immigration and the cultural exchange and contribution it encourages that has shaped poetry – and the world – in all forms. While reading and appreciating this astonishingly beautiful poetry that has come to shape not only Indian and Indo-Persian cultures and literatures but culture and literature across all continents, let us not forget that its author was from a family of immigrants. On these pages, we read not only Hasan Sijzi but also a kind of history of migration. It is a somewhat ancient account of retaining as well as enriching one’s cultural identity in a foreign land, an account which also happens to be a very modern one.


Saudamini Deo

Saudamini Deo is a writer and photographer from India.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 4th, 2016.