• Issue 116 / March - April 2017

    Dylan and Rumi: A Common Destiny Centuries Apart

    Hakan Yesilova


    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

    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.

    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

    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:

    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

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

    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


    Rumi was an

    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.’”

    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.    


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