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The Discontented Dervishes

November 2, 2007

The Discontented Dervishes is a collection of stories by the 13th century Sufi poet Sa’di as retold by author Arthur Scholey. Most of the work in this collection falls under the categories of parable or fable. The collection’s name comes from a story in which a generous king goes out disguised as an Arab and overhears two discontented dervishes complaining about the injustice of those that have wealth in this world. One dervish says, “I do believe that if our King Salih were to walk through that door I should dash his brains out with my shoe!” (4). The king proceeds back to his palace then sends a servant to escort the two dervishes to the palace where they are treated lavishly. Later the king reprimands the dervishes with “I hope you both see now that I am not the sort of king who, in his grandeur, turns away his face from the helpless – that I am not, in fact, the monarch that you abused in the mosque this morning” (6). Sa’di is famous for his line about feeling bad about not having shoes until he met a man who had no feet. The imagery in these stories is interesting, but I suspect something may be missing in this translation and in Scholey’s retelling. A lot of the stories come across as too preachy or flat. I was excited to explore this writing as I’m not overly familiar with Persian work, but I wasn’t altogether pleased with what I found here.

One of the stronger works in the collection is The Old Woman’s Cat, which expresses humility and being content with one’s lot in life. At first the cat is dissatisfied with his life and pines after another existence, but then something happens that makes him re-evaluate his current home and shows how it is all a matter of perception.

“Oh, I’ve had enough of this, said the old woman’s cat. This hovel is falling to bits; it’s draughty and uncomfortable. The food is almost non-existent, and even then I have to catch it myself. No, no, this won’t do for me” (59).

The cat is haughty in its evaluation and doesn’t take into consideration the old woman who gives him shelter. He sets out seeking someplace suitable for him to live, but there “seemed to be no house up to the standards of the cat” (59). The phrasing in this story highlights the creature’s perception that all this seems beneath him. This proves true until he discovers the home of the sultan.

“Ah, yes, it said to itself, peeping through the doorway, nice silk cushions, warm rugs, lots of creamy milk and freshly cooked meat. Yes, of course, a palace is the only fit residence for a cat of my quality!” (59).

The imagery in the next portion is unusually aggressive. In most fables or stories I’ve come across that teach humility or contentment in life, some element falls away to reveal the error of one’s ways. Some chance event takes place that nudges the protagonist into their proper place in life; usually it’s something slightly embarrassing that reinforces the lesson. In this case it is an aggressive driving of the character into his proper place with overtones of danger and possible peril.

“Just then – twang! – an arrow quivered in the doorpost before it. Twang! Another flicked its tail. Twang! Twang! Arrows from the sultan’s guards fell round in a heavy shower” (59).

Here death, in the form of arrows, is seen as the result of seeking to live beyond ones station in life.

At this point the cat quickly re-evaluates his desires. His priorities shift and he becomes appreciative of the old woman’s house.

“Mercy! It sobbed, dodging through the gates. If only I get out of this alive, that old woman’s shack – and just an occasional small mouse – are all I shall ever desire!” (60).

Like most fables the story starts out with a flaw or something that needs to be rectified. In this case it’s a cat that is dissatisfied with his home. The cat sets out to rectify his perceived lack, but unbalances the story by expecting something without having earned it. Forces step in (in this case the guard’s arrows) to correct his perspective and implement the law, and the end of the story once again restores order when the cat learns to appreciate what he already had.

In a number of sources I have seen Sa’di praised for his use of homophony, oxymoron, clear imagery, and harmonious rhythm. Do those translate? None of these elements seem particularly clear in this translation. The structure and moral are clear, but the language has more in common with nursery rhymes. I’m not completely sure if this is the fault of translation or if it’s a remnant of tarting the work up for a western audience. Overall I’m just left wishing I had a stronger translation.

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