Through a Veil

for wind quintet

Artwork: Titian (1558); Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto.
Instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet in Bb, horn in F, bassoon
Duration: c. 7'Date: April 2021Location: Cambridge, UK
Saman Samadi - Through a Veil.pdf

اسرار ازل را نه تو دانی و نه من

وين حل معما نه تو خوانی و نه من

هست از پس پرده گفت‌وگوی من و تو

چون پرده برافتد نه تو مانی و نه من

Asrâr-e azal-râ na to dâni o na man

vin hall-e mo'ammâ na to khâni o na man

hast az pas-e parde goftogu-ye man o to

chun parde baroftad na to mâni o na man

The untranslatable beauty of the Persian original comes in the first place from its refined musical structure. A solid frame is set by the rhymes dâni - khâni - mâni “[you] know – read – remain” alternating in the construction na to... o na man, “neither you... nor I” repeated in three lines. These lines are dominated by the vowels “a” and “â” (long closed ‘a’) and by the consonants “r, l, m, n” which give the poem a deep, resounding and fatal tone, as if we were listening to the lines of the One Ring (by the way it seems to me that Tolkien borrowed a lot from Persian to create the language of Mordor). The third line stands in sharp contrast to the other three, its vowels abruptly becoming high and sharp and its consonants hissing and pattering, and also the construction “neither you nor me” becomes the opposite “me and you” (man o to).

There are two problematic points in the interpretation of this poem. A minor problem is that in place of harf-e mo'ammâ (“enigmatic writing/word”), appearing in the second line, several versions have hall-e mo'ammâ (“the solution of the enigma”). This is how we hear it in Shamlou’s voice in the above recital. The verb that follows, khândan (“read” or “recite”) allows for both possibilities. Recent editions prefer harf, so I follow them. However, the translation of this expression is also ambiguous: it can mean both “reading the enigmatic script” and “reciting the secret word.” Francesco Gabrieli, Khayyam’s Italian translator (1944, in his edition, the poem is numbered 193), for example, opts for the latter:

I segreti dell’eternità né tu né io conosciamo

Quella parola misteriosa né tu, né io sappiam profferire

Di dietro un velo si svolge il tuo e mio parlare:

quando cade il velame, né tu né io ci siam più.

(The laws of eternity are not known either by you or me

That mysterious word cannot be pronounced either by you or me

From behind a veil goes our discourse:

when the veil falls, there are neither you nor me any more.)

In the note appended to this expression he even explains that “that mysterious word” is „la chiave del mistero dell’universo”, that is, the key to the mystery of the universe. This idea is interesting, but entirely groundless. In the Sufi tradition no reference is made to such an all-powerful word. This is why I translated it rather as “reading the secret script,” but I have yet to verify the tradition of this metaphor in Sufi poetry.

However, the real difficulty lays in the third line. In fact, this can be translated in several ways, but with each translation there is some problem.

A literal translation of this phrase would be: “from behind a veil is the discourse of me and you.” So the simplest way would be to translate it as “you and me speak with each other from behind a veil.” This is how we find it in Gabrieli who immediately attaches a second misleading commentary to the word “veil,” identifying it with human body: as if after discussing the mysteriousness of the universe, Khayyam switched to the problem that we cannot even understand each other while living in the flesh here on earth. This Wittgensteinian problem, however, did not interest the Sufis. We find no allusion to it in their writings. They are concerned only with the possibility of a direct relationship with God and the this-worldly limits of such a relationship. Such limits were referred to by them with the topos of the “veil.” The widespread use of this topos is highlighted by the fact that the recently deceased (2003) great Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel also gave the title As through a veil: mystical poetry in Islam to her standard work on Sufi poetry.

However, this metaphor assumes that we are in front of the veil hiding the mystery from us. How can our discourse then come from behind of the veil?

One of the most recent and most exact English translations of Khayyam was published in 1979 by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs. According to the foreword, it is “as literal an English version of the Persian originals as readability and intelligibility permit”. The third line of poem number 7, in the spirit of this compromise, strives to reconcile the “behind” of the Persian original with the “in front” of the traditional veil metaphor by attempting to translate “from behind” as “this side”.

Neither you nor I know the mysteries of eternity,

Neither you nor I read this enigma;

You and I only talk this side of the veil;

When the veil falls, neither you nor I will be here.

Igor A. Golubev, in his monumental Russian edition of 2005 – where he collected and translated from Persian more than 1300 quatrains of Khayyam – allows himself an even larger poetica licentia. In this poem, numbered 996 in his edition, we do not speak behind the veil, but aboutthe secrets hiding behind the veil. A more reassuring, more sober and more materialistic solution indeed, with the only flaw is that it is not supported at all by the Persian original.

Покрова с вечных тайн ни ты не снял, ни я:

Неясным письменам ни ты не внял, ни я.

Гадаем мы с тобой о скрытом за покровом...

Но упади покров – ни ты б не встал, ни я.

(Neither you nor I pulled down the veil from the eternal secret

Neither you nor I understood the unclear script

We are just guessing about the secrets behind the veil,

But drop the veil – and neither you will stand up, nor I.)

Another solution to the dilemma is that it is not we who speak behind the veil, but that there is something spoken about us, it’s only that Khayyam left out the preposition دربارۀ darbâre-ye“about” from before man o to for the sake of a flawless rhythm. On this presupposition are based a number of authoritative versions, like the English Khayyam-translation (1882 and 1883, where this poem is number 389) by the eminent Persian philologist Edward Henry Whinfield (1836-1922), who also composed the first copiously commented translations of Hafez and Rumi:

Nor you nor I can read the etern decree

To that enigma we can find no key

They talk of you and me behind the veil

But, if that veil be lifted, where are we?

Such ellipsis is also supposed by the Persian poet and homme de lettres Karim Emami (1930-2005). His anthology of Khayyam, published in 1988 under the title The Wine of Nishapur,accompanied by the calligraphy of Nassrollah Afje'i and the photography of Shahrokh Golestan, is the first English translation of Khayyam undertaken by a Persian translator.

Eternal secrets are not for you and me to share

Cryptic letters are not for you and me to read.

Behind the curtain there is a muffled discussion of you and me,

And when the curtain falls, there will be no longer a you or I.

Ten years later, another Persian man of letters, the Vancouver-based Shahriar Shahriari, prepared some nicely ringing and faithful English translations which he published together with the Persian original, together with the English version by Fitzgerald, and an anonymous German translation on the site What is more, in the vein of a charming medieval Persian custom, he also added a short quatrain to each poem to unfold their respective moral lessons. In the third verse of this poem, he also endorses the interpretation of Whinfield and Emami, while in the second verse, in contrast to them, he accepts the alternative hall-e mo'ammâ. Comically enough, the German translation published in parallel with this poem follows the pedestrian solution of Golubev.

The secrets eternal neither you know nor I

And answers to the riddle neither you know nor I

Behind the veil there is much talk about us, why

When the veil falls, neither you remain nor I.


In vain we scream, in vain shout

And try our best to find out

And when it’s end of our route

What’s left is simply naught.

Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883), who was the first to publish, in four editions between 1859 and 1879, an English translation of altogether 114 quatrains, thus launching the European cult of Khayyam, admittedly treated his material in quite a free manner. His translations reflect much more his own taste and that of his Victorian age than the original message of the poems. In this quatrain (number 32 in the first, third and fourth editions, but number 35 in the second one) he gets around the problem of the interpretation of the third line by isolating the topos of the veil and shifting it up in the second line – omitting from there the “enigma,” and also replacing the “secrets of eternity” in the first line with a self-coined metaphor. Thus he separates from it the obscure discourse about “you and me,” as if it were whispered by marsh-fires around us on the moorland right before retribution overtakes us. A nice gothic solution indeed, but has not much to do with its original.

There was a Door to which I found no Key

There was a Veil past which I might not see:

Some little talk awhile of ME and THEE

There seem’d – and then no more of THEE and ME.

At this point I badly needed a thorough Persian commentary of Khayyam. I only managed to get a relatively laconic version – but even so about 500 pages long – in Tehran, with the title ترانه های خیام Tarânaha-ye Khayyâm, that is “Songs of Khayyam,” compiled by Mohammad Baqer Najafzadeh Barforush (Amir Kabir Publisher, 2004). Even this was not easy to obtain, because most bookshops only have pocket editions of Khayyam. Finally I found this one in the shop of the ثالث Saless publisher on Kharimkhân-e Zand Avenue, where the bookshops with the richest choice line up: the outstanding edition of Hafez by Mohammad Estelami was also on sale only here. This commentary quotes from the discussion written by the Rumi scholar Mohammad Taqi Ja'fari (1923-2007) on the last two verses of this poem. He too interprets this line by assuming that the discourse goes about us behind the veil:

با دقب کافی در این رباعی، می بینیم، چند علم در این رباعی ادعا شده است: علم یکم: واقعیات در معرفت بشری بر دو نوع است. نوع اول، روشن، آشکار و قابل فهم. نوع دوم، تاریک و معما و غیر قابل فعم، علم دوم: عالم هستی بر دو رویه تقسیم می گردد: ۱) رویۀ پشت پرده. ۲) رویۀ ظاهری پرده. علم سوم: گفتوگویی دربارۀ من و تو در پشت پرده در جریان است. علم چهارم: اگر پرده برداشته شود نه تو خواهی ماند و نه من (که البته این علم چهارم دارای احتمالاتی است.) ی

Let us observe how many experiences [Khayyam] gives account of in this rubai. The first experience is that reality is present in human knowledge in two ways: in a clear, obvious and understandable form on the one hand, and in a dark, mysterious and unintelligible form on the other hand. The second experience is that the wise man distinguishes two faces of the things: 1. the face behind the veil and 2. the one outside the veil. The third one is that the discourse about us goes on behind the veil. And the fourth one is that if we draw the veil away, there remains neither you nor I (this fourth experience is of course only of a contingent nature).

But who might speak about us behind the veil? The God of Islam is a lonely God, not the Christian Trinity between whose Persons an eternal dialogue goes on. His absolute majesty excludes His “conversing” with His creatures. He gives commands only to spiritual beings of the highest rank, and he also contacted Mohammad only through the medium of an angel. Even the Sufi who strives after the most complete proximity to Him can only speechlessly dissolve and lose himself in Him “as the butterfly in the flame of the candle.” And it would be in fact quite pretentious to think that such a God, even if conversing with someone, converses precisely about us, however great a satisfaction this would give the Pascalian reed.

I hope that by the time I know better the mystical poetry of Islam, and perhaps also will have found a more detailed commentary to Khayyam, I will understand more profoundly this line as well.

In the meantime let us see for a moment how the Hungarian translators of Khayyam coped with this quatrain.

The Hungarian tradition of Khayyam was established by the renowned poet Lőrinc Szabó (1900-1957) who translated his quatrains from the English of Fitzgerald in three versions, in 1920, 1930 and 1943. He introduced the first edition of 1920 with a foreword (also published in another version in the prestigious literary review Nyugat), in which he exalts the discovering and pioneering merits of Fitzgerald – and thus, indirectly, himself – who has wiped the dust of seven centuries’ oblivion off the – rather unworthy – poems of Khayyam:

Because there lived an Omar Khayyam, far, far away, somewhere in Persia, a long, long time ago, at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries [...] completely abandoned and misjudged, in great misery, until he finally died in Nishapur. His tomb is exhibited there even today. [...] His poems have not survived. I mean there are some thousand rubaiyat left under his name, but who knows whether it was really he who wrote them. Some of them probably yes, but even this part is impossible to identify. [...] It produced no effect when these short poems were deciphered on the recently discovered papyrus rolls. [sic!] It seemed as if Omar Khayyam was definitely lost for the world. The forgotten poet was waiting in vain for being discovered right until the middle of the last century. It was then, in 1859 that the English translation of Edward Fitzgerald saw the light of day.

However, if he already knew about the tomb of Khayyam in Nishapur, it would have not been a great effort to look up the chapter on Nishapur in the highly popular travelogue of the Hungarian Islam scholar Ármin Vámbéry (1832-1913), Vándorlásaim és élményeim Perzsiában (My wanderings and experiences in Persia). Vámbéry, who traveled extensively all over Persia in the same years of the publication of the first translations of Fitzgerald, wrote this note on Nishapur:

The other poet whose corpse lays in Nishapur, Khayyam, stands in sharp contrast to the other [Attar]. [...] Nevertheless, the poems of Khayyam are just as widely read as those of the other.

And the situation is the same even today, more than a hundred years later. Whoever saw the film The wind will carry us, by Abbas Kiarostami, will certainly remember the episode when the old district doctor of the tiny Kurdish village and the engineer visiting the village rush off on a shaky small motorbike on a white dirt road meandering in the wonderful Kurdish landscape, reciting in unison by heart the poems of Khayyam.

In the editions of 1920 and 1930, Lőrinc Szabó translates the quatrain like this (with numbers 30 and 33, respectively):

Volt egy Kapu: de kulcsa elveszett;

volt egy Fátyol: nem tépte szét kezed;

ma még miénk a hír s holnapra már

kiejt rostáján az Emlékezet!

(There was a Gate: but its key was lost

there was a Veil: your hands did not tear it

the fame is still ours today, but by tomorrow

Memory will let us fall through her sieve.)

It is quite understandable that the young and ambitious Lőrinc Szabó was much more concerned about the problem of the transitoriness of fame than either Khayyam or Fitzgerald in their original versions. However, by transposing the subject of the “discourse about us” from behind the transcendent veil into the world, he extirpated from the rubai even the last remnants of the Sufi mystics left behind by Fitzgerald, making it just as materialistic as Golubev’s version. I don’t know whether he realized this, his thirst for recognition abated in the following twenty-three years, or he just simply gave a more attentive reading to Fitzgerald’s original, but the fact is that in the third edition of 1943 with number 32 already this version figured:

Volt ott egy Kapu, kulcsa elveszett;

volt egy Fátyol, látni nem engedett;

mondták, hogy ÉN meg TE, de azután

a TE meg ÉN elnémult, vége lett.

(There was a Gate there, its key was lost,

there was a Veil that did not let to see

they told ME and YOU, but then

the YOU and ME fell silent, came to an end.)

Apart from Lőrinc Szabó it is worth mentioning only one more Hungarian translator of Khayyam, Dezső Tandori (1938-), and even him only because he made his translations not from the English of Fitzgerald, but on the basis of the rough translations made from the original Persian by the Islam scholar Róbert Simon (1939-). However, he could have prepared them from anything else; the result would have been the same one hundred percent Tandori instead of Khayyam, just like any other translation by this genius of contemporary Hungarian literature.

Titkát az örökvalónak éljük – s mire van?

Rejtély ez az írás, sose értjük, mire van.

Színmű, hol a függöny épp a lényeg veleje,

felmegy, lemegy, és bár soha nem kérjük – van.

(We live the secret of eternity – but what is it for?

This writing is a mystery, we never understand what it is for.

A drama where the curtain is the nub of the essence,

it rises and it falls, and although we never ask for it – it is.

The first two lines he could bear with some attention, but by the beginning of the third, he has arrived at the end of his tether. Until that point there was no sparrow, horse or bear – the obligatory topics of the Master – in the poem, on hearing the word “veil” or “curtain,” he nervously snorted: “from here I will continue.” And he has. True, Khayyam would not thank him for this, but Hungarian literature will thank him for the idiom “the nub of the essence” which cries out to be cast in bronze. It is just as worthy a match of the genial trouvaille “the secret of the enigma”, coined by the Hungarian humorist Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) in the title of his parody of Stephen Leacock, as is Tandori’s entire translation a match for that famous quote from another parody by Karinthy where the poem of Endre Ady, which begins with “I came from the shore of the Ganges”, is transformed in the hands of a number of translators into “In the salami by Herz the salt is extremely dense.”

Nevertheless the blunder of Tandori is crowned by the anthology of Khayyam A mulandóság mámora (The rapture of transitoriness, Terebess 1997) selected by Ágota Steiner from several Hungarian translators. Steiner in number 47 – obviously attracted by the buzzword of “curtain” – hastily included Tandori’s version as a translation of that quatrain which figures in the 1943 edition by Lőrinc Szabó with number 52 like this:

átvillan az Örök Színpadon és

megint a Homály Függönyébe vész,

mely körülömli a Drámát, mit Ő

maga rendez, játszik és maga néz.

(Flashing through the Eternal Stage and

getting lost again in the Curtain of Darkness

which surrounds the Drama that is

directed, played and watched by Himself.)

Curtain, curtain. Anyway, every poem of Khayyam speaks about one and the same thing, wasn’t this already stated by Fitzgerald? But the intricate question of how any curtain or director comes to a Persian stage of eight hundred years ago, should yet be the object of the translation and analysis of another quatrain of Khayyam.

Each has spoken according to his humor

No one can define the face of things.





Presentations'21. Samadi, Saman. Through a Veil: for wind quintet. Cambridge Music Faculty's Composers' Workshop. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. University of Cambridge. May 1, 2021.