“I Wish I’d Been There”
By Shariffa Keshavjee
I often go back in my mind
To a time when giant forts dwarfed
Our human form
But great minds soared
Soared about the forts of Alamut
Where great minds thought
The scribes told wonders
Of the worlds of new continent
New passages in the oceans
Of search for truth.
I often go back in my mind
To the pain of persecution
The fear of the self
Above all the anguish
The anguish of lost knowledge
Beautifully bound skilfully crafted
Books of great knowledge
Of mathematics and cartography
Of mystical passion for the divine
The deep yearning
I often go back in my mind to the
Night the books were burnt
The pages curled in fires of doom
The ink evaporates
Loving thoughts of seers up in smoke
Parchments and tomes flung into
Feeding the bonfire of lost knowledge
What the mind perceived
What the pen had scribed
Was gone for ever
The smoke rises over
Over the fort
The charred air rises
The effort to stop in vain
The scream of anguish
Stuck in the throat
As the gaze falls upon
The lost knowledge of Alamut
The human form dwarfed
In its inability to act.
This however is renaissance
Where time and knowledge
Laid at the feet of the Master
Not sepulchered in the fort
But given birth by the vision
No longer subjugated
Free to search into cyberspace
Following vision without boundaries
Reaching over mountains across seas
Unthought of in the sojourn in Alamut.
The context of the poem (two non-Ismaili narratives)
1. Writes Amin Maloouf in his novel, Samarkand:
“He [the Mongol officer] was carrying a torch in his hand and to show [the historian – Juvayni] just how much in a hurry he was, he placed it next to a pile of dusty scrolls. The historian gave in and gathered into his hands and upto his armpits as many [manuscripts] as he could grab and when a manuscript entitled Eternal Secrets of Stars and Numbers fell to the ground, he did not bend over to pick it up again.
“Thus it was that the Assassins’ library burnt for seven days and seven nights causing the loss of innumerable works, of which there was no copy remaining, and which are supposed to contain the best guarded secrets of the universe.”
2. Notes Iran.com on its Web site:
” The Mongol leader (Hulagu) journeyed himself to the citadel in 1256 and ordered everything to be destroyed, including the famous library. Among the precious writings that disappeared were the works of Hasan himself and the complete history of the Assassins and their doctrines. But just before the burning he allowed his historian Juvainy (who was writing a biography of the Mongol prince) to enter the library and bring out a few of the books, enough as would fit into a small wheelbarrow. No time was allowed to consider the matter.
“Juvainy hurriedly saved a few Qurans, a chronicle of Alamut and a biography of Hasan Sabbah. Everything else perished in the flames. The vast library filled with tens hundreds of thousands of manuscripts burned for seven days and seven nights bringing to an end the history of the Ismailis of Alamut. Over the years, knowledge of the Ismailis degenerated into misunderstandings, romances and other fanciful nonsenses such as those popularised by the explorer Marco Polo.”
About the writer: Shariffa Keshavjee is a philanthropist and an entrepreneur with an objective to help women empower themselves. Raised in Kisumu, she considers herself a “pakaa” Kenyan. She is now based in the nation’s capital, Nairobi.
Her extensive training and experience in education in Kenya and the UK have benefited her to pursue her work in the women’s development area and has enabled her to apply her skills to visualise a path and capacity for women. She is the founding member and director of the Hawkers Market School and the Kigera Girl Guides Centre which provide educational opportunities for destitute girls in the country’s slums. Her Hawkers Market Girls Centre has been the recipient of the World Bank Development Marketplace Award in 2004 in which the centre was given $85,000. In addition, she is also the founding member of FONA (Friends of the Nairobi Arboretum) which is dedicated to preserving Kenya’s forest and preserved arboreta.
She is also known for her team leadership and is an Honorary Associate in London, UK’s World Association of Girl Guide and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) of which she has been a member since 1999.
Her other interest is in visual arts where she delights in painting on wood, silk and porcelain using water colours, oils and acrylics. She also likes writing, especially for children, and bird watching.
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