On April 10, local poetry-lovers were transported from the Page-Walker Arts Center in Cary to the heart of the Middle East. The 2016 Nazım Hikmet Poetry Festival (NHPF) celebrated 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi with an afternoon of Persian music, Middle Eastern food and poetry readings.
“You can study Rumi’s poetry all your life, you can even memorize it, but you will [continue] to find something new each time you read it,” Fatemeh Keshavarz, the Roshan Chair of Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, said in her keynote remarks. “But that’s how it is with all good poetry.”
Born in modern-day northern Afghanistan in 1207, Rumi was an Islamic scholar and author of the Masnavi, a collection of almost 50,000 lines of poetry detailing the Sufi tradition of Islam. He also founded the Mevlevi Lodge, a Sufi order best known for its “whirling” dervishes. After traveling extensively throughout the Middle East, Rumi ultimately settled in Konya, a city in central Turkey. Thousands of pilgrims from around the world have paid their respects at his tomb in Konya since his death in 1273.
Keshavarz attributed Rumi’s unwavering popularity—especially in the Middle East and South Asia—to not only his brilliance as a poet but also his belief that goodness is the essence of human nature.
“Rumi’s entire worldview was based on two principles: one was that we human beings carry the greatest force of goodness, the sacred, within ourselves,” Keshavarz said. “But he also believed that the noise around us can drown out this sacred voice inside. He hoped that his [poetry] would awaken this sacred voice inside us.”
Much like Rumi’s own commitment to drawing out his readers’ “sacred voices,” the NHPF uses the poetry of world-famous artists to cultivate a vibrant local literary community. The festival takes its name from twentieth-century Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet Ran
, whose ground-breaking works have been translated into over 50 languages. Since its inception in 2009, the festival has celebrated other poetic titans, including Seamus Heaney, Mahmoud Darwish and Anna Akhmatova. Each year, the festival also awards prizes
to the top English-language poem submissions.
Following her opening remarks, Keshavarz participated in a panel discussion with Omid Safi, the director of the Duke University Islamic Studies Center, and Bruce Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at Duke University.
The NHPF also featured readings by Stephanie Levin, recipient of the 2015 North Carolina Poet Laureate Award, and the ten poets honored as NHPF finalists. The five members of the Charlotte-based Azadi Ensemble also played several Iranian classical music pieces. Cary Town Councilman Ken George delivered the festival’s closing remarks.
John Tribble, an Illinois-based poet who was among this year’s winners, said that being able to share his work with a new audience was a highlight of the festival.
“When you’re still working on it, poetry is for the poet,” Tribble said. “But when you let it go, it becomes the listener’s.”