Rumi's Time Has Come (Again)
With U-Md. Conference on Tap, 13th-Century Poet Is Still Touching Hearts

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Rumi is hot.

The 13th-century Persian poet inspired a symphony in Los Angeles recently that brought 2,000 people to their feet. About 750,000 books of his poetry have been sold, a quantity that would make many Pulitzer Prize-winning poets drool. The University of Maryland is hosting a three-day conference about him in September. Some would call it the year of Rumi.

But wait -- they have!

The United Nations declared 2007, the 800th anniversary of the poet's birth, the International Year of Rumi.

Mr. Popularity was born Sept. 30, 1207, near Balkh in what is now Afghanistan. He became an Islamic scholar and embraced Islam's mystic tradition of Sufism. Along the way, he wrote thousands of poems. An untitled snippet:

In the body of the world, they say, there is a soul

and you are that.

But we have ways within each other

that will never be said by anyone.

It's mostly his romantic and spiritual poems that have captured English-speaking fans. (He's quite popular on the wedding circuit these days.)

Rumi -- like Shakespeare and Mozart-- travels well, says Akbar Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University. Rumi's message of unity and peace is needed in America right now, he says.

"You're seeing the Americanization of Rumi," Ahmed says. "I am mighty pleased, because the message is coming across -- the message of love. We are transcending our prejudices and stereotypes."

Ahmed says Rumi's popularity is ironic because the poet's birthplace is a country that many Westerners are quick to associate with the Taliban.

Poet Coleman Barks is widely credited with introducing Rumi to the English-speaking world. In 1976, he said, poet Robert Bly handed Barks a 19th-century translation of Rumi and told him the poems needed to be "released from their cages." Nearly 20 volumes of translated poems later, Rumi is one of America's top-selling poets.

"Western civilization has discovered the beauty of his ecstatic vision," Barks says. "The sense that being in a body is a state of rapture. And an interconnectedness among all life."

Hafez Nazeri is a New York-based composer who premiered his Rumi Symphony Project two weeks ago in Los Angeles. He counted nine standing ovations. "Oh, my god, it was crazy!" he says. "I would never expect people to respond . . . like that."

His father, Persian music icon Shahram Nazeri, was the first vocalist to set Rumi's poetry to music, 35 years ago, he says. Hafez Nazeri started memorizing the poems at age 6. Nazeri's symphony, which sold out Walt Disney Concert Hall, combined elements of Persian classical music with Western instruments such as violas and cellos.

Closer to Washington, the University of Maryland's Center for Persian Studies will offer a free three-day conference on the mystic poet that will bring together about 20 Rumi scholars. Topics include "Rumi in New Media," "Sexual Difference and Spiritual Knowledge: The Bedouin and His Wife in Rumi's 'Masnavi' " and "Rumi, Best Seller."

The conference runs Sept. 28-30. at the University of Maryland, College Park. Free; no registration necessary. Visit call 301-405-1891.

Inspired by the Boss

Like most Bruce Springsteen fans, Paul Gordon Emerson can remember the first time he saw the Boss live. He was 11 and had attended a concert at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York with his family. Emerson remembers him as "this kid from New Jersey who did interesting stuff."

Emerson, the artistic director of CityDance Ensemble, has choreographed a modern piece called "Born to Run," which debuts at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre on Sept. 7. The show piggybacks on the trend of setting dance to pop music. This month alone, dance companies have performed to the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Beck on Washington area stages.

"Born to Run" kicks off CityDance's six-concert season, its first "full, legitimate" season since the company was launched in 1996, Emerson says. Half of those shows will be performed at the Lansburgh; the others will be at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, where CityDance operates a dance school.

CityDance is also an artistic partner of the Harman Center for the Arts, the expanded home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Penn Quarter.

Emerson also chose Springsteen to kick off the season because the musician crosses multiple generations -- but maybe not all.

"A 20-year-old went, 'Bruce who?' " Emerson says.

"Born to Run," 8 p.m. Sept. 7-8 at 450 Seventh St. NW. $15-$35. 202-547-1122.

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