A Jug Of Wine, A Loaf Of Bread — And Rumi
Image Credit: Rumi

WHEN FANS OF RUMI wish to pay their respects to the celebrated poet, Sufi theologian and Islamic scholar, they head to an unobtrusive monument about 4 km from the city of Konya, Turkey. A sturdy octagonal stone-and-brick structure, it is the final resting place of — as an inscription proclaims — “...the deceased, said, martyr, Yusuf, son of Izzeddin, the sun of religion and nation. He died in the middle of the month of Rajab in 684. May Allah forgive him.”

Yusuf is better known by the name Âteşbâz-i Veli. He served as Rumi’s cook for many years, and is an important figure for Mevlevis (followers of Rumi). Âteşbâz-i Veli is said to have performed a miracle, producing fire for the cooking pots from his own limbs, acting on a throwaway command by the Maulana. But even in the absence of this miracle, Âteşbâz-i Veli would have been remembered: after all, food and drink appear so often in Rumi’s verses. 

Like other Islamic and Sufi poets, Rumi’s use of food and drink in his poetry was as a metaphor. The mystical, spiritual ideas that he was writing about couldn’t perhaps be articulated literally. So there are a lot of references to wine and drinking in Rumi’s poetry meant as stand-ins for spiritual enlightenment or ecstasy. Apples and pomegranates featured in his poems, as did sweet and sour spinach. So also chickpea, kalye (a fried meat and vegetable dish) and borani (vegetables in yoghurt). Frequently, his poems referenced bread. 

Consider Robert Bly’s translation of Rumi’s ‘Eating Poetry’:

My poems resemble the bread of Egypt — one night

passes over it, and you can’t eat it anymore.

So gobble them down now, while they’re still fresh,

before the dust of the world settles on them.

Where a poem belongs is here, in the warmth of the chest;

out in the world it dies of cold.

You've seen a fish — put him on dry land,

he quivers for a few minutes, and then is still.

And even if you eat my poems while they're still fresh,

you still have to bring forward many images yourself.

Actually, friend, what you're eating is your own imagination.

These are not just a bunch of old proverbs.

It isn’t clear which “bread of Egypt” Rumi is referring to. It could have been the unleavened loaves the Israelites were asked to prepare before Moses led their Exodus from Egypt. (And Rumi does refer to the Exodus in his other poem, “Remember Egypt”). But these unleavened loaves tended to stay edible for a long time so the almost overnight staleness that the first couple of lines in “Eating Poetry” allude to, would not fit. 

Ancient Egyptian bread was made of emmer wheat, or barley, lily seeds and root, and tiger nut. The baking process evolved over time, starting with heavy pottery being placed among embers to tall, conical moulds set on the hearth, and tandoor-style ovens. The Egyptians were the first to discover the use of natural yeast, which they used for both baking bread and brewing beer. The Egyptians called their bread “aish baladi”, and if this fluffy flatbread is indeed what Rumi is referring to, then he isn’t the only one to immortalise it via the medium of verse. (Here’s a song and dance routine from 1946 that celebrates the importance of grain and bread to Egypt.) 

Moving away from the mystery of the bread, however, food — its preparation and consumption — was central not merely to Rumi’s verses (and those of Persian intellectuals like Omar Khayyam, to whom this newsletter's headline owes much) but to Sufism itself. The noted Turkish food writer and lecturer Nevin Halıcı recreated 100 recipes based on Sufism in her 2005 tome ‘Sufi Cuisine’. Among the recipes she sourced and compiled are rose petal jam, lentil soup, flatbreads, snow helva, and “baklava prepared with water in which oak ashes were soaked overnight”. Poetic indeed.