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Wednesday, 19 July, 2000, 06:42 GMT 07:42 UK
Looking East for inspiration
By Arts Correspondent Razia Iqbal

The 13th Century Sufi poet, Jalaludin Rumi, is enjoying an unexpected renaissance, embraced by such Hollywood celebrities as Madonna and Demi Moore.

A collection of his work has been a best-seller for several months in the United States and Europe, selling more than half-a-million copies - a rarity for poetry, and particularly in America, where poetry tends to sell poorly.

In addition, several festivals in Europe this summer have as their top billing readings of Sufi poetry and the powerful art of Sufi devotional music, Qawwali.

Jalaudin Rum was born in the year 1207 in present day Agfhanistan, but what was then the Persian empire.

He had a phenomenal following as a mystic and poet in his own lifetime, and 700 years later he has staged a comeback.

A recent CD of his love poems has also been hugely succesful, with the likes of pop-star Madonna, the actresses, Demi Moore and Goldie Hawn, among those reciting.

In search of new heroes

Peter Culshaw, a freelance writer and musician, says the new interest in Rumi may have something to do with Americans wanting to find a replacement for the New Age movement, which focuses on alternative lifestyles.

"My guess is that people are getting fed up with New Age gurus, who are rather making it up as they go along. But there is still the same urge towards something spiritual and mystical and so with Rumi, there is a tradition there, which gives it depth."

His poetry may be endorsed by Hollywood, the pop world, and latter day gurus and mystics, but essentially, Rumi was a great teacher and respected mystic.

He didn't take poetry very seriously.

For him, it was almost a by-product of his spirituality; something that might help him along the spritual road, but not the main thing.

And so it is with Coleman Barks, the man who has made Rumi more accessible than any one else.

He has taken someone else's translations - he does not translate from Persian himself - and adapted the words into freer, American English

Critics question whether he can legitimately be called a translator, and he is accused by some of eviscerating Rumi and packaging him for the west.

Power behind the poetry

But Coleman Barks says Rumi himself kept apologizing for using words at all.

"In fact, he says the more seductive and the more beautiful the poetry, the more false, because it gives you the experience that is sort of like what it's talking about, and therefore dangerously deceptive."

Coleman Barks has also been criticised by Islamic scholars who claim Rumi as a Muslim poet.

Which of course he was, but in his lifetime, Rumi appealed to many faiths and his emphasis on mysticism appealed to people of different beliefs.

Coleman Barks reads one of his own translations
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