Sheik in Minneapolis!
by Farzan Navab
"Sheik Sanan" rug 4x6.9 rug
Kerman, Southern Persia
"Work of Karim Kermani. Date: 1973"
"By order of Rajab Dilmagani"
recently acquired a 19th century Persian pictorial rug right here
in Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The signed and dated piece is a
product of Kerman: a city and also a province in south eastern
Iran. The ancient city of Bam that recently endured a massive
and destructive earthquake is also located in Kerman.
The story of Sheik Sanan is a fairy tale that deals with notions
of piety and devotion to God within a Sufi framework. Sufism is
the school of spiritual enlightenment in Islam and one of its
well known members is Jelaluddin Rumi.
It is believed that the tale of Sheik Sanan is part
of the folklore of Persia, Turkey, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and
possibly even western China.
The story, part poetry part prose and altogether
a fantasy, speaks of a pious man named the Sheik of Sanan who
falls in love with a Christian girl. In some versions of the story
the Sheik is portrayed as a Muslim in the Azerbaijan region who
falls in love with a Christian girl from Georgia.
The Sheik apparently resided in Mecca , where the
"House of God" is located, and as the most prominent
place of worship in all Islamic world, all Muslims who are qualified
have to make the obligatory once in a lifetime pilgrimage. The
Sheik has a dream in which he no longer resides in Mecca and lives
instead in Rum (most probably Byzantium which is today's Turkey.)
He tells his followers that an important event has befallen him
and he needs to go to Rum to find out what exactly awaits him.
The Sheik leaves Mecca for Rum with four hundred
of his followers in search of the calling in his dream. There
he looks into every street and alley until he sees a beautiful
Christian girl. He falls into passionate love with the young girl,
forgetting his place among his followers and his prominence as
a learned and spiritual pious Muslim.
The girl, who is much younger than the Sheik refuses his love
and instead asks him to perform impossible tasks, throwing obstacles
in his way in order to change his mind. She asks him to worship
an idol (highest crime in Islam), burn the Quran, drink wine (forbidden
in Islam) and finally to lose his faith in Islam. Of all four
requests the Sheik only agrees to drinking wine and asks the girl
to forego the other three.
The girl then asks for the Sheik to become a Christian.
He agrees to her demand and changes his religion. Seeing no hope
in averting the Sheik's love, the girl asks for him to provide
her with dowry money. The Sheik, having lost his faith and gotten
into the habit of drinking, responds that he neither has spiritual
wealth nor material possessions. The young girl feels sorry for
him and instead of a dowry asks him to attend to her hog farm
(a sacrilege in Islam) for one year.
Madonna and Child - Medieval tapestry
Bewildered by Sheik's apparent state of lost spirituality and
craze, his followers try to find a way to rescue him. They ask
one of his devout followers known as "Morid" who was
away at the time of his departure from Mecca, to come and lend
a hand. The follower goes to Rum and finds the Sheik in the pathetic
state of raising pigs! He then asks the followers to pray for
the Sheik for forty days, asking God to bring back the Sheik in
to the path of righteousness.
After forty days, the prophet Mohammed comes to the
Morid's dream and informs him of God's will to return Sheik's
sanity back to him. As for the girl, she wakes up one morning
and realizes what she has done to the Sheik and asks forgiveness
from God, becomes a Muslim and follows him as her spiritual leader.
the woven story
Noted Iranian artist and rug scholar
Parviz Tanavoli has pointed out (Iranian Pictorial Rugs; Soroush
1989) that in the absence of a portrait painting tradition,
Persian rugs played an important part in filling the gap. Rugs
from a variety of areas in Persia became a vehicle in pictorializing
kings, heroes, lovers and demons.
The rug we found in Minneapolis fits within this
tradition and is part of what Tanavoli terms as rugs that relate
to a "Sufi influenced" group of rugs. He states that
even the word "Sufi" is a reference to the arabic "Suf"
or wool which in Farsi is "Pashm" and thus Sufism is
an allegorical reference to the "Pashmina" shawls worn
by Dervishes or the followers of Sufism. Since Sufis or Dervishes
are supposed to give up all earthly belongings, the Pashmina shawl
is the only simple outfit that they are left with.
In the present rug, the outline of the story is carefully
followed, displaying the weaver's realistic drawing abilities
in portraying the Sheik and the Tarsa (Christian) girl as well
as the weaver's mastery in creating stylized forms used in 19th
century Persian rug designs.
The Sheik is portrayed as a white bearded man and
his lover is the one who holds a drinking glass. Also displayed
is a European Style chair with a dog sitting on it (used here
to represent the foreignness of the girl and her life style since
Persians do not use dogs as domestic animals inside the home),
and a European style small table with two wine glasses. Christian
women are portrayed without scarves while a woman displayed at
the upper left portion of the rug wears the "Chador",
a long head-to-toe cover. One can speculate that she is talking
to a "witch crafter" who is making a potion in order
to dislodge a spell cast on the Sheik!
It is important to note that while certain aspects of the rug
are most definitely copied from the general "feel" and
ambiance of a European type painting, there are elements that
are strictly Persian. For example the idea of showing portraits
of certain noble faces at each corner corresponds with the tradition
of quarter medallions used at each corner of city as well as tribal
Persian rugs. Yet the faces remain distinctly European. Also the
whole notion of making the rug look like a "window"
onto a scene or a story seems to have been inspired by French
or Flemish tapestries. On the other hand the two cypress trees
displayed in the lower right hand side of the rug are references
to a "Persian" space: a common representation of the
concept of Paradise.
and historical significance
Perhaps it is only in hindsight that today, in a world that is
becoming more and more polarized, that one can draw certain conclusions
about an artistic creation connecting the concept of culture to
a world view shared by a people. In other words, this is a rug
that basically talks about the fears as well as the lures of the
"Foreigner". That the pious Muslim Sheik should be tested
by the love of a Christian girl, might show the fears of a society
that turns inward in the face of the onslaught of modernism.
Nonetheless, such fears were justified in that Persia,
though never formally colonized , was definitely used by the British
as well as the Russians for at least two centuries. Yet it is
befitting to note that the present rug, while representing a myth
that separates Christians and Muslims, is nevertheless a hybrid
product borrowing heavily from the West as well as from indigenous
traditions. It is within this montage of cultures that the final
product is born and as such it displays their connection rather
than what separates them.