Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook
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Bushaq At'imah, "The Gastronomer"
Young Man Seated Under a Tree, Muhammad Yusuf, Persian, 1637. Click for larger image.

The court of Shah Ni'matullah was not without its jester: Abu Ishaq Shirazi (Bushaq At'imah): the eulogist of food, certainly one of the most unusual Sufi poets in all Persian literature. Little is known of Bushaq's life, and most of what has been told is wrong or at least confused. He is said (on quite slender evidence) to have been a cotton-carder (hallaj), but nevertheless enjoyed the company of the upper crust. Bushaq was still a child when Shah Ni'matullah visited Shiraz, but he may later have been attracted to the Ni'matullahi Order through his friendship with Shah Da'i. Bushaq had then already begun to write his remarkable parodies of all the great poets of Persia, in which he translated the language of love and gnosis into the language of food.

Bushaq could not help poking fun at Sufism, as this one example from his "glossary" (farhang) reveals:

Biwarid is a kind of pickle which the ragged Master Vinegar sends to sit in a forty-day retreat in the solitary cell of the picklejar till it receives revelations from the world of the Grape-syrup Bottle. Then he is taken to the sufi-house of the dining table and sits on the prayer-mat of white bread with the green-salad disciples, and finally in the world of gnosis, he recites this verse:
I have suffered the pain of separation
Until now I have reached Union, just as
the Qur'anic Verses of Mercy come
After those of the torments of Hell!

But there is no doubt that Bushaq was a Sufi — if the evidence of later historians were not enough, we have the proof of the eulogy by his contemporary, Shah Da'i. In an age where mysticism is generally considered a grave affair, an age which has forgotten that laughter is also an aid on the Path, Bushaq's 'sincerity' may be viewed with doubt; but his contemporaries seem to have seen no contradiction between his spiritual attainments and his sense of humour.

Mansur al-Hallaj said 'I am the Truth'
Bushaq al-Hallaj says 'I am the Pudding'.
That was the Hallajian claim
And this is the essence of it!

Among the great writers re-cooked and carved up by Bushaq was Shah Ni"matullah himself. Although Bushaq's poetry is extremely difficult to translate, due to the innumerable references to medieval menus, recipes, long-forgotten dainties and culinary paraphernalia, these parodies of Shah Ni'matullah are eminently worthwhile. We have therefore translated both the original models by Ni'matullah (among his most beautiful and spiritually exalted works) and the take-offs by his disciple.

Pierced ceramic goblet, 14th century.
I am in such a state with my beloved, source of my life,
that my soul no longer fits within me -
Between me and that heart-thief such a secret lies
that my heart, too, no longer fits within me.
The tavern: the Saki, and we the drunkards
cup of wine in hand;
In the solitary quarters of the heart
nothing, no one has a place but the beloved.
This pain! what sort of riot can it be
that does not spread to every heart?
This love: what kind of grief
that will not fit in every head?
My heart, the incense — love the fire —
my breast the smoking censer —
In longing to be gulfed by flame
my frankincense will spill and overflow.
What word is this I read
that is not found on any page
What wisdom within me
that will not fit in any book?
go, head-spinning Reason, tire and weigh us not,
for now is the gathering
Of airy spirits, no spot,
no room for heavy souls.
I am the favourite of the King's High Court
I am the companion of God's Bounty
I kiss the lips of the goblet
and words, words will no longer fit.
Shah Ni'matullah
Ceramic bowl, 15th century.
I am in such a state with the pudding
that there's no room left for the sauce;
Ah, such a burning desire for lamb-chops
that my heart will not fit within me anymore.
What secrets bubble in the boiled sheep's-head
not every heart may know;
What sort of delicacy is its brain
that will not fit in every skull?
The pudding is the incense, the fire the dried-dung fuel,
the censer is the pudding pot;
In the yearning for burning
that incense will not fit the censer.
I am the favourite of bread and pudding
I am a match for any amount of sweetmeats,
I bite the lip of the pastry
and words, words no longer fit my mouth.
In the presence of the chicken and the honey-cake
forget about the spilled macaroni;
this is the gathering of airy spirits!
No room for such a soggy mess.
Go, sweet ice-cream,
tire us not
For in the gathering of marzipan
there's no room for aught but sugar.
The stomach of Bushaq
is so stuffed with pie
He no longer searches for candy
And artichokes just won't fit anymore.
Bushaq's parody
Brass bowl inlaid with silver and gold, 1290.
Drowned in the shoreless ocean sometimes
we are waves, sometimes the sea itself.
We are the songbird of the Beloved's rosebed
as her lover we sing the canticles of love.
we are the sun of the sky of heart and soul
and thus we move from horizon to horizon.
We are not fit for any job
except the work of making love.
Today we are drunk and in love
and know nothing of the headaches of tomorrow.
Our beloved has become the very light of our eyes
and thus and only thus do we have sight.
Careless drunk, staggering drunk
we come from the tavern of love*
since we first saw her face, her tresses,
sometimes we are believers, sometimes Christians.
All creatures are blind and sightless
or they would see us manifest as the sun itself.
We have come into this world
only to show God to His Creation.
If you are sick and seek physicians
we are the doctor for everything and all.
If anyone should ask for God's Bounty
tell him to come to us, to Ni'matullah.
Shah Ni'matullah
Ceramic bowl, 14th century.
We are macaronis in the Casserole of Gnosis
sometimes lumps of dough and sometimes pie.
On the surface of the stew we are dollops of rich grease
and we befriend the yoghurt-meatball soup.
Now we are the Simurgh on the slopes of sheeptail fat
now the Phoenix on the Mount of Meat.
We have descended to this kitchen only that we might
reveal the meatsauce unto the spaghetti.
Like the dates within a bowl of rice-pudding
sometimes we are manifest and sometimes not.
This boiled sheepshead now becomes the light within our eyes
and thus through its eyes we have our sight.
We've skewed up our egos like kebabs upon the spit,
disciples of the haggis at this feast.
Clots of honey-comb are we afloat amidst the butter:
sometimes we are up and sometimes down.
Like Bushaq the Masterchef are we
fit for nothing but such gluttony!
Bushaq's parody
Ceramic jar with geese, Syria, 14th century

At one point in his life, Bushaq finally made the pilgrimage to Mahan to sit at the feet of the Master he so admired. When Shah Ni'matullah met him, he asked, "What have you said in your poetry?" Bushaq replied:

The report of the Peas at the Table of Khalilullah
Ask from me, since I am the panegyrist of Ni'matullah!

"Aha!" Shah Ni'matullah exclaimed. "So you are the Macaroni of the Casserole of Gnosis!" Apologetically Bushaq replied, "Others talk about Allah. I talk about Ni'matu Allah' (The Bounty of God — i.e., food).

We may assume that Shah Ni'matullah was not unpleased with these quips, and initiated Bushaq in Mahan; Ni'matullah's son, Shah Khalilullah maybe actually instructed him in Sufism, for as the Gastronomer sings:

He who like Bushaq has supped the soup of Khalilullah
Will become like Ni'matullah the Commander of the World!
Lobed bottle, Iran, late 16th century.