THE MYSTIC PEN
Katherine Schimmel: A Meeting in a Garden and a Mystic Pen:
“The ordinary pebble can turn into a ruby provided it patiently takes into itself the rays of the sun.”
There is a line in one of my favorite books, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Colasso that goes like this: But how did it all begin?
It seems appropriate to ask this question as we reintroduce one of our most popular series, The Mystic Pen, Katherine Schimmel Baki’s tribute to her aunt Annemarie Schimmel.
Annemarie Schimmel was one of the world’s most influential Islamic and Sufi scholars translating and introducing the work of poets including Jalaloddin Rumi to a western audience. She became the Minute Rice Chair at Harvard University from 1967-1992 and was also author of close to 100 books and more than 200 papers including: The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi, and As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam.
But first: In an empty lot behind a parking garage soon to become a condominium complex, a landscape gardener envisions a temporary Eden devoted to science and art. That gardener, Peter Soderman, joins forces with landscape architect, Kevin Wilkes, Princeton University Dean of Faculty David Dobkin, and Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman. Dobkin and Tilghman then recruits some of the community’s top scientists and artists. From this collaboration, something greater than the sum of its parts is born, an interactive garden called Quark Park.
In that garden, as part of a team who interviewed the participants, Executive Editor Kim Nagy and I met Katherine Schimmel Baki who, in collaboration with her father, molecular biologist Paul Schimmel and the sculptor Robert Cannon, created an installation based on Schimmel’s pioneering work in the field of RNA. “Robert conceived an exhibit that would explore the science at the heart of our existence, and the mystery of life,” says Schimmel Baki. “And so he created mirrored helixes etched with words. The helixes rotated in the wind reflecting words onto a wall of silver like shooting stars in the sky.”
If a park creates fertile ground for the intersection between humankind and Mother Nature – some might claim a manifestation of God’s thoughts – then the planners succeeded. During one of many conversations Kim and Katherine shared, Katherine talked about attending the final semester of the groundbreaking lecture series her aunt Annemarie Schimmel taught at Harvard University on the “Phenomenology of Islam.”
I had been traveling to and writing about Turkey, a country Annemarie Schimmel loved and where she had also taught; and like her, had fallen in love with the culture and the stories that make up the Islamic tradition. In addition, I had spent time in Konya, the resting place of Sufi poet and mystic, Jelaloddin Rumi. So, when Kim introduced Katherine to me, along with the idea that Katherine curate a series featuring her aunt’s lectures, it seemed a natural outgrowth of Katherine’s vision and ours.
I own Coleman Barks’s bestselling interpretations of Rumi’s poems, but when I read the acknowledgments, there was Annemarie Schimmel’s name and with good reason. Barks does not speak Persian, while Annemarie Schimmel was not only fluent in Persian, she was an expert in Islamic discourse, and considered a mystic among her Islamic brothers and sisters. If she was a mystic and scholar, then poets like Coleman Barks and Robert Bly are her students.
But her grandniece shares her legacy.
And so we begin.
WRR: The idea for Mystic Pen sprang from a conversation you had with Kim at Quark Park, which speaks to one of the WRR’s core missions – to share in the lineage of brilliant female thinkers and writers who may be less well known than their male counterparts. How did you decide to create a series from your aunt’s last lectures at Harvard?
Katherine Schimmel Baki: I think that our connection was through none other than Rumi. Once I realized that you were familiar with Rumi, it made complete sense. Of course it all comes full circle because the scholarly work of people such as Annemarie, who have translated into English the works of Rumi and other mystical thinkers, have contributed to a widening base of English speakers who are familiar with Sufism.
The challenge for me initially was how to approach the series and what to name it. I then remembered that a friend of mine had recorded Annemarie’s final semester’s lectures on “The Phenomenology of Islam” at Harvard, and how great it would be to have them transcribed online and available to all.
So the idea was tossed around a bit, and it seemed to stick. Given that Annemarie had an enormously rich network of friends and scholars, I also thought it would be interesting to bring them together in a forum which would honor her memory and her tremendous contribution to the field.
WRR: How did you choose the name for the series?
Schimmel-Baki: This will sound strange but it is entirely true. The name for the series came to me one night in a dream in which I saw Annemarie and asked her what I should call her new series. She seemed to like the name, The Mystic Pen. I recently learned that she once published a book called The Celestial Pen.
WRR: Your aunt’s translations of the mystic Jalaloddin Rumi influenced many writers including Coleman Barks who made Rumi one of the world’s most famous poets. Why is Annemarie less well known?
Schimmel-Baki: I believe this has less to do with Annemarie’s gender and more to do with the fact that Sufism and Indo-Muslim studies are less popular fields here. In the Middle East, Annemarie transcended any gender gap even in the seemingly impermeable religious sphere of Islam. For instance, she was so highly regarded in Pakistan the powers that be in Lahore named a main boulevard after her. She was also allotted a burial spot next to Pakistan’s beloved and legendary Sir Muhammad Iqbal—poet, philosopher, politician, and a man whose spiritually-based accomplishments cannot be described in a few short words here.
Another reason that she is not better known in the United States is because Annemarie was not interested in promoting herself as she was entirely dedicated to what I call the active art of quiet scholarship. Of course her contributions were not so quiet in the field, but you wouldn’t find, for instance, her book, And Muhammad is His Messenger or Calligraphy and Islamic Culture on the New York Times bestseller list or even as a textbook for graduate students, say in the fields of government or international relations where they would be a refreshing and most useful change.
WRR: You’ve written about the Sundays your aunt spent with you and your family. How did she influence your view of the world and your course of study?
Schimmel-Baki: Annemarie’s greatest gift was to acquaint me with cultures and religions outside my own sheltered world and instill a lifelong interest to learn about them. For instance, she was full of wonderful stories about the various adventures she’d had while in Turkey, Pakistan and India, places which seemed very mysterious to a child.
Her descriptions were so lively, full of good humor and lyrically framed, that it was almost impossible not to be present in those places through her in some way. Perhaps it was her German accent which initially lured me as she had this soft way of speaking that would remind one of a cat whose purr rises and falls depending upon where its head or cheek is being scratched. In any event, Annemarie was endlessly fascinating to me and that has never, ever changed.
As a small child I also remember being mesmerized by her exquisite, exotic jewelry which she brought from all over the Near East. It appeared that every time she traveled abroad she would be received by various heads of state who would bestow upon her these exquisite pieces in acknowledgement of her visit and contributions to that society. I remember seeing her jewelry inventory list at one point and being stunned at what she’d been given over the years. I always felt that her collection belonged in a museum as some of the pieces in it were really quite rare and are not to be found in even the best western museums today. It is a tragedy that the entire collection was stolen after her death, disappearing into the underground market without so much as a trace.
But I have also my parents to thank for creating and supporting a home environment which was full of interesting people from all over the world. For most of my life my father was at M.I.T. first as a student, then as a professor. It was not uncommon for him to invite his students or colleagues over to our house for a Sunday meal. The animated conversations, wonderful food and interesting topics have stayed with me for all these years. Many of our guests were from other countries as my father went out of his way to fill his lab with the best talent from around the world. He also made a point of keeping the male to female ratio at 50:50, which I always thought was wonderful and it was something that was quite uncommon in its day. This is because he felt that women had an enormous amount to offer the sciences and that their talent needed to be fostered. As a young girl this gave me an incredible sense of self worth as I saw that women could excel in the sciences and in math just as men could.
Annemarie was also a wonderful example of a woman who succeeded in what was typically a male-dominated sphere at that time, too; and she has often said that her parents really fostered in her this sense of being able to do anything regardless of her gender. So perhaps that is one of the greatest influences that parents can have on their children. To be open-minded, appreciate other cultures and points of view.
WRR: As any child might be, you were fascinated with Annemarie’s collection of rare jewelry. This in turn has fed into your career as an art dealer and historian.
Schimmel-Baki: Her jewelry was, in part, my first introduction to other parts of the world and as such served as a perfect example of how one can be introduced to a culture in all sorts of ways that don’t necessarily involve words. I am very interested in this idea because I think that there is so much we lose or miss by not being more curious about art objects, or by not taking the time to really learn about any given object: who made it, where it came from, and its history.
This is especially true with respect to original pieces of art which have a powerful collective of stored energy, something you cannot get to the same degree from subsequent copies. The challenge for museums today is to bridge the gap between the public and the object, to infect the viewer with a thirst for finding out more about these works, their history and relevance in our own lives.
WRR: Can you elaborate?
Schimmel-Baki: Sure. An enormous amount of information is contained within all art objects and these objects are in many ways a more enduring example of a culture’s footprint or imprint on civilization. Often, the materials used to create a piece are organically stronger than the printed word.
This is very apparent when we look at old coins for instance from the Roman era, Sasanian pottery or bronze sculptures from the 8th century, which have survived the test of time, relatively speaking. But it is also apparent when we gaze at structures as perplexing and intriguing as the Great Pyramids. If you were to bury a book in the earth and dig it up a few thousand years later, little would remain if anything at all, certainly nothing legible. This is also true of fabric, which tends to disintegrate and deteriorate in much the same way. Of course there are some exceptions to this as papyrus has obviously survived to some degree but it is stronger than paper and was generally preserved and protected in a vessel or building of some sort and remained in a very arid climate.
But generally speaking, this is why, most information about what earlier civilizations wore, comes from painted or carved depictions or from descriptions written in stone or etched in metal as is common on other vessels. Paintings, sculptures, coins and other “more lasting forms of expression” are often the best way to enter the mindset of a very old society or civilization as these items tend to be elegant portals to the past, little time machines if you will. I have often wondered whether the Internet will have the same enduring power thousands of years from now.
WRR: You have an undergraduate degree in music, a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and wrote your Master’s thesis on the Adhan, or oral call to prayer, particularly in Egypt. Can you talk about your love of music and the significance of the Adhan?
Schimmel-Baki: I don’t remember a time when I was not completely in love with music. My earliest memories of truly beautiful western music came from my German grandfather Alfred, who was actually a paternal cousin. Alfred was a self-taught musician with an innate sense of beauty, discipline and balance. He also had an enviable fluency on the piano, cello and flute even though he started playing much later in life. I believe he played for the Manchester New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra and of course had lots of ongoing practice sessions at the house with his fellow musicians whom I remember well. He, like Annemarie, had a great sense of humor, and I would often see him bunched up in his chair hysterically heaving in a fit of noiseless laughter, his whole body convulsing except where his voice was concerned. Only a noiseless hiss would come out. It was something totally unique to him. And then he would go totally silent and serious as if nothing had ever happened. It was very entertaining to watch.
WRR: So he helped shape your musicality?
Schimmel-Baki: I spent a great deal of time with Alfred as a child, and I know that he took to me as much as I did him because we had this shared love of music and I became his sort of personal project. Each time I’d see him he’d ask me, what musical piece are you working on now? How is the piano going? Can you play the notes evenly in such and such a piece yet? How is your singing? What can we play together today? And, I have the most beautiful memories of lying awake at night in the little bedroom above his piano alcove listening to him play Chopin or Schubert as I drifted in and out of sleep. Today, whenever I hear a piece that Alfred once played I am instantly transported back to that point in time and feel as though I am with him again. I also credit Alfred with teaching me this idea that music is its own world, another dimension, and that it is a wonderful place to dwell.
WRR: Did he influence your decision to go to the Berklee School of Music?
Schimmel-Baki: No, not directly, although he offered much encouragement and support. He was not very familiar with non-classical music and on some level would have been more comfortable with me attending a conservatory. But Berklee College of Music was the right place for me and was a wonderful experience. It was also my first experience studying the business of music, even though prior to Berklee I had done an internship in a 48 track semi-automated recording studio, a big deal at the time as we had not fully entered the digital age and much had to be manually done.
For instance, editing the tape would involve lining up the right spot on the reel, slicing it with a razor blade and re-attaching the two ends. You would hope you got it right. Now it can all be done digitally. Prior to entering Berklee, I had never come across so many talented “out of the box” musicians under one roof, and I was thrilled with the palpable, seemingly frenetic energy in the air and with the never-ending stream of well-known musicians passing through. Like the time at 2:00 a.m. when the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorious stopped by to play some late night basketball with a group of us who had just finished rehearsing. He died a year or so later.
WRR: Out of the Box?
Schimmel-Baki: Yes, I use this term because Berklee was and is completely unique as a music school in that it accepts all sorts of students who are at varying levels of skill and interests. Most have quite a bit of innate talent or musicality, some are just more raw than others, but they all have at least one thing in common besides being passionate about music. They have a vision of a future where they will derive their income from making music and are totally committed to this end or else they wouldn’t survive the place as it’s not that easy to stay in. Berklee is exceptional at preparing students for a wide range of music based careers. Their programs are really cutting edge and as a result are continuously evolving in order to stay that way.
Their model has obviously worked extremely well as a large proportion of their students have gone on to have highly successful careers in the industry. However, what I personally learned at Berklee was that I really did not want to have a career in music as I had became far more fascinated by the field of ethnomusicology, how the brain processes sound and its emotive effects on the listener. You might say that I became inspired by the idea of inspiration and how to quantify it from a music-based perspective.
I also became very interested in what is known as third stream music. This is music which uses complex rhythms, micro-tones and quarter-tones and at times has no tonal center at all. I found that music extremely interesting and the perfect backdrop to later learning about Middle Eastern music, which opened up a whole new world of tones and beats.
WRR: And Harvard?
Schimmel-Baki: This goes back to Annemarie. After graduating from Berklee I was living and working in Boston when I heard someone speaking Arabic in the street. It was as though a switch flicked on and I decided that I needed to take Arabic lessons and travel to the Middle East. It is an interesting phenomenon to contemplate when one considers that I had already heard Arabic before as my sister was on her way to becoming completely fluent in that language and I’d had no interest in it up until that point. My father likes to point out that my interest was probably due to a recessive gene that kicks in every three generations or so, and perhaps it’s just that simple.
In any event, I took private lessons in Arabic and travelled to Egypt. It was at that point that I heard my first Adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, which is the most amazing example of the unifying power of sound and word, a call broadcast five times a day bringing people together from all walks of life to pray and remember God (Allah). Of course it is not considered music at all as it is really a very old sacred incantation which has survived for close to fifteen hundred years.
Around the same time I visited Egypt, I came across one of Annemarie’s books, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, which was my first exhaustive introduction to Sufism. And so between that book and a small, classic work with a sunny yellow and green cover called, In The Garden of Myrtles, which was written by Tor Andrae, I developed a yearning to study Sufism and Islamic studies in a more formalized setting.
I was very blessed to be able to take Annemarie’s last semester of courses before she retired that year, have Ali Asani (a former student of hers) as my advisor and be able to have Annemarie as one of the readers for my thesis, which as you mentioned, was on the Adhan. It was a truly fulfilling experience to be able to combine my love for sound and its transformative properties with my love for the Near East into a project which focuses on what is a truly unique and dynamic Islamic phenomenon.
WRR: In addition, you are the mother of three children. How does your role as a mother dovetail with your scholarship and work schedule. How do you envision the future?
Schimmel-Baki: Well, this is an interesting subject isn’t it? I am reminded of Khalil Gibran’s poem: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”
Raising three amazing souls who will go out into the world as conscientious, loving, meaningfully productive, happy beings is not unlike the Sufi path itself in which the believer (in this case the mother) works continuously at shedding the outer garment or material world so that she may enter the spiritual space of complete annihilation with the beloved (the children).
You often have to make profound adjustments and compromises to your way of being in order to accommodate others in a way that is beneficial to them. Not necessarily to you. Of course you could say this of marriage or any close relationship. However, the bond between a mother and a child departs markedly from other types of love, and this is where the Sufi-like aspect comes into play because the believer has an absolute, pure love, which does not want to be self-serving in any way, even though this is almost impossible to achieve.
All the motherly adjustments I have had to make along the way have only made me a much more flexible, forgiving and, I’d like to think, better person as I suddenly started to see people and the world through the eyes of a child again…which is so much more interesting and to the point I think.
WRR: So, is it a constant struggle between work and family?
Schimmel-Baki: Yes, because I am madly in love with my children and yet I am also compelled to do other things. Just as I can’t control the fact that I love them, I also can’t stop pursuing certain interests. But I’ve learned to seek balance in the imbalance and to try and always fine-tune everything…so what works today may not tomorrow. Some days, I feel just like the tragic Greek character, Sisyphus, who is stuck for an eternity slowly pushing a heavy boulder up a hill only to have it come crashing back down again when he finally manages to get it to the top. Those moments are truly, dark nights of the soul. And this is why I call this highly personal journey the Sufi path of motherhood. What really counts is the persistence of that soul in being aware of its inadequacies and on insisting on doing better next time. That’s all we can hope for from ourselves and from others and that should be enough, which brings me back to what is the most haunting, powerful part of the Gibran poem:
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable
In this case, for me, the bow that is stable is the mother and the environment that she has created.
WRR: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned in working so closely with your aunt’s material? And how has it influenced your own work?
Schimmel-Baki: Working with Annemarie’s material has taught me about perfection in scholarship and has reinforced a core belief of mine which is that often we have to look at a problem or challenge upside down, like a bat. We need to change our perspective, step out of our own shoes. Too often scholars become rigid in their thinking without knowing it and so become too attached to a certain outcome. They calcify. The great scholar is the one who still doubts his/her hypothesis long after the ink of the discovery has dried. Annemarie had the gift of a pressing curiosity coupled with intellectual rigor, honesty, humor and an incredible memory…a great combination.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul