“There is an animal called an ushghur, a porcupine
If you hit it with a stick, it extends its quills and gets bigger.
The soul is a porcupine,
made strong by stick-beating.”
This past weekend I saw “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy,” a staged reading written by Sheri Winkelmann and directed by Helen Young, presented by Silk Road Rising Theatre. Based on the playwright’s own experience with domestic violence, the play follows the character, Sadia, an independent, open young woman who unexpectedly falls in love with a Tibetan doctor while volunteering in India. Setting aside her practical, modern sensibilities, she agrees to marry Dorjee when he moves his practice to the U.S. After a brief honeymoon period, Dorjee reveals a disturbing jealous streak and a capacity for sudden mood swings. Meanwhile, Sadia does her best to believe in him, attributing his split personality to culture shock while experiencing her own version in the form of isolation from her single, female friends and growing discomfort inside her own home. When the violence reaches a breaking point, the poetry of the famous Persian writer and Sufi mystic, Rumi gives Sadia the courage and spiritual clarity to get out.
The language of Rumi is woven into the play from the beginning — from Sadia’s initial, exuberant feelings toward Dorjee to her eventual escape. It’s a form of punctuation, sometimes initiatied by “Old Sadia,” a sort of spiritually evolved, omniscient narrator version of young Sadia, played by Amira Sabbagh, sometimes chanted by the ensemble as a form of transition music between scenes. It infuses the script with a strong musical energy, a palpable beat that brings Sadia’s spiritual journey to life while illustrating the essential nature of all human suffering, whatever the context. Lines from the poem, “Checkmate” like
“The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody and gross.
Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief,
and you’ll become lovely, and very strong.”
“Those that make you return, for whatever reason, to God’s solitude, be grateful to them.
Worry about the others, who give you
delicious comforts that keep you from prayer.
Friends are enemies sometimes,
and enemies friends.”
are especially memorable, chanted near the end when Sadia attempts to reconcile her circumstances with her belief in God, and somehow make sense of her suffering.
I also appreciated the play’s attention to what are, perhaps, more puzzling, ambiguous factors in a domestic abuse situation, such as Sadia’s status as a highly educated, independent minded woman who made a bad judgment call. There is a striking line when Sadia says, “Everything in my culture tells me I should blame myself, but I won’t.” It had me wondering, is this where her education comes into play? If education and financial independence don’t necessarily insulate women from situations of domestic abuse, do they allow women to recover with their psyches more intact, with a greater degree of emotional clarity? This question was addressed during the post-show discussion when Ms. Winkelmann commented on the heightened secrecy surrounding affluent, educated women in abusive relationships, noting an increase in the number of personal acquaintances who have recently shared their stories with her. As for the redemptive power of education, the seed for this project was the playwright’s attraction to a book of Rumi poems in a Barnes and Noble, so her story certainly speaks to the way in which reading and writing allow us to explore and expose our own seemingly shameful experiences and pay them forward, facilitating the healing of others.
Another aspect that Ms. Winkelmann’s script exposes in detail is the intense, predictable pattern of the abuse itself. There are several scenes in which we feel a tide turning, the couple slipping down a familiar rabbit hole of escalating insecurity and increasingly inadequate responses until the fight blows over. Then it happens again, like clockwork. This is powerful, if painful, to watch, exposing the cyclical patterns without trying to explain them. I can only imagine that survivors of abuse would find it somehow validating, as if to say, this is what it is, this is what it looks like, over and over again — and despite the insanity, it is real, recognizable, and not the victim’s fault.
A third and final point of discussion is the depiction of Sadia’s friends, and the role they play in perpetuating her feelings of shame and alienation. This tension is introduced early on, beginning with their skepticism toward Sadia’s decision to get married, as if acting boldly based on faith is an inherently sketchy choice to make. As the marriage deteriorates, they are gradually turned off by Sadia’s resolve to make it work, and eventually disassociate themselves. Are they horrible friends, or just limited ones? If they hadn’t deserted their friend in the middle of her desperation, forcing her to “return to God’s solitude,” would she have eventually decided to leave? What is the role of women in perpetuating a culture of shame? Can ordinary women help empower victims simply by withholding judgment?
Intense, serious questions, perhaps, but interesting and provocative ones, ones that can hardly be dismissed. And it’s not all serious — Sadia’s friends, played by Suzanne Sole and Michelle Weissgerber, provide frequent, welcome comic relief, and the Rumi lines are like little gems, sparkling turns of phrase — they get lodged in your brain, resurfacing for a while after. “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy” gives us a different, deeper, more profound kind of love to think about for Valentine’s Day: one the one hand, the people or experiences that break us, transforming us into something better and wiser; and on the other hand, the “beloved,” or God, who pulls us through everything, far better stated in the first stanza of “Checkmate”:
“Borrow the beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see the beloved’s face
everywhere. No tiredness, no jaded boredom.
‘I shall be your eye and your hand and your loving.
Let that happen, and things
you have hated will become helpers.”
[Photo credits: “The Heart,” petalouda62’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “The Reed Flute Sings in Silence,” deborahaddington.com, “Molana.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, “Which Sheds Its Rays Upon a Frozen Heart,” Poetry, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]