Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ignore your feelings and go hang: a cautionary Ottoman tale of misinterpreting a dream.

Location, location, location. These are the oft-quoted first three rules for a real estate agent. The first three rules for anyone attempting to decipher a dream are: Feelings, feelings, feelings.
    The dreamer's first feelings on coming out of a dream experience are likely to be the very best guidance on the character of the dream and how to explore it. Those feelings will tell us whether the dream is positive or negative, important or trivial, of intimate personal concern or reflecting things at a distance. They may suggest whether the dream relates to the health of the body, or to possible future events, or is an experience of a separate reality, and whether it needs to be read literally or symbolically.
    Feelings inside the dream are also interesting, but are less significant than the first feelings on waking or emerging from the experience. Once again, I am talking about first feelings, not the feelings we may have after talking to a shrink or sharing the dream with our hundred closest friends.
    The vital importance of this theme came home to me as I read a splendid article 
by the Turkish scholar Asli Niyazioğlu on the misinterpretation of the dream of an Ottoman poet . [1] Her main focus is a dream of the poet Fiġānı, who was executed in 1532 because he was identified as the author of a widely-circulated couplet mocking the grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. Her source is a biographical dictionary compiled by ‘Ᾱşık Çelebi, who devoted nearly four manuscript pages to the poet's dream and events around it.
    Figani was one of a set of high-living, hard drinking literary figures in the "magnificent century" of Sultan Suleiman. After a night of carousing in the pleasure grounds of  Kara-bālı-zāde, a libertine official who dabbled in poetry, he had more than a hangover. When his host found him in the seaside garden, he was like "a sorrowful pistachio" (in the biographer's wonderful phrase) that won't open, or like a harp with floppy strings left leaning against a wall by a drunken player. Asked what was wrong, the poet recounted a dream.

Last night, I saw that a minaret was built near the port, high as the favor from statesmen and resembling the smoke from the sighs of the lovers. I climbed on top of it after some people had proposed to me to do so. I recited the call for prayer on that minaret but fear struck at my heart that I lost my life.

Figani's host laughed at the dream report. He assured the poet that the dream was auspicious and there was "no possibility for another interpretation." He identified the port, correctly, as Eminönü, in Istanbul, at the heart of the Ottoman empire. He announced breezily that high elevation at such a site would mean that Figani would get a government sinecure that would give him even more time for drinking and partying, and that he knew a certain Effendi who could get him the right position, probably as a scribe for the customs office.
   Through this discussion, Kara-bali-zade completely ignored the poet's terrible feelings about his dream, including his fear of imminent death, and the striking comparison of the "minaret" to the smoke rising from the burned-out hearts of lovers. Thus nothing was done to prepare Figani for his arrest and execution three days later. He died by strangulation and his body was hung from a gibbet in a fish market at Eminönü.
Niyazioğlu's discussion of this Ottoman episode, beautifully written and organized, is a model of what fine historical research can bring to our understanding of dreaming traditions, and what true insight into the nature and importance of dreaming can bring to our knowledge of history. She takes us deep into the Ottoman world, and brings into high relief the great respect for both dreams and poets in that society. Respect of this kind, as the sad fate of Figani reminds us, is a two-edged sword. When dreams are socially prized, false dreams may be manufactured for personal gain or political influence. When poets are revered, their words can bring down the wrath of a government, and its executioners.

   Asli Niyazioğlu is opening a treasury of material to dream researchers and cultural historians as she continues to mine the Ottoman biographical dictionaries of the poets and writers. I look forward to her next discoveries.

1. Asli Niyazioğlu, "How to Read an Ottoman Poet's Dream? Friends, Patrons and the Execution of Fiġānī" in Middle Eastern Literatures (2013) .She draws from ‘Ᾱsık Çelebi's  Meşāirü’ş-Şu’arā ("Halting Stations of Poets) (c.1558), one of the earliest Ottoman Turkish biographical dictionaries of poets. 

Graphic: Ottoman poets and artists consult the books. 1581 miniature in the Topkapi Palace Museum.

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