Saturday, February 18, 2017

In the garden of Ottoman dreams

In the collective imagination of Islam, paradise is a garden. In the Ottoman world, gardens are places where friends come together, where wonderful parties unfold, where joy and romance are easy, where the seeker finds the spiritual master, where the living and the worthy dead rub shoulders. The maturation of a person in spiritual and life terms is likened again and again to the opening of a bud. The bud becomes a flower. Sometimes this sets a whole garden astir with blossoming, delighting the senses with color, perfume and the susurrus of silken petals.
    A book may be a garden of ever-living plants. Ottoman biographical dictionaries are often called gardens: The Garden of Roses, the Garden of Peonies, even the Garden of Truths. The last is the title of a biographical dictionary by the poet and provincial kadi (judge) 
Nev’zade ‘Ata’i (d. 1637). He studied a thousand lives, of people from the generation before his, and planted these in formal rows in the garden of his book. He took only subjects who had died and gone into the earth. The fact that his subjects were dead did not mean that they could not speak. He reports face-to-face encounters with the dead, in a garden, or at a gravesite, or at the threshold of a home.  

    We can enter his world, and the gardens of Ottoman dreaming, through the pages of Dreams and Lives in Ottoman Istanbul by Aslı Niyazioğlu, a history professor at Koç University in Istanbul. We learn that for Ottoman officials, dreams were especially prized as a way of gaining counsel on career decisions; there is a practical edge to how they compared dream reports. In a society that valued dreams, a dream report might be a way to promote a case or a cause.    
    Versed in current scholarship on dream sharing in other early modern societies, from Mughal India, Safavid Iran, Habsburg Spain, Ming China, Aslı Niyazioğlu makes an important contribution to the history of dream sharing and how identities are constructed in different societies. We can almost hear the dreams being swapped at garden parties, by Sufis in the dervish houses, by students in the religious schools, in private homes. 
    Ottoman biographers often included dreams in their narratives. “They referred to dreams as mirrors that reflected the divine world that was hidden from ordinary eyes.”  In times of opportunity, as in times of unease, students and officials looked for role models  as they sought tools to survive and thrive.
    The full title of 'Ata'i's compendium is Garden of Truths in the Completion of the Peonies. Why peonies? I thought of those thick, ruffled blooms, ability to come back spring after spring for a century or more, and traditional associations with abundance, prosperity, fullness.
    What did the Ottomans want to know about the people they read about? What made, in their minds, an interesting or worthwhile life? Niyazioğlu correctly insists that we must abandon contemporary expectations to enter a different era and mindset. Ottoman biographies are full of dreams and encounters with the dead. On one level, 'Ata'i's collection is a set of resume lives, chronicles of career steps and appointments,  "Yet, it is also a book where the dreamers woke up to another sight of their world, a fearsome and restless world where social networks and career paths are turned upside down.” 
    The purpose of biography – according to Taskoprizade [d.1561], author of the Arabic biographical dictionary Crimson Peonies, a model for ‘Ata’i, it is “to learn from those conditions [of individuals of the past], to seek advice from them and to form the habit of experience through acquaintance with the vicissitudes of time.” 
     In Ottoman lives, dreams are shown to be guidance on practical decisions and career moves. It is also recognized that dreams can open the eye of truth, what Ibn 'Arabi called the eye of the heart. The bureaucrat Latifi [d.1582] recounted a memorable case of how the voice of conscience may be heard in dreams. The case involved a judge who gave up his career after he dreamed that on the Day of Judgment water mills crushed the heads of corrupt judges; the mills were powered by the blood of their victims.
    In this period Sufi sheikhs used dreams in the training of their disciples, especially in the Halveti and Bayrami orders. The Halveti leader Sinan Efendi wanted disciples to tell all their dreams to their sheiks. 
    Dreams selected by Ottoman biographers are typically clear and direct. These were held to be characteristics of a true dream. 
    Asli sees Ottoman dreams as “bridges between different realms…between the living and the dead, the past and the future, the human and the divine". This is a world where dreams change lives, the dead appear in broad daylight, and biographers invited their readers into gardens of remembrance where the departed will bloom again like peonies in the spring.
    Interaction between the living and the dead is constant in Ottoman biographies. The dead may appear at your door, or in a dream or both; it’s not always clear which reality you are in at the moment of encounter. In one of ‘Ata’i’s stories, an Ottoman sailor in North Africa is woken from a nap by a servant who tells him that his beloved friend, a sea captain reported dead three years earlier, is at the door. They embrace, they pass a couple of delightful hours together, then the friend leaves and the sailor is overcome by sleep. When he wakes, he hastens to tell his friends about the visit. He is amazed when they insist that the captain is indeed dead. No reason is given for the visit except the natural desire of good friends to spend time together.
    Rumi appears to welcome and bless a sheikh who travels to Konya, the poet-mystic’s domain. He appears at a sema and draws a skeptical sheikh into the turning dance, making him a convert. “I could not stay still”. 
     A dead lover appears to his grieving boyfriend and leaves a physical token.
    ‘Ata’i visits the tomb of a sheikh, who appears to him and gives him a pen and assures him he can function both as a kadi (provincial judge) and as a leading poet. When ‘Ata’i is blocked composing a mesnevi, his deceased father, the poet Nev’i Efendi appears and addresses him as “O young bud of the garden of my heart.” Telling him “I built a fountain of pure milk in this house.Strive so that it continues to flow. Do not bring it to a halt.” 
     In 'Ata'i's time, one preacher condemned visits to grave sites from the minbar of Ayasofya, while another praised them from the Blue Mosque just opposite. For 'Ata’i the wise dead are “guardians of the world”. Their bodies are beneath the earth, but their spirits open like wonderful ever-growing flowers.  
    Let’s notice these were scary times. The paranoid Sultan roamed the streets of Istanbul at night with his guards, sniffing for any tell-tale trace of tobacco; if he catches anyone smoking he will have him killed. Anyone caught walking without a light was also subject to immediate execution.
    The author of the Garden of Truths steadies himself in dangerous times with the knowledge that he has allies and bonds beyond death. He presents himself as custodian and gardener for wise men accessible to him in dreams. As a gardener, he removes weeds, prunes, fertilizes, displays unique plants. Asli  Niyazioğlu has rendered a tremendous service to the history of dreaming - which must also be a history of the role of dreams in social interaction - in this careful and fascinating study of Ottoman dreams and biographies.

From Ottoman Istanbul: A Sufi cure for a dream drought

According to his biographers, when Ibrahim Tennuri wanted to become a disciple of the Bayrami sheikh Akşemseddîn (d. 1459), the sheikh asked him about his dreams. As he could not remember any, he was placed in a retreat for forty days. The retreat worked: he had a hundred dreams and remembered each with great precision.

The subject of this review article is Dreams and Lives in Ottoman Istanbul: A Seventeenth-Century Biographer's Perspective  by Asli Niyazioğlu. Published by Routledge for the Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies Series, 2016. 

Art: anonymous painted illustration of the garden of Sa'dabad at Kağıthane, Istanbul, ca. 1720.

1 comment:

nina said...

I am not sure but I think scary times are far more favourable for dreams and revelations of the soul than comfortable periods.
It will sound very unkind (and I apologize for it) but for true practitioners miserable conditions give the possibility to look for deeper joy than conventional one.
I don´t recall many powerful dreams from quiet times but I remember a few life-awakening dreams from desperate moments in life.
We can´t really say from our small perspective which higher purpose the temporary evil serves for. But I imagine it is here to waken us up to our real task in life. In good times we can fantasize a lot, in bad times we are made to search for the real and we can achieve the freedom which is totally independent from outer conditions.
At last, the soul isn´t hurt by humiliating outer conditions, it´s our ego which suffers most.