Alim Qasimov

A Soul Aflame

Sashar Zarif and Alim Qasimov take the Azerbaijani art of mugham to new heights

The Caucasus – that mythical land of mountains, valleys, and steppes – has always held a peculiar, inextricable place within the depths of my soul. Don’t bother asking me why, though, as I myself have yet to relate the beginnings and sparks of this romance. I didn’t fall in love with a picture, as the Persian lovers of old often did, nor was my imagination made fertile by the apple of a wandering dervish or the devices of a wily matchmaker. Perhaps something long dormant within the recesses of my being was set alight when I read of the picaresque adventures of the rebellious Koroghlu, the flowery affair of Taher and Zohreh, the tribulations of David of Sassoon, the plight of Rusthaveli’s Man in the Panther’s Skin, or the valorous deeds and escapades of the nomadic Turks of old, as sung to the sounds of the kopuz by the bard Dede Korkut. Or, maybe it was the cry of the itinerant asheghs, and the hauntingly beautiful folk melodies of a region likely older than history itself. As they say in the Persian Sufi tradition, however, where there is love, there is no room for reason.

Of all the fabled lands of the Caucasus, Azerbaijan has perhaps intrigued me the most. The land of fire (as it translates from the Persian) where Zarathustra’s flame once burned bright, is a fascinating hybrid of sorts. Having been an integral part of the Persian Empire, once served as a bastion of the Zoroastrian faith, and given rise to illustrious Persian poets such as Nezami (of Layla and Majnun fame) and Khaghani Shirvani, there’s an unmistakable Iranian element at play in the culture and identity of this nation. At the same time, however, there also exists a strong Turkic undercurrent, which has beautifully merged with the former. Through waves of migration by Turkic nomads from Central Asia, as well as Iranian politics, the outward Persian identity of Aran – as the land was referred to by throughout the annals of time until only recently, owing to political reasons – was slowly displaced by a new Turkic one. Although the Seljuks first laid the foundations in the 11th Century during their exodus from the ancestral Turkic homeland in Central Asia through Iran towards Byzantium, it was perhaps the Persian Safavids – a dynasty with Turkic origins – who brought about the ‘turning point’, when they replaced the ancient Iranian Azari language in Azerbaijan (i.e. the western Iranian province) and Aran with a Turkic tongue, and zealously promoted Turkic culture and customs among the populace – not to mention making Shia Islam the official state religion of Iran, as an affront to their bitter rivals to the West, the Sunni Ottomans.

Shah Ismail Safavi

Shah Ismail declaring Shiism the state religion of Iran, as depicted in a Safavid-era miniature

As manifold and complex as the history of Azerbaijan (which henceforth shall be used in reference to the country) is the story of Sashar (a.k.a. Alireza) Zarif, a bright and talented Iranian-Azerbaijani dancer. On an unforgiving December’s eve,shortly after the birth of the Persian god Mitra heralded the end of the struggle between light and darkness (according to Zoroastrian lore), Sashar depicted through the music and dance of his ancestral Azerbaijan another struggle, albeit on a less cosmic scale. Though he was born and raised in Tehran, and now resides in Toronto, Zarif’s family originally hails from the city of Baku, from which his grandparents fled during the Second World War. Watching his grandmother sit cross-legged on a tiny gelim singing traditional folk melodies to the patter of a tambourine, the young Zarif became enthralled with his native Azerbaijan, and set out on a journey to reconnect with his ‘home’ and unearth a part of his identity. Many years later, after the passing of his grandmother, Zarif visited Baku in search of her house, though to no avail. ‘I’m actually glad I didn’t find her house’, he surprisingly remarked in the prelude to his performance. According to the artist, he is a dancer first and foremost, and it’s only the boundless, immaterial world of dance that he can truly call home.

Zarif beautifully melded together the various aspects of his multifaceted identity, taking the audience on a spiritual journey from the mountains of Azerbaijan and the gardens of Persia to the steppes of Turkestan

As Zarif mentions, the performance of traditional Azerbaijani music – known as mugham – once incorporated strong elements of poetry and dance, although through the vicissitudes of time, they have largely been abandoned, especially in the case of the latter. Drawing on the classical Persian Dastgah repertoire of modes and scales and the Avaz singing tradition, yet boasting a unique and undeniable Azerbaijani flavour of its own, the mugham is perhaps the quintessential Azerbaijani art form, with the legendary Alim Qasimov at the helm as its most renowned contemporary exponent. Evoking the image of his departed grandmother, sitting humbly on a floral-patterned cushion with his hand raised to his ear, lethargically swaying from side to side, Qasimov accompanied the writhing Zarif, singing of wine, roses, and nightingales, invoking the ardour of the Eastern mystics of yesteryear. At times seemingly reciting a lullaby with utmost tenderness, while at others, wailing impassionedly with startling urgency, arms akimbo, soaring to brilliant sonic zeniths, Qasimov,plied the impressionable Zarif as if he were a plaything of sorts; and in response, with an ethereal, otherworldly, Parajanov-esque quality, Zarif danced to Qasimov’s tune, as well as that of the troupe of virtuoso musicians on the tar (a Persian lute with variants in the Caucasus and Central Asia), kamancheh (Persian spike fiddle), nagghareh (Azerbaijani frame drum), and balaban (a variant of the Armenian duduk reed flute) like a lover responding to the coquettish glances of his beloved. Indeed, aside from a celebration of traditional Azerbaijani music Zarif’s performance – which took a laborious eight years to bring to fruition – was also gorgeously imbued with Sufi rituals and aesthetics (hence the reference to the Sufi Sama’ ceremony in the performance’s title, Sama’-e Rast) as well as the folk traditions of his Central Asian forebears. Grinning like a deranged paramour, embodying the ecstasy of a Mowlavi dervish and the fervour of a wild shaman, Zarif beautifully melded together the various aspects of his multifaceted identity, taking the audience on a spiritual journey from the mountains of Azerbaijan and the gardens of Persia to the steppes of Turkestan, in the footsteps of his nomadic ancestors. As he notes:

A person who has lived through many displacements, like myself, clearly carries with him/her many different allegiances of belongings, and ought to be allowed to use all of them … I scour my memory to find as many ingredients of my identity as I can. I then assemble and arrange them. I don’t deny any of them.

Though Zarif may not have found his grandmother’s house, he perhaps discovered that evening what he’d been seeking all his life. Defying any form of categorisation and abandoning his earthly persona, he electrified all the dazzling colours of his variegated persona through the power of music and dance, emerging as intricate and resplendent as the most wondrous of gelims. It might all sound extraordinary, but Zarif might perhaps be inclined to differ. As the Persian mystic Rumi once said, Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere – they’re in each other all along.

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, Frieze, The Columbia Journal (whose Guest Editor he served as in 2016), The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, a novella (Coming Down Again), a collection of stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and a volume of poetry (Lovers of Light).