20th March 2014

Omar Khayyām
A ‘Greek’ stranded among aliens?
‘The Fitz’ of Mar 20, 2014
Delivered by Hazhir Teimourian

Honoured guests, Mr President, brother Omarians!

I’d like to begin by thanking our president and our Secretary for what they don’t know they’ve done. Being human, they might expect me to thank them for their hard work in arranging our affairs.  But no! I speak from on high! I want to thank them for their timing. They do now know they have chosen an evening for our gathering which is so dear to millions of people around the world. As we sit here, the evening is being also celebrated for reasons that have everything to do with our Master, the great Omar.

You may know that it is the Spring Equinox. But you may not know that it is also the eve of the ancient festival of Norouz – New Day, in Persian. Norouz was first instituted, formally, by Darius the First, the Great King of the Achaemenid dynasty of ancient Persia in the 6th Century BC. It has been continuously celebrated ever since, around this time of year, but not always, and not always officially. When in the Seventh Century AD, the armies of Islam overthrew the much more civilised Persian empire, they also banned all manifestations of the separate identity of the Iranian peoples, by which I mean not just the Persians, but also others, less well known, such as the Kurds, the Pashtuns, etc.

And so Norouz was suppressed and this meant that there was no government or institution to insert the necessary leap years. So Norouz became dependent on the memory of the old and gradually drifted away from the Spring Equinox. As a result, by the time of the Master in the eleventh century, Norouz had so drifted out of place that it was celebrated in the autumn.

Fortunately, there came an enlightened king – with an even more enlightened chancellor – to the rescue. The king’s name was Malik Shah, and the chancellor’s name was Nizām al-Mulk. Together, they showered money and honours on a young genius of a mathematician they found in the city of Bokhara in central Asia and they commissioned him to gather around him a team of his brightest fellow mathematicians to calculate, anew, where Norouz ought to be.

As a result, but after several years of intense research, in 1079, Omar and his team came up with the right answer, and there is where Norouz has rested ever since.

A point before I pass on:  In order to reform the calendar so that it would need as little adjustment as possible in the centuries to come, Omar and his team had to determine, first,  the exact length of the year, and this they achieved extremely accurately,  to the astonishment of mathematicians and physicists today.  Without our modern instruments, without telescopes and even accurate clocks, they calculated the time it took the Earth to make one revolution around the Sun to within five seconds of what an atomic clock would have given them. This is according – not to us, fans of the Master who are naturally biased, but – they august Institute of Physics in London.

So tonight, from the Tajiks of central Asia and the Pashtuns of eastern Afghanistan to the Persians of Iran and the Kurds of Syria, millions of people are gathered together,  exactly as we are, to celebrate the coming of the New Year according to the labours of our Master, the great Omar.

So, well done Chairman and well done Secretary! You had tricks up your sleeves you didn’t even know you had!

That was my preamble. Now to the 30 seconds I have left for my main speech!

Who really was Omar Khayyām, this man who left such a deep mark of himself on his age and on the ages to come? For ever since his time, many people have tried to claim him for their own, and his reputation has suffered for it. As he himself says in one celebrated quatrain:

Gar man ze maye Moqāneh mastam, hastam!
Gar kāfaro Gabro bot-parastam, hastam!
Har tāife’i be man gamāni dārd.
Man zāne khodam, har ānche hastam, hastam! 

Lost to the wine of the Magus? I am!
Pagan? Zarathustrian? Haereticus? I am!
Every nation has its notion of me,
I am my own man, whatever I am.

Brothers in the Master, this question of who really Omar was has intrigued me since my childhood in the 1950s in the Kurdish highlands of western Iran, when I first found his little book of poems in my father’s library of bulging and pompous, mystic and theological books. I found the little book irreverent, joyous, giving two fingers to all those who had a ready answer to all complex questions and who hanged you if you didn’t say you were convinced by their arguments. He also used simple language, in the style of the Anglo-Saxons of that same eleventh century, who resented their language being downgraded by Norman warlords, for although Persian was no longer banned by his time, it had nevertheless accumulated so many Arabic and Turkish loan words that little evidence remained of its origins in its daily vocabulary. This meant that official, literary Persian had become almost impenetrable to most people.  But by using only basic Persian words, Oman was not just trying to reach many more people. He was also, in a secretive, deniable way, was telling his audience that he was a rebel,  that he not accept the claims of the mullas to moral superiority, and that he was not glad of the vanquishing of his people, that in fact he regarded the triumph of fanatical Islam over the region a historic disaster.

I found, also, that Omar had a strong sense of social justice. He was critical of many aspects of the government of the king who had bestowed so many honours on him and who had become a close friend and protector.

Gar bar falakam dast bodi, chon Yazdān,
Bar dāshtami man in falak ra ze miān.
Vaz no falaki degar chenān Sakhtami
Kāzādeh be kāme khod rasidi āsān 

If I had Mazda’s omnipotent hand,
I would destroy each and every land.
A whole new world would I then start
In which not a soul nursed a broken heart. 

So here was a man who not only dared to refer to God by his ancient Persian, that is by his Zarathustrian name, Mazda or Yazdān, which offended the Muslims all around him, but also someone who was pained every day to see the injustices being done to his fellow men, the suppression of the free and the joyous by avaricious tax collectors, as well as by dark-robed, pompous, hypocritical mullahs. No wonder the Mullahs passed a fatwa of death against him as soon as his friend and protector, the Shah, was assassinated in 1092:

Lord of the fatwa, what a rogue you are!
Drinker I may be, I prefer by far,
From the juice of grapes to secure a thrill
Than to cheat orphans of their fathers’ will! 

I am glad to report to you that the ten years of intense research that went into my English-language biography of Omar a decade ago did not change this early impression. The biography had, of course, to be a credible work. It had to stand up to the scrutiny of publishers and scholars. But above all, it had to have respect in my own eyes, for I was no longer a child, nor a nationalist of any kind. Truth, or as much truth as is possible to us who are dependent on the evidence of our senses and the reasoning of our minds, came first.

So, what did I find about the life and mentality of Omar Khayyām that was new as a result of my years reading obscure books and manuscripts in dusty libraries. Amazingly, no-one had had written a proper biography of him before, in any language, only cursory sketches of his life or weighty domes on his rubaiyat.

I found that the poor man had had two lives. One, up to the age of 44, was full of fun and hope and laughter and adulation. As an extremely bright child in the city of Nishapur in the north-east of Iran today, he had impressed his father, a herbal physician, so much that he had employed the best teachers in the city for him to be taught the secular arts and sciences of his day, particularly music and mathematics. Then, when his father died when he was 18 years of age, he had inherited the surgery, but instead of continuing in his father’s shoes, he had uprooted himself to the city of Samarkand in central Asia in search of even better teachers. There he had quickly charmed the king, who had made him a regular companion of his family – much like Beethoven nearer our time when he arrived in Vienna to study under Haydn. But this had hardly begun when the region was captured by the Saljuq emperor, young Malik Shah of Isfahan, who, together with his chancellor, ordered Khayyām to migrate to their own capital to work for them. And there, as I mentioned earlier, several years of research resulted in a new solar calendar that is the most accurate there has ever been, even more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that was devised 500 years later and which we use here. Omar’s calendar needs fewer adjustments every 10,000 years than does the Gregorian.

Then, when he was 44 and at the height of his fame and wealth and freedom, disaster struck. In 1092, Malik Shah was poisoned in middle age during a visit to Baghdad, which he was trying to turn into his summer capital, and the queen, who had been a close friend to Omar since her own childhood in Samarkand and Bokhara, grabbed the throne for herself – though in the name of her her infant son – and thus plunged the empire from Jerusalem to Samarkand into a deep dynastic war. (By doing so, of course, she also, unwittingly, created a military vacuum in the region and paved the way for the first Crusade, four years later). Anyhow, the queen needed allies now, and so had to disown her heretical friend in order to appease the Mullahs. They had resented Omar’s influence over the royal family for years. As a consequence, Khayyām was forced to flee back to Nishāpūr and – like Salman Rushdie in our time – declare that he had at last seen the light of Islam, that he was a reformed character now.

And as with Rushdie, the mullahs didn’t believe him and knew he was lying. But fortunately they couldn’t get their hands on him there, as the local prince was a fan of his. But for the rest of his life, he had to refrain from teaching or engaging in any serious debate or correspondence of a philosophical nature. All that he could do was to add the occasional heretical quatrain to his little secret collection for the private gatherings of his friends. I believe he wrote them to be sung, rather than be recited as poetry.

For a more detailed study of his life, particularly for my theses that Omar was a creature of the philosophers of ancient Greece, rather than a product of a Muslim environment, for my evidence that he read Greek, that at times he felt trapped among aliens, please see whether you can find a second-hand copy of my biography of him (Omar Khayyam : Poet, Rebel, Astronomer,  Sutton, London 2007).

I shall leave you with a little reminder of the art of the great FitzGerald who brought Omar to the attention of the world and who is, ultimately, responsible for our being here tonight.  Having examined the selection he made of the rubaiyat, which had by his time become corrupted, and seeing the quality of his translations which are a wonderful poem in English in their own right, I can tell you that Old Fitz caught the spirit of Old Omar perfectly.  May I therefore, in his memory, and in order to give us an excuse to raise a glass to him, too, our other master, may I recite the last quatrain of HIS rubaiyat?

And when Thyself with shining foot shall pass
Among the guests star-scatter’d on The Grass’
And in Thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one – turn down an empty Glass! 

Let us please drink to both Omar and Edward.