Saturday, January 05, 2019

The Story of Yussuf & Zuleika

The Story of Yussuf and Zuleika – by the Persian poet Jami (15th Century)  

“Grandfather, the evening is young, the moon and stars illume the sky, the air is perfumed with jasmine and rose—so let us remain in the garden a little longer and tell me please another story.”

“My dear, I can think of nothing more pleasing than to linger here with you and speak of love and wine. Do you know of the story of Yussuf and Zuleika?”

“It is a story I’ve heard told, but stories, even old, are new when told by you. Please, do tell me of the story of Yussuf and Zuleika.”

“My dear, the story begins with the dream of a beautiful princess—the princess Zuleika. In her dream she beheld a figure of such extraordinary beauty that she was overcome with love and desire. When she awoke she could think about nothing else but him. Her heart was restless and she prayed that night would fall quickly and he would come to her again in her dreams. The dream was repeated three times.”

“Zuleika, fairer than the flowers,
Lay tranced—for ’twas not sleep that stole her senses,
Through the nights’ still hours,
And raised new vision to her soul.
The heart unfettered, free to rove,
Turned towards the idol of her love.

“No:—for ’twas not sleep, ’twas motionless,
Unbroken thought, repressed in vain;
The shadow of the day’s distress,
A frenzy of remembered pain.

“But, ’midst those pangs, what rapture still;
The same dear form is ever there;
Those eyes the rays of Eden fill,
And odours of the blest distil,
From every curl of that bright hair.”

“I like this story, Grandfather, of the beautiful princess and her mysterious visions—please continue.”

“Yes my dear, and as they say, ‘When the apple is thrown into the air, it will turn a thousand times before it comes back down.’ So years passed until one day, as the lovely Zuleika was absorbed in her thoughts of her visionary lover, an offer of marriage was received from the adviser to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Convinced that he must be the one of her dreams, she immediately accepted the offer and departed to Egypt with a huge and splendid retinue. Of course, Zuleika could not wait to see her lover and counted the moments until he would meet her caravan and she would finally be able to see him.”

“O joy too great! O hour too blest! He comes—they hail him—now more near,
His eager courser’s feet I hear.
O heart! Be hushed within my breast,
Burst not with rapture! Can it be?
The idol of my life—divine, all radiant, clothed in mystery,
And loving me as I adore him,
As none dared ever love before,
Shall be—nay, is—even now, is mine.”  

“Hearing his horse’s footsteps approach, Zuleika peeps through the curtain of her litter, but is filled with unspeakable grief and dismay on seeing a totally different person from the lovely image of her dreams.”

“Oh my!”

“Not he! Not he! On whom for years my soul has dwelt with sacred truth;
For whom my life has passed in tears of longing,
And wasted was my bloom of youth;
For whom I breathed, and thought, and moved,
My own, my worshipped, my beloved!

“I hailed the night that I might gaze
Upon his star’s unconquered blaze:
The morn but rose that I might pray,

“Hope, wish, expect from day to day,
My sole existence was that thought,
And do I wake to know ’tis nought?
Vain tears, vain madness, vain endeavour,
Another blasts my sight forever!”

“Grandfather, the apple has begun to spin! Poor Zuleika, her heart is broken, what will become of her?”

“My dear, she hid her feeling from the world, at least at first, before love’s persistence eventually broke the walls and turned them into dust. Zuleika was brought to the palace and was placed on the throne.”

“A throne the Peris might have framed,
The sun and moon’s pale lustre shamed:
And she, whose radiance all effaced—Zuleika—on the throne was placed.

“Sparking with jewels, red with gold,
Her heart shrunk, withered, crushed, and cold.”

“Yes my dear, the apple had begun to spin—madly. Now let me tell you more of Yussuf, whose supernatural beauty was so great, that no woman could look on him without love. It is told, that when Yussuf first entered Zuleika’s chamber, all the women present were cutting pomegranates for their princess, but when Yussuf entered, they all became so lost to themselves that they began to cut their own fingers instead of the fruit.”

“And Grandfather, how did it come that Yussuf entered her chamber?”

“Yussuf’s life was governed by a fate not shared with common men—veiled in divine mystery; it had so many twists and turns. It is said, that Yussuf was always surrounded with a celestial light. And his beauty, my dear, was not, as they say, ‘merely skin deep,’ he was a good and kind man who, legend tells, gave the sufferers a portion of his own food, every day when the seven year famine held Egypt in her grip. And so it was dear Granddaughter that Yussuf was loved by many, but he was also feared by some who felt their power threatened, and that is why he was, one day, captured and sold into slavery—which is how he came to be in Zuleika’s chamber.”

“Oh my! Zuleika became his purchaser?”

“Yes, she recognized him instantly and wanted him near her always, but consider her plight—married to royalty, yet, in love with a slave—could she keep her secret?—and for how long?”

“Keep her secret from her husband?”

“Yes, her husband—but also Yussuf—for awhile.”

“And she told no one?”

“She told one person, her nurse, who in an impudent moment discloses Zuleika’s secret to Yussuf.”

“Grandfather, what did he do?”

“Why, my dear, he abandoned her—leaving her in an agony of despair and grief.”

“Is this a dream?—another dream,
Like that which stole my senses first,
Which sparkled o’er my life’s dull stream,
By erring fancy nursed?

“Was it for this my life I spent in murmurs deep,
And discontent—
Slighted, for in this, all homage due,
From generous faithful love withdrew?
For this, no joy, no pomp have prized;
For this, all honors have despised—
Left all my soul, to passion free,
To be thus hated—spurned—by thee?

“O God! to see thee loathing turn,
While on my cheek swift blushes burn;
Contempt, abhorrence on thy brow,
Where radiant sweetness dwelt—till now.”

“Grandfather, I am just a young girl, but it does seem to me that Yussuf’s actions were unbecoming.”

“My dear, neither youth, nor age, can understand the working of divine fate. But do remember the words of dear Hafez, ‘Praise be to God, for He never tries His slave in vain.’”

“So, my dear, the secret of her love revealed, Zuleika is cast out from her life of riches and becomes a hapless beggar in the street. Still, her love for Yussuf never wanes—her every thought is of him alone, his name speaks to her with her every breath. Years pass; she weeps ceaselessly; her tears turn to blood; Zuleika is blind.”

Zuleika’s Lament:

“Your picture in my heart will never go—though you are gone,
Your face is a lovely moon that my soul’s eye gazes on.
The cherished one abandoned me,
So I too forsook myself
And lost a throne, a king’s estate
And both health and wealth.

“When I was rejected and tried my best to neglect you,
This fire inside would never permit me to do so;
Do you know that you plundered a queen’s eyes, heart, and soul?
I wonder what befell the other hearts you stole.
I dreamed of loving you and all my calamities began;
Who would believe one so lovely could be so stone-hearted?

“The world that forgot me I forgot long ago,
You, my endless yearning, and your name are all I know.
Yussuf, now my heart cried out for you again and again,
Now, at last, I am finding you in my tears and pain.
Now the world can rightly say that Zuleika is ruined and blind,
Who can know how she beholds her beloved in her heart and mind?” Nordeen and Wagner, Meherabad 1979

“And Grandfather, does the story end here—with Zuleika in ruin? Oh, I hope not.”

“Do not worry my dear, for as the poet said,

‘Oh dust!
Did you really think that your journey was over when you found the feet of your Beloved?
You had become helpless and hopeless,
Worthless in every way,
But did you think He would allow you to remain in your pathetic state?
Did you think your Lord would breathe dust?’ – Kovitz, Meditation and Prayers on 101 Names of God

“No my dear, the story of Yussuf and Zuleika is not yet complete.”

“Years passed, dear Granddaughter, and Zuleika’s love for Yussuf grew more and more and became more and more pure. Blind, she saw only him, all the time. She lived not in the past, not in the future, but in the eternal moment of her love. She cared not that the only roof over her head was the firmament, the hard ground her only bed; she cared not whether she ate or did not eat, or if people looked at her with scorn or pity. She no longer was in the world or of the world.”

“And Yussuf, Grandfather; what became of Yussuf?”

“Ah Yussuf, his fortune turned; he was freed from prison—eventually he became the grand vizir of Egypt. He was loved by all, became the beloved of all who knew him—or, even heard of him.”

“And so dear Grandfather, does the story end here? You quoted the poet who said that the beloved would not breathe dust, would not allow his lover to remain dust.”

“Yes, my dear, he would not, nor did Yussuf. The story continues:

“One day Yussuf was out walking with a few of his close companions when they came upon a blind beggar woman at the side of the road. Seeing her, Yussuf turned to his companions and said, ‘look at that woman, do you know who she is?’ They all looked at each other and shook their heads. ‘That woman is Zuleika.’ he told them. ‘Do you not recognize her? Her love for me has led her to this state. She has wept tears of blood for me and become blind to everything but me.’

“Yussuf then walked over to Zuleika, kneeled and took her hand in his and then passed his other over her eyes and restored her sight. The others saw her eyes grow wide with wonder as she gazed at the face before her. The saw her whole countenance change, transfigured in bliss. Yussuf stood up and gently lifted her to her feet. Together they turned, without a word spoken between them, and he led her back to the palace and they were never without each other again.”

“Grandfather, the story of Yussuf and Zuleika was both sad and beautiful, but I feel that it has meaning beyond itself—like all of the stories that you tell me.”

“You are right dear Granddaughter; all of the great Sufi stories have multiple meanings, depending on who the listener is. Tell me first, what do you make of it?”

“First I would say that the story of Yussuf and Zuleika is a love story, and as you have reminded me so many times, ‘the tale of love must be heard from love itself, for like the mirror, it is both mute and expressive.’ Now I am just a young girl; I know nothing about love between a man and a woman, but am I wrong in thinking that this story is not about that kind of love?”

“It is, and it isn’t, because in both the dream and the reality there is only love. Love alone prevails, and there is always continuity between all of the levels of illusion and reality—between the deepest deep sleep and complete awakening. The worldly minded can take from this story the lesson that love has the power to lift oneself out of oneself, to transform one’s life, to bring both happiness and suffering. It is also about sacrifice and suffering. Did not Meher Baba once say that real love is not for the weak and faint-hearted? When human love reaches its zenith, the lover loses oneself in the beloved—one forgets herself. Zuleika sacrificed herself, her life, lost herself, lost her life and still cared for nothing except Yussuf.”

“And Grandfather, what of the so-called spiritually minded? What are they to take from this story?”

“Yes, the spiritually minded—the seeker—the wayfarer; there are many lessons…many lessons… I will give you my interpretation of this story:

“Yussuf was a man and Yussuf became more than a man—Yussuf became a Perfect Man—a Perfect Master. In the beginning of the story Yussuf was already advanced on the path. This is what accounts for his extraordinary beauty and the attraction that all felt for him. But, though advanced, he was still in illusion; his consciousness was still of illusion. His state was symbolized by his imprisonment and his slavery. Yussuf was experiencing the most excruciating state of seeing God everywhere and in everything, yet was not able to recognize himself as God—not yet in the state of union with God.

“Now, Zuleika saw Yussuf three times in a dream—in a vision. Yussuf was reaching out for her from his state on the inner planes of consciousness. She too, was reaching out for him—reaching out for God. This was not the first lifetime they were to be together. Do you know dear Granddaughter that the Sufis have many words for love? Some say that there are sixty-seven; some say that every word is a word for love. Those that study the inner-science of calligraphy know that every letter has its own meaning also. There are those who practice writing the same letter for years and years.

“Yes, Zuleika had courted and been courted by love for lifetimes, and as the saying goes, ‘When her time has come, the prey finds the hunter.’ Love was her Beloved, but love was not her only beloved, and at a certain time—when the moment is right—the real Beloved appears and begins to destroy one by one, or sometimes all at once, the lover’s other beloveds—the lover’s desires.

“So, after Yussuf’s realization, symbolized in our story by his release from bondage and his acquisition of power over the kingdoms of heaven and earth, he began his work to make Zuleika worthy of union with him—worthy of union with God.”

“And so he took away her riches?”


“And her sight?”

“Yes, my dear, he took away everything—including himself.”

“And why did he take away himself?”

“My dear, it is a game the Beloved plays with the lover—it is a game of push and pull—Hafez spoke of it when he said, ‘I straddle the line between the barren desert and the cultivated fields.’ It is a state the Beloved gives to the lover. Neither does the lover have the pains and pleasures of worldly life, nor does she have the joys of the spiritual world.

“The lover begins to cry out to the Beloved, ‘Neither do I have this world nor the next, nor am I even able to see you. You hide from me and from your hiding place you shoot arrows that pierce my heart. And you just go on shooting me, covering me with wounds! See my pitiable state, I have nothing left except these wounds, and so I beg you, if you do not show yourself to me, then do not stop shooting your arrows—for they are all I have—and when I look inside my wounds—I see you! So, please, keep shooting your arrows for I can bear everything—except your disregard.’”

“Indeed Grandfather, this game of love is not for the weak and fainthearted.”

“True, but as Hafez says, ‘Praise be to God, for He never tries His slave in vain.’ And when the time is right, as it was for Zuleika, He takes her to Him, we becomes One, and the lover has Everything—Infinitely and Eternally!”
                                                                                    © Copyright Michael Kovitz 2019

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