The agony and the ecstasy -- a call for dogma to embrace poetry

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Alex Potter designed and led a concert featuring musical versions of the Song of Songs as part of Early Music Vancouver's Bach Festival at Christ Church Cathedral. Image: Jan Gates/Early Music Vancouver/Facebook

As Eid al adha and Tisha b'av coincided this month and news from the Holy Land -- not to mention America -- seems as grim as ever, and extremists of all faiths rage on from Mississippi to Kashmir to Riyadh -- it seems a fitting time to ponder another side of the religious experience.

While violence is increasingly justified by sacred texts, let's not forget the flip side: religion as seduction. And no, I'm not just talking about the furtive thrills of self-flagellation or the illicit pleasures borne from speaking in tongues (a la Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit).

Shortly before the IDF and accompanying settlers stormed the al-Asqa mosque at Eid, followed by the minor invasion of a small town on the West Bank by armed settler women (City of Women meets Exodus perhaps?), I pondered the erotic side of dogma during a program of the Song of Songs during Vancouver Early Music's recent Bach Festival.

Before images of Uzi-wielding settler women in Birkenstocks terrorizing a Palestinian village could sully the moment, I listened to the gorgeous strains of Palestrina in Latin, that translated as:

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine./Your oils have a pleasing fragrance./Your name is oil poured out, therefore the virgins love you.  Take me away with you. Let us hurry. The king has brought me into his rooms.They are right to love you. ….I am dark, but lovely, you daughters of Jerusalem, like Kedar's tents, like Solomon's curtains."

The Song of Songs -- weirdly coexisting with promises of fire and brimstone for the deviant -- remains one of the most poetic expressions of the love between the creator and humanity.

Before the beautiful face of jailed Saudi dissident Loujain Hathloul, who marked her 30th birthday in jail with a dozen other women fighting for their rights as full citizens, could reach me, I thrilled to Palestrina's "Ecce tu pulcher":

"Behold thou art fair, my beloved, and comely. / … I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys"

When I spoke with Alex Potter, who designed and led the concert, he mentioned that he'd arranged a similar program in Germany, where a Syrian woman refugee also read erotic poetry written by Andalusian women poets.

Consider the words of Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, the 11th-century Andalusian daughter of a caliph who transformed her father's palace into a literary hall where she mentored young women in poetry, even sometimes sewing her verses onto the trim of her transparent tunics:

"I am made for higher goals and by Allah
I am going my way with pride.
I allow my lover to touch my cheek
And bestow my kiss to him who craves it." 

I'm sure this would go down well in Riyadh today.

Indeed there are many examples of erotic poetry from the Muslim world and not only in Andalusia, where religious and cultural harmony produced exquisite love poetry by women in both Arabic and Hebrew.

The eight-century words of Baghdadi poet Abu Nuwas -- "I bought abandon dear And sold all piety for pleasure. My own free spirit I have followed, And never will I give up lust" -- would make current-day religious militias in Iraq go ballistic.

And what would American evangelicals, who seek to rival the Saudis with their new obsessions with male guardianship and criminalization of reproductive rights, make of the ecstasy of Santa Teresa?

How did it all come to this?

Jerusalem could have become a new Andalusia, not a place of walls and occupation. Iraq was supposed to be "liberated," and America, once considered the new Jerusalem, has become a place of hate-filled borders that arms a medievalist regime, the birthplace of the Prophet who once said, let this be the end of any difference between man and man.

For those who would make of the sacred a prison of rules, rather than a field of flowers, come away with me my loves, I have a recommended reading list.

Hadani Ditmars, author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, is currently at work on a book about love poetry in all three Abrahamic faiths.

Image: Jan Gates/Early Music Vancouver/Facebook

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