A Smile without a Mouth

4 December 2023

This blog offers a modern reading of a quatrain attributed to ʿUmar Khayyām through a painting. 

Two works of art inspire the title of this short piece. One is a mid-13th-century Persian quatrain, attributed to, among a few other poets, ʿUmar Khayyām, and the other is a 21st-century painting by an Istanbul-based artist. Here is the first:

یا رب چه خوش است بی دهان خندیدن

بی واسطه‌ی چشم جهانی دیدن

بنشین و سفر کن که به غایت نغز است

بی زحمت پا گرد جهان گردیدن

O Lord! How delightful it is to smile without a mouth

to see a whole world without the intermediation of the eye

Take a seat and travel, how very delicate it is

to go around the world without troubling the leg.

The quatrain was first attributed to Khayyām in an anthology of Persian quatrains by Jamāl Khalīl Shirvānī in his Nuzhat al-majālis (Shirvānī 1995, p. 676) in the thirteenth century. The language in this medieval poem is lucid, devoid of metaphors or any semantic complexities. A present-day Persian speaker can easily understand it without having to look anything up. It is intriguing how this medieval artefact remains accessible despite the considerable changes in the Persian language over the past eight centuries. Not only does it maintain semantic coherence, but it may also be appreciated from a modern aesthetic perspective.

It contains three images of disembodiment. The speaker smiles without a mouth, sees “without the intermediation of the eye”, and moves around “without legs”. I read this poem as a lens to understand an emotional experience that traverses the body. The idea is that the expression of such an emotion passes a threshold that it no longer needs the body to exist. In the quatrain, an emotional expression detaches from the body and feels “delighted (khwush)” in its detachment. God is directly addressed but it is not clear if he is asked or told. Is this a plea to God or an intimate sharing with Him? Does the speaker ask God because He is assumed to be a disembodied being? Or perhaps it is the speaker who is going through an out-of-the-body experience? Is the journey mentioned in the last two hemistichs a fanā-type phenomenon, or is the speaker experiencing mystical rupture and ecstasy, considering his/her body as a blockade? Is this perhaps the familiar gnostic ṭayy al-ʿarḍ – the idea that a mystic or saint travels in space without moving his body?

All these interpretations are tenable to an extent. But beyond these symbolic readings, it is striking that the poem fulfils its semantic literality by travelling without a body to reach us in the 21st century. The speaker’s voice is realised on this digital screen, telling us how delightful it is to survive the body through eight centuries of multi-medial metempsychosis – from the cognitions of the poets who recited and memorised it, through the ones who transcribed it on paper, those who printed it in type, all the way to those who digitised it. To smile without a mouth becomes a timeless expression, a transpersonal emotion, that somehow makes sense to us modern readers. It makes sense because in this re-mediated expression, the speaker’s “delight” becomes a real pleasure, not the pleasure of a transcendental afterlife – “with nice streams and vegetation” as many religious scriptures frequently promise their believers – but that of an afterlife that is here and now.

The correlate of the disembodied joy that the poem articulates is not a heavenly percept but a hellish nightmare. This feeling of joy is not the consequence of religiosity or faith because the poem refrains from making any references to religious ideas, themes, or narratives. The only religious clue might be the initiatory term “O Lord (yā rabb)”, which was and still is so common a vocative that ceases to be heard as a religious expression. The mouthless smile, eyeless seeing, and legless moving are not described in theological or even mystic terms but are marked only by an emotional disposition, the state of being khwush, that is joyful and pleasurable. But at the same time, if we push the semantic effect of the poem to its (bio)logical conclusion, this joy may be conceived of as the result of a mutilated body, a body that articulates and records its emotion in a poem despite, or just right after, losing its organs.

I kept mumbling to myself “to smile without a mouth” when I came across the second artwork I mentioned earlier: a painting by the self-taught Istanbul-based artist Sinur. See the painting here and a short view of her process here. Born in Mahabad, Iran, and having gone through a meandering path of displacement through Erbil, Sinur is one of the rising artists in the Kurdish and Iranian societies. Her work has been especially well-received in the aftermath of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. See her interview with one of the top widely-watched television channels, Iran International TV, here.

The image shows a portrait of a mutilated face. One eye is completely removed and from the mouth, only a few teeth are left. The rest of it has vanished into a black that extends into what we can only assume to be the throat. I cannot help but see a smile in this portrait. The body is losing its organs but just manages to take one final glimpse with the remaining eye and attempt a smile without much of a mouth left to smile with. I could not turn away from the painting and was fixated on the awkward pleasure that it represents in the non-face of the dying body. Sinur told me that the following excerpt from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G. H. was for her deeply connected to this painting, during the making of which she was “grieving two consecutive deaths”:

Hell is the mouth that bites and eats the living flesh with its blood, and the one being eaten howls with delight in his eye: hell is pain as delight of the matter, and with the laughter of delight, the tears run in pain (Lispector 2012, p. 122).

The parallels between the Khayyāmic poem and the excerpt that Sinur remembers in her painting are unmissable and intense. Like the speaker of the poem, the painter seeks a post-corporeal state in which she creates a real and immanent form of life after death, transduced in an emotionally charged painting. Remembering Lispector’s novel, Sinur explores how one can even allow a “ laughter of delight” in the face of death.

She painted this image in 2017, only a few years before the 2022 protests, in which the Islamic Republic, with disciplined brutality, targeted protesters, leaving behind hundreds of people who now bear the haunting mark of having lost an eye. Viewing this painting over a year later, I can still remember the loudness of our emotions in those days and hear the laughs and cries that have by now travelled a long way in our memory without a mouth.

Screenshot of Sinur working on her painting. Taken from her Instagram account. See the in-text links above.

Cited works

Lispector, Clarice. The Passion According to G. H. Translated from the Portuguese, with a note, by Idra Novey. Edited by Benjamin Moser. New York: New Directions, 2012.

Shirvānī, Jamāl Khalīl. Nuzhat al-majālis. Edited by Muḥammad Amīn Riyāḥī. Tehran: Mahārat, 1995.

© Arash Ghajarjazi and the Beyond Sharia ERC Project, 2023. This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 101020403). Any unlicensed use of this blog without written permission from the author and the Beyond Sharia ERC Project is prohibited. Any use of this blog should give full credit to Arash Ghajarjazi and the Beyond Sharia ERC Project.