They say that when the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi died circa 1273, his funeral lasted forty days and attracted mourners of all faiths. Born in what is now Tajikistan, later a resident of what is now Afghanistan, but Persian by heritage, the ecstatic mystic and bard has withstood the tests of time for verses that merge spirituality and sensuality, minimalism and majesty: "There are hundreds of ways," Rumi wrote, "to kneel and kiss the ground."
An 800th-birthday extravaganza honoring the poet at King Middle School (17781 Rose St., Berkeley) on Saturday, Feb. 2, features famed Rumi translator Coleman Barks. A UC Berkeley alumnus who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Tehran University in 2006, Barks has turned this long-dead dreamer — who is linked with the founding of the sect now known as the Whirling Dervishes — into one of America's best-selling poets. Although Barks does not read Persian, he works with earlier English translations to render Rumi's lines in reader-friendly free verse. And this has paid off, as his books — including The Hand of Poetry, The Essential Rumi, and The Book of Love — have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. That's a lot for any poetry in America, and a tremendous lot for medieval poetry from a region with which the US is currently at war. But that's the whole point of Rumi's writing, and of his lasting popularity: It transcends borders and sects as well as centuries with such soul-opening observations as: "What was said to the rose that made it open was said/to me here in my chest." The birthday extravaganza, a benefit for KPFA, also features live performances by Stephen Kent, Geoffrey Gordon, Sukhawat Ali Khan, and Kris Yenney. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door and can be purchased online at KPFA.org, and at Global Exchange, Analog Books, Black Oak Books, Cody's Books, Diesel: A Bookstore, Moe's Books, Pegasus Books, Pendragon Books, and Walden Pond Books. 8 p.m.
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