A celebration of Persian voices and talent

The Art of Sufi Rejection by Roger Sedarat

Fiction

The Art of Sufi Rejection

by Roger Sedarat
“It’s too simple, too cliché, to be anything of worth. Yet another nightingale and rose. Hasn’t Iran had enough of that? Hasn’t the world?”

The Art of Sufi Rejection
by Roger Sedarat

That’s it,” thought Amir, after receiving yet another rejection of his art for an important show. After spending his young adult life fighting wave upon wave of let downs, he finally decided to let go and drown in it. Rather than curse the curator behind the email informing him his work was not accepted into the latest show or even attempt to tell himself they failed to recognize his true genius, he consciously allowed his heart to sink. “Okay failure!” he thought to himself, “whip me till I bleed!”

Aware that even in defeat his appropriation of the sacred ritualistic scene at Karbala made him incredibly grandiose, he nevertheless allowed visions of himself as Hussein being beaten on his back. As if to realize such pain in his own martyrdom, he decided to manically create and submit new artwork for the actual purpose of getting shot down. He now would actively choose abasement, following the tradition of what he recalled his uncle telling him years ago back in Iran about the malāmatīyah Sufi order from 8th century. If living in such self-reproach enabled them to overcome the world, at the very least he’d break free from his dependence on the fickle art scene in New York City.

Like a poor dervish in the 21st century, endlessly humbled while wandering the town in filthy clothes begging for food, he slapped some paint aimlessly on a canvas. He then used the first picture taken with his cracked iPhone camera in the horrible lighting of his basement apartment in Rego Park, Queens, as his submission. Lighting yet another cigarette as he poured himself more coffee, he stood back and admired his awful new work. “Now when the ‘thank you for trying us’ email arrives in my inbox,” he thought, “I’ll reply, ‘Thank you for this rejection.’” He actually came to mean it.

Admittedly it was harder to present such deliberately inferior paintings in his art classes. Though just making his professional beginning, he’d already had years of training—starting as a young boy in Iran with private lessons from an esteemed teacher-friend of his famous artist father and continuing after his family’s immigration at a reputable state university in New York. Now in his graduate program at School of Visual Arts, the idea of suddenly ignoring all he’d learned about color and lines struck him as terrifyingly painful. But that was all part of his little aesthetic plan, which belonged to the even greater one, ultimately revealed to him by the divine. No matter what the cost in humiliation, he must learn to accept it.

“Um….are you….like…feeling okay, Amir?” asked Karen in class, one of his peers and among his biggest fans. She nervously rubbed her forehead when checking in with him, clearly afraid she’d upset her artistic ally. Ordinarily she’d never voice anything remotely negative, but he’d just revealed two roughly parallel zig zags roughly scribbled onto a used canvas with a giant black crayon.

“I must say I’m concerned as well,” sighed his teacher Dionne, an especially overconfident new hire whose work continued to appear at all the esteemed shows. “Yet again this semester, another one of your submissions has little, if any, thought put into it.”

“I agree. Please give me an F,” replied Amir, trying his best to mean it without any sarcasm.

Of course she refused to outright fail him, but when she asked him to resubmit the following week and he brought in just one squiggled line, he’d earned the equivalent of his first ever “C-” on anything since grammar school back in Iran. It was pretty much the same way in his other studio classes. Such dispiriting feedback from those who knew his capabilities, as well as by presumed gatekeepers who would ensure none of his new work made it into shows, assured him that he was succeeding at his plan to fail.

Soon however, the usual rejections no longer sufficed. Much as he’d previously needed to realize grand accomplishments, he now longed to truly go down in flames. Instead of his usual temp jobs to pay the bills, he deliberately applied for positions far beyond him: manager of a warehouse, tenure-track professor at an art school in Minnesota, even a veterinarian at a local animal hospital. Alas, formulaic emails ultimately did just as little for him from the work world as from the world of art.

Craving real emotional pain, he then lied about his tennis level to sign up for a league of tennis players two steps better than him, mostly with guys who’d played on Division I teams in college. The 0-6, 0-6 beat downs in singles really hurt him for a while, but soon just watching the near-invisible serves whisk by him simply bored him and his opponents. Switching to doubles helped a lot, since at least his superior partners would hate on his game, berating him in front of their opponents.

“Dude, what are you doing here, why even trying to play tennis at all?” said one of his more disgruntled partners. Of course he kept showing up in the league, until the coordinator kicked him out. Once again he found himself with insufficient rejections to satisfy his desire for total defeat.

Frustrated with the new status quo, where more and more he realized that to produce either something worthy or complete trash ultimately just made him a garden variety artist, he tried to lower his creative stakes even more. When he heard his friends Sara and Avi discussing before class whether or not to try for a new show that was all the buzz, that same sixth sense he took as revealed wisdom from the divine inexplicably directed  him to do something impossibly bad for an already impossible venue.

Taking his original squiggled line, he wrote boldly over it with a red crayon:

“I got a C- in art class for this scribble… Dionne is a generous grader.”

He then took a picture of himself with his broken cell phone, printing it out despite being low on both color and black and white toner to accompany the piece. His selfie came out smeared and fragmented, but not in a cool, I-meant-to-look-like-a-mistake kind of way. It just appeared as very low quality. He then took pictures of his crappy drawing, which he titled, “Self-Portrait of a Deliberately Failing Artist,” and sent them in along with the required bio.

Having exhausted himself of bad ideas, he reached an even worse depth of despair:  pure creative impotence. Ignoring calls from friends, he sat in his basement apartment in Rego Park and watched basketball while smoking cigarettes. For the first time in his life he even skipped classes. As the hyper-productive offspring of two intensely disciplined artist-parents, this felt  like a new kind of failure. At least for a while, this rekindled the obsessive desire for the next sting of shame, till it too soon grew stale.

During one of these endless late nights of failing to produce, his phone pinged with an incoming email:

“Dear Amir Khavari, thank you for your submission to our show. Betsy Erkilla, our curator, and I are pleased to inform you that your two pieces “C- on Scribbled Lines” and “Feeble Attempts to Foreground Weak Brush Stroke” have been selected for our upcoming show: Between Two Worlds: Young New York Artists of the Diaspora. We thought you might appreciate an excerpt from one of our judges about your work:

In his damaged self-portrait, this young Iranian artist radically represents his own fraught displacement from his country of origin,. His meta-comment upon his own perceived failure offers a real and necessary push back on the perceived arbitrariness in assessing the value of art along with art education.

Details will soon follow, but for now, a huge congratulations. We look forward to hosting you and your work.”

Of course part of him wanted to celebrate, as if he’d tricked his ego into such reduction that he’d somehow cheated the system and won the big recognition he secretly wanted. Sitting with the ridiculous success, however, which would make all of his peers and even teachers more than a little jealous, it failed to do much if anything for him. In fact, a few days later, he found himself more miserable than ever.

At a particularly low point one late night, after going so long ignoring any contact from family, Uncle Emdod, his father’s older brother, called him from Shiraz. A specialist in classical Persian poetry who had mastered  Islam and the Sufi mysticism that underpinned the greats like Hafez, and moreover, seemed himself to embody it, Amir felt safe enough to answer.

“Salaam, Amu,” said Amir.

“Are you even alive over there?” asked Embod. “Oh, wait, it’s late your time, right. Were you sleeping, or are you just on drugs?”

“No drugs Amu, just depressed.”

“You are young…and women in New York are beautiful. Why would you be so down?  It’s your art obsession with art, isn’t it?  Your tragic sense of self? Just like your father, who could sell a painting for a trillion dollars but would still insist on seeing himself as a failure.”

“Actually Amu, I’ve been trying to be like your Sufis, abasing myself…my work.”

“That’s a hard path to wander down, my poor nephew, and you’re not trained for it.”

“Tell me about it. And it turns out I suck even at trying to fail. I actually got rewarded for it.”

Emdod laughed. “The thing is, the nafs, you know, what some call  the ego where you are, though it’s a little different than that for us…. but you see, the nafs, it will always find a way to control us. We can get just as addicted to rejection as acceptance. It’s the other side of the same coin of delusion.”

“Then how do I escape from it?” asked Amir.

“Of course there’s a way, a spiritual way,” said Emdod. Amir could hear him strike a match to light his cigarette. “But it’s not for you,” he sighed, exhaling. “You’re not that spiritual. Actually, you’re not at all spiritual. You’re just an artist.”

“So I’m screwed? What can I do then?” asked Amir. Despite his anguish, he was relieved to be  able to finally talk with  someone, especially this uncle who let him express himself so openly.

“Just make your art… get accepted or get rejected, and hopefully, at focus on making art just to make art,” Emdod said. “The thing is, Amir-jaan, despite you and your nafs, and also because of it, Allah still works, creating through you. Your job is to bring your art into the world beyond all judgment, whether it makes you famous or a laughingstock. Do you understand?”

“I think so, uncle, I do.”

“Good, now go to bed. You’re always staying up too late!” He hung up.

Instead of sleeping, Amir lit his own cigarette, brewed a pot of coffee, then made his way to his easel. Without quite knowing what he might paint or even why he now bothered, he nevertheless got his brushes and water ready. In no time he watched as a perfect rose appeared in the center of a canvas, then letting go of the red paint, he found himself mixing a light bluish gray, which became  a nightingale.

Stepping back for a minute, he liked the simplicity of it. Before he could even take a sip of what was now his third cup of coffee or a drag of another cigarette, he found himself plagued by self-doubt. “Damn. It’s too simple, too cliché, to be anything of worth. Yet another nightingale and rose. Hasn’t Iran had enough of that? Hasn’t the world?”

About to abandon a more traditional failure, when this time he’d actually tried to succeed, he drew upon his uncle’s image as put down his brush. “Ahreh Amu,” he said out loud. “I’m here to create…just to create. Maybe I’ll get rejected; maybe I’ll be accepted. Either way the nightingale still finds a way to the rose.”

As he drank the dregs of his coffee and finished his cigarette, he went to the sink to rinse his brushes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Roger Sedarat

Roger Sedarat is the author of Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP’s 2007 Hollis Summers’ Prize, Ghazal Games (Ohio UP 2011), and Haji as Puppet: an Orientalist Burlesque, which won Word Works 2016 Tenth Gate Prize. A recipient of the Willis Barnstone Prize in Translation, his fiction has recently appeared in Construction Literary Press, Book XI: a Journal of Literary Philosophy, Caesura, The Nonconformist, Kestrel: a Journal of Literature and Art, and Plato’s Cave. A short story from an emerging collection was awarded a 2022 Grant from the New Jersey Council of the Arts. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Queens College, City University of New York.

Author Photo by Janette Afsharian. FEATURED IMAGE BY Egor Myznik via UNSPLASH.

Continue Reading