The story of my life as a Poetic Scribe

I'm often told I'm getting distracted from my medical career, but it’s hard to explain that medicine is exactly...

Zahra Shah February 21, 2015
“Hassan would travel the world on foot. By day he would brew tea – maybe Cairo, maybe Morocco. He would find different ways to sustain his travels as he always only moved from city to city by foot, guided by the moonlight. The day was to work he claimed, and the night to travel. Soon after this wandering artist crossed the Wagah Border, he met the love of his life. And anchored his heart in Lahore.

Please can you put all these details in your poem”, said Shama.

I blinked at this stunning woman telling me a very personal love story of her dearest friend so I could compose the perfect poem for her. We were sitting across a wooden table on bare chairs surrounded by murals of inspiring Pakistanis in a dimly lit cafe nestled in the heart of Karachi. This is the life of a poetic scribe. I scribbled feverishly as she completed her story of how her friend came to find his true soul mate. What an extraordinary story in such an ordinary place, I thought.

We sipped ‘kahva’ and shared a relationship only two strangers speaking the utter truth to each other can share. Indeed it is an honour to be taken into such confidence, very similar to the confidential relationship of a doctor and patient. Within 10 minutes of meeting my client, I know things about them often no one else does.
“Oh! And he always wears black. So can he have a black velvet scroll with his parchment in it and a silver braid to indicate she is the silver lining in his life?” Shama continued.

She also told me the name of his fiancé means a halo around the moon, which I then portrayed in this poem, that this wandering traveller was not really lost but was being guided by a stealthy halo around the moon so he could seek her out. An excerpt from their poem follows:
“He flowed through the River Indus,

Travelled in search of a soul.

He brewed tea in Morocco

And burnt his identity

To fill a gaping hole.

Shrouded in darkness

Carrying only the burden of his heavy, wretched heart.

Bathed by the winking moonlight,

Stealthily, casting a halo around his heart.”

I have been writing poems since the age of 10. Today, 18 years later, I moved to Karachi from London armed with a medical degree to practice in the city I loved. For a long time, I have struggled with the red tape of the Pakistani government to achieve a license to practice medicine. Only those who love their profession more than themselves can understand the frustration of not being allowed to do what they do best. So I found solace in my poems.

I started a company called ‘Semazen – the poetic messenger’.  I am a personal poetic scribe, the only one in Pakistan as far as I am aware. I started with the encouragement of those who believed in my writing and a trip to Pakistan Chowk where I discovered a magical ‘naqoosh’ or a calligrapher. There amongst a stray kitten who found her home in my lap, this fascinating man created the most beautiful versions of my company’s name with a wooden ‘qalam’ and some black ink. Some dear friends drew me a whirling dervish and I created a Facebook page. That is how I began to scribe the secrets of the hearts of Karachiites.

Photo: Zahra Shah

Sema’ is the dance of the whirling dervishes originating in Turkey and envisioned by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi alongside his soul mate, Shams of Tabriz. One hand of the dervish is always pointing towards the skies and one to the ground; they whirl in a space between the ‘Is’ and the earth.

When I read good poetry, I too feel like I am whirling in a medium between God and the earth. It is an ethereal escape from the woes of the world. So my poetic scribing is named after this mesmerising dance.
“What you seek is seeking you” – Rumi

And I find my seekers, or clients, have a poem that always belonged to them. They just need to seek it out. And across an oak table in a cafe, we whirl together in a dance to create their poem. Indeed it is as exciting for me as it is for the client. I then make customised Elizabethan style poetic scrolls in velvet or suede. I place the order at Behbud, a well-known NGO, where young female artisans craft and stitch these scrolls by hand. Every scroll is designed exclusively for the seeker depending on their story.

My first client was a loving son from an affluent background.
“My father buys my mother everything she needs. But we never express to her what she means to us,” said he.

I knew this was a calling for life when he rang me, ecstatic with excitement to tell me how his mother started crying as she read the poem and realised it was about her. He had even gone through the trouble of telling me what sandwiches she sent him every Sunday whilst he was at boarding school. Somehow that little detail made its way into the poetic whirl.

Another client of mine was a girl who asked me to create a scroll that matched a traditional ‘jamawar’ Quran cover that her dying grandmother left to her mother. Her mother’s expression moved me deeply when she saw her poem. I often melt traditional sealing wax to seal poems and deliver them to my seekers.

Photo: Zahra Shah

I am often told I am getting distracted from my medical career, but it’s hard to explain to them that medicine is exactly this. To hear someone’s story and provide some form of healing. Anton Chekhov, the famous Russian writer, said
“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress.”

Many doctors, such as Khaled Hosseini, have chosen a career in writing. I am hardly the first. So as I await permission from the government to work in a hospital, I heal myself and others in the way I know best – as a poetic scribe.

Photo: Zahra Shah

One always sets out for a destination; I cannot imagine what the destination of my little business could be. But it has mapped out a journey that even the best destination could not be compared with. One of my seekers introduced me to the famous Greek poem Ithaca by Constantine P Cavafy. It aptly reflects my sentiments:
“Have Ithaka always in your mind.

Your arrival there is what you are destined for.

But don’t in the least hurry the journey.

Better it last for years,

So that when you reach the island you are old,

Rich with all you have gained on the way,

Not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.

Without her you would not have set out.

She hasn’t anything else to give you.”

There is a Sufi saying that says,
“The wound is where the light enters you.”

I find through the stories I scribe daily, and through my own journey, that this philosophy holds true for most hearts in Karachi.
Zahra Shah A doctor from England who is currently pursuing a career in paediatrics in Pakistan.She is the founder of Semazen The poetic Messenger.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Zahra Shah | 6 years ago | Reply Responses are as beautiful as the souls who give them ! Thank you ! Do follow my facebook page and share other works of literature that move you !
Maximus Decimus Meridius | 6 years ago | Reply What an awesome awesome blog by an awesome person. I am a pretty cynical person ( my comment history shows that lol) but this blog is really heartwarming. Gives you the feeling of hot coffee going down your throat on a cold night. Hats off to you. Restored my faith in humanity , you did. Also When I read that you studied Ithaca I was really happy. Many times people tell me these are useless pieces of literature, old and forgotten . Ithaca. The illiads translation by pope. The metaphysicals etc etc. But I see that someone else has read things like these. Awesome. I wish you all the best in your life and in your career.
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