Poetry

Agha Shahid Ali – Prayer Rug

“in those intervals this rug
part of Grandma’s dowry
folded

so the Devil’s shadow
would not desecrate
Mecca scarlet-woven

with minarets of gold”

– Agha Shahid Ali


Poet Agha Shahid Ali was raised in Kashmir and emigrated to the United States. Cultural and religious identity were themes that loomed large in his work, as demonstrated here in his poem Prayer Rug. Dedicated to his grandmother, Begum Zafar Ali, Prayer Rug sets out from the hours between prayer times and considers how the tradition of prayer structured the intervals of his grandmother’s daily life and divided up her work day in the kitchen. Her cherished mat had also been her dowry, in contrast to the straw mats of the servants who prayed in the garden, and in contrast to the young people who did not pray but looked on, waiting for the prayers to end. The final image of the poem is of his grandmother’s emotion in seeing the unveiled stone in Mecca, while ‘holding on / to the pillars’, the support and foundation of her faith.


Prayer Rug

Those intervals
between the day’s
five calls to prayer

the women of the house
pulling thick threads
through vegetables

rosaries of ginger
of rustling peppers
in autumn drying for winter

in those intervals this rug
part of Grandma’s dowry
folded

so the Devil’s shadow
would not desecrate
Mecca scarlet-woven

with minarets of gold
but then the sunset
call to prayer

the servants
their straw mats unrolled
praying or in the garden

in summer on grass
the children wanting
the prayers to end

the women’s foreheads
touching Abraham’s
silk stone of sacrifice

black stone descended
from Heaven
the pilgrims in white circling it

this year my grandmother
also a pilgrim
in Mecca she weeps

as the stone is unveiled
she weeps holding on
to the pillars

(for Begum Zafar Ali)

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)
From: The Half-Inch Himalayas

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