“Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known” is my favorite piece in Soyinka’s most recent book of poems, published in 2004. The poem is dedicated to the Egyptian writer, Naguib Mafouz and begins with two epigraphs. The first one, “The world is a market place” comes from a Yoruba song. And the second, taken from James E. Flecker’s play Hassan, is:  “We take the Golden road to Samarkand.” With the fall of the Berlin wall and the 9/11 attack in mind, Soyinka wants, in this very long poem, to figure out the best way of achieving true cosmopolitanism.  The unifying and egalitarian impulse that initially inspired communism eventually degenerated into a totalitarian dream of world domination. As far as religion goes, Soyinka sees in Islamic fundamentalism that same desire to hold the world to ransom and banish every form of difference . It is against these forms of universalism that Soyinka evokes the market as a place where differences encounter and co-exist.

I find interesting Soyinka’s sense of the market as a transitory space. A place where none feels entirely at home.  The home is a space that is tied to a person’s sense of being. Familiarity, security, intimacy and comfort are the buzzwords of the home front. When the home is in danger, we feel compelled to protect it with our last blood because in protecting the home, we reason that we are ensuring our survival. The home also shares an often well-defined boundary with an outside world of which it is always suspicious.

The space of the traditional market is configured differently. It tends to attracts a rowdy crowd of people who have wandered from faraway homes. The market is not only distant from the home but requires that we are displaced, that we leave our families behind to come to this other space where we can meet others who themselves have had to take leave of their own homes. The market also signifies a movement from the familiar to the strange. And whoever can bear the unfamiliar thrives in the market place.  This is the sense in which “the world is a market place” and not a home. For Soyinka, we ought to think of the world not as a piece of property over which we assert ownership or dominion. The world instead is a market where we all gather to peddle goods or gods or merely to wander.

Samarkand is an ancient city that played a central role in the famous silk trade. Samarkand was a crossroad for the East and West. If the market place is the quintessential figure of cosmopolitanism, Samarkand is, for Soyinka, the market of all markets.  But Soyinka understands that the Samarkand of which he dreams is a utopia. Nonetheless, he is willing, in this beautifully written poem, to find the golden road that leads to it.

The excerpt below is the first of five parts.


A market is kind haven for the wandering soul
Or the merely ruminant. Each stall
Is shrine and temple, magic cave of memorabilia.
Its passages are grottoes that transport us,
Bargain hunters all, from pole to antipodes, annulling
Time, evoking places and lost histories.

A market is where Samarkand invades
Johannesburg, and, as the shutters close,
Departs without regrets or trace
Until its next reincarnation. A market is
Where London’s Portobello spells
Caracas and Yoruba, Catalan or Khourassan,
And though hard currency is what changes hands,
It lets you drift in fluid channels where
Sensations thrive on trade by barter.

Chimes of faith assail the market place–
The muezzin’s prayer alert, a shrine with the warren,
A lean-to church dispenses chants at war
With handbells. White-robed dervishes in trance
At crossroads of Spices Row and Fabric Lane
Swirl, oblivious to slender saffron files
Meandering, equally oblivious to the world.
Fairy-bells in counter points to cosmic ooms–
Hare Krishna’s other dervishes in slight
Ethereal motion through the firewood stalls.
Deep in the maze of Isale-eko, Bhuddist mantras?

The Orisa faithful wait their turn. In season,
Ogun’s iron bells, Sango’s Ayan drums
Oya’s chalk and coral maids reclaim
This borrowed space. Ancestral voice ascendant,
Masks of wood and webbed visors, indigo and camwood
Presences unfold their mats of invocation.

These are the markets I have known,
Tibetan souls on pilgrimage to shrines
In heartlands of Dogon, Baule or Zululand.
Leaflets of salvation for the unwary
Barefoot evangelists of every faith
Tuned to bared moments of the vacant soul.

Let all contend. Let a hundred thousand
Flowers diffuse exotic incense and a million
Stars perfume the sky, till the infant cry of Truth
Resound in the market of the heart,
And warring faiths
Reconcile in one immensity of Being.

Trade and holy places, saints and salesmen
Have ever lived as soul companions, caterers
For the needs of flesh and spirit–bread
And wafer, wine and holy water, homilies,
Talismans and rosaries, the blessed
Pouch of the earth or magic mantras, locks
And lockets of painted mystics
Reliquaries and tourist souvenirs around
A healing spring, a spot of revelation–
The pilgrim trade is evenly sanctified.

Still, here and there, one lashes out– recall
The prince of peace turned manic in a synagogue
Turned market place? Lashed trespassers
With tongue and whip? That lash, in retrospect,
Was kind. I envy the usurers of old
The wages of their sin and mine. Our seasons’
Lesser desecration–a face unveiled,
An ankle bared, a keepsake, a taste or thought
Of foreign taint–feed Grim Reaper Purity
From lethal thrusts, not the symbolic lash.
They pierce the heart, not touch the soul within.

Go to the Orisa and be wise. Ifa
Shuns the excluding tongue, unveils
Uncharted routes to knowledge, truth
and godhead. Man is restless seeker,
What follows six, says Ifa, transcends the bounds
Of seven–there are not final rites to numerology.
Let who can, count the motes in a sunbeam
Or weigh the span of grief from voice to voice
In the homeland of the immolated.
Go to the orisa. None but fools
Claim guardianship of the final gateway.