kismet

Ah, kismet. The ineluctable, inescapable, yet somehow eternally exotic fate. What has been decided for you by God, your every move just like a chesspiece until, finally… mate.

Mate? You are mated. You kiss your mate. Kiss me, mate: it’s kismet. The attraction is more than merely cosmetic. Though it be a bridging of a chasm, it will take you to the other side surely. Kismet makes no mistake.

Kismet is fate, sure, but fate with an air of the exotic: Baghdad and baggy pants, perhaps – a 1950s version, not the 2000s. Kismet is redolent of foreign spices, as much korma as karma, not mere garlic but a right forest of foreign spices. Which ones? Doesn’t matter, as long as they have an exciting otherness. When you fall in love, after all, you project so many of your own desires on the other person, just as when you swoon for the exotic and mysterious you are really looking at a painted mirror reflection of the back of your own closet. You may be captivated, but truly you are held captive by a fantasy of your own devising.

Well, such are the anfractuous – nay, Byzantine – ways of fate. What goes out the front door may come in the back door, or vice versa. Things you set in motion may end up where you never see them; seeds you sow may be harvested by others. On your way to escape your fate, you meet it. But when you call it kismet, it probably also involves a striking coincidence.

Most responsible for the flavour of this word, as you may know, is a 1953 musical play, Kismet, which became a hit movie in 1955, a heady romantic stew full of waspy orientalism, a plot full of remarkable coincidences, all happening in a single day. Its best-known song is “Stranger in Paradise,” which an incognito prince sings to a maiden who has suddenly captivated him. The musical was by Wright and Forrest, with book by Lederer and Davis, but it was based on a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock (who changed his name from Knoblauch, which happens to be German for ‘garlic’). And the music that made it so famous is based on music by the Russian composer Alexander Borodin. That most famous song is taken right from Prince Igor, from the Polovetsian dances: songs of enslaved Polovetsian maidens forced to dance for their captor, Prince Igor.

The word kismet comes to English from Turkish, which got it from Persian qismat, which got it from Arabic qismat ‘portion, lot, fate’, which comes from qasama, verb, ‘divide’. Divide because your fate is your portion, the lot that falls to you. But of course fate may join together as well as pull asunder.

Why was I fated to think of this word today? People have started decorating for Christmas. That makes me think of the Huron Carol. Which, for musical reasons, makes me think of “Paint It Black”: you can segue the one into the other – “’Twas in the moon of wintertime I want to paint it black.” I have mentioned this previously here on Sesquiotica, in my word tasting note on quodlibet, from the fall of 2009. I decided to mention all this today, with video links, on Twitter. Now, if you look at the video of the Huron Carol I chose to link to, you will see it was done in 2010 by a group called Quod Libet. It so happens that the rendition of “Paint It Black” I linked to – an a cappella choral version – is by a group called Kismet.

So it was fated.

3 responses to “kismet

  1. This is a very high currency word in Hindustani language here in India.

    “Mate? You are mated. You kiss your mate. Kiss me, mate: it’s kismet. The attraction is more than merely cosmetic. Though it be a bridging of a chasm, it will take you to the other side surely. Kismet makes no mistake.”

    This is a very witty piece…I loved reading it. Thanks James.🙂

  2. Such a beautiful word and your first paragraphs beautifully explain it!

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