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My favourite Iranian cultural target

To offer a small antidote to the mutual incomprehension that feeds the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, here’s a favourite chapter from my book Dining with al-Qaeda. In Iran, it’s best for Americans to know that what they see and what they hear is rarely what they’ll get. Especially when it comes to the rich complexity of mediaeval Persian poetry, a cultural tradition that has deep importance even today.

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Chapter 6: The Drunken Lover

Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with Its Poetic Soul

I veil my words in curtains, friends
Let balladeers tease out their ends

Hafez, fourteenth-century Persian poet

 

If I ever believed that I could easily decipher the Islamic Republic of Iran, that hope was put to rest by the scandal of the mullah and the naked lady.

It was back in 1986, and times were bleak. Glorious reports from the war front with Iraq barely concealed the reality of a bloody stalemate. Food was rationed and foreign travel was hard. The nation was tiring of the young, awkward Islamic Revolution that had overthrown the oppressive shah, or king, seven years before. Then the naked lady came, and she offered us all a sweet moment of escape. Tehran’s rumor mill flashed the news of her arrival around the city. Within hours delighted whispers had spread to a giggling conclave in my office in north Tehran. I’d understood that this female apparition could be found nestling in the beard of the mullah in question.

“I’ve heard it’s a fox,” countered my assistant, Mohammad, a precise mathematician who now wore the quiet smile he reserved for the most satisfying of paradoxes.

I turned to Rahmati, the office manager, whom I’d sent out to obtain the evidence. Back then I was one of the only Western correspondents resident in Iran and was eager to impress my bosses at Reuters with such an extraordinary scoop.

“Where is she? Is there a fox? Can you see anything?” I asked.

“No!” said Rahmati, bending gleefully yet uneasily with the rest of us over the evidence. My willful twenty-six-year-old’s inability to understand the niceties of submitting to revolutionary regimes, combined with the demands put upon Rahmati’s life by government agencies of all sorts, were turning him into an ever-greater bundle of nerves. “She’ll be very hard to find!”

We were looking at Iran’s smart new purple one-hundred-rial banknote, printed in Britain and just issued by the government. One side featured the doleful countenance of Ayatollah Seyyed Hassan Modarres, a religious grandee and politician who died in one of the shah’s jails in 1937. But, as all Tehran now knew, an ingenious engraver had woven a luscious nude into the curls of the thick growth on his chin! Everyone wanted to admire this cheeky revelation of what everyone had long suspected to be on a mullah’s mind. Within a day the banknote soared to a premium against other notes, 20, 30, 50 percent above the face value. We pored over the newly minted bill, fingers pointing here and there. There the naked lady was, we eventually all agreed, in a sensuous recline. Amazing! Or was she? Could it be a fox? A national psychosis swept aside all such questioning. Soon people were describing snakes in the mullah’s turban and a calligraphic swirl in the note’s geometric surrounds that spelled out “Death to Khomeini,” the revered leader of the Islamic Republic.

This proof of all the wildest conspiracies that any Iranian could ever dream up made the nation positively tipsy. The regime reeled under the onslaught, so much more dangerous for being completely outside the tightly controlled public media. To regain control, it withdrew the banknotes. Several days later, after a public holiday, Islamic Republic newspaper splashed the counterstrike across the front page. A plot by the little Satan, Britain, had been crushed! A certain attempt to meddle with the currency of the Islamic Republic had been foiled! The victorious government would now reissue the cleaned-up banknotes!

To me, the bills seemed unchanged. The same long-faced ayatollah looked ponderously out at the world. But now Iranians acted surprised when I suggested that a naked lady had ever nestled in his bushy beard. We all went back to our routines.

Yet, as I traveled to Iran over the years, the problem posed by the naked lady kept surfacing: What you see in Iran is not what you get. I felt it most deeply when I arrived in Tehran in January 2001. My editors at the Wall Street Journal were interested in a typical bill of fare: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its rabble-rousing rhetoric against Israel, its oil, and the latest round of brutal suppression of “reformers” by “conservatives.” I slogged up and down the traffic-clogged expressways of the sprawling metropolis to report these matters in the fashion of the day. Thanks to the ascendancy of roughshod revolutionary thugs as the dominant class, my stories once again reinforced the idea that Iran was a mortal enemy of civilization.

But I knew this was far from the truth, and my role in perpetuating this myth began to upset me. Being a bit crazy sometimes didn’t make nations wholly mad and bad. The sophistication of Persian culture had made my heart soar when I studied at university. Many Iranians I admired were clever and amusing. Their literary talents and fine taste made me count them among the most civilized people in the Middle East. I became determined to write something to show that everything in Iran was not as it appeared in the sterile rhetorical cockfight between U.S. spokesmen and Iranian hard-liners. At a deeper level, too, I wanted to explain that no Iranian ever took anything at face value, so we should be wary of doing that ourselves when dealing with them. Indeed, the naked lady had proved how the extraordinary vitality of the Iranian imagination meant that the country might actually be lost in a mental maze of its own devising.

But how to explain this uniquely mercurial country to the fact-loving readers of the Journal? I searched for inspiration by flicking through the Iranian channels of the television in my rented apartment. Post-revolutionary TV was predictable. A mullah preaching in a monotone. A poet. An Iranian film director discussing a heart-breaking cinematic triumph. A lugubrious Persian poetry reading. A mullah preaching. A soulful film, another mullah. A new poet who began to declaim about roses, nightingales, the beloved . . . Aha, I realized, that was it! I would travel to Shiraz, city of poetry and roses. There I would write about the one person I knew who gave voice to Iran’s full complexity of inner truths and multiple meanings.

***

I telephoned Bill Spindle in New York to give him the good news. He needed me, as usual, to find a strong newsy front-page story.

“We have to explain everything at once, right?” I said. “What better subject than a poet!”

Spindle’s sigh turned to rebukeful protest when I added that the poet I had in mind had been dead since 1389. But my arguments were ready for turning our media spotlight on Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez, a poet of love, mystical paths to union with God, and lampooner of hypocrisy. Even in his own lifetime, this scourge of religious bigotry was well on his way to fame. The earlier Persian poet Omar Khayyam is more famous in the English-speaking world thanks to a felicitous translation, but it is Hafez who is Iran’s most admired source of literary wisdom.

Iran’s poetic tradition, I maintained, could help explain Iranian political rhetoric to the world. Understanding Iran was like deconstructing a magician’s tricks: The secret lay in the trick, and there was no underlying sorcery. One reason none of us understood what Iran really wanted was that there was no consensus on policy even within the Iranian regime. I gave Spindle the example of restoring relations with the United States, broken since revolutionary students seized the U.S. embassy in 1979 and held sixty-six Americans hostage, some of them for 444 days. Contrary to appearances, mainstream Iranian politicians and the public quietly supported reopening the embassy. But neither of Iran’s big factions could allow the other side to get the credit for it. The United States, of course, didn’t help. It was vengeful about its humiliation and allied with Israel in viewing Iran’s regime as uniquely diabolical. So the old American embassy became a high school for Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, its brick walls painted with fading slogans and a Statue of Liberty with a spooky skull.

You shouldn’t forget, I told Spindle, that Iranians consider straight talk vulgar, almost rude. When I asked an Iranian the way somewhere, he would often first try to assess in which direction I already wanted to go. Iranian clergymen reserved special debate for the mantuq and the mafhum, or what is said and what should be understood. In one of my two expulsion orders from Iran, only one of which was fully implemented, the ministry responsible formally charged me with seeing “the glass half empty when in fact it is half full.” Some Iranians would scold me about how literally the West took slogans like “Wipe out Israel,” and insisted they did not mean a new holocaust, just a change in Israeli policies. One friend who worked for the Iranian news agency IRNA said he and his bored colleagues deliberately sought out anti-West hell-raising by provincial mullahs, translated it, and published it to the world. Their purpose was not global Islamic revolution, as everyone thought. It was the opposite: to embarrass or trip up the Islamist regime.

The way to dissect this grand complication, I insisted to Spindle, was to dive deep into a poetic tradition that derived its power from a kaleidoscopic range of meanings. Every Iranian agrees, more or less, that Hafez is the paragon of this ancient and gorgeous art. His ghazals, a kind of sonnet usually of seven couplets, have a deep, resonant beauty and a sweep of Shakespearean majesty. Their apparently simple settings—usually rose gardens or wine taverns, perfumed by sweet breezes, nightingales, lovers, and wine bearers—disguise a vast complexity. Persian scholars can attribute several meanings to every word, weighing overtones of the mundane, the metaphoric, the mystical, and even the cosmic. Thus the phrase “That Turk of Shiraz” from one of his most famous poems can mean a Turkic tribesman from the Shiraz area; a pale-skinned male or female beauty; a face with a mole, in which the darkness of the mole indicates the mystical unknowable; the planet Mars; and so on. Hafez even mixes spiritual imagery with the wild-edged erotic:

With dishevelled hair and gleaming skin and laughing mouth and drunk

With shirt ripped open, singing sonnets and a wine jar in his hand

With a trouble-loving eye and a finger on his lips

At midnight he came and sat here by my pillowside . . .

Every generation of foreign Persian scholars tries its hands at translating Hafez, while disparaging the efforts of the last. In studies of Hafez, debate rages about which ghazals he wrote, when he wrote them, and whether certain lines in them are really his. Nobody can quite tell if the love of which he speaks is for boys, women, or God. Hafez at times clearly revels in earthly pleasures of wine and song, flying in the face of orthodox Muslim disapproval. And yet it could all be metaphorical and refer simply to his path to union with the divine essence. One thing is for sure: He hated religious authoritarianism, and a widely accepted tradition has it that the blinkered clergy of his day tried to prevent him receiving a Muslim burial. Biting verses like the following show why he is more popular than ever among dissidents in today’s Islamic Republic:

 

Preachers who boast of probity from pulpits and in the mosque

Behave quite differently when none other is on hand to watch.

 

I became so intoxicated with his idiom that when asked in my final exam at Oxford to critique the construction of a ghazal, I wrote out one that I had composed in honor of a lovely Persian woman in my college and duly discussed it with myself. I thought it wiser not to tell Spindle that last part. Still, to me the evidence that this was a story was overwhelming. But through the silence on the phone line, I could feel him leaning back skeptically in his swivel chair.

“People should understand that ‘Death to America!’ sometimes means, ‘Please, America, show me more love!’” I insisted. “I’m also fed up with writing about Islamic this, Islamic that. We treat the whole region as if nobody goes out-of-doors without consulting the Koran. Well, the fact is that in Iran today, the poems of Hafez may well outsell the Koran. It’s a secret counterculture—for me, actually, it’s the main culture of Iran. This Islamic revolutionary nonsense is the counterculture. And six hundred years old or not, a new Iranian pop group is now using his lyrics as a form of protest!”

Spindle heard me out patiently. He allowed that this all might be the case but predicted that it would be hard to get onto the front page, the holy grail of all our efforts. This was a process with as many stages as the mystic’s path to union with the godhead. First, a reporter had to write a formal proposal, an art form in itself that could take weeks to agree with an editor. Then it would be submitted to the front-page editors, who might dismiss the idea with a throwaway one-liner or wait silently for days. Then, perhaps, the story would be approved, plot, content, and all. After weeks more reporting, editing, coming and going, it might still be rejected. More often it would be published, to a satisfying e-mail cascade of self-congratulation that embraced all concerned. If a reporter didn’t manage that half a dozen times by year’s end, his last nightingale had sung.

This was a burden to bear for the Journal’s “fixer” in Iran, Afshin Abtahi. He despaired at the way his frustrated visitors ran from interview to interview, trying to wring quotes out of people that would flesh out and validate their pre-sold story ideas before their short visas ran out. The front page often lost interest when research showed reality was different from the story advertised. Nobody liked trying to switch horses midway through the reporting. Bill knew that a six hundred-years-dead foreign poet was unlikely to jump the first fence. Still, he gamely allowed me to pack my saddlebags and try.

***

The airplane carrying Afshin and me landed in the plain between the barren mountains around Shiraz just as the sun began to clear a soft morning haze. The air was fragrant compared to the brown smog that constantly dulls Tehran. A billboard-sized line of Hafez’s poetry in flowery calligraphy welcomed us at an intersection on the Shiraz ring road, the modern-day gates of the city:

You’re late, O drunken-headed lover!
I won’t let your skirt slip easily from my embrace.

I felt as if I was entering a liberated zone. The Islamic Republic was slipping into the background. As we continued, we saw a small crowd at a beaten-up brick building by a roundabout.

Aash!” whispered Afshin, reverently. Soup.

Making out the curves of a cauldron the size of a small car in the shadows of the shop, I begged our driver to stop. Here was a scene that could hardly have changed since the time of Hafez. Each person carried a pot or pan to receive dollops of steaming green goo from a man with a capacious ladle. Then they headed back to their homes with their family’s breakfast. We each took a portion of what turned out to be a broth so thick with lentils that our spoons stood up straight in it. I associated the taste with English pease pottage, a favorite dish, and felt at home.

I had fallen under the spell of the city sixteen years before, when the naked lady scandal was the only light relief and the national slogan was “War, War, to Victory.” Shiraz had shown its rose-tinted spectacles back then with little asides, like the local graffiti artist who awkwardly translated the war slogan into the poetic language of mysticism: “War, War, Until We Reach the Alley of the Friend [God] and Meet Him.” To get published in the local paper, young Shirazi poets struggled with the domineering spirit of the age. “My flower takes its scent from the Koran,” one had written. Another: “Come, take wing like a dove, let’s take up position in a front-line trench.”

Peace of a kind had come now, and off-duty soldiers, Iraqi refugees, and penniless Afghan exiles no longer thronged the public spaces. It was Friday, Iran’s official day of rest, but, as ever, still the regime’s day for show-and-tell at the weekly prayer ceremony. I set out for the Friday mosque, a building a thousand years old in parts. Hafez must have stepped through these arches too. During times that he was in political favor, Hafez was chief of Koranic instruction at the main religious college here, and his pen name, which means “he who has memorized,” honors his memorization of the whole holy book. At other times censorious rulers forced him to leave Shiraz, just as many of the most talented Iranians today are in France or America. I thought that if Hafez were alive now, he would probably be in exile too. The shabby crowd in the courtyard of the mosque was led by the kind of Islamic revolutionary bigots who enraged the conscience of Hafez as he penned the lines:

Drink wine, Hafez, be glad, be wild!
Don’t copy those who make the Koran a hypocritical trap.

I was witnessing what Hafez hated. His old mosque was now an eyesore. Where were the subjects of his songs, the rose gardens, the nightingales, the wine shops, and the beauties? Maybe Spindle was right, and my thesis that Hafez represented Iran’s truer culture was too far-flung. I headed to the bazaar, where I hoped the covered warrens of shop-lined alleyways would restore my morale and determination to make the story work.

At least I was correct in one matter. I stopped in a bookshop where the bookseller, Abbas, confirmed that sales of the poet Hafez easily rivaled those of the Koran. Nothing else came close. Every family wanted Hafez on hand to be able to consult it for the occasional fal, the oracle that might point them in the right direction when a difficult decision or situation loomed. After all, Hafez reputedly composed the best of his poems in a state of divine inspiration, just as Muhammad had been in when he received the Koran from God. I opened up an ornate divan, or poetry collection, and let it fall open to find an oracle for me. The method is to choose the couplet on which one’s eyes first fall. I spied one of my favorites, close to the beginning, and it was certainly appropriate.

Tell tales of wine and song, and seek less the secret of the world.

This deep riddle will ne’er be solved by science and research.

I asked Abbas what he thought it meant.

“Hafez is right. Don’t bother digging too deep. People live with lots of meanings, because everything is hidden from us,” he said.

“That’s why I like Hafez,” I told him. “His poems seem to be able to bring all those meanings into an artistic whole. Why do you think people still like him so much?”

“We need him more than ever these days.”

***

Hafez would have quickly spotted the hypocrisy in one huge slogan painted on a wall in today’s Shiraz: the regency of the jurisprudent is the same as the rule of the prophet of god. At the time, Iran’s jurisprudent and supreme leader was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The word “jurisprudent” implies great wisdom, or at least authorship of many volumes of religious rulings on matters ranging from love and war to, say, dieting. Khamenei was, however, a hard-bitten revolutionary plotter whose religious claim to even the high title ayatollah was privately dismissed by some in the priesthood. After several loftier grand ayatollahs objected, he was forced to withdraw his claim to being the imam, or supreme religious authority of Shia Islam. Even the paintwork propounding the claim to divine sanction for his temporal role was bleached and chipped.

The slogan appeared on the compound wall of Khamenei’s representative in Shiraz, Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, who kept his offices in a jumble of box-like concrete constructions softened by palms and eucalyptus trees. He also carried the traditional title of the senior mullah of the city, the Friday prayer leader. The joy of an outlying city like Shiraz is that a foreign reporter can sometimes ask for and win an audience with a local dignitary without much delay, and can use him as a proxy for the great and unreachable folk in the capital. I was soon ushered into a guest room with simple white walls and flat cushions around the edge. The ayatollah joined me in a swoosh of elegant robes and sat down behind a small writing table designed to be used while cross-legged. The axis of political conflict in Iran those days was represented by hard-line conservatives loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and reformists around President Khatami, also a high cleric.

I asked him to define these two men’s roles, but his account of Iran’s tangled lines of authority made things no easier for me.

“The leader protects independence and Islam; the president defends freedom and the republic,” he said.

The ayatollah was mocking my reporter’s need for neat categorizations, and he tossed his chaff into the air with a trouble-loving twinkle in his eyes. He clearly did not often have the chance to address “the West.” He moved to a subject close to his heart: Why, why, did America not realize that Iran was its friend?

Surprised at this turn in the conversation, I mumbled something about Americans finding it hard to think well of a country that kept saying “Death to America.” “Oh, Americans take all that stuff far too literally!” said the ayatollah, happily hitting his stride. “It’s just propaganda. We are at war, after all. The difference between Americans and us, though, is that we are only waging a war of words. How many Americans did we kill? None. But in our war with Iraq the Americans were helping the Iraqis use chemical weapons, you were selling the Iraqis Phantoms and Mirages.”

I could only nod. During my visits to the front lines of the 1980–88 war I had seen how Iraq enjoyed far more Western supplies than Iran, which could barely find spare parts. Washington also helped Iraq with satellite photographs of Iranian troop formations, knowing full well that Iraq was using chemical weapons to break Iranian advances. Toward the end there were U.S. military officers giving advice to Saddam Hussein’s men in Baghdad. One night after a major Iraqi offensive that the Americans helped plan in 1988, the United States, which was by then waging an undeclared naval war with Iran in the Persian Gulf, furthered Iraq’s cause by destroying half the entire Iranian navy.

“All the Americans want is for us to say, ‘Yes, sir!’ just like the shah used to,” the ayatollah continued, two false lower front teeth leaping out of their places as he became excited. “We don’t want to be good, obedient kids. We want to be independent with honor. But we are not your enemy. We are your friend. Your trouble is that you cannot distinguish between the two.”

“Well, what about the taking hostage of all those American diplomats?”

“We kept them hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. But the Americans kept our country hostage for forty years.”

The ayatollah’s rhetoric was exaggerated, but he had a point. The United States had kept a tight grip after it imposed the shah’s monarchy on the country in 1953.

“Why do you want to be friends with America now?”

He argued that the United States should join forces with Iran against the Taliban. In hindsight it made sense. This was eight months before September 11, but Osama bin Laden’s terrorists, protected by the Taliban in Afghanistan, had already attacked U.S. embassies in Africa and other American targets. Iran would have been a natural U.S. ally in this struggle, opposing the Taliban because of all kinds of religious, ethnic, and geopolitical differences. I couldn’t beat his logic on this point and gave up on the politics. I moved our battle of wits onto the mystery of Hafez. Soon his hands and teeth were flying in a dramatic recitation of one of the poet’s best-known ghazals in praise of Shiraz’s old natural beauty.

Bedeh, saqi, mey baqi ke dar jennat nakhahi yaft

Kenar-e ab-e roknabad o golgasht-e mosalara . . .

Pass the wine, cupbearer, because in paradise you’ll never find
The flowing banks of Roknabad or the rose gardens of Mosala . . .

I saw my chance. Surely, I pointed out to the ayatollah, this “wine” was not just a metaphor for the love of God, but Hafez clearly praising real alcohol that his government had so puritanically banned. After all, an earthenware pot has been found in Shiraz showing that wine production began seven thousand years ago, one of the earliest such finds in the world. Shiraz’s name is most famous as a wine-grape variety first brought to France’s Rhône Valley by a crusader knight returning from the Middle East. Grapes are still a leading Shirazi crop.

It seemed clear to me that Hafez liked both meanings. How else could we explain this couplet?

Whatever God poured into our cup, we drank it to the dregs

Whether it was intoxicating liquor or the wine of paradise.

The ayatollah laughed off my question without answering it, but this wine thing clearly bothered the Islamic Republican orthodoxy. When I later paid a call on the mayor of Shiraz, he presented me with a picture book introduced with a couplet from Hafez:

Just because I saw one drunken eye in this town

I’m now drunk, even though I don’t drink wine.

Or perhaps the ayatollah was pouring me a draft of the perplexing Shia doctrine of taqiyyeh, which allows dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to protect oneself from danger. The abuse of taqiyyeh is yet another reason why nobody can ever be quite sure who truly believes what in Iran. We tacitly agreed that there was no single answer. As I was taking my leave, the ayatollah produced a little porcelain ewer that looked exactly like the wine pitchers used by lovers in Persian miniatures painted in more tolerant times.

“Oh, no,” he said with a laugh, amused at the surprised look in my eye, “it’s just rosewater to pour over your hands.”

Mullahs chatting

Iranian mullahs chat in north Tehran as they wait for the late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to make a speech. 1985. (Hugh Pope)

My fixer, Afshin, politely refused the ayatollah’s perfume. Later he explained that he loathed the smell because everyone used it during his years as a religious high school student. Although an accredited descendant of the Prophet, Afshin had stopped halfway on the path to becoming a mullah. Clerical life was too thickly stuffed with hypocrisy and too thinly supplied with naked ladies.

***

Journalism wasn’t much better in giving an Iranian a clean-cut life, mind you. To be allowed to work, some of our fixers said they had to give the Iranian secret service a plausible report about whatever their clients did. They also had to give a cut of their earnings to a man who headed a private “companionship office,” a supplier of translators and fixers for foreign journalists. This man had been nepotistically appointed by his brother-in-law, the head of the office in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that supervised the foreign media.

Still, Afshin was determined to find me the best advice on why Iranians seek refuge from corrupt hypocrisy in mysterious metaphysical poetry. For that, he proudly introduced me to a professor of literature at Shiraz University who specialized in Hafez. We met in the city center and drove to a characterless crush of cream-painted concrete buildings in a new development on the edge of town. The professor broke his silence.

“French built,” he intoned, as if, when it came to designing apartment buildings, nothing else would do.

When we reached the door of his home, a transformation began to take place. The professor shed his shoes among the neat pile in front of the door. Then he stripped off his trousers to reveal voluminous white long johns. Looking with pity at my tighter-fitting trousers, he offered me a change of clothing too. I demurred. He pulled on a black Arabian robe: a complete metamorphosis from a citizen of a drab Western-style apartment block into something far more exotic and Eastern. When I asked if I could cite him by name, he refused. Instead, he insisted that I refer to him as a rend, a term in Persian poetry that is officially translated as “wild, drunk, divinely inspired, reasonless yet deeply wise lover.” This was the soubriquet with which he signed his poems, he said.

The rend led us in his billowing gown into what seemed to be the playroom of his grandchildren and we cleared a space among the toys to sit on the Persian-carpeted floor. Above us was a poster of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo and next to me was a cheap electric organ. The rend lit up a Kent Light cigarette and began by reminding me that Hafez was a universal genius, embracing the full history of Perso-Iranian culture. His poetry included references not just to Islam but to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, Christian culture, and even Jewish synagogues. For the rend, Iran’s current-day practice of Islam had atrophied, and people just went on without much belief because it was what they were used to.

“Marriage can be like that too; people can’t enjoy it because the issues around it have hardened like stone,” he said. “Hafez, however, is after the heart of happiness in the core of the universe.”

He paused, as if allowing a student time to write down his words. I scribbled away.

“People have drawn closer to Hafez in the past twenty years as they have become more aware of their own culture, and because he speaks of a common pain,” he went on, using a euphemism for his opposition to Islamic fundamentalism. “Still, Hafez is above politics, and nobody can say why he said this or that. He never gives advice on what to do or not to do. The reformists might think themselves closer to Hafez in their rebellion against bigotry, but the conservatives are the people who know his poetry better.”

I wanted more clarity.

“You’ve studied Hafez for decades. Did he drink real wine or not?”

The rend folded up his thin limbs underneath his cloak.

“I believe he drank. It’s not incompatible with his way of thinking. Hafez had trouble in his own days, remember. Before Hafez became a complete person, he was an ordinary person.”

“Do you say that outright in your lectures?”

“I’m reluctant to teach at all, because the audience is not on the same wavelength as me. Sometimes, my pupils leave my class crying. Other times, when I feel that the audience doesn’t understand, it’s me who leaves. For instance, the idea that ‘dawn’ in Hafez also means ‘before creation,’ they just can’t get it. Actually, I feel like I’m a character in a Samuel Beckett play. Nobody understands me.”

Perhaps I was hoping for too much. After all, legend says that Hafez spent forty years on his quest for the truth, and even then achieved enlightenment only after sitting for forty days and nights inside a circle drawn around himself on the ground.

“I find everything in Iran hard to understand,” I said, hoping the rend could help me with a few words to define Iran’s approach to real meaning. “If I learned the whole mystic vocabulary, would that be the way?”

“Mysticism is at its core a mystery, and that is a secret,” he said.

“Can’t you explain a little more? What is the secret?”

The rend looked at me in mock horror.

“If I told you the secret,” he said, eyes bright with amusement, “then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

***

To further my quest for tangible keys to Iran’s mysteries, Afshin ended our investigations in Shiraz by convening for me a small debating group of poets, critics, and writers. We met in the offices of the small newspaper Asr, the Age, in a room so cluttered with desks that we all had to sit behind one, incongruously facing this way and that. The shoulder-length hair of some of the men—they were all men— and the slightly flared cut on some trousers gave me a sense that I was back in that part of Iran that lived in a pre-revolutionary 1970s time capsule. My Tehran apartment had been the same, a disorienting place whose big white blocks of furniture showed a design sense trapped in the past. After the Islamic Republic closed normal channels to progress and the outside world, the intellectuals who stayed on burrowed deep into history. It gave them hope. The spasms of strict Islamist rule that punctuate Iran’s long history have always passed, eventually.

The group’s leading light was Parviz Khaefi, sixty years old and the head of a study complex attached to the Hafeziyeh, the burial place of Hafez with a small park laid out in the poet’s honor. He took the part of the professor and chief spokesman, resplendent with flowing curls, a gray beard, and thick-lensed glasses. The discussion began with a comfortable ramble over well-known territory: how pleasant the climate of Shiraz was compared to hot and polluted Tehran, how minorities of Sunnis and Zoroastrians still lived harmoniously with the Shia majority, and how easygoing its population was.

I steered the conversation to the equally congenial subject of poetry. A chorus of voices echoed how it was an integral part of Iranian cultural life, how an elegantly turned couplet carried more weight than a book of boring prose, and how the verses of the great Iranian poets were engraved into children’s minds from their early schooldays. I then asked why of all Iranian poets it was Hafez who towered highest.

Khaefi cleared his throat.

“Hafez still speaks to us today because we are now under religious rule, just as in his times. We cannot solve all the problems of our own time on our own, so we need to rely on someone from the past. Hafez knew what to say about it, ahead of everyone else,” he said.

It was a brave start. Jamil Saadi, a contemporary Shirazi poet, continued the theme from a nearby desk.

“Hafez was against money, power, and hypocrisy. But we love him because there are so many meanings in his words,” he said. “He’s not a perfect human, but he is perfectly human.”

The group let out an approving sigh to honor this perfectly poetic phrasing. “That doesn’t mean anything!” I protested.

“I don’t think it’s a question of meanings. There’s no fixed meaning. It’s dimensions, lots of dimensions,” Khaefi said. Everyone’s eyes were on him now. “People see the words of Hafez as a mystery and then try to decipher them. So any group can use it to further its own ends.”

“Like people do with the Koran, you mean?” I asked.

“Every couplet of Hafez is different and distinct, indeed, just like the verses of the Koran,” chimed in a newspaper editor from the back.

“He reached absolute art, but you see only the surface of it in translation,” said Khaefi. “This is the secret of Hafez. He uses the same words as other poets, but Hafez has woven these words in a special way that can express the happiness and grief of a human being at the same time. He’s a symbol of a human being on earth, in all his pain.”

A satisfied silence settled on the room. Someone lit another cigarette.

I pushed harder. “You really think he didn’t choose sides between fundamentalism and hedonism?”

“I can’t say my own interpretation in this circle of censorship,” Khaefi said.

I looked around the room. Everyone seemed to be his friend. Perhaps this was yet another layer of meaning that I had missed. Or perhaps I had been typically Anglo-Saxon, seeking a vulgar black-and-white interpretation of the supremely uninterpretable. Even “hedonism” suddenly seemed a superficial word. Wasn’t Hafez, I wondered to myself, just a believer in unreason?

Khaefi recognized the confused and fascinated look of the seeker of the truth about Hafez. He politely helped me out.

“The God of Hafez is not just the God that Muslims see,” he said.

The editor underlined the point, noting that when Iran accepted Islam, it kept its original culture. He pointed to Nowruz, the pre-Islamic celebration of March 21 as New Year’s Day that several Middle Eastern Muslim peoples still celebrate with varying spring-welcoming ceremonies and a cleansing act of jumping over fires. Indeed, this was something that was always hard to get across to my editors and readers in America: Although Islam claims to be “one,” in practice it is no universal key to understanding the different cultures of the Middle East. Islam is different everywhere and is redefined by nationalism, ethnicity, tribes, rulers, and political parties.

“We are Muslims, but we are Iranians,” said another graybeard from behind his desk, one with a linoleum top. “And our poets are the ones who preserved our real culture. Every article I write starts with a couplet from Hafez and ends with another.”

The poet Jamil Saadi picked up the argument.

“When the Arabs conquered Iran, the violence they used to bring Islam is the reason why people wanted to stay Persian,” he said. “The Arabs didn’t understand the real Islam. They killed a grandchild of the Prophet.”

More people arrived, and the conversation drifted. Perhaps the circle of censorship had grown too wide. I accepted a whispered invitation to visit Khaefi at his office at the Hafeziyeh, the poet’s memorial, the next morning.

***

Hugh at Hafez's tomb

Me at the tomb of Hafez, fourteenth-century poet of the Persians and scourge of Islamic bigotry, in Shiraz, Iran. December 1985. (Nicole Pope)

Walking into the mausoleum of Shiraz’s most famous son felt like entering another world. Unlike the crowded, shabby boisterousness of most public spaces in Iran, here were sharply defined lawns, neatly kept beds of roses, and a reverent, modest flow of visitors. The tall cypresses looked as though they belonged in one of Hafez’s poems, where they stand for the slender stature of the beloved. I stopped to chat with a mother and daughter who had just performed a fal, or the consulting of Hafez as an oracle.

I joined the mother in puzzling over the ambiguous couplet they had chosen. When I looked up, I saw that Afshin’s ever-wandering eye had alighted upon the pretty daughter. The “sweet breeze” had brought a “message.” Sure enough, the nightingale and the rose began to chatter. I asked the mother what she thought the fal meant.

“It depends. The couplet is like a mirror to your heart.” “What about the rest of the poem?”

“It’s like subsidiary advice.”

“What did you consult Hafez about?”

The mother and daughter looked at each other and didn’t want to say. What I understood of the couplet would have allowed them to decide anything. Subtly, I tried to test the line of thinking that the poetry of Hafez was an alternative to the Koran.

“If I respect Hafez, it’s because he memorized the whole of the Koran!” the mother protested, looking quizzically at me. She had told me that she was a teacher, and she clearly did not suffer fools. I soldiered on.

“Do you think the Koran set cast-iron laws that must be literally obeyed?”

“We have certain rules. But we are not under pressure, like people say,” she rebuked me.

My time was up. Unknown journalists with notepads were not worthy of the truth, even in this lovely garden in southern Iran. In fact, much better to make something up.

”We love the Islamic Republic. And especially the mullahs. Write that down!”

She spat the words out shrilly. We were standing right by Hafez’s tomb, and I turned away, sadly feeling that we had all betrayed his legacy. We said good-bye and, with a small bow, Afshin presented the daughter with his card. We took a seat in the teahouse. I wished it was a wineshop. We had to make do with a hubble-bubble pipe decorated with a hand-painted early nineteenth-century prince in colorful robes. At least he had a little wine jar in his hand. Parviz Khaefi soon joined us.

“She’s just unloading her complexes on you,” he said when I told him of my last encounter. “This is not the Iran that Iranians want. Our society is waiting. The government feels under pressure because people are watching satellite TV from abroad. People are stressed because the young have no recreation, no hobby. Many of our youth are using opium and even heroin. Widespread depression has overcome everyone. People are migrating. If they had wings, they’d fly out.”

This plain speaking was something rare to savor. I sipped my tea.

“Why does the government not change, then?”

“They’re at a dead end. The clerics know they have to change, but every time they feel threatened, they cling together and nothing happens. The people can’t accept that such a government is durable,” he said. “The trouble is, if the regime goes, everything will go, because, unfortunately, there’s no other organization to replace them. So the world goes one way and we go the other, stuck with all this petty and meaningless time wasting.”

Khaefi took his leave. Afshin’s cell phone rang. It was the mullah-loving teacher’s daughter. As Afshin billed and cooed, I studied the tabletop furniture. Surely I could persuade the Wall Street Journal to publish a story that presented Iran as a game of puzzles that no Iranian wanted to end. Ultimately I did. But Spindle was also right. It didn’t make the front page. Already, I felt a twinge of disappointment. My exploration of Hafez had produced no moment of mystical ecstasy. I might be in the Hafeziyeh, finding signs of Iran’s alter ego of ease and poetic blooms, but the rose in the little tabletop vase was artificial. And the dewdrop on its petal, that essence of heaven in Hafez’s poetry, was a blob of blurry plastic.

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