Seeking solace in the work of the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez.
By Nilo Tabrizy*
“I wouldn’t wish being Iranian on my worst enemy,” my friend Marjan posted on Instagram in mid-January.
Like many Iranians, Marjan is stuck in visa limbo. An economics professor in New York, she traveled to Iran in August of last year, and by the time her return visa was finally issued, coronavirus restrictions meant she was stuck in Iran. But her post was about more than just travel frustrations.
From individual experiences to our collective story, the past nine months have been a painful series of run-on tragedies for Iranians: November 2019 saw nation-wide demonstrations where state security forces killed 1,500 protesters. In January, the US government ordered a targeted killing of Iran’s top military general, and Iran responded with a missile strike on a US military base in Iraq. Days later, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) downed a civilian airliner, killing 176 passengers and crewmembers in the midst of the escalated tension of war. And then in February, the coronavirus crisis.
It’s been all-consuming. I cover Iran in video for the New York Times, and spent January tracking down and interviewing eyewitnesses in Iran who saw the plane crash, while dealing with the trauma of reporting on a story that impacted me deeply, as a member of the Iranian-Canadian community.
I was born in Tehran during the turbulent beginnings of the nascent Islamic Republic. Iran was rebuilding after the 1979 revolution, which ended centuries of monarchy and installed a then-popularly backed Islamic government. But the revolution was quickly followed by a brutal eight-year war with Iraq. Both of my sisters were born during this war. In 1993, when I was three years old, my family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada. We were among the first Iranian families in town. I grew up between my two countries, spending summers in Iran with my many cousins, trying—and failing—to speak Persian without my Western accent.
Of all the recent tragedies, the downing of that civilian airliner in January, Ukrainian Flight 752, stung the most. While I didn’t know anyone on the flight personally, like many in the Iranian-Canadian community, I was only a link or two removed from someone who died: The cousin of a good friend was killed in that crash. So were the wife and child of the man who owns my local bakery in North Vancouver. I still get choked up thinking about it.
The first missile that hit the plane (which we eventually learned was mistakenly fired by the IRGC) set it on fire. The aircraft was still flying intact before it was hit by a second missile and crashed to the ground. Here’s the thought that keeps flooding my brain when I try to sleep: Did the passengers spend the last moments of their lives thinking that war between Iran and the US was breaking out?
For the past year, I’ve been researching and studying the works of Hafez, one of Iran’s most beloved and influential poets. More than 600 years after his death, his work is still invoked regularly, quoted by Iranian politicians to skewer their rivals and by everyday Iranians in casual conversations over dinner. Normally, this is the part where I would share a verse of his work, or tell you how complex and beautiful his words are. I would to tell you how Iranians use his poems as a form of divination, like a tarot card reading of sorts. Instead, I am consumed with trying to understand why I’ve been devoting so much time to studying the verses of a poet from the fourteenth century right now, when my country is going through every imaginable version of pain. Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on current national security issues instead of diving into the art of our past?
Recently I interviewed Afshon Ostovar, a renowned Iran expert who focuses on the IRGC. I was talking to him about the Qods Force, the unit that was commanded by Qassim Soleimani, the general killed by the United States in a drone strike in January. He told me he had noticed some recent tweets of mine about Persian poetry, and said he found it sweet to read something like that while both of our professional fields were dealing with an onslaught of depressing news.
After our interview, I kept thinking about what Ostovar said. Why am I always drawn to poetry, even in times when more pressing headlines should capture my attention?
Certainly, poetry is central to Iranian identity. The Shahnameh, an epic poem by Persian poet Ferdowsi, cemented this connection. Ferdowsi began writing this narrative of more than 50,000 couplets in 977 AD and completed the endeavor forty-three years later in 1010. The poem tells the mythical tale of the history of ancient Iran, a story stretching back from the creation of the world to the seventh century, when the Arabs conquered Iran. When Ferdowsi was writing, the Arab invasion imposed a new language and religion on the people of Iran. With Shahnameh, Ferdowsi preserved our language and history at a time when it was in danger of being lost forever.
Since then, poetry has become our national art. It’s who we are. Any Iranian, regardless of educational background or class, can recite their favorite verse of Hafez or Rumi from memory. It’s a part of our Persian New Year celebrations; it’s a centerpiece of our indirect discourse. Our home is in our poetry, and this is especially true for those of us who can’t return to Iran easily. I haven’t been back since I was a teenager, and now, with reports of dual nationals being arrested on dubious spying charges, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to anytime soon.
Like many New Yorkers, I’ve spent the last months trapped in my apartment, duly following social distancing guidelines to help stop the spread of coronavirus in our petri dish of a densely packed community. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about the questions that came up after my interview with Afshon. I’m someone who sorts through problems by talking them out, so it was natural for me to talk to Hafez. Yes, he’s long dead—but the beauty of his work means it’s possible to have a conversation with him even 600 years after his death. We turn to his poems for divination. If I don’t know whether to date a certain man or take a job, I call my mother in Vancouver and beg for a faal-e Hafez: a Hafez divination.
The tradition works like this: First, hold a question in your mind. Then open up Hafez’s poetry collection, Divan-e Hafez, to a random page. The act of divination comes in reading the poem you’ve landed on and interpreting its relationship to your question. Because Hafez’s poetry is written in an older dialect of Persian, with vocabulary I’m not used to, I often need my mother’s help in interpreting it. (While I have worked hard at maintaining my mother tongue and continuing to be fluent, I never went to school in Iran. I wasn’t taught how to read and write Persian.) Predictably, most of her divinations tell me that if I go toward God, things will work out. When I tell her how annoying it is to get a religious reading when I’m asking for advice on issues that have nothing to do with religion, my mother’s reply is usually something like, “I’m Muslim. I’m religious. What kind of faal did you expect?”
Luckily, the Internet is far less pious than my mother. I’m a regular on HafizOnLove.com, a website by Shahriar Shariari, a scholar based in Los Angeles. The design isn’t very fancy, reminiscent of an early 2000s blog with a butter yellow background that has faded lavender calligraphy running through it as the base design. A translator of many of Hafez’s poems, Shahriar posts poems in both English and Persian, and the website has a digital faal-e Hafez feature that picks a poem for you with the click of a mouse. Having these translations side-by-side has helped me learn, memorize, and understand the meanings of Hafez’s poems—and to be able to get divinations by myself.
In my online faal-e Hafez, when I asked Hafez what the hell I was doing looking to him at a time where Iran is under unimaginable stress, this is the poem that appeared:
I long to open up my heart
For my heart do my part.
My story was yesterday’s news
From rivals cannot keep apart.
On this holy night stay with me
Till the morning, do not depart.
On a night so dark as this,
My course, how can I chart?
O breath of life, help me tonight
That in the morn I make a start.
In my love for you, I will
My self and ego thwart.
Like Hafiz, being love smart;
I long to master that art.
Of all the poems on Shahriari’s website—roughly 500—this is the one that came through to me. It was the poem I was learning with one of my poetry ostads (or “masters”) when I was in Vancouver late last year. I loved it so much that I posted about it online. My favorite line is untranslatable, and while Shahriar did his best, it’s impossible to capture the beauty of Hafez in English. In English, Shahriar’s translation is “In my love for you, I will / My self and ego thwart.” But in its original Persian, the literal translation is something like “I will make myself so small that I will follow the dust of your footsteps with the tips of my eyelashes.” Translators often try to keep a poem’s rhyming structure intact, and favor bringing out the meaning instead of a word for word literal translation. Here, the meaning of shrinking yourself for your lover remains, but the imagery is captured best in its original language.
I took this faal-e Hafez as a sign to keep going with my studies. The opening lines—“I long to open up my heart / For my heart do my part”—struck me immediately, speaking to the gravitational pull I’ve felt to Hafez’s poetry. Despite the language barrier and my feelings of Iranian inadequacy, I’ve always been drawn to Hafez, and wanted to learn his work fully. The last line—“I long to master that art”—bookended the sensation. It felt like a cosmic affirmation, a nudge in the right direction. But I wasn’t satisfied, so I decided to call one of my ostads, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak.
None of my grandparents are living, so I’ve come to cherish my relationships with my two poetry ostads, my teachers, even more. As my elder, it’s custom that I call Ahmad to wish him Nowruz mobarak, happy Persian New Year. But my Nowruz greeting came with ulterior Hafez motives. I told Ahmad about the questions I was preoccupied with. I wanted him to reassure me, to explain why studying poetry mattered.
“The answer is right there in the question,” Ahmad told me over the phone. “It’s times like this that really take you to the core of your being when you ask the most essential question, ‘what do I want to do in life?’ No matter how long you live, it’s short.”
Known as one of the foremost experts in classic Persian literature and poetry, Ahmad has memorized all of Hafez’s poems. He was born and raised in Mashhad, Iran, a deeply religious city. His father used to encourage him to memorize the Qur’an, giving him money for every verse he committed to memory. Ahmad eagerly collected this mini paycheck so he could watch foreign films at the Russian-run cinemas in town. He started memorizing Hafez when he was about eleven years old. After decades of teaching Persian studies at the University of Washington, the University of Maryland, and finally at UCLA, he retired to Los Angeles—where lately, like me, he has also been contemplating poetry in quarantine.
Ahmad told me he’s been looking back to the words of Roudaki, a Persian poet from the ninth and tenth centuries in Bukhara. He’s certain there must have been floods, diseases, and other natural disasters in Rouadki’s time, and so reading his poems serves as a reminder that ephemerality is the way of our world. “Roudaki stands in contemplation of a bird, a popak, which is a parakeet or finch, and asks: Look at this beautiful little creature and look at this world. It’s going to die, it’s going to be hunted, it’s not going to be here in a few days. What would that mean for me? So maybe I should cherish this moment,” he explained.
When we spoke, Ahmad was under a fourteen-day voluntary quarantine. At its end, he planned to go for a walk alone, and contemplate the same things Roudaki did. “I’ll look at the waves, look at the sand, look at what man has created around it,” he said. “It’s all going to end sooner or later and what remains is naked nature.”
I wanted to know if other Iranians had similar questions. Did anyone else feel the pull to delve deeper into our cultural traditions during this pandemic, or during other times of upheaval?
Naz Deravian, a food writer and cookbook author also based in Los Angeles, was born in Tehran and immigrated to Canada a few years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, eventually landing in Vancouver. Naz said that while news and events surrounding Iran are often tense, these last few months have been something particularly overwhelming.
“When I saw your tweet, I had a moment of agreeing with you,” Naz told me. “I think at the time I was working on a recipe or something and wondering What the hell? Why will me writing about yet another polo khoresht change anything? Why does it matter? But dark times, she said, are precisely when we need artists, poets, and writers to tell stories and connect with people in a way that politicians can’t. They help us dig into the collective psyche, and reflect back how and what people are feeling. Naz’s mother, Monir Taha, is a well-known Iranian poet who has become one of my ostads. The poem that Shahriar’s digital faal-e Hafez chose for me is actually one I was learning with Monir a few months ago.
As a student in Iran, Monir was politically active when the British and American governments deposed Iran’s popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. At the time, she was a supporter of Mossadegh, and even wrote him poems that were published in newspapers and magazines. What followed the coup was the reinstallation of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a US-friendly but unpopular tyrant. That paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution of 1979.
“I am reminded that these are hard days but we’ve had hard days before. And I know that some of my mother’s best writing came out of those very dark and difficult days,” Naz said. “She was quite young, but she was active in her work then as well. And seeing my parents’ generation, and all those brave Iranians in the country who are still fighting, who were still hopeful, makes me feel like we all need to follow suit.”
When I spoke to her, Monir agreed. “The blood-soaked history of our country has always had times like this, ups and downs. We haven’t had a quiet history, especially after Islam and after Arabs came. We had the Monogol invasion, Timur’s invasion,” she said. “For many years, Iran was not a united country. It was like the US, it was federal, every region had its own king, they all fought with each other, wanting to occupy one another’s territory or crown.”
Hafez documented some of the power struggles he saw in Shiraz during his time, Monir told me. But his poetry has lived on for hundreds of years because it creates space for the reader to find at least one line that speaks to his or her own question. In commentary about the rulers of his time, he spoke indirectly, using language filled with metaphors. This was partly due to his artistic style, but it was also a way to protect himself.
Take this line, for example:
Whatever he poured in our cup, we drank
Whether the wine of paradise or the wine of drunks
“What is meant by ‘whatever he poured in our glass, we drank’? He is saying that from the beginning of time we have drank what is given, whether the wine of heaven which doesn’t make you drunk or the drunkard wine,” explained Monir.
Here, Hafez suggests we don’t have a choice. But he also says:
If the wheel of life doesn’t turn to my liking, I’ll stop it!
A slave to destiny, I am not
So he will destroy the world if it doesn’t go according to his wishes. “Here we see willpower, not determinism,” said Monir. “We see him to speak not with one voice but with contradictions. That’s why he is not a dogmatist, he never sold his brain to one particular perspective. He is always going through change.”shah
Monir lives alone in Vancouver. She was supposed to go to Los Angeles to be with Naz for Nowruz. But given the coronavirus, they decided it was too risky for her to travel. Especially now, she says, Hafez’s poetry provides comfort. He’s been her greatest friend. “The most important effect is that for a few hours, I am not thinking about this virus and other problems, and I am able to live for myself.”
Connecting with the past to find answers for our present makes me hopeful, too. In fourteenth-century Shiraz, there were moments not unlike what we’re experiencing now:
The poisonous wind wandered through the garden
What a miracle that the red roses still smell,
The dog roses still have their color
Hafez isn’t talking about flowers here, but about people—and about popular resistance. He’s saying that despite all the unrest in his country, all the people the government has killed, we’re still resisting. Hafez wrote this poem late in his life, in a time where the region of Fars—which included the cities of Isfahan and Shiraz—was in the middle of a power struggle. Timur, a Turkic military leader, was attacking Iran. He had attacked Fars, committing mass murder in Isfahan. Hafez wrote this poem to describe these events: one of the last he witnessed before his death.
“This was the worst event of his time. He can’t speak of [Timur] directly because they’d kill him. So he speaks of wind and flowers,” explained Monir.
I don’t want to romanticize the past, but I can let Hafez’s words guide me in my present. There is a way out. I haven’t seen it yet, but Hafez did once. It has to show up sooner or later.
Unless otherwise noted, the translations of Hafez that appear here are by Arash Azizi.
*Nilo Tabrizy is a video journalist at the New York Times, focusing on Iran-related stories, breaking news, and investigations. She was born in Iran and grew up between Vancouver, Canada, and Tehran. Nilo is currently working on a book about classic Persian poetry and how it informs Iranian identity.