The question of defining Persia’s voice is one that cannot be answered by any one source. From the Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s poetic account of Sohrab in tears, pledging vengeance against Rostam during his demise at the hands of his own father, to the melodic declarations of the qawwals of Nizamuddin Dargah from the Indian subcontinent, the voice of Persia cannot be defined by any singular emotion or mode; rather, it can be distinguishable by its timbre across all modes of Persian expression. Timbre, in this sense, does not apply solely to song. Timbre is the thickness of a Persian calligrapher’s deep, dark brushstroke in his visual rendition of a Rumi verse. Timbre is the morose, aching vehicle upon which Rostam once, so many years ago, came to terms with the death of his son – the Persian king’s hand trembling with regret and sorrow as his own dagger rested in his son’s back. Timbre is not a description of the act itself, but is instead the cutting,
deep, and human quality that brings one to his knees in acceptance of God’s will over his own. In this way, the voice of Persia powerfully lends existential complexity and naïvety to the simplest of lines by means of spiritual richness.
Such a voice is perhaps best captured by the lyric poem, due to its lasting legacy on nearly all modes of Near-Eastern art. Arbitrarily manifested as simple verses on an elaborate Persian rug, or melodious songs put together by an Ustaad (master) and his disciples, lyric poetry informs the thematic dialect of the Persian voice. In lyric poetry one often finds internal dialogues between the human and his lovelorn heart – dialogues that occupy a heightened spiritual and introspective place while also offering deep relatability to all of its readers.
One such poem, “Morning Air,” written by the great Jāmī of Jām, Khorasan in the mid-fifteenth century, strongly represents the lyric tradition in its distinctly Persian vividness and pathos in the following lines:
How sweet the gale of morning breathes!
Sweet news of my delight he brings;
News, that the rose will soon approach
the tuneful bird of night, he brings.
Soon will a thousand parted souls
be led, his captives, through the sky,
Since tidings, which in every heart must ardent flames excite, he brings.
In beginning his poem with a colorful display of appreciation for God’s gift of morning on Earth and eventually shifting to a heavy religious allusion, Jami’s language conveys absolute existential pleasure in recognizing even the smallest of Earth’s phenomena. His timbre thickens to its maximum potential when written, “News, that the rose will soon approach, the tuneful bird of night, he brings. Soon will a thousand parted souls be led, his captives, through the sky.” Jami’s mention of his bird’s nighttime flight is particularly loaded in this case, likely serving as a reference to the incidence of Al-Isra in Islamic theology, or the Quran’s telling of Prophet Muhammad’s “night journey,” in which the honest prophet “flew” from Mecca’s Great Mosque to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem with the angel Jibril, coming into contact with prophets of his past and seeing the vast, intangible complexities of the universe. The defining characteristic of this piece as an installment of lyric poetry is Jami’s select blend of nature and mysticism, in his ability to craft an allegorical story based upon his appreciation of Earthly, natural occurrences. The language is not too elaborate or declarative, but instead promotes a certain lull or flow that allows for seamless artistic access, whether it be in the form of a song or calligraphic expression.
The richest voice of all Persian lyricists is almost universally considered to be the great Khwaja Shamsuddīn Muhammad Hafez e-Shirazi, or more widely known as simply Hafez of Shiraz, Iran. Though Hafez is generally believed to have died in the fourteenth century in Shiraz, his voice still flows plentifully like rich wine from the mouths of the Sufis around the world. Hafez is the royal, perpetually-drunken romantic of Khorasan. With an ability to articulate divine wisdom in language sweeter than sugar itself, Hafez’s legacy on Persia and the greater world is not one of artistic respect, but rather one of divine reverence.
Hafez’s romantic superpowers are perhaps best felt through his discussions of love as the human world’s most supreme element. In one of his pieces, referred to as “I see no love in anyone” according to Dick Davis’ 2013 collection of translations, Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz, Hafez expresses a sense of deep, seething loss in recognition of love’s absence on Earth in the following lines:
Life’s water muddied now, and where
Is Khezr to guide us from despair
The rose has lost its colouring
What’s happened to the breeze of spring?
Who thinks of drinking now? No one.
Where have the roistering drinkers gone?
This was a town of lovers once,
Of kindness and benevolence,
And when did kindness end?
While this can be considered a unique piece for Hafez, for one who perhaps never runs out of lovelorn spirit, his famously vivid sense of longing is only further amplified by the depraved environment he hereby illustrates. From his mention of the rose’s loss of life and color to his classical Persian metaphor pertaining to the lack of “wine” or drinkers left in the world, Hafez paints a picture with tasteless, fading colors – an environment which is absolutely antithetical to his classic, idealized view of a world filled with love and spiritual ecstasy. Still, especially in his mention of “Khezr” or Al-Khidr, referring to the Quranic mystic and knowledgeable, perpetually-wandering servant of God in Sufi tradition, Hafez creates his signature level of depth by calling out to a celestial figure in desperation for life’s intoxicating essence to return to the world. The poet of Shiraz does not simply lament and take artistic note of his own feeling towards what is happening, but rather experiences such a degree of devastation that he gestures towards the heavens for guidance. Hafez’ dialogue is not with himself or the tangible world around him, but with the fates themselves. Hafez vast, romantic, and attached understanding of the world’s tangible and mystical essence is a special aspect of him not as a poet, but as a figure to walk the tangible Earth. In many ways, Hafez was not only the author of some of Persia’s greatest lines, but was instead the prophet that wrote with a celestial pen.
The legacy of Hafez underwent its most notable reincarnation in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s West-Östlicher Divan, or the German poet’s 18th century collection of lyric poetry inspired by him. Considered by scholars to be a cultural dialogue relating the literary cultures of Western-European romanticism and the prior surviving work of Hafez, Goethe’s collection embodies his implied spiritual connection to the Shirazi poet. To Goethe, his discovery of Hafez was not merely a convenient meeting with a like-minded thinker, but was rather more akin to staring into a cosmic mirror, and seeing his work written hundreds of years before him. Goethe would later reflect on his relationship with Hafez in Notes and Essays for a better Understanding of the West–Eastern Divan, in which he wrote detailed explanations for some of his more intricate, spiritual, and mystical stipulations in his original work. In these notes, Goethe writes,
“How much I am indebted to this worthy man is proven in my little book in all its parts. I was aware of Hafez and his poems for a while before, but what I was able to read in literature, travel descriptions, and otherwise gave me neither idea nor intuition of the value or merits of this extraordinary man. At last, however, in the spring of 1813, during which the full translation of all Hafez’s works became accessible, I took a special fondness for his inner poetic being. I examined myself through his works, embarking on a production to contact a relation to him. This friendly employment helped me through dubious periods of time, and let me enjoy the last fruits of peace gained through the most pleasant enjoyment.”
Ultimately, Goethe’s perhaps spiritual relationship with Hafez is representative of the Shirazi poet’s influence on the world, in realms spanning from literary to mystical. Those who truly know Hafez, are able to find their own stories in lines written hundreds of years ago.
In relation to my own experience with Persian oral practices, I recently took it upon myself to memorize a line from Mughal-era poet Mirza Ghalib. Inspired by a story from my advisor and Persian oral culture professor, in which he met a Bangladeshi stranger at a conference who surprised him in perfect Persian, I chose to memorize this line out of a deep, anecdotal connection to my own endeavours as an adolescent in memorizing verses of Qawwali performances for no immediately useful reason, and previously never expecting to cross paths with anybody who would value the practice or their meanings. Professor Mahalatti’s story, which later concluded in his choice to recite this line in a commencement prayer at Oberlin College, resonated with me and made me feel as if I had perhaps found a spiritual crossing with his journey and passion for Near-Eastern oral culture. Memorizing this line and reciting it for my professor made me feel as if I had finally awoken a power in me that I never consciously accepted as a part of my fate. Phonetically, the line reads as Hizār bār borrow, sad hizār bār bīā, and translates to “Go away a thousand times, come back a hundred thousand times.” Whether it was in hearing the soft words roll off of my professor’s tongue or the significance of the translated meaning, this line will indeed return to me hundreds of thousands of times in my lifetime; I am sure of it.
Arberry, Arthur John, ed. Persian Poems – An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran, Iran:
Yassavoli Publications, 2008
Vries, Caroline de. Hafez and the West-Eastern Divan (West-östlicher Divan) of Goethe: Dialogues among Languages, Cultures, Religions, and Time
Davis, Dick. Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz. Penguin Books, 2013.
Class Notes, Muslim Oral Culture 191, November 2019