Muslim Oral Culture 191
The thematic extent of the Persian verse is a little-known aspect of Persian oral culture. Spanning from didactic, romantic, and spiritual purposes, the Persian verse does not only exist in any one form. From the short and honey-sweet ghazal to the epic works of Ferdowsi, the intention of each Persian poet was never to write the most beautiful verse per se, but rather the most expressive – to create vast, spiritual declarations out of only a few lines.
One such type of the Persian verse is the ode, or a style of poem that is directed towards a specific subject, in which the relevant subject is elaborated on in great length. This is exactly where the Persian ode differs from other styles in the sense of detail. The ode is more similar to an existential rant or cry than it is a short declaration of joy or pain. The ode tells a story in situations where a few words cannot quite spin the entire reality of the poet’s situation. One such example of one of Persia’s most famous odes, is in the poet Anvari’s “Tears of Khorasan” – a tale that describes the once-great beauty and crumbling demise of greater Northern Iran. Below are a few selected lines:
Then waft this letter to our monarch’s hand,
Wherein Khorasan tells her tale of woe.
Wherein the words that for the heading stand
Are present danger and destruction nigh;
Wherein the words that are described below
Are grief, and wretchedness, and misery;
On every fold a martyr’s blood appears,
From every letter breathes a mourner’s sigh;
Its lines are blotted with the orphan’s tears,
Its ink the widow’s burning anguish dries!
Its bare recital wounds the listener’s ears,
Its bare perusal scathes the reader’s eyes.
What! Is Khorasan’s most unhappy case
Unknown to him in whose domain she lies?
The concept of Khorasan holds a great deal of spiritual sensitivity in the history and culture of the Iranian people. The retrospective view of Khorasan recognizes the region as the last of true Persia before the Mongol Invasion, and now exists as a monument to the survival of the Persians. Khorasan was the land that gave birth to the new gods of Persia, in figures like Rumi, Ferdowsi, and Rudaki. In Anvari’s verses, the history of Persia’s once-great spiritual capital is told through allusions and metaphors in classical Persian poetic practice. Anvari characterizes the war and physical strife of Khorasan’s past when writing “On every fold a martyr’s blood appears, from every letter breathes a mourner’s sigh,” and paints a vivid, morose picture of the scars that Khorasan’s demise has left on the mourning folk of Iran. Perhaps the most glaring allusion of Anvari’s is in the line “Its lines are blotted with the orphan’s tears,” – a line that perhaps defines the Persian style in its ability to be so complex with so few words. Anvari’s mention of the orphan likely alludes to the prophet Muhammad, as he was also born as an orphan who eventually went on to live in the belly of Islamic war. Anvari promotes a very deep pathological impression here, signifying that even the holy prophet, of all men on Earth, could not fathom the calibre of Khorasan’s destruction. Anvari’s “Tears of Khorasan” is perhaps one of the best examples of the Persian classical ode, in its ability to use elaborate details in verses to press a deep pathological impression upon the reader.
In my own class experience, practices in recitation from memory, calligraphy, and ethnomusical appreciation have all been the most effective ways to connect with Persian culture. Growing up around practices of religious recitation and South-Asian, Sufi style oral practices, the value of engaging with all facets of Persian oral culture has always been important to me. A recent experience involving recitation practice came in a class outside of Persian Oral Culture, in Prof. Mahalatti’s Islam class. When discussing the Sufi spiritual concept of fanaa (annihilation of the self in recognition of oneness with God) a verse from Amir Khusrau’s “Nami Danam Cheh Manzil” came to my mind – fanaa gashtam, fanaa gashtam, or “I have been destroyed, I have been destroyed.” This specific poem by Khusrau is one that is well-known to many on the subcontinent, but the fact that it came to me in that moment gave me a fulfilling sense that recitation had some intrinsic value beyond memorization. My memorization of the verse must have come from listening to South-Asian Qawwali performances, in which Sufis take Persian, Urdu, and Hindi verses and apply beautiful melodies and improvisations to them. The classical Iranian vocal performances that have been shown to us in class are different from these performances in some fundamental, cultural ways, but the crossover and emphasis on verse-based recitation and storytelling is glaring. For example, in Ruhollah Khaleqi’s rendition of Mohammad-Hossein Shahriar’s “you came, but why so late?” practices of improvisation within specific musical modes are heard. An underlying melody provides thematic direction in Khaleqi’s song, while the Persian-style orchestral accompaniment breathes color and spirit into Shahriar’s words.
My own work in calligraphy has gotten me further acquainted with the Nastaʿlīq script, which has been beneficial in cultivating my own interest in Perso-Arabic scripts. Though my penmanship is not improving, I am motivated to learn Iranian Persian in hopes to be able to linguistically cover Urdu and Dari Persian sometime in the future. A new piece of information that I’ve recently learned from class is the existence of various Persian fonts, which can serve different purposes and can be specific to certain cases. I plan on working on my calligraphy over break so that I do not lose the progress I have made, or lose my connection to Persian oral culture that I have wanted to cultivate for much of my life.
Arberry, Arthur John, ed. Persian Poems – An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran, Iran:
Yassavoli Publications, 2008
Class Notes, Muslim Oral Culture 191, October 2019