Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Shiv Vaid, Personal Reflections on Contrasts Between Classical and Modern Persian Poetry

We often find times in which we long for spiritual fulfillment and existential appreciation in this absurd life. We find ourselves in strange corners of our psyche and conception of the world, seeking guidance in ways that force deep, internal dialogues in reaching for a power greater than a simple cure. We may possibly look to the empathetic, healing words of a loved one, a belief in a higher being, or an even higher inhibition to do things that protect our fragile identities, all in order to cope with the sheer, cutting tone of our hearts and minds screaming at one another from the inside. 

In my study of Persian Oral Culture, and in my own unique spiritual upbringing as a boy of South Asian origin, I’ve been taught to illuminate my path in life from words of wise men from my people’s past – decorative, evocative, and soul-filling lines from mystics, poets, and musicians.  Unfortunately, however, my recent reflection on this experience has taught me that the world we now live in cannot always be bested by our tired efforts to appreciate the earthy grooves in the oak tree, or how red the lips of our lovers are. In response to the modern Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri, it seems that in places in life in which we have gone awry, even the dust around us cannot always hear the music of our emotions. 

I recall my recent struggle in my consistent reading of Hafez, the drunken mystic of Shiraz, and how I found myself noticing a growing, tearing distance between his severe sense of intoxication with the world around him, and my own existential reality. Hafez slowly slipped away from the gratifying mental sphere that he once held in my mind for so many years, and reading his work began to agitate my spiritual sensitivity. In reading his verses, I no longer drank from his full, rich cup of life, and instead felt that it was being painfully poured on top of me. I would have to look away from his words in excruciating existential pain, feeling that I was being perpetually teased by a drunken wise man. My sense of hope, in many facets of my life, faded with this progressing separation between Hafez and I. I wanted to wake up every morning with a mentality of being in Rumi’s house of lovers, with walls singing and floors dancing, but I could not. I woke up to rain and saw my sadness falling from the sky in heavy, saturated drops. I picked a blade of green grass and saw it bathe in my tears like a newborn baby. The lawn around me was growing and alive, swallowing the fruits of my sadness in large gulps. Classical Persian poetry had taken my introspection to such a height that was taller than my own being, leaving me to look up at an ecstatic, drunken, and mystical void that I could hardly reach with my fingertips. I was trapped in a tavern that the mystics of Persia would not let me leave. 

As my Persian Oral Culture class eventually gravitated towards the study of Iran, and not necessarily old Persia, the loving intellectual environment shifted as well. My class no longer dealt with talk of wine cups and dancing floors. Since the time that Hafez had wandered Shiraz intoxicated and lucid, a new, modern evil had arrived in Iran. Our discussions in class evolved from favorite poems to dark anecdotes from my Iranian professor’s life, from tugging on the beard of Ayatollah Khomeini as a child before ever knowing what he would do to his home, and studying Persian poetry and calligraphy alone for a year in Shiraz after being forced by the Iranian government to leave his post as ambassador to the U.N. The sun that lent its warm rays to the valleys of Khorasan some hundreds of years ago was not the same sun that saw Iran in 1979. The old gods of Persia, from the blind Rudaki to Rumi, somewhere along the line, surrendered to a void that swallowed their Persian heaven whole.

There is a cosmic difference between Iran and Persia, both as concepts and human climates. Persia, and Persians, came to be by means of Zarathustra and his guiding light Ahura Mazda. They fought and triumphed through Ferdousi and his epic hero Rostam. They danced and sung in view of lush, Tajiki fields and divinely inspired domes and minarets. This made the people of Iran Persian in blood and nature. It is in their struggle to retain these past lives in a violent and divisive modernity that makes them Iranian

From this narrative, I realized that Persia’s holistic spirit cannot be defined solely by spiritual relics from the past. Chronologically, the modern evolution of Rostam’s poisoned knife now resembles chemical weaponry in Iran. From Rumi, as if by terrible coincidence, came revolution. There were new emotions that swept over land, poisoning Persian wine and breaking the trance of dancing lovers.

The modern Persian poet arguably has the most difficult job in all of Persia’s vast cultural history, in bridging together the vibrant colors of the land’s past with the new existential dimensions of modern Iran. Although sadness and loneliness were not nonexistent themes and emotions in old Persian oral culture, the shroud of mystical trends perhaps forced these feelings into a cosmic context, and away from the dirty surface of human life on Earth. My desperate pursuit of separation from Hafez’ incomprehensible standards of bursting  joy eventually led to my arrival at the work of Sohrab Sepehri, (1928-1980) a modern Persian poet who died of cancer and lived his life unmarried. He held governmental posts which he later quit, later living for short periods of time in places like America and France to focus on art and his emotions. Sepehri restored my faith in the Persian philosophy of feeling. From reading his work to seeing his pensive, bearded face in his black-and-white photograph on Google, I felt that Sepehri knew pain in the same realm that I did. From only three of his lines all taken from Bahiyeh Afnan Shahid’s Sohrab Sepehri: A Selection of Poems from the Eight Books, I found empathy in Sepehri’s recognition of human sorrows and absurdities. The lines proceed as,

“I will sail far away from this strange land… I will keep sailing… Beyond the seas there is a town, (where) dust can hear the music of your feelings”

-“Beyond The Seas,” Sepehri 

“Death has a seat in the air and water of happy thoughts.

Death, at the heart of a village night, speaks of morning..

Death, at times, picks sweet basil,

At times drinks vodka,

At times sits in the shade, looking at us

All we know,

The lungs of pleasure all full of the oxygen of death.”

– “Sound of the Footsteps of Water,” Sepehri

“My lineage may derive from a prostitute in Bukhara.”

– “Sound of the Footsteps of Water,” Sepehri

From only a sole look at the word Sohrab, as if by coincidence, Sepehri’s very name is one of pain. His ancient namesake, Ferdousi’s Sohrab, died at the hands of his valiant father in the earliest era of Persian civilization, for all of the world to later witness by reading the tragic, epic story. The type of relief Sepehri longs for is not satisfied by meeting God, as in his present life, his vivid emotions fuel his belief in the divine. As seen in “Beyond The Seas,” he feels estranged from his land in recognition of its distance from his inner spirit. In traveling to a land that can hear the music of his feelings, he implies that his final destination will be one in which he finds emotional security, or feels heard by even the most miniscule of dust mites around him. His weary comfort with the discussion of human death, self-harm, and dark habits, as seen in the second sample, is another feature of his poetry that I found to be more relatable than the classical Persian idealization of death. The mystical concept of fanaa, or “annihilation,” is a Sufi principle pertaining to the death of the self upon enlightenment, or the spiritual idealization of death before one dies. Fanaa is the first death, and simultaneously, the rebirth of the mystic. It is a concept that is found heavily in Sufi literature and oral culture, appearing a great deal in everything from classical Persian poetry to folk music in the Indian subcontinent. It is also a concept that I felt so estranged from, in wondering how I could even suffer the impact of one death, or in a cosmic sense, feel more by dying as Rumi once wrote. In my mind, Sepehri’s description of death in these lines concern a different type of intoxication from the kind that Hafez craved. Death does not embody renewal and spiritual progression for a man that cannot yet understand why he must keep living. The vodka and cigarettes, that Sepehri describes, do not take us to heaven or bring us closer to God, or perhaps they do. But in a more real sense, in Sepehri’s sense, they wield a neglectful pleasure that hurts us, but we still must return to them because they remind us of our fleeting mortality when we get trapped in cycle and normalcy. We please ourselves through harmful vices because, at times, we do not know what else we should do. Our rationale, just like our lives, are absurd like this in nature. Sepehri’s recognition of human absurdity is best pronounced in the last line of his, writing, “My lineage may derive from a prostitute in Bukhara.” In a world so invested in status and roots, so much so that our identities can even be carved out for us before we leave the womb, this line is an answer to our notions of our past and where we come from. Sepehri’s blunt answer to the superficiality of it all, of talks of blood and ancestral dignity, unearth a cold truth that in some way, and in ways more real for some than others, we are all unclean. Within all of us there is a living bastard boy, with hands and feet unclean. Even the righteous virgin can be the grandson of the Uzbeki prostitute. Rather than focusing on means, from these absurd incidences, we learn to survive in this life by looking down at the coarse, Pashtun dirt underneath our fingernails. 

Now, I do not live in Rumi’s house of lovers. I drink his wine only when I feel I must dance. I live outside his tavern, seated on the ground next to Sepehri’s ghost. I am accompanied by Rudaki’s eyes and the voice of the Pashtun dust – they both see and say nothing. Though the mystics in that tavern bathed me in sweet wine and sung me the most beautiful of songs, they still could not bother to hear me. Outside, however, the dust listens. 

Works Cited:

Farahmandfar, Masoud. “Two Poems by Sohrab Sepehri translated by Masoud Farahmandfar from Persian.”

    Translated by Masoud Farahmandfar. Pusteblume. Last modified 2006.

Shahid, Bahiyeh Afnan, comp. Sohrab Sepehri: A Collection of Poems from the Eight Books. N.p.: Balboa Press, 2013

Class Notes, Muslim Oral Culture 191, November 2019, December 2019

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