Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Contemporary Poets, Calligraphy, Memorization, and Music

Leah Rosenthal: Oral Culture and Poetry

Contemporary Poets, Calligraphy, Memorization, and Music

            This first set of poetry is by a poet named Sohrab Sepehri, who is known to be the voice of modern mysticism. He often questions the contrast between atomistic and holistic or mystic views of life. Through his poetry, he makes it clear that it is sometimes better to avoid trying to analyze everything; sometimes it is better to look at life in a simpler manner and to be more content with observance and appreciation. Sepehri passed away due to cancer at a young age and seemed to be lonely for a lot of his life, but through his poetry, it is clear that he tried to make the best out of everything that life handed to him. Sohrab also seemed to have a sixth sense through which he could hear nature speaking to him. He emphasized appreciating everything in nature, not just the roses that everyone thinks are beautiful. He valued the parts of nature and life that are usually deemed irrelevant or do not usually represent beauty. His views are expressed in these lines:

I want nothing more than an apple

And the scent of chamomile.

Nothing more than a mirror and my dear other.

I would never laugh at a child when his balloon bursts.

It doesn’t bother me when philosophers split the moon in half.

These lines seem to emphasize the duality of the simplicity and the complications of life. He takes pleasure in simple things such as apples and the scent of chamomile. He also emphasizes the importance of friendship, love, and togetherness by saying that he needs nothing more than himself and a companion. Then, by bringing up the child and the philosopher, he shows his appreciation for learning to understand the perspectives of others, as well as being okay with the fact that sometimes, you cannot always understand the perspectives of others.[i]

            These next two sections of poems are by Simin Behbahani. Her poems cover a variety of subjects, but always create very clear images and stories for readers to imagine. She also uses different metaphors and descriptions as compared to other Persian poets, but her writing is just as beautiful. This first set of lines is from a poem called “Love Came So Red”:

Alas, my friend, I am scared that a breeze will shake

The hesitant image of love sleeping on the pool.

The young cactus’s birthplace is the tropics,

I’m an arctic desert, my heart a cold climate.

This poem shows how love changes and how delicate it can become. I really liked the image of the wind distorting a reflection in a pool, showing how fragile love can be and how even a gentle metaphorical wind or an argument can disrupt the stillness or peace in a relationship. She describes how the beginning of falling in love can feel very warm and comfortable, like the tropics. However, one’s heart can become cold, like an arctic desert.

            This next set of lines is from a poem by Behbahani called “The Man with a Missing Leg”: 

“May he not suffer like me for another forty years;

Though “being” itself is an agony, obstinate before such pleas.

Did you see with what difficulty I went with my agile legs?

Then how will he go, he who has no nimble feet?”

This poem brings up the theme of how life is weary, but you should make the best out of it. Behbahani talks about how she thinks her life has been full of suffering, but she sees this young man with a missing leg and understands that her life may be even more agonizing and then feels sorry for him. She also brings up the idea that we will never truly be able to understand each other completely. For all she knew, the man with the missing leg does not want pity. There is a contrast between the narrator who does not have this disability but sees her life as being agonizing, and the man with missing leg who at first has a “gentle smile” but becomes annoyed when he notices the narrator pitying him. Maybe he does not want others to assume his life is agonizing and that he needs help. Maybe he is doing all that he can to make the best life for himself and actually does not see his life as being wearisome, but receives unnecessary attention from others.[ii]

This poem by Behbahani, as well as the first set of poetic lines by Sepehri emphasizes the idea of our lack of the ability to fully understand each other. Both Sepehri and Behbahani are contemporary poets, which makes sense because this seems to be a very relevant idea in the era that we are living in. There are so many conflicts merely caused by humans’ inability to connect with each other. People often do not even try to understand each other, or if they do make attempts and fail to come to some sort of compromise, it causes even more conflict. However, sometimes we have to learn to accept that we will never fully be able to understand other people’s perspectives and, in some sense, this understanding (or lack thereof) is a compromise in itself.

In terms of music, both the Shajarian Music of the poem, “Lay Down Your Weapon” by Fereydun Moshiri and the musical interpretation of Behbahhani’s poem, “I Will Rebuild You Again” were very triumphant-sounding. They both almost sounded like battle songs or songs that people would march to, which was an interesting choice made by the musicians since both of the poems are about choosing to be peaceful instead of engaging in war. However, maybe this choice was made to emphasize that one can be patriotic and proud of their country for other reasons besides having success in conflicts with other countries.

For this week, we did calligraphy and had the option to memorize a few of Professor Mahallati’s mother’s favorite lines of poetry that she recited from memory when she came to visit our class. The lines were, “You came out with a hundred thousand manifestations (epiphany), so that I,/ watch you with a thousand eyes.” These lines emphasized the idea that God is omnipotent and one can see him wherever they look for him and that he exists everywhere. I found these lines to be extremely powerful and beautiful, so it was very impactful for me to memorize them and practice writing them through calligraphy.


[i] Ali, Kazim, Sipihrī Suhrāb, and Mohammad Jafer. Mahallati. The Oasis of Now, 2013.

[ii] Bihbihānī Sīmīn, Sara Khalili, and Michael Beard. Dūbārah mīʹsāzamat vaṭan = My Country, I Shall Build You Again: barguzīdah-ʼi ashʻār hamrāh bā Tarjumah-ʼi Ingilīsī. Tihrān: Sukhan, 1388.

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