Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Didactic Poetry, Coffeeshop Performances of Shahnameh, and Calligraphy

Leah Rosenthal: Oral Culture and Poetry

Didactic Poetry, Coffee Shop Performances of Shahnameh, and Calligraphy

In Persian poetry, the poetry itself, the performance and music, and calligraphy are all interconnected. One can also hone in on each of these aspects to learn about the different subcategories that exist. Specifically in this essay, didactic poetry, coffee shop performances, and what I have learned from creating my own calligraphy will be discussed.

Didactic poetry typically has educational purposes, leaving the reader with some sort of lesson or moral to take away. There is much to digest in Rumi’s didactic poem titled “Reality and Appearance,” as translated by R. A. Nicholson:

‘Tis light makes colour visible: at night

Red, green, and russet vanish from thy sight.

So to thee light by darkness is made known:

All hid things by their contraries are shown.

Since God hath none, He, seeing all, denies

Himself eternally to mortal eyes.

From the dark jungle as a tiger bright,

From the viewless Spirit leaps to light.

When waves of thought from Wisdom’s Sea profound

Arose, they clad themselves in speech and sound.

The lovely forms a fleeting sparkle gave,

Then fell and mingled with the falling wave.

So perish all things fair, to readorn

The Beauteous One whence all fair things were born.

This poem opens with the idea that color does not exist in darkness and that we need light in order to reveal color. I found this to be an incredibly beautiful thought literally and metaphorically. In a way, one might believe that, not only are we not able to see it, but color may be completely nonexistent in the absence of light. However, it is revealed when light is present. Metaphorically, this could mean that sometimes, one needs some type of encouragement or needs to put effort into understanding something in order to see the beauty in it. For example, it is easy to become annoyed at the presence of a thunderstorm. However, with a change in mindset, one can see the immense beauty in the sound of the rain, the strikes of lightning, and the trembling of the sky. After this section, Rumi compares the appearance (or lack thereof) of color to how God appears to humans. Since God believes that we, as humans, know all that we are meant to know about Him, He has nothing to reveal to us. So, He stays hidden in the darkness, shielded from the human gaze. As Persian poetry often does, the poem also discusses a couple of different cycles or dualities that exist in nature. In this poem, Rumi writes about light and darkness, day and night, and life and death. In the end, he discusses how all things that are lovely and beautiful must perish. However, because of the cycle of life and death, beauty is constantly appearing and disappearing from the Earth or from our sight, as does color as the cycle of light and darkness constantly continues with the cycle of day and night. The poem brings up these different dualities, as it even does in the name of the poem. We, as humans, control our perceptions of reality and appearance as we choose how much effort we want to place on looking for beauty in simple things. In this didactic poem, the main takeaway seems to be that it is important to create our own “light” or enlightenment to see beauty in simple things.[i]

The writings of Ferdowsi in Shahnameh are based around the ethics of war. Ferdowsi acknowledges that war is present and will most likely be present in the world that we live in for a long time. However, there are things that people can do to minimize the negative effects that it creates. For example, war itself should not be idealized or rewarded. There are also certain legitimate causes for war, which are defending land and dignity (also known as a defensive war), or to punish a person or state for a committed crime or aggression. There are also steps that states should take before deciding to go to war, such as attempting a peaceful resolution of the conflict and utilizing soft diplomacy. There is also etiquette for how a state should behave during and after going to war. Ferdowsi believes that the loudest voice on the battlefield speaks more for the human rights of the enemy than triumphalism. Ferdowsi also pays serious attention to the protection of women and children during war, as well as the humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war. One should also avoid post-war arrogance. There are several poetic lines by Ferdowsi about post-war etiquette that struck me.

It is better to tame rancour with justice

And remind ourselves of the significance of good name [honour]

It is only kindness that will remain in the world as memorable,

As life will not last forever for anyone.

These lines emphasize the point that kindness is the most important part of human nature since it is the only thing that remains in the universal cycle of creation and destruction. War can never achieve a lasting and valuable victory. So, after a war ends, it must be followed with kindness, rehabilitation, and forming stronger and more positive relationships between states and people.[ii]

            The performances of Shanemah occur in many different settings. Sometimes, there are orchestra settings with many musicians, a chorus, and several soloists who sing lines of Shanemah, such as a performance by Loris Tjeknavorian Rostam and Sohrab Opera. However, the classic coffee shop performance of Shahnameh occurs in an actual coffee shop. One can get tea, coffee, or sweets and watch these performances. There is usually one performer in the center of a circular, enclosed area that acts as a stage. A famous coffee shop performer is Morshid Turabi Naqqali. In his performance, he memorizes a long section of Shahnameh and dramatically plays the parts of all of the characters. I could definitely see why the coffee shop performances of Shahnameh became so popular; the setting is quite pleasant and one could be entertained while also absorbing valuable ethics.

            My experience with calligraphy so far has been extremely enjoyable. I have learned that the way I hold my pen has a significant effect on the shape and quality of the writing. The Arabic letters themselves are said to be different parts of humans and animals, such as the head, eye, nose, arm, etc. For example, the letter “alif” ( ا ) imitates the image of a standing man.[iii] While creating calligraphy on my own, I have observed the significance of some of the shapes and letters. After doing some research on my own, I have learned that some words, especially animal names, actually look like that animal. For example, the word for “cat” is “qitt.” In Arabic lettering, it is “قط,” which actually looks like a cat.[iv] To me, the significance of the shapes of letters and words is one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of Persian calligraphy.

            I have also learned to view calligraphy as an art form because everyone in the class has developed slightly different fonts. We all use the same general shape of the letters, but our calligraphy has certain personal touches. This shows how calligraphy is not merely a form of writing, but an art form that one can practice, personalize, and master.

            The interconnectedness of the different aspects of Persian poetry can be observed in many of the Shahnameh performances. The music and singing of the poetry are present, and the performers often wear Persian calligraphy on their clothing — hence, incorporating all of the aspects. There is a specific type of energy that seems to emerge from the participants in these types of performances, which shows how unique the art of Persian poetry truly is.

I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.


[i] Arberry, A. J. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran: Yassavoli Publications, 2005.

[ii] Mahallati, Mohammad Jafer. Ethics of War and Peace in Iran and Shiʻi Islam. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016

[iii] Chittick, William C. The Inner Journey: Views From the Islamic Tradition. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2007.

[iv] El Sayed, Mahmoud. “Arabic Words Illustrated Based On Their Literal Meaning.” Bored Panda, 2017. https://www.boredpanda.com/illustrating-arabic-words-into-their-meaning/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic.

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