Come through the convent doors: illumine our night into a day,
Scent with perfume the assembly of the holy men.
If a preacher tells you to forsake loving, give him a cup of wine and tell him to refresh his mind.
Whenever I feel depressed about the current state of affairs–quite often lately, uncertain about the right course of action, or if I simply need a brush with something beautiful and profound, I turn to Hafez. It may seem strange to seek advice in the writings of a 14th poet from Shiraz, but Hafez’s work is so rich and multifaceted that it invariably gives me a new perspective. He too lived through a period of political upheavals and anxiety, and as Goethe said, “In his poetry Hafez has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly.”
Divining by the book of Hafez is a popular practice in Iran, and the book shops near Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz sell cards for Fal–e-Hafez. One side is printed with a poem, while the other is decorated with paintings that feature wistful, grey-haired men and voluptuous women in clinging, diaphanous garments. Mahmud Farshchian, the painter who produces these unabashedly sensual vignettes is one of the most popular artists in Iran, a fact surprising only to those who take the orthodox propaganda at face value. One shuffles the cards, thinks of a question or a problem and picks a leaflet at random.
Sometimes I do just that–and then spend an hour deciphering the complicated Nastaliq calligraphy in which the cards tend to be printed. But if I have neither the time nor the patience, I open one of my translated volumes and hope that the oracle of Shiraz will guide me just as well in another language.
This morning I took out The Poems of Hafez and my answer came in the poem above. Perfect, isn’t it?
I have previously shared some of my favorite English translations of Hafez (sometimes spelled as Hafiz), along with a few other excerpts from his poems. I recently found a website that features the whole of Hafez’s Diwan, in both English and Persian, Hafiz on Love. The website also includes a short biography that tells the story of the orthodox clergy debating whether they should give a proper Muslim burial to Hafez–not their ultimate preference, but the one the people of Shiraz demanded. They ended up divining with his poems, and Hafez’s answer was typically cheeky:
Neither Hafiz’s corpse, nor his life negate,
With all his misdeeds, heavens for him wait.
Ordoubadian, Reza (trans.), The Poems of Hafez, 2006. Ghazal 127.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin