Culture: 369 posts

Art, travel, books, history

The Heavenly Voice of Mohammad Reza Shajarian

I woke up in Tehran on a cold October morning. The city outside of my hotel window looked grey and aloof. I was in a new city. I was alone. Tehran is not a city for the fainthearted. It’s overdeveloped, crowded and downright ugly at times. What I saw out of my window intimidated me. Yet, I made myself leave the hotel and explore. I walked with a purpose as if I knew where to go. I lingered at the curb of a busy road and a taxi stopped in front of me. It was one of those open-door taxis that travel a specific route and pick up passengers until they’re too full. I got in, even though I had no idea where it was going. I had no idea how much I had to pay. When the taxi stopped in the middle of a busy shopping area, another woman got out and I did too. I had no idea where I was. I saw a music store, and I walked in. Before I even had a chance to explain what I wanted—and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what it was, the store clerk handed me a disc of Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s songs. I fell in love.

Eventually I would fall in love with Tehran as well–and then with Yazd, Shiraz and Isfahan. Yet, Tehran, the first Iranian city I’ve explored on my own, evokes the most vivid memories for me. And I always think of the heavenly voice of Mohammad Reza Shajarian as I recall Tehran. To say that he is the most famous singer of Iran is an understatement. He is the voice of Iran. As my friend put it, he is the modern-day Ferdowsi, because just like the author of the Shahnameh epic, he captured the spirit of Iran with his art.

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Sappho’s Moon

In an effort to start the week on a positive note, I bring to you a dose of beauty via Sappho. We travel to the island of Lesbos circa the 5th century BCE. Just as Sappho’s readers were enchanted then, we are moved today by her lyrical imagery. Little of Sappho’s poetry has survived, but the fragments of what remains are moving, elegant, and complex. I offer two of my favorite examples, and you can explore Penguin Classics as well as the sources I share below for more of Sappho in English translation.

While Sappho’s poetry is beautiful, it’s not an example of mere escapist pleasure–she lived through much turmoil, having had experienced exile and banishment. The politics of her day were just as unsettling as those of ours. Yet, her poetry uplifts and reminds us to dream, reflect and take joy in beauty.

I hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I do. Please feel free to share something beautiful with us as well.

Moon

Awed by her splendor
Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver
–From Sappho, A New Translation by Mary Barnard, 1958.

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Mir Taqi Mir’s Jasmine Pilaf

While reading the memoirs of Mir Taqi Mir, a great Indian poet who lived in 18th century Delhi, I came across a charming anecdote about a jasmine pilaf. Once you read it, you’ll know right away why the description captured my attention.

“They used to prepare a fine jasmine pilaf at the house of A’zam Khan Sr. They would put jasmine flowers in some oil and let it sit for a few days so it would absorb the fragrance. Then they would use the oil to cook the rice, which gave it a fine aroma. Burhan-ul-Mulk heard its praise and made a request to A’zam Khan Sr., who then had some prepared and sent over in several big platters. Burhan-ul-Mulk ate it with relish, then remarked in a jocular vein, “It’s not a platter of pilaf; it’s the blessesd grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.” The remark was greatly enjoyed, for people in fact used to bring jasmine flowers in great quantities to cover that revered person’s grave. It would then look like a heap of flowers, and their fragrance would transport passersby even at some distance.”

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Poetry and Enigma of Mike Johansen

Why not start Monday with poetry? I’ve selected my favorite poetry by Mike Johansen (1895-1937), a Ukrainian poet of the 1920s. Johansen described himself as an enigma–half-Ukrainian, half-Latvian German, fluent in dozens of languages and yet making Ukrainian the medium of his prose and poetry. Johansen represents the avant-garde movement of the 1920s and he was one of the brightest stars of the same group that included people like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov and Mykola Khvylovyi. What distinguishes his work for me is his playfulness and humor.

Although he was a gifted translator at ease with Latin, English, German, and a number of Scandinavian and Slavic languages, his poetry is impossible to translate. It relies so much on the sound of Ukrainian that in another language it becomes something else altogether. Yet, even without understanding the language, the poem is hypnotic.

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Learning Languages and Reading Techniques

Reading is one of the biggest pleasures for me, and often when I learn a new language, I relish the chance to read in it. It’s also a great way to expose yourself more to the language and to make it part of your life. People often assume that “studying a language” means sitting down with a grammar book and doing exercises or spending time in the classroom, but that’s not enough. You have to surround yourself with the language by filling every free moment with it. Listen to music, watch YouTube clips about a subject you like, read.

And so today I will focus on reading and share a few tips. These are classical approaches, but they’ve been invaluable to me. In general, I start reading as soon as possible, even when I know that the text is too difficult. The most important part is to want to read the story, not to want to read in Arabic/French/Italian, etc. If you’re learning French and you long to read 19th-century novels, go for it. I don’t like texts especially written for language learners or children’s stories, but I have a soft spot for traditional fairy tales.

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