persian poetry: 7 posts

Reading Sa’di’s Gulistan

Master, ‘ostad,’ is a nickname the Persian poet Sa’di of Shiraz (1210-1291/92) rightfully deserves. His verses are elegant and his prose contains many thoughtful observations on morals, love, and life in general. Sa’di’s Gulistan, Rose Garden, written in 1258 was once a book of instruction and it remains one of the marvels of Persian literature. I recommend the translation by W.M. Thackston. You can open the book at random and find marvelous passages on different topics: The Art of Conversation, on Love, on the Conduct of Kings, on Dervishes.

I’m reading the Persian section out loud to savor the beautiful language of Sa’di. You can also find it recorded online in Persian, and even if you don’t understand the language, you will still enjoy Sa’di’s musicality.

Here is one favorite passage:
“Are you musk or ambergris?” I asked, “for I am intoxicated by your enchanting fragrance.”
“I used to be just mud,” it said. “A mere nothing, but I sat for a time with the roses,
And the perfection of my companions had an effect on me. Otherwise I am nothing but dust.”

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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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The Color of Love

“Even before the two worlds took shape, there was the color of love.” The 14th poet from Shiraz, Hafez, embodies for most the most beautiful and poignant of what the poetic Sufi tradition has produced. This mystical branch of Islam encourages the experience of the divine through one’s personal quest, and it fits with my idea of spirituality. According to the Sufi worldview, the divine is in the details. In every leaf. In every jasmine petal. In every exhalation of a rose. In oneself. The search for it gives meaning to all that one does. And art in all of its manifestations is the way to connect to something greater than oneself, to bridge the two worlds, the inner world of spirit and the outer world of the material.

What is the place of love then? For Hafez, who stays true to the Sufi tradition in his writing, it’s the most important state that can be. Without love, it’s impossible to understand the divine. Which is why in his famous poem he says that even before the idea for the world existed, there was love. Love intoxicates. Love breaks all barriers. Love enlivens. Love takes one out of oneself. Love transcends all. Love makes you feel alive.

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In Search of Dark, Opulent Musk

“Bring, bring that musk-scented wine! That wine is the key to joy, and it must be mine…” The medieval Persian reader scanning these lines by the 12th-century poet Nezami* would have understood instantly the subtle nuances of the word “musk.” Since natural musk was black, the reader would have envisioned a dark potion. Also, musk was considered the most sumptuous and alluring of scents, and musk-scented wine would surely be a libation to intoxicate one to the point of ecstasy. Most importantly, however, musk evoked seduction and passion, and in Nezami’s masterpiece about star-crossed lovers, Layla and Majnun, musk is the scented leitmotif.

The topic of my new FT column, In Search of Dark Musk, is the dark, intoxicating musk, and I search for a perfume with such a character. No white musks, clean musks or baby-skin musks will do. I want a musk that smolders and that would have been as close as possible to the kind of fragrance the Persian poet described.

You can read about the results of my search here, and of course, I look forward to reading your ideas on a perfume that smells dark and musky.

*Nezami or Nizami, Hafez or Hafiz? The Persian reading of these poets names’ is Nezami and Hafez, with a short “e”.  Nizami and Hafiz is an old-fashioned spelling, which still tends to be preferred by Western academics.

Image via FT; Persian miniature

 

Illuminate Our Night Into a Day

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.

Hafez

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.”

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