An Introduction to the Iranian Reverence for Persian Poetry
Mausoleum of Hafez by Abdi Sami
Politics, Peace and Pilgrimage
By Brooke Loughrin
While the word pilgrimage in the context of the Islamic world readily brings to mind images of dedicated Muslims on the Hajj to Mecca, few Americans would associate pilgrimage in the Islamic world with poetry.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, streets, squares, hotels and teahouses are named after famous Persian poets, like Ferdosi, Omar Khayyam, Sa’di and Hafez, and the tombs of these poets serve as popular pilgrimage sites.
Tomb of Hafez (Photo: Ellen Savett)
In April of 2010, I had the pleasure of visiting the tombs of Sa’di and Hafez in the Iranian city of Shiraz. At the Tomb of Hafez, families gather to listen to poetry and pilgrims perform the faal-e Hafez, a popular ritual in which Iranians seek insight into the future by opening a volume of Hafez. After sunset, the tomb is lit up and poetry is played over the loudspeaker while families and friends drink tea and pay homage to Hafez at his tomb.
Faal-e Hafez (Photo: Brooke Loughrin)
In addition to visiting the tombs of famous Persian poets, a traveler to Iran can also visit the tomb of the famous 20th century Iranian female poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, in Tehran. Farrokzhazd was the first female poet to express the hidden feelings and emotions of Iranian women who felt “confined to a repressed life behind the curtains of traditions” (Kianush 30). She was also the first Iranian female poet, and perhaps the first modern Iranian woman, to write about the sexual desires of Iranian women as typified in her poem “The Captive”:
I want you, and I know
That I can never take you in my arms;
You are like that clear, bright sky,
And I am a captive bird in this cage. (Kianush 31)
Today, university students find copies of Farrokhzad’s poetry in unofficial stalls near Tehran University and many students of Iranian literature visit her tomb to find inspiration and to pay homage to her legacy.
Unfortunately, in the viewpoint of many critics, the political situation in Iran has had a peculiar effect on Iranian literature, especially Iranian women’s poetry. On the one hand, the political situation has created the conditions for an outpouring of highly complex, sophisticated poetry. Yet, on the other hand, it has also been a hindrance to the freedom of Iranian female poets in crafting poetry as pure art. Aziz, a young female playwright I met in Tehran, suggested that non-political poets have historically been viewed as “uncommitted” poets and that this sentiment still exists in certain intellectual spheres today. At the height of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmad Shamlu, one of the most famous Iranian male poets, expressed his frustration with his own poetry after years of writing exclusively political poems: “In these days I cannot write poems. My style, my language, my symbols, all had been taken form in the time of repression and censorship. Now that I am free to say what I want, I have no poetical language for it” (Kianush 46). Similarly, another Iranian poet, Mahmud Kianush, describes both the positive and negative effects of political symbolization in Iranian poetry:
The politicization of literature in Iran has been the natural reaction of writers and poets to prolonged dictatorial rule, blind suppression, and absurd censorship. As a positive result, it has helped some of the highly talented poets to create many brilliant political poems. Its negative result has been to narrow the scope of poetical vision for the poets, as well as for the readers—so much so that the majority of readers, if they cannot find some familiar political images in the first few lines of a poem, hardly care to finish reading it. For this reason, few have been the poets who could deny themselves the joy of popularity in order to create profound poetry with a universal perspective and power and originality of thought and imagination. (Kianush 47-8)
However, if my experience in Iran is any indication, I hope that the next generation of Iranian poets like Aziz will surprise the world with the scope and universality of their talent. Poetry is forever etched in the soul of Iranians - a fact which Americans interested in the culture and politics of Iran should understand.
Kianush, Mahmud. Modern Persian Poetry. Ware: The Rockingham Press, 1996.
Recommendations for Further Reading
To further explore the work and influence of Iranian women poets, I would recommend a variety of anthologies on Iranian women’s poetry, including: Modern Persian Poetry, A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Writers, Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, and Let Me Tell You Where I've Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora. My favorite anthology (as often cited in this piece) is Modern Persian Poetry, edited and translated by Mahmud Kianush, as the anthology includes an extensive introduction to Persian poetry, from the early ninth century to the late twentieth century. Selections of contemporary Iranian poetry can also be found on the Voices Education website: http://www.voiceseducation.org/content/contemporary-iranian-poetry.
Brooke Loughrin is a student at Boston College. She traveled to Iran with Voices Education Project Board member, Abdi Sami.