Persian poetry pulling travellers

00:52, May 12 2014
persian poetry
Beautiful, immaculately kept gardens surround the burial places of Iran's favourite poets.
persian poetry
Visits to the graves of Iran's poets are regularly on the itinerary of school outings.
persian poetry
The tomb of Iran's most beloved poet, Hafez, in Shiraz.
persian poetry
Tiles featuring nightingales and roses adorn poet Saadi's tomb.
persian poetry
The mausoleum of Persian poet Attar in north eastern Iran.

Literary tourism is flourishing all around the world but perhaps what would be surprising to many people is its popularity in Iran. But, as Jill Worrall explains, poetry is part of the Persian soul and reveals a sharp contrast to the widespread view of Iran as a place of fundamentalism, utilitarianism and nationalism.

During the height of the protest marches in Iran that followed the 2009 presidential elections millions of Iranians turned out on the streets of their major cities.

Violence, bloodshed and anger were commonplace as protesters, angry at the re-election of former president Ahmadinejad, clashed with government forces. Few Western journalists managed to slip into the country to witness this or, if they were there already, were able to report firsthand on the marches. But award-winning foreign correspondent Robert Fisk did.

tomb of omar khayyam
PILGRIMAGE: Paying homage at the tomb of Omar Khayyam in Iran.

After a career in journalist spanning more than 40 years there could be little that could surprise Fisk. But, while he was marching along with an estimated million people, he was struck by something a young protester beside him was singing.

He asked for a translation and in that moment the poetry of one of Iran's most loved contemporary poets leapt from relative obscurity into the world press.

The poet is Sohrab Sepheri and in a shameless piece of one upmanship I can claim to have heard of Sepheri long before Fisk.


The love of poetry is an essential part of being Persian (not everyone in Iran is ethnically Persian but about 65 per cent of the population is). Paying homage at the graves of Iran's greatest poets and writers is a popular component of domestic tourism and many of the poets' shrines are on the overseas visitors' itineraries too.

Sepheri might be mostly unknown outside Iran but he's been enthusiastically embraced by younger Iranians. The student marching in the street of Tehran, undaunted by the police and security presence was singing lines from one of Sepheri's most famous poems, Water's Footsteps:

We should fold our umbrellas,
And walk out into the rain
We should take with us
All our ideas and memories into the rain
We should walk with all the townspeople into the rain
We should meet our friends in the rain
We should find our love in the rain
We should make love in the rain
We should play games in the rain
We should write, talk, sow morning-glory seeds in the rain
Life is a series of successive drenching.
Life is taking a dip in the basin of This Moment

But, while Sepheri might be new to Western readers, another of Iran's poets is a household name.

The Rubbiyat of Omar Khayyam, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald in the 19th century, made Khayyam the most famous Eastern poet in the Western world. Ironically, today for most Iranians, Khayyam is most revered for his contribution to mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. They are rather bemused that so many Western visitors know of him and are often astonished when the latter can reel off whole stanzas of his poetry.

Khayyam is buried not far from his birthplace in Nishapur in north-eastern Iran. He was born in 1048 and was in his early 80s when he died.

Khayyam was the only work of fiction that I ever saw my late father read (he preferred encyclopedias for light reading) and as a man of few words and very private emotions I was always intrigued by what drew him to Khayyam. Was there a deeply hidden romantic streak in Dad that was drawn to Khayyam, who wrote quatrains such as this most famous example?

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou,
Beside me singing in the Wilderness,
And oh, Wilderness is Paradise enow.

A few years ago I made my first pilgrimage to Khayyam's tomb, along with dozens of Iranians on the same mission.

It was nearly dark when we arrived at the tomb, which is set in a grove of trees near Iran's second largest city, Mashhad. The tomb lies under an arched concrete structure that reflects Khayyam's poetic images of glasses of wine and the inverted bowl of the sky. One by one, visitors would go up to the marble tomb, gently place their fingers on the stone and recite lines of his poetry.

Somewhere in the trees, loudspeakers broadcasted sung versions of The Rubbiyat. We sat in the nearby teahouses, crossed-legged on ruby red Persian carpets, sipped tea, our faces wreathed in smoke from a hubble-bubble filled with orange-flavoured tobacco and read more of Khayyam, in Persian for the sound of it, and in English just for Dad.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Buried in the same wooded grove as Khayyam is another of Iran's national poets, Attar. Attar died in about 1220 and was best known to Persians as a pharmacist and a Sufi (a follower of the mystic branch of Islam). His poetry can be hard to unravel but some of his advice successfully transcends the centuries:

"What you most want, what you travel around wishing to find, lose yourself as lovers lose themselves, and you'll be that."

Attar is buried in a beautiful domed pavilion covered with blue tiles, swirling calligraphy and intricate mosaics. While Attar is almost unknown in the West, one of his greatest admirers, who was also born in Iran (but who is buried in Turkey) certainly is. Rumi, one of the few Eastern poets to make Western best-seller lists, described Attar as having "traversed the seven cities of Love; we are still at the turn of one street".

Ironically, given the United States long-running suspicion of Iran, Rumi was in 2007 rated the States' most popular poet. However, if you simply ask an Iranian about Rumi they could well look at you blankly. They know him better as Jalal ad-Din.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you

Don't go back to sleep
You must ask for what you really want
Don't go back to sleep
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch
The door is round and open
Don't go back to sleep

The poet who lies closest to most Iranians' hearts is buried far to the south, in the city of Shiraz. Shiraz, appropriately, has for centuries been known as the city of poets and nightingales, but as my Iranian friend Reza says, "alas, these days no wine".

If most Iranian homes have a copy of the Koran on display it also likely that a beautifully illustrated and well-thumbed copy of the works of Hafez will be alongside. The writings of Hafez are read not just for pleasure but as a source of spiritual guidance and, albeit furtively, as a way to predict the future.

Hafez (his full name is Khwja Shams-ud-Dn Muhammad Hfez-e Shrz) was a 14th century mystic poet. Translated into English some of his poetry is so full of symbolism as to be almost impenetrable but the joy of Hafez for Iranians and other readers alike is that you can read it on many different levels.

Its appeal to people of all walks of life is clear during a visit to the tomb. First of all, our bus driver was able to quote great chunks of Hafez on our way there ... not an everyday occurrence in a tour bus; secondly outside the gate men holding stacks of cards bearing verses from Hafez in one hand and budgies in the other offered to tell one's fortune. The birds would pick out a card bearing both the words of Hafez and a modern-day interpretation.

Inside the walled garden, roses, wallflowers and other fragrant plants released their scent in the still evening air (sunset is considered the best time to pay homage to a Persian poet). Fountains splashed in the central courtyard, another essential ingredient for a truly romantic Persian garden.

In the centre a modest dome supported by pillars sheltered Hafez's tomb. Again every visitor would climb the steps, place a hand on the cool white marble and recite their favourite lines. Until a few years ago most visitors would then repair to a small tea house behind the tomb. Visitors, old and young, would sip their drinks and read Hafez's poetry to each other.

You only had to glance at the faces of the young couples, sometimes furtively holding hands in a country where such public displays of affection are outlawed among the unmarried, to know that in their case a more literal rather than spiritual translation of Hafez was uppermost in their minds:

I said 'I suffer because of you'. She said 'Your suffering will end'
I said 'Become my moon'. She said 'If it comes to pass'
I said 'I will barricade your image from the road of my sight'
She said 'It is a thief and it will come a different way'
I said 'The scent of your hair has led me astray in the world'
She said 'If you understand, it can also be your guide'

Every year Reza and I stand beside Hafez's tomb and read his poetry in English and Persian to our Kiwi groups. We always gather a crowd of Iranians too, enjoying both the poetry for its own sake and the fact that a group of Westerners are listening so intently. When we finish reading they applaud. We blush but we know we'll do it again the next year.

The sound of mellifluous Persian, the sunset glow in the sky, the splash of the fountains is an intoxication that Iran's poets only know too well.

The Timaru Herald