Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hafez, the Poet from Shiraz

Hafez was born around 1315. Not much is known about his life, except that he spent most of it in Shiraz, and a good part of what you hear is a figment of someone's overly active imagination. I'm not going to add to the speculation.

I picked up a translation of his poems before coming to Iran in 2008. I had read that it was customary for pilgrims in Iran to carry Hafez with them and each morning, or so I interpreted it, turn to a page, read the poem carefully, and use it as some kind of guidance for the day.

The translation I used was David Ladinsky’s The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master. Ladinsky has been criticized for not working from the original Persian, for essentially making a translation of a previous translation, and in some cases fabricating Hafez-like poems. I must admit that the criticisms give me pause. But at the same time, I find Ladinsky’s poetry fresh, engaging, and relevant. I decided to believe that, the scholarly imperfections not withstanding, these were wonderful poems and that Hafez would have approved of their spirit and intent.

So nearly every morning I opened my book and read a poem. In one case, I found one that was so startlingly relevant that I copied it on a piece of paper, stuffed it into my purse, and looked at it again and again as the day went on. It began “Anger sinks the boat.”

After a long day at Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam, we visited the mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz, located in a peaceful and quite beautiful garden.  See the photo above. Reza, our guide, read us a poem by Hafez in the original Farsi and Carolyn read Reza’s translation of it. So beautiful. I read one from The Gift called The Gift. If your eyesight is superb, you can read it to your left. And if you click on the image, it will get bigger.

I loved watching the people who came to the tomb, often carrying their books of Hafez. They would kneel down next to the tomb and lay their hand on it, just for a moment. Kids tried to climb on the tomb and were motioned off by watchful guards.

Outside the grounds, several men with parakeets, a stack of cards, and little pieces of paper were selling fortunes. Once you paid your money and picked a card, the parakeet would pick the piece of paper for you. And if you could read Farsi, you would have your fortune. My card showed birds escaping from the open door of their cage. But I don’t know what the slip says. I asked Reza to translate, but we never got around to it. Perhaps there is some regulation against tour guides reading fortunes. I suppose it could be awkward.

Note: So what is this Hafez/Hafiz, Esfahan/Isfahan thing going on here? In the transliteration from Farsi to English, there is no difference in pronunciation between the i and the e or the p and the f. So you can see all different sorts of spellings and it is easy to be misled. I have chosen to use Hafez and Esfahan, except in the case with the title of Ladinsky’s book which spells it Hafiz.

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