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Of roses and poets

FIFTEEN years ago, a friendly captain of an Air-India jumbo invited me into the cockpit during a flight back from Paris. It was a magical clear night and we were somewhere over the waters. My eyes searched the skies for the moon and the stars. On my left appeared the dark solidity of land and then a distant constellation of lights. "That's Shiraz, in Iran," the captain said. The night flight passed but that magical name, redolent with wine and reminiscent of immortal poetry stayed on in the consciousness till a drizzly spring day many years later when I landed in the city of roses and poets in the Fars province of Iran, the province that gives the name Farsi to the language.

Name of fantasy

Shiraz, lying in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, spells fantasy for many reasons: its gardens and orangeries, magnificent cypress trees, pear-shaped turquoise domed mosques, the origin of winemaking, the name of the grape, and so on. But what tugs at the heart is that there is no other city with a name so synonymous with poetry, for there is no other city that is the home and resting place of two great poets, Saadi and Hafiz.

That drizzly day happens to be Nowroz, the Persian New Year, celebrated enthusiastically in Islamic Iran. The roads all seem to lead to the tombs of the two poets; the crowds, including many newly wed couples, carrying picnic baskets with naan, cottage cheese and watermelons, are obviously on a pilgrimage. I follow; overwhelmed at this unusual subjugation of all else to the Gods of poetry. Saadi, who died in 1291 at the age of 100, rests in a pleasant garden with a natural spring and a fishpond. People crowd around his grave, gently placing two fingers on the stone above the poet's head, reading reverently the inscriptions on the walls of the canopy. It seems to be a well-deserved rest for an indefatigable traveller who visited Arabia, India, Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan... staying as long as he fancied. He was captured by Franks, sold to Jews, ransomed for 10 dinars in Allepo and married off to his rescuer's daughter. But evidently she could not hold him and he returned to Shiraz to tell his inimitable stories of places and people in his two main works, Gulistan and Bustan. Inscribed over his tomb is what he desired: "From the tomb of Saadi, son of Shiraz — the perfume of love escapes — Thou shall smell it still a thousand years after his death."

We are past 800, and it still does.

Where Hafiz lies

Not far away, in another garden with a less formal setting, under tall cypress trees, lies Hafiz, heir to Rumi and Saadi. But for one move to Isfahan and Yazd, Hafiz spent his entire life in Shiraz, writing under spiritual inspiration but using romantic allegories of wine, drunkenness and human love to produce ghazals of incredible spontaneity and rich musical quality. Anecdotes about the poet's life abound: Hafiz means one who knows the Koran by heart and, as a child, he had learnt it thus from his father's recitations. His father died early and the young Hafiz began to work in a bakery to help his mother out of debt. While delivering bread, he fell helplessly in love with a very beautiful Turkish woman Shakh-e-Nabat (literally branch of sugarcane) and the poems that he wrote in love for her made him famous. My rough translation of the most well known one is:

If that Turkish beauty of Shiraz, holds my heart in her hand

For the mole on her cheek, I will sacrifice Samarkand and Bukhara

Hafiz's generosity in sacrificing Samarkand and Bukhara was questioned, according to some biographies, by none other than Timur, when he occupied Shiraz toward the end of the 14th Century. How dare you, asked the invader, hand over my beloved cities for the mole on the cheek of some girl? Hafiz, pointing to his poor attire, is said to have replied: "It is because of such prodigality that I live in such poverty." Timur's anger ebbed and Hafiz walked away with rich gifts. Timur, incidentally and contrary to popular image, seems to have had an intellectual bent of mind. He is also known to have had a six-week discourse outside the walls of a besieged Damascus with the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun on all manner of issues of the day. Khaldun later described him as " highly intelligent and perspicacious, addicted to debate and argumentation about what he knows and also about what he does not know."

But back to the master of the ghazal, lying now under an octagonal cupola, whose popularity long ago crossed over to reverence. In most Iranian houses, a divan of Hafiz can be found along with the Koran. Iranians often use it to seek faal or oracular divination, opening a page at random and seeking guidance from the verse that emerges. A souvenir shop in one corner of this garden does a brisk sale of beautiful illustrated versions of the divan. His admirers crave no greater benediction than being able to read his poems in the proximity of his grave. To them, one verse from the ghazal inscribed on his tomb is an eternal invitation: Sit near my tomb, and bring wine and music — Feeling thy presence I shall come out of my sepulchre — Rise, softly moving creature, and let me contemplate thy beauty.

Across the courtyard from the grave is a charming traditional teahouse, complete with rug covered wooden beds, hubble-bubbles, and orange trees around a small pool. A dervish emerges from the teahouse, his layered hat resembling the cupola over Hafiz. Gently and with measured steps, he walks past the grave of a man who called himself "the only dervish in the world who can't dance."


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