Hafez and Burns – no bards in between
The intertwining of two poets from different two cultures at the Edinburgh Iranian Book Festival
It is said that every household in Iran has two books: a Qur’an and a Divan (a collection of poems) of Hafez, a famous Iranian poet.
For an outsider who is neither fond of poetry, nor fluent in speaking Farsi, if I hadn’t seen the recital of his poetry at the sixth annual Edinburgh Iranian Festival, I would never have believed how the admirers of Hafez fight their tears at the sound of his words.
Such is the case in Shiraz, where under the Cyprus tree, men with moustaches and women in chadors wipe their tears around the Tomb of Hafez. They sense the pain and love in Persian poet Hafez’s poems, which appear to hold a special and meaningful place in their hearts — even today.
Taking place on a Sunday evening in the festival’s “Nomad’s Tent”, I heard Hafez’s poetry for the first time. The concept of this poetry club was outstanding: Bringing people together to compare a fourteenth century Iranian Muslim poet with an eighteenth century Scottish poet. Who knew that – despite being separated by four centuries, and completely different religion, history, culture and language – they still had so much in common: From the love of wine, music, laughing and dancing, to “love” itself.
Internationally acclaimed poet, Robert Burns, born in 1759, was not very different from Hafez – born four centuries prior in Shiraz, the city of literature, wine, ghazals and flowers. Hafez is exclusively known for his ghazals – lyric poems of about seven to nine lines. His poems on wine have stood the test of time, like the Saqi-namaa, which is often sung in a particular mode of traditional Persian music.
Growing up in the Middle East and having not been encouraged to study or read poetry – let alone Farsi poems – it was shocking to see people in complete awe every time the music would flow in with a verse. I did not know that poems could be read so passionately alongside traditional music, especially for people who may not understand what is being conveyed.
The poetry club included the sound of the santur – an Iranian string instrument – playing alongside beautifully rehearsed verses of one of Hafez’s poems. It’s enough to transport anyone back to the fourteenth century – I didn’t want it to stop. The music, the subtitles on the screen projector or the strong voice behind the microphone reciting Farsi verses of Hafez; the intertwining histories and words of both Scottish and Iranian poets was captivating.
Hafez’s poems focused a lot on drinking. However, intoxication in his poems can be read as the intoxication of love or the loss of self as a metaphor in a spiritual process that one feels through a drink. Burns and Hafez both lived and worked in traditional and religious societies where drinking was considered taboo.
Rulers of Shiraz would ban singing on the streets and shut the wine shops. When Mubariz al-Din, a cruel ruler, was overthrown by his son, Shah Shuja in 1358, wine shops were re-opened and this is what Hafez had to say through one of his poems:
“Thanks be to God now that the wine-shop door is open,
since it’s there that I’m heading for –
The jars are groaning with fermented wine,
With wine that’s real, and not a metaphor”
On the other hand, no pubs ever closed in Scotland. Burns was a practising Christian and feared the God he still was very fond of. Singing, dancing, drinking, and making love were all strongly disapproved of by society. Like Hafez, a practising Muslim, Burns enjoyed the sound of music and beauty of love and life. Hafez refused to accept that wine is forbidden in his religion, because hypocrisy in the world was not.
Writing poems on hypocrisy certainly did not end at the time of Hafez. Burns was a very religious, God fearing man, and also rallied against hypocrisy. One notable poem by Burns, “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, relayed the story of Willie Fisher, an elder in the Parish church of Mauchline, in Ayrshire. Fisher was a hypocrite and a sinner, who would spy on people and report them to the minister if he thought they were doing something wrong.
“Holy Willie’s Prayer” was based on a true story, as it was strictly a condemnation of religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness. It’s why the real poem did not get published until after Burns’ death, because the real Fisher was identifiable in the poem.
Burns and Hafez were both believers of God and love. For them, human imperfections were not something to condemn but to celebrate. Because, at the end of the day, it is what makes us real.
“O ONCE I lov’d a bonnie lass,
An’ aye I love her still,
An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast
I’ll love my handsome Nell.”
Hafez could never get enough of love, nor would Burns. One of the most iconic love songs ever written by Burns, “Ae Fond Kiss” is a soothing and touching ode to a platonic relationship Burns had with a woman.
Performed by the talented artists in the Nomad’s tent, it managed to get the audience and me – who had previously been nonchalant to poetry and love songs – to sing along and feel what was meant to be felt.