At the Persian crossroads

IF IT WERE Persian poetry rather than the inflammatory statements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Tehran hardliners that made the headlines then public perception and global discussion of Iran would be of an altogether different tenor today.

I don’t really speak a word of Persian (I have struggled through – and promptly forgotten all of – the first three chapters of Teach Yourself Colloquial Persian) but hearing the language recently, I was struck by its mellifluous ring, its delicacy and musicality, its cadence that is unlike any other.

Earlier this month I attended the “Love and Devotion: Persian Cultural Crossroads” conference at the State Library of Victoria, hearing a range of speakers, many of whom periodically broke into the delightful, hypnotic lilt of Persian poetry. The conference is a corollary to the Love and Devotion:  From Persian and Beyond exhibition which is running at the library until July 1.

The exhibition brings from the Bodleian Library, Oxford, to Melbourne the largest collection of Persian manuscripts ever gathered in Australia. These are objects of intense beauty, inspired by the works of the mystic poets Jami, Nizami, Sa’adi, Rumi and Firdausi, created in the princely courts of Persia and Persian-influenced Turkey and India from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

Speakers and guests of Iranian origin at the “Persian Cultural Crossroads” conference expressed their pleasure at the fact that the exhibition brings to the broader public an alternative image of Persia/Iran to that usually seen in the media. For me, the conference was an inspiring and exhilarating couple of days: to see people with such depth of knowledge, such passion and intellect articulating their ideas in a scholarly yet digestible way, to hear of new and quirky nuggets of knowledge, to learn more of the richness and depth of Persian culture and history and its links to and influence in the wider world, the Ottoman Turks, the Mughals, the Özbek empires of the Middle Ages and even the (Christian) (European) West.

Some highlights and noteworthy utterances:

Alasdair Watson (Curator of Islamic Manuscripts at the Bodleian) expounded on the history and diffusion of the tale of Leyla and Majnun, a story originating amongst the Arabic tribes of the Hejaz in the 7th century, detailing the love of Qays, an Udhri tribesman, for Leyla, a local girl. Societal strictures keep them apart so that Qays is driven to madness (henceforth being known as Majnun, meaning “possessed”) and departs for the wilderness where he lives a life of ascetism. He eventually dies, years later, broken hearted on the grave of Leyla: shades (or antecedent) of Romeo and Juliet.

The tale spread well beyond the Hejaz and became incorporated in various Sufi allegories, the message of which appeared to be that chaste love is a path to martyrdom (which, apparently, is a good thing…) In relation to this story someone once remarked, “love is graver than madness; love never subsides but a madman has only occasional fits”. The most famous versions of Leyla and Majnun are by Nizami (who died 1209 in Ganja, Azerbaijan, thus is claimed by the Azeris, a Turkic people) and Jami (d. 1492).

Zahra Taheri (Lecturer in Persian from Australian National University) spoke of the women in Jelaladdin Rumi’s circle. Rumi arrived in Konya (now in Turkey) in the 13th century fleeing the Mongols; he was a Sufi/mystic who attracted an enormous following, becoming known as Maulana (“our leader”; Mevlana in Turkish). His followers, after his death, became the Mevlevi order, now known as the Whirling Dervishes. To the Turks, who claim him as their own, he is Celaladdin Rumi; he is the highest selling poet in modern America. He was an Islamic mystic of a different order (no pun intended). Apparently he once fell into a long conversation with a prostitute in a Konya caravanserai; he stated his admiration for her because she was without pretence or artifice. “She is who she is,” Rumi stated. No doubt such a judgement was highly unorthodox, not to say scandalous, in that era. Rumi highlighted the sacredness of music and poetry: “The sound of music is equivalent to prayer: both call people to the truth,” he said.

Poetry, of course, is central to the exhibition at the State Library of Victoria: all of the manuscripts are illuminated retellings of the works of the mystic poets. But the beauty of the poetry has long been apparent to many even outside the Persian-speaking world. Mario Casari, Lecturer in Persian at Sapienza University of Rome, spoke of Giovan Battista Raimondo, director the Medici Oriental Press, established in 1584. Raimondo was so enamoured of Persian that he said that it was a gift from God to mankind specifically created in order to express the “conceits of poetry”. “Persian should be learned perfectly by everybody,” Raimondo asserted.

Goethe, the great German poet and polymath, too, was inspired by Persian poetry, specifically the Divan of Hafiz who wrote in the 14th century. Marcelo Stamm, from RMIT, gave a magnificent, dramatic presentation detailing the “constellations” of creativity that existed between the poetry of Hafiz and Goethe, who wrote his own divan (collection of poetry) in a Persian style in the early 19th century. Central to Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan was the poem Blessed Longing , a poignant evocation of his unrequited and unconsummated love for Maryanne van Willemer. Another of the divan’s poems, Suleika, allegedly written by van Willemer, not Goethe, stirred a struggling young musician, Franz Schubert, to composed love songs, one of which was described by Brahms as the most beautiful love song ever. Schubert, of course, died at the age of 31. There’s a lot going on there – constellations indeed! We’ve got chaste love, enduring longing, death and mystical unions – how very Sufi!

Not everyone remains in thrall to the Persian poets, however, and this brings us full circle to the hardliners of modern Iran. Anne Démy-Geroe, Co-director of the Iranian Film Festival of Australia, told of Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 movie Shirin, which consists entirely of close ups of the faces of Iranian women  as they watch a pre-1979 (ie pre-Islamic Revolution) movie of the tale of Shirin and Khusrau, which itself dates back to Iran’s pre-Islamic history and is included in Firdausi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings). This was Kiarostami’s way of conveying the emotional gravitas of the story of yet another of Persia’s pairs of doomed lovers, a story that despite its resonating across the broader Persian populace for (literally) 1000 years  remains unfilmable in the Islamic Republic due to its pre-Islamic origins.

Right, I’m off to grab my copy of Teach Yourself Persian


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