Hafez

I was in Shiraz the other day, after an absence of five years. My favorite place there is the mausoleum of Hafez, a 14th century Persian poet. Iranians still know large parts of his poems by heart. They’re sung in classical Persian music along with loads of other poets that sometimes date even earlier than Hafez. Every household has a copy of his Diwan, besides a Qur’an of course, and his grave is visited by millions of Iranians.

The grave -an alabaster block inscribed with one of Hafez’s poems- is under a canopy set in a park that has corridors, greenery and fountains. I used to go to the teahouse there, but that is closed now, sadly. Classical Persian song is played all the time. I presume it’s Hafez. You can spend an entire day there, provided you bring sufficient company, food and drink.

There’s a couple of rituals Iranians observe when they visit the grave. All visitors touch his gravestone, usually with their hand, sometimes also with their forehead, kneeling. Some either read his poetry at the grave or pray. I saw a class of schoolgirls happily shouting surat al-Fatiha (see picture) under the direction of chador-clad teachers. I also saw various people quietly reciting either Hafez’s poetry or the Qur’an -I couldn’t see- in a more serious mood. Some were even sobbing.

Ever since the invention of mobile phones, some call their family during their visit. This way some of the love of Hafez is expected to rub off on the distant relatives. Because this is how Hafez is just a tiny bit more important than all the other Persian poets: he’s known as the poet of love. His mystical poetry is of course about divine love, but there must be more to it than that when Iranians looking for a partner come to Hafez specifically to pray for that purpose.

There’s not much Hafez that I know, but being there for the third time made me think. Hafez, and many others, try to speak about the divine. Something you basically cannot speak about. And what does he do? What does everyone do who tries? We limit ourselves. We limit ourselves to rhythm and rhyme, to stanza’s and strict form, to metaphors and the oblique use of words. You’d think that formulating the unspeakable requires you to use the full width and breadth of language, but no: we go for even more limits.

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