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Tiles showing musicians

Postcards from Iran

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Music and Poetry

Music I heard and didn’t hear in Iran 2012
Iran is a beautiful country and a large one. We spent a lot of time in the car getting from one place to another. I enjoyed gazing out the window, sinking into the landscapes. Desert, salt lakes, rocky mountains in endless shapes and configurations. For the most part the land was very dry, and then suddenly I’d see how fertile it is when it gets water. We snacked on the pistachios, almonds, dates and citrus fruits that grow there.

We had music in the car — it felt like the soundtrack of our trip. Fleur had recorded hours of a radio program called golchin hafte, that played during the years before the Islamic revolution of 1979. A bouquet selected from the garden of artistic creativity that flowered in those years. Music at once traditional and new. (To hear what it’s like, click here. If you don’t understand Farsi you can scroll through the talk.)

As I watched the landscapes and listened to the music, land and culture began to merge. I saw the great story heroes galloping right over the very hills I was looking at! As a storyteller, this was one of the trip’s great benefits.

Along the road from Mashhad to Kalat

Along the road from Mashhad to Kalat, close to the border of Turkmenistan,
where some of the great battles of the Shahnameh took place.

Sadly, we do not hear that music on the radio or in public places under the Islamic Republic. Nor do we hear the voices of women singing solo in public places in Iran. Solo singing is the backbone of Persian music, so that although women are allowed to sing in ensembles with men in public, that solo voice is sorely missed. Music has suffered greatly in the past decades.

Venues stand empty — an amphitheatre in a Mashhad park and a performance space at Ferdowsi’s tomb in Tus.

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The great Iranian poet Ferdowsi.

The great poet Ferdowsi. His life-work, the Shahnameh or book of Kings, relates Iran’s history from mythic times up to the Arab invasion of the 7th century and is still timely and popular today.

Secular arts, including also theatre and storytelling have gone underground or left the country. Literature and art are subject to fierce censorship. On the other hand there is an underground culture. I didn’t experience it firsthand but understand that it is growing ever-stronger as people reclaim their lives.

There is an outstanding exception to all this. The first female naqqal, or teller of the Shahnameh, has appeared both performing and teaching in Iran, and she is wonderful. Her stage name is Gordafarid, taken from a female warrior in the poem. A film about her life and work is here.

We do hear religious music in Iran and it is beautiful. Magnificent male voices accompany the mourning on a saint’s day, coming from a loudspeaker in a park, or in a parade. But the most constant musical enhancement to life in Iran is azan, the call to prayer, heard three times a day. I first heard it from Fleur and Hossein’s apartment in Mashhad, coming from the neighborhood mosque just around the corner. Sometimes we’d hear it while passing a mosque on the crowded and lively streets.

But the most evocative call to prayer that I heard was in the city of Kermān. We were in a darkening garden beside a shrine to Ali Shah, one of the great mystic dervishes. I stood beside a pool of fresh water, enjoying the delicate aroma of flowers and the full moon peeking through the tall cypress trees. And then, from over the wall, came the call to prayer, music crossing cultural and religious boundaries, inviting us to put everyday life aside, to prepare our selves physically and spiritually, and to enter into communion with the sacred.

Mosque arches


Gardens of the mystics — poets
We visited memorials to many mystic poets; the Sufi darvish Shah ne’matollah vali, poets Omar Khayam and Farid al-Din Attar and Sa’di Shirazi. All are much loved and many people visit them.

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Tree and flowers

Shirāz was the home of Hāfez, Iran’s most beloved poet. People gather at his tomb to meditate, and to read poetry aloud. Diviners are available if you’ve brought your own book. They will open it and find the poem that has a message for you in much the same way that some westerners use the Bible. In case you haven’t brought your own book, a man wanders the grounds with a bird on his shoulder and a box of cards in his hand. When someone asks for a reading, the bird swoops down to the box and selects a card with the appropriate poem on it.

The tomb of the mystic poet Hafez, Shiraz

The tomb of the mystic poet Hāfez, Shirāz

Hāfez is clearly alive and well in the hearts of his people. We returned to our hotel after visiting the tomb, and the man at reception asked what we had done and how we liked Shirāz. I replied in my halting Farsi that we had been to Hāfezieh, among other places. He then asked me if I was familiar with Hāfez, but he used one word I didn’t know. Fleur simplified for me, but later I asked her what the word was that he had really used. She replied that it meant something more like, “Have you studied Hāfez?” I went back and explained apologetically that I had read Hāfez only in English and not really studied. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “I’m just pleased that someone comes to my hotel who speaks my language and who is familiar with Hāfez.” There were tears in his eyes. It was one of the most moving moments of my trip!

For a more modern poem, about the great hero Ārash the Archer by Seyavash Kasrai, please look here.

Continue the journey as I learn the importance of water in Iran!

Please feel free to contact me with comments and questions.

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