Postcards from Iran
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.