Middle East

A Vintage Twist for Iran's Classical Poets

Shrine of Hafez in Shiraz, Iran?

Shrine of famous Iranian poet Shamseddine Mohammad Hafez (Photo: Paul Cochrane)

Shiraz, Iran: The name of this south-central Iranian city is known around the world for a red grape that gave the name to a fruity, dark wine - Shiraz.

But since the Islamic revolution in 1979, wine and all other alcoholic drinks have been banned in Iran, and that ban has extended to references to wine in the works of some of Iran's most famous poets - though tellingly the poems of Shamseddine Mohammad Hafez and Omar Khayyam themselves have not been banned altogether. Rather, these specific poems have been officially reinterpreted.

Unlike contemporary films, Western literature, or other cultural mediums, which mention or depict wine, alcohol and its consumption and have been censored or outlawed by the Islamic Republic, the popularity of Khayyam and Hafez has enabled their work to survive, relatively unharmed, in the cultural onslaught that the Islamic Revolution entailed.

The 14th-century poet Hafez is considered one of Persia's greatest, held in as high regard in Iran as Shakespeare is in the English-speaking world. The popularity of this Shiraz-born Sufi is evident to this day with the shrine to Hafez, set in a beautiful garden of cypress trees and water fountains, a major pilgrimage site for Iranians. Families include the shrine in their itinerary when visiting Shiraz, and the gardens are a popular location for people to socialize or read from the "Divan" ("Odes") - Hafez's most famous poetry collection - while recitations are played over speakers in the garden.

The 10th-century poet and scientist Khayyam's tomb and gardens in Neishabur, west of Mashhad in eastern Iran, equally attract thousands of admirers every year.

Ultimately, Hafez and Khayyam are too popular and too entrenched historically and in modern times, to face the full force of the censor's pen - despite some of their religiously satirical material.

In both poets' work, Hafez and Khayyam extol the virtues of wine, often in a way meant to mock the orthodox clergy.

As Hafez wrote in the "Divan": "Hafez drink wine! Practice profligacy and be happy; but, like others, make not the Koran the snare of deceit."

Khayyam writes in his "Rubaiyat" ("Quatrains"): "My life-long practice is to praise the Vine, And round me have the instruments of wine; Zealot! If Reason guide thee here, be glad, Thy master is a pupil apt of mine!"

Why have the mullahs in Tehran tolerated such verse when other forms of literature have been banned or censored for mentioning alcohol, or what would be considered blasphemous content?

Talking to students and young people in Shiraz and other cities, the answer was a striking one.

Aside from the poets' popularity ensuring their continued availability, the official line appears to be that Khayyam and Hafez did not actually drink alcoholic wine.

University of Shiraz students Mohammad Sadesh Zeighami, 20, studying law, and Ali Reza Zakaje, 20, studying medicine, were visiting the shrine of Hafez. Asked if Hafez drank wine, Zeighami replied in the negative.

"The drink is from a fruit but non-alcoholic, to bring one closer to God - to the next level. That is what we are taught. I don't think it is wine," he said.

Asked about the use of the words "intoxicated" and "tavern" in the same verse as a reference to wine in one of Hafez's poems, Zakaje claimed, "Intoxicated? Yes, with God and his spirit. By tavern he means a house of God or a religious school."

Tour guide Masoud Namat Ali, 24, said that in schools the emphasis is on Hafez's Muslim background, and how he memorized the Koran at a young age - which was nothing exceptional at the time for Koranic memorization was (and still is) an integral part of Islamic culture.

"It is not wine, he didn't drink. Hafez was a good Muslim," Ali said.

And Khayyam?

"He also didn't drink. You cannot have clear thoughts and be able to write poetry when you are drunk - you cannot think of God," he said. "But we didn't study Khayyam's poems as much as Hafez," he added.

Khayyam is better known in Iran for his work as a mathematician and astronomer than his poetry. Khayyam did after all perform mathematical calculations that reformed the Persian calendar that is still in use today.

Conversely, the "Rubaiyat" of Khayyam is perhaps the best-known Oriental poem in Europe and North America due to an 1859 translation by Edward Fitzgerald that became exceedingly popular at the turn of the 19th century. Lebanese author Amin Maalouf's novel "Samarkand" also enhanced Khayyam's reputation as a poet and scientist outside of Iran.

There is certainty though that Khayyam did drink wine, according to historical accounts and his own writing: "With fair maid and red wine by marge of rill, Of joy and mirth the while I take my fill; I was not but I am, and yet will be, I have drunk and drink now and will drink still."

Shirazi shopkeeper Hassan Faizi, 45, knows both poets' work well. "Of course Khayyam drank wine, about that there is no doubt. But for Hafez, there are other arguments," he said.

"Wine can be meant as a symbol, of mystical Sufi poetry. There is much meaning, and different layers referring to the Koran and history in the 'Divan,'" he said.

Certain scholars agree with this interpretation, that through the Sufi thoughts and beliefs dominant at that time Hafez's poems refer to a divine presence that can be felt in different manifestations of life. Wine is therefore a symbol of spiritual ecstasy, and the tavern the Sufi monastery.

Others argue that Sufism is not evident in all the symbolism or wording of Hafez's poems, and that the reader should decide what is to be taken literally or symbolically.

Regardless of how Hafez can be interpreted, the educational curriculum in Iran appears to be giving one particular angle by alluding to Sufi symbolism, and in the case of Khayyam, focusing on his nonpoetic work.

But Hafez never got on well with the Orthodox clergy in life or in death. They refused him a Muslim burial, but after the people of Shiraz protested it was agreed Hafez's "Divan" itself would be used to determine the decision. A young boy was chosen to select at random a single couplet from Hafez's poetry. The boy chose a tongue-in-cheek remark from Hafez to the Orthodox clergy that would be just as applicable today as in 1389: "Neither Hafez's corpse, nor his life negate, With all his misdeeds, heavens for him wait."

Hafez got his burial but Shiraz doesn't have its wine.