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Blurred lines: Sex, God, and poetry in the gardens of Shiraz
(I know you want it)
Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz
Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun, and Obayd-e Zakani
Translated by Dick Davis
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Shiraz when spring is here - what pleasure equals this?
With streams to sit by, wine to drink, and lips to kiss,
With mingled sounds of drums and lutes and harps and flutes;
Then, with a nice young lover near, Shiraz is bliss.
Persian translator Dick Davis presents three poets from 14th Century Shiraz in his 2012 collection Faces of Love. The first, Hafez, is well-known. The other two are new to readers. Jahan Malek Khatun was a princess of Shiraz who also wrote and performed poetry; her works have only been recently published in 1995. Obayd-e Zakani is an obscene satirical poet who’s works have only been published previously in a censored way.
The collection provides a sampler and an introduction to the poetry scene of medieval Persia, a cultural golden age that mixed literary virtuosity, religious devotion, and philosophical contemplation in a dazzling, beguiling world of sensual pleasures.
Poetry is by nature hard to pin down, but this poetry is particularly rich with ambiguity, paradox, and allusion on every possible level.
Blurred lines of art
In oral poetry traditions, the poet is a performer. In literary poetry traditions, the poet is an author. We call both these roles “poets” and their work “poetry.” And yet as artistic crafts they are wildly different. Pick your favorite musical artist and compare reading their lyrics in a book vs. listening to their music. Something comes across of their work, but it’s not the same. A similar thing happens in reverse, when poems are put to music.
Medieval Persian poets were both performers and authors. They sang or chanted their work, played an instrument or were accompanied. Like music artists today, they had reputations for their voice, their virtuosity, and their style. But they were also prolific producers of written poems that were meant to be read in private in their lifetime.
After their deaths, all we are left with are the written words, which continued to entertain and inspire centuries of readers. But we no longer get to experience the whole milieu that shaped the expression of their art, perhaps a walled garden at dusk, redolent of flowers, incense, and perfume; young slaves, chosen for their beauty, moving silently between richly ornamented arches; aristocrats buzzed off Shiraz wine lounging around on divans.
At one point, Davis describes the style of Hafez as kind of like Bob Dylan—but it’s like we are reading a book of Bob Dylan lyrics (in translation) without ever having heard him or seen him. This blurring of the performative and the literary is the first ambiguity of these poems; the original setting must be understood to make sense of the poems, but it’s also lost to us in many ways.
Jahan Malek Khatun writes:
The roses have all gone; “goodbye,” we say; we must;
And I shall leave the busy world one day; I must.
My little room, my books, my love, my sips of wine -
All these are dear to me; they’ll pass away; they must.
Blurred lines of gender
“Persian pronouns have no gender distinctions, so that the same word may be translated as ‘he,’ ‘she,’ or ‘it,’” writes Davis in the introduction. And, furthermore, explains Davis, the poems rarely mention sex-specific physical characteristics.
So there’s an androgyny to many of the love poems in the book—from a lover to a beloved, genders unknown. However, there’s a kind of assumed poetic frame for the ghazal genre, the most frequent poetic form: The poet is an older man who is madly in love with a male youth who refuses to love him back.
So lovely, lithe, and lively, such a fairy face,
That Turk in his cute cloak, all wiles and nonchalance -
And I’m so mad about him, so on fire for him,
I’m like a cooking cauldron’s seething turbulence
This is the understood scenario for most lyric poems of this era, even if not explicit every time. Consider love songs in our own culture like “Amazed” by Lonestar or “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes. The lyrics don’t specify the gender or sex of the lover or the beloved, but the background cultural assumption is a heterosexual relationship—because that’s just what everybody “knows” the song is about.
Many of Hafez’s poems describe sitting around, listening to music, drinking wine, eyeing the handsome boy servers as they refill one’s glass. That’s the setting that these poems are situated in. Categories like homosexuality or heterosexuality didn’t exist (even though certain behaviors were allowed or prohibited, depending on the ruler).
Davis argues that gender in love poems probably didn’t even matter to the poets and their audiences of the time. The love and the desire was the point of the poem, not the genders of the personas. Does the poem capture the emotion? The passion? The sorrow? The misery of lovesickness?
To solve the practical translation problem here, Davis decides to translate about half with a male beloved and half with a female beloved, which probably overcounts the women, but reminds the reader throughout that this aspect of the poetry is decidedly fluid (or unimportant) in the original language and its cultural context.
Blurred lines of consent
The "youths” that the speaker longs for in these poems are younger than modern readers are comfortable with. They are probably teenagers, mostly boys, who haven’t achieved a full beard yet.
But this is even further complicated by them often being servants or slaves. Part of the play, entertainment, or humor(?) of this particular genre of lyric poem is that power dynamics are inverted. The old poet is at the mercy of the youth; the aristocrat is at the mercy of the slave.
It may seem anachronistic to bring in the idea of “consent” to these 14th Century Persian love poems, but that in fact is the central emotional drama of the poems. The beloved is refusing the pursuit of the lover. That’s the whole impetus for the poem, rhetorically speaking. The poet is pleading for their love or desire to be returned in kind, but they are failing to win them over.
That would seem to imply there isn’t a power difference between the figures. But is this just a kind of jest? In the real life, did these “beloveds” really have a choice? At what point does the endless pressuring become… creepy… like the Robin Thicke song “Blurred Lines”? Does the ostensible narrative of this love lyric genre actually imply or assume that this isn’t what usually happens?
It seemed to me that the female poet of this collection, Jahan Malek Khatun, writes with a bit less of a lecherous vibe than the other two. She more frequently uses chess metaphors to describe the interplay between lovers, suggesting a more abstract, intellectual romantic relationship:
My heart was hurt by his “Checkmate”;
I think I must prepare
To seek out wider pastures then,
And wander off elsewhere.
Blurred lines of religion
It actually gets more complicated from here, specifically when it comes to Hafez.
Fourteenth Century Shiraz was ruled by Islamic leaders, which influenced every aspect of citizens’ lives. Yet strict Islamic observance banned three activities in particular that were central to the city’s elite culture: wine, music, and sex with adolescent males.
The people of Shiraz were outwardly Muslim, but under lax rulers, people were basically free to do as they pleased. The name “Hafez” itself means a reciter of the Koran, but it also refers to a musician. The ambiguity of his name contains both a religious and a secular meaning—one that may be at odds with its religious one. (Most musicians of the time were non-Muslim, according to Davis’ endnotes.)
You asked me to explain
Eternity for you -
Well certainly, when I
Have downed a drink or two.
Famously, Hafez writes poems that can either be read literally or mystically, either as a kind of celebration of material pleasures (wine, music, and boys) or as coded metaphors of divine mystical experience. For centuries, Sufis wrote extensive commentaries on the deeper meanings of Hafez—even as Hafez seems to deride Sufism explicitly throughout his poems.
These are deeply ambiguous poems, which sometimes suggest that God can be found through physical pleasures, sometimes suggest that contemplation of God is the only true pleasure, or that nobody really knows anything so just enjoy life. Sometimes the imagery suggests lofty symbolism, other times it cuts against this kind of spiritual reading.
Sit yourself down upon the wine-shop’s bench
And take a glass of wine - this is your share
Of all the wealth and glory of the world,
And what you’re given there … is all you need.
Complicating things further, Hafez has particular hatred for hypocrites—and he sees most religious leaders this way. I see three possible meanings here:
The plain speaking. There’s no need to explain a hatred of hypocrisy. Hafez stands as a kind of “common man” against the authorities, mocking their stuffy self-absorption and taking them down a peg with insults.
The philosophical/mystical. Religious hypocrites claim to divide the world into sacred and secular, divine and profane. And yet they themselves prove that these realms are not separate. Hafez sees the divine in the ordinary, which hypocrites cannot see.
The clever wit. Hafez is playing another joke. He himself plays the hypocrite in his own poems, regularly claiming to be a good Muslim and yet indulging in wine, music, and boys. Saying “I hate hypocrites” while being a hypocrite yourself is hypocritical.
The result is a body of poems that can be many things for many readers. They can be read as pure surface level entertainment or as profound wisdom. Is Hafez a mystic or a materialist? Is he plain speaking or a clever wit? A sober philosopher or a town drunk? Davis lets all these potential meanings color the text. The poems blur all the lines, leaving the reader in a state of uncertainty and wonder.
Divinity or decadence?
Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” In many ways, Davis does a remarkable job of expressing what can’t really be translated in these poems.
These are ostensibly love poems, gushes of passion. But they are virtuosic in their formal complexity, rich in metaphors and puns. They push the limits of wit to such a degree that we can almost get lost in their meanings. Davis refers to Hafez’s poetry as a “kaleidoscope,” a very apt metaphor for these ever-changing, dazzling performances.
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of these poems. These blurred lines can make the reader feel acutely the slipperiness and ambiguity of language. Are we ascending to Paradise on a ladder of carefully linked paradoxes, reaching a profound state of contemplation?
When Hafez speaks, it’s no surprise
If Venus dances in the skies
And leads across the heavens’ expanse
Lord Jesus in the whirling dance.
Or is it clever language pressed to point of cynical sophistry—so ambiguous, so ambivalent, so slippery that everything becomes a sly joke, and we are left with nothing but empty words?
Don’t put your trust in all the tricks
And games that you’ve created;
It’s said there are a thousand ways
For kings to be checkmated.
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