Fantastic tension of the opposites in Hafiz poems
By Daniel Parsa
July 29, 2003
Interview with Paul Smith,
author and translator of four books on the 14th century Persian
poet, Hafiz (Divan
of Hafiz, Hafiz
Tongue of the Hidden, Book
of the Winebreaker, Love's
How did you come across Hafiz?
I discovered Hafiz in a book someone showed me called The God-Man,
by a Shakespearean scholar, C.B. Purdom, in 1965. The book is about
the Spiritual Master Meher Baba. I was on this ship sailing from
India to Italy. When I returned to Australia six months later I
got a job in a bookstore. The first book I picked up was The
I took the book home and read it. It changed my life. The whole
purpose of my life. The reasons for my existence became known to
me. I was always searching for God, since I was a child. I looked
into Christianity, Buddhism, etc.but never found what I was really
looking for. The living Qutub or Perfect Master.
I began composing poetry when I was six-years old.
They in the form of ghazals without me knowing they were ghazals.
Meher Baba's devotee and disciple in 1966. Meher Baba had re-orientated
Sufism which had broken down into squabbling factions. I began
reading Hafiz whom he referred to as the best poet who ever lived.
I had no prior knowledge of any Persian poets except Omar Khayyam.
I began collecting all the available translations into English
of Hafiz, which were about 95. There were however, only two complete
translations by H. Wilberforce Clarke and John Payne then. Now
of course there are three more complete versions in English, including
Why didn't you learn Persian?
I've a total lack of ability for learning other
languages. So I read every translation of Hafiz instead. I studied
six years. and everthing about what influenced him and the times.
But before starting on the translation myself I had to learn about
the structure of the ghazal. No one had written in this form in
the English language. So I wrote hundreds of my own. The form of
the ghazal is a spiral. The opening line of each couplet doesn't
have to rhyme (even the first. for that sets up the rhyme ). And
so there is the total freedom of the first line in which the heart
can fully express itself.
The second line of the first couplet,
the mind comes into play and everything is contracted. and so on
throughout the poem. So really it is the expansion and contraction
of the heart. So it has this fantastic tension of the opposites.
It has this feeling which I call "divine nostalgia".
Like in the Blues, there is this longing. In the sufic ghazals
the longing is for unity with God, with the beloved. The ghazal
is the most beautiful poetic form ever invented. There's no doubt
in my mind about it. It's in everything, the DNA, Islamic architecture.
It's how words come out, through a spiral. The whole creation
comes out through a spiral. The Word of God is a spiral.
How did you start on the translation? Did
you follow a particular regime, or structure?
I did 150 ghazals first which took a year and
a half.. I'd open the book at random, read all the versions I had,
then blank out
my mind then ask God for help then the line would come. and so
on. Then I'd work and polish it. After doing 150 I felt. It's
not working out. It lacked passion. It was too intellectual. I
also under a lot of stress at the time. I was working during the
day and we had an adopted Cambodian daughter who needed our attention.
I was only sleeping a few hours. I decided to give it up. It wasn't
working out. I felt such a weight leaving me!
Then a strange, miraculous
thing happened. As I was sitting in the study I heard a voice.
It was loud and clear, in my ear, from outside me. It said, "The
problem with you is that you're doing it
for yourself. Do just one for me and I'll help you." Poetry
written by a God-realized soul can help these things happen you.
Amazing things can happen.
I thought, shit, if I pick up the pen
I'll be back in it again, working on it. you see it was so difficult
and I was so relieved to give it up! (Paul laughs). He forced me
to pick up the pen and he moved my hand and together we did 12
ghazals that night. He showed me most of what was missing. They
were beautiful. Now I had the way. A partnership! You see? He
needed me and I needed Him.
Later that morning I had this dream.
in Shiraz, present day Shiraz. People were visiting Hafiz's tomb,
bending down, praying, asking. I stood there beside Hafiz holding
his hand, a child, observing everything. He was small and ugly.
I said to him, "Isn't it terrible you're lying there dead?" The
moment I said this I realized the joke I'd made. If he was dead
why was he alive standing next to me? How can he be dead when people
read his book today? He burst out laughing. An incredible, infectious
laugh . I caught it! I burst out laughing too. It was the most
fantastic laughter. I can't describe it. I woke up laughing, with
tears rolling down my cheeks. My wife who was sleeping next to
me caught it and woke up laughing as well.
I discovered then that
the last key in working on Hafiz was in his humour. A great sense
of irony. But also laughter for the sheer joy and pleasure of
it. I went back and rewrote the first 150 again and kept going
another 12 years until I completed his entire Divan.
Your journey with Hafiz is an ongoing one.
I believe you have been working on a number of other projects
Yes, I've written film-scripts, plays, novels and poetry on
Hafiz. At the moment I'm writing his biography. A long biographical
novel you could say.
Have you progressed anywhere with the film-script,
in terms of making it into a movie.
I wrote the original one about 12 years ago. It's
a lot different now. Some four years ago I entered into a dialogue
with some Iranian
government ministers about it. Ten years ago I was invited by the
Australian Government to go to Iran and give talks and make a documentary
film about Hafiz. But because of some unrest in the country at
the time I was advised by our foreign affairs department not to
go in. I was in India with a film crew ready to go, but it wasn't
meant to be I suppose. This of course didn't discourage me.
years ago I talked to some Iranian friends of mine and came up
with the idea for a vast project called "Hafiz for our Time".
The project introduces Iran to the world as the land of Hafiz.
Hafiz being the greatest symbol of Iran, symbol of the true Iranian,
independant, open-minded, humane, loving God, hurting no one. The
ministers were all for the film part of it. But then censorship
came into it. The censorship guys would not allow my script to
be filmed as it was.
How did they try to change your script?
The censors wanted to make the film more like what
Iran is like now rather than what it was like at the time of Hafiz.
veiled, no wine or winehouses and no criticism of clergy. It
would have been easier to look for the money elsewhere really.
we needed the government's permission if we shot it there. And
our proposal wasn't just for a feature film. It was also an animated
film, a festival of poetry, plays, music, many publications.
a vast project. So we had to lobby the government and seek
permission. But they don't really have the final say when it
comes to censorship do they?
Are you disappointed?
Very much so. But also hopeful! One day it will all
happen and Hafiz and his birthplace will be promoted and loved
the world. He is the world's greatest poet, it is true, and
and work are really for this time more than any other. I'm
sure it will happen one day, and perhaps sooner than you'd
Tell us something about the feature film that is
in the pipeline now.
A famous British film producer, in fact probably
the most successful of all time, asked for my Hafiz script and
it. He is interested
in Sufism, Rumi and Hafiz.
Where do you think he will get the money from?
He's been negotiating for two years now with various groups
of people in Europe and the Middle East. banks, investors.
What's the length of the movie?
script is for 2 and half hours. But it might be three 2 and a half
hour movies. Like 'Lord of the Rings'. I'm
trying to convince
him to do it like that at the moment and he seems to
be interested. It's such a massive, hypnotic story. I think
the best way
to really tell it would be a 40 hours television series.
on Hafiz from which I'm writing the scripts from will
three 800 page books (I've finished over half). there
is so much
Hafiz, his friends and Shiraz at the time that is unknown
until now. so many other wonderful characters, Nabat
Attar (his Master), his friend Gulandam, his minstrel
friend Haji Ahmed, the crazy satirist poet Obeyd Zakani,
Princess Jahan Khatun
(Iran's greatest female poet whom Hafiz taught), Khaju
Kirmani and many other poets, minstrels, artists; his
son, all the various rulers. It's an amazing story,
full of romance, intrigues, betrayals, upheavals, great love,
faith and friendship.
the songs and ghazals, of course. So in a way it's
a dramatic-musical. Shiraz at that time was the artistic and
Mr. Smith I'm sure the Iranian community and the
lovers of Hafiz everywhere will eagerly follow the development
Thanks very much for your time.
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