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Iran finds its future in words of poets

Washington Post News Service
Friday, December 3, 1999

SHIRAZ, Iran -- The faithful are gathered at the tomb, beneath an intricately tiled cupola amid several acres of flowered grounds. Cloaked women kneel and press their heads against the stone coffin. Men reverently stroke it with their fingers. A single rose lies at the head.

On a chill fall night, the people of this southern city have come to pay homage not to an imam, an ayatollah, or a military martyr, but to a long-dead poet: Hafez, a 14th-century writer whose sensual verse, understood to be about God but nonetheless a staple for courting couples, is a durable source of delight for Iranians.

He inspires. He entrances. He counsels. People come here not just in honor of his genius but for guidance, following a ritual in which they hold a volume of Hafez's poems to their heart, ask a question, then open the book randomly for their answer.

"Wherever you want to go it is good. . . . You are not going to be sad anymore," Jalal Azizi, 24, read as his friend, Nehdi Mahdimosleh, listened for Hafez's wisdom about whether he should travel abroad as part of his carpet-trading business.

Apparently, Hafez favored globalization.

"He is one of the greatest," Mahdimosleh said. "Our culture is entwined with him."

It's a somewhat surprising scene in a country where the Koran is supposed to supply all the answers, and God guide all human endeavor.

Islam is an impersonal faith in that it discourages the veneration or worship of men and women, as opposed to God. The prophet Muhammad was explicit on this point, emphasizing to his followers that he was only a messenger. The ideas, he said, were what mattered, not the individual carrying them.

That notion -- a contrast, for example, to Christianity's plethora of saints -- was modified somewhat by the Shiite Muslims who dominate in Iran. They revere Muhammand's nephew Ali as a sort of saintly figure, for instance.

But the place of Hafez, and indeed of a whole gallery of Iranian poets, is something altogether different, approaching a sort of cultural beatification. Though the writers often dealt with religious themes and some were regarded as powerful religious figures and mystics, they nevertheless fix Iran as a place with a deeply literary culture and a national identity that remains, in important ways, distinct from the religious movement that has shaped its contemporary politics.

It is, moreover, a relatively well-read and deliberative population. Volumes of Hafez and other poets are commonly found alongside the Koran even in the poorest households, Iranians say. Ideas and their discussion matter here, and that may be one reason why the initial extremes of the Islamic revolution are now being steadily tempered. If, in the first decade after the shah's monarchy fell, the country was preoccupied with its war against Iraq and in the grip of a sort of fervent religiosity, then during this next era the national character appears to be reasserting itself.

Nationalist songs are sung in cafes, and there is renewed interest in the nationalist democrat Mohammed Mossadegh, the elected prime minister from the 1950s who was shunted aside when the United States helped the shah return to power.

This year, the Iranian minister of culture held a rare ceremony at Persepolis, the ruined castle of the ancient Persian King Darius, to commemorate the Persian new year. The event coincided with a government ruling that it is all right to hold a traditional new year's bonfire, a practice criticized by conservative clerics because of its roots in Iran's pre-Islamic belief in Zoroastrianism. To some at Hafez's tomb, the depth and age of their culture reinforce the current political trend toward reform and moderation.

"This shows we have a great and ancient civilization," Mahdimosleh said, one whose people are eager, as reformist President Mohammed Khatemi has recommended, to engage the rest of the world in a "dialogue of civilizations" -- not to isolate themselves or try to export revolution. "As Khatemi says, it is the age of dialogue. We are a very old culture, and glad to have it."



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