Book Review: Hafiz: Teachings of the Philosopher of Love, by Haleh Pourafzal and Roger Montgomery, (Abdol-Hossein Pourafzal, Literary Consultant) Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermount, 2004.
At my first dinner-party in Australia, my permanent abode, the host told me that her eccentric uncle was going to drop in later in the evening. After couple of hours mingling with her family, and other guests, where our conversations seemed to go around aimlessly, I started feeling bored, tired and thought to myself that I might have come to a country where there was not much in common between me and her peaceful, law abiding citizens.
I was surrounded by plenty of good food and drinks and a breeze that tantalized my senses beyond any thing. I turned to my host and said, the breeze is beautiful. She said the spring weather is very pleasant in Sydney. What more could you say about a breeze? It's not easy to be all that creative about just a nice, pleasant, breeze, although it mesmerizes your senses out of their earthly spheres.
I sat on the balcony and watched the remaining portion of the daylight diminish into nothing. My eyes caught an old, black, Ponton 220, Mercedes, pulling outside the house. The car stopped and accidentally shifted into gear again, it jerked forward and the sound of the engine died in a choke. My host told me that's her uncle Tim. Uncle Tim lived just the next suburb up, a retired public servant who had never left Sydney, let alone the country. Later on he confessed that he never even crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
A slim man in his late 60s got out of his car and waddled across the garden onto the balcony. My host introduced me to him, and to him that I was born in Iran. He stood there with his gray shorts and fading Hawaiian shirt and smiled mildly at everybody. He got himself a beer and sat next to me.
I first thought to myself that I might not have much to say to this eccentric uncle who's broken bridge of his spectacle was held together by a piece of white string. So I engaged him in a conversation about his vintage German car, hoping to leave as soon as I finished my drink. He was very fond of it and said that it's the only car he's ever owned and is likely to keep till the rest of his remaining days, then he contentedly smiled.
All of a sudden, in the middle of our conversation, he looked as if distracted by something. His befuddled expression alarmed me somewhat. My eyes roved around with his, searching for any apparent anomalies. Then looking in the northwesterly direction he asked me, “do you feel the Saba?”
He stretched his head deliberately high, looking somewhat comical, as if he could see the breeze coming. I said “yes, it's beautiful isn't it?”
“The beautiful Saba,” he said rhetorically as if it was nature's greatest gift. The rest of the evening he spoke to me about Hafiz, introducing me to his poetry.
Teachings of the Philosopher of Love was first published in 1998 under the title, The Spiritual Wisdom of Hafiz. The book is a joint venture between the couple, one from Iran the other from America, yet both equally fascinated by Hafiz and his poetry, whom they rank as highly as Plato, Lao-tzu and Confucius.
Roger and Haleh both write separately at the beginning of the book about their individual journey with the poet. Hafiz seems to have been playing a central role in their lives, teaching, instructing and inspiring them. Haleh refers to him as a “friend”, since she has been introduced to him from an early age by her father and has only grown to love Hafiz and respect him more for the contribution he has made to her life as a philosopher and sage.
Hafiz enters Montgomery's life after he met Haleh when she introduced him to the great Persian poet with unprecedented philanthropic concerns. Roger already an author of Twenty Count: Secret Mathematical system of the Aztec/Maya, is only too quick to recognize the genius of Hafiz. He believes Hafiz was more than just a poet but someone who had a thorough knowledge in “algebra, geometry, philosophy, history, mythology, astronomy, logic, theology, literature, music and linguistics.” Only a person with such diverse interests, he believes, can purport to instruct humanity on its destiny, like the Chinese book of I Ching.
For Haleh, Hafiz is not only a friend, but someone through whose eyes she tries to see the world. Her devotion and reverence of Hafiz is one of a disciple and Master. There are 32 complete ghazals in the book. The book is divided into four main parts, each part highlighting an important aspect of human existence, for example, justice, service, compassion and human journey.
Hafiz is more than aware of the precarious condition of existence and believes that he has something to say about it. The success of his work could be measured by his universal popularity. Haleh and Roger successfully make the ghazals relevant to the contemporary reader. Through the fluidity of their prose they help the reader to access the inner concerns of the ghazals and share in the poet's insight and consoles.
When Dick Davis was asked by a publisher to do some translation of Hafiz's work he first accepted but after several attempts gave up. He wrote his reasons in an excellent essay in New England Review Journal (25 no1/2 310-18 2004) as to why Hafiz is not translatable. He writes, “Certain poets are held to be untranslatable, in Russian there is Pushkin; in German, Gothe; in Persian Hafiz.”
One of the hallmarks of Hafiz's poetry is that he represents his themes in a highly symbolic and stylized form that almost makes it equivocal in nature. And if he was as untranslatable as Dick Davis makes him out to be, he couldn't have been as popular around the world as he is; both among the highly educated and lay populace. Hafiz allows people to have different approaches to his poetry.
And I think it's quite healthy to have these diverse approaches. For example, Paul Smith does not even speak Persian and has only read all the other translation of his poems in English. As if possessed by the spirit of Hafiz, he could not think about any thing else except writing a new translation of the Divan. He said, at the start he failed and only a divine intervention made him hopeful that he could finish the translation. [See: Divine nostalgia]
Reza Ordboubadian points out, '… any good translation is a new poem in its own right, composed twice, once by the original poet and once by the translator; and every time a poem is read, it is also recreated by the reader-thus, a poem is rewritten every time it is read,…” [See: The clear mirror]
Roger Montgomery writes, there are about six hundred books on Hafiz in Iran alone. “Perhaps half have been published in the past fifty years.” He adds, “In addition, at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and in other public and private libraries, there are hundreds of books on Hafez in many of the at least twenty-five languages into which the poet's work has been translated.”
Hafiz has composed a masterpiece that refuses to be read and put on the bookshelf to gather dust. He wanted his poetry to interact with people daily and I believe he has achieved that. My hunch is that in the years to come there will many more new study, translation and interpretation of Hafiz's poetical works.
Haleh and Roger's translation and interpretation of the poet is mixed with love, devotion, understanding, contemplation and intellectual skills. It is a great companion to some of the poet's important themes, that are also important to all human beings.
The breath of West Wind will spray musk in the air;
The old world to its youth again will repair.