A few months ago, I was the lucky recipient of Mahmoud Seraji’s trilogy, MAZAMIR ESHGH – CHANTS OF LOVE, gifted to me by an old friend. I was half way through the first volume when I learned of Mr. Seraji’s passing on April 27, 2017. I had read excerpts of his work online and in magazines such as Yoldash and Pezhvak, but I had not paid much attention to them except for recognizing him as a talented writer. With literally, tens of thousands of poets in the rich history of Iranian literature, and our inbred proclivity toward glorifying the past at the expense of ignoring merits of our contemporary poets and writers (at least for the most part), it’s easy for the likes of Mahmoud Seraji to receive little notice by the critics. Reading through articles with titles such as “10 Inspiring Iranian Poets and their Verses,” or “Great Iranian Poets,” and many similar sources, you’d be hard pressed to find a mention of anyone who is still alive. Even a New Yorker article, Poetry and Politics in Iran, fails to cite a single contemporary (alive) poet. In Mr. Seraji’s case, the problem was compounded by the unavailability of his books in Iran after its distribution was mysteriously disrupted for reasons I can only guess, but unable to confirm.
The deeper I dove into Mr. Seraji’s work, the more despondent I grew by the sad news of his passing, wishing I had learned of the depth and beauty of his writing earlier to call him and explore with him the magnificent complexity of his philosophical thinking.
The first volume of CHANTS OF LOVE is strictly dedicated to Erfan’e Vahdat Vojood, a reminder of the type of work Rumi and Shabestari undertook to some degree as well. Singularity of the universe (i.e., a single body containing all the energy, mass, love, wisdom and ideas), and the unification of the man with his beloved, God, are two important characteristics of this genre of Erfan. The parallels between this school of thought and the discoveries of quantum physics in the twentieth century is stunning, as Mr. Seraji points out in his poem about time. This singularity in Erfan doesn’t imply, as some have incorrectly interpreted, that God has penetrated everything and is present in all, but that He and the wonders of the cosmos can only be understood through an authentic exploration of one’s inner self. In Seraji’s work, it’s only through this type of excursion that enlightenment and true inspiration of God may be studied and realized.
You, the most knowledgeable of all beings
The gentlest of all things
I’m lost in the maze of my existence
Enlighten me about my essence
The theme of misplacement is resonant throughout Mr. Seraji’s work, and especially in his Ghasideh, Al-Aghal-o-Eghal—the SCHACKLE. Here, the Eghal, the shackle that keeps a camel from wandering away, is a metaphor for the mind’s inability to explore the truth beyond the limits of logic. For Mr. Seraji the answers to the mysteries of the universe is coded in one’s inner self, and may only be cracked by the power of love and imagination.
It’s the fervor of love that creates life
Filling the universe with divine intoxication and existence
The shackle metaphor works extremely well here as God is boundless and infinite, and the mind, finite and restrictive. The mind’s shackle prevents it from exploring that which stands outside the realm of reason. For the late Mr. Seraji, it’s only through the expedition of the heart and the imagination that such an immense undertaking is even possible.
Those prescribing to this school of thought were prosecuted for centuries in Iran, and men such as Mansour Hallaj who would chant as he was being led to the gallows: There is no God but me, or Bayazid Bastami who said: There’s no one under my cloak but God Himself, found themselves alienated, arrested, tortured and in some cases even killed.
Hafiz celebrated Hallaj in one of his odes.
Last night I visited my master
The one knowledgeable of many secrets
He said they erect gallows
For those who reveal the mysteries of the universe
Mr. Seraji also addresses Hallaj in one of his poems.
Hallaj was forced to the gallows, but he was the gallows
For they both ascended from a single origin
And when the curtain falls at last
We see that only one truth is cast
In Seraji’s Erfan, curtains (Hijabs) are pushed aside and nothing remains hidden because that’s the only way that one can grasp the exact meaning and gravity of the truth. The paths to knowing-self and knowing-God flow in the same direction and in parallel and come together at infinity where love, truth, wisdom and God merge into a singularity. Until then, human beings bear the blame for refusing to look behind the hijab, a failure rooted in ignorance and fear. He claims that as we draw closer to infinity, the proof of the beloved’s existence becomes more and more evident in everything.
In every leaf on a tree
You can see a million signs and confirmation of Him
Till you realize that He is the leaf
Till you realize that He has been with you on this journey all along
The paradise you’re looking for in heavens
You shall find on earth
If you look with the eyes of your heart
If you shake off the shackles of your mind
In talking to the friend who gifted the CHANTS OF LOVE trilogy to me, I understood that despite living in Iran till 2009, Mr. Seraji never participated in literary conferences, never gave interviews, and refused to publish his work in the Islamic regime’s publications. His refusal to do so gives credence to my suspicion as to why his work was never distributed in his homeland.
In the second and the third volumes of CHANTS OF LOVE, Mr. Seraji’s poetry traverses multiple stylistic ranges including, Ghazals (odes), Rubai’s and Shere No (modern poems). Some of his work is political in nature and a critique of social and political conditions of his times. In Zahed Makkar – The Sly Cleric – and Marde Faghir – The Destitute Man, he attacks the Mullahs for their greed, debauchery and dishonesty. In Vietnam, he confronts America’s nonsensical imperialistic ambitions.
His odes are filled with vivid imagery and rich metaphors. In Falakhan, the Sling, arguably one of his best Ghazals, the more he tries to absorb the love of his beloved by spinning around her like a whirling dervish, the farther he’s flung like a sling. He abandons old metaphors and allegories in favor of those unique to the temperament and literary taste of his era.
Burned my hand to never think of you
Now my disfigured hand is a constant reminder of you
Don’t go my darling for in these last moments of my life
Parting with you would kill me faster than death
If you come back to me, the joy of your return will kill me
If you don’t, the pain of your separation will
I’m dead either away, do as you will, my darling
I’m tempted here to declare Mahmoud Seraji’s trilogy as a must read for any student of Iranian Literature. Although, paper copies of his work are scarce, most of his poetry is available online. And it is with the outmost certainty that I believe Mr. Seraji will be discovered and immortalized by coming generations. During his life, he amassed thousands of followers online. It won’t be long before literary critics will be writing about him on regular basis.