“There is a city somewhere beyond the seas
Where windows open on illumination...
Where the earth listens
To the music of your heart
And the wind carries sounds
Of the fluttering of mythical birds …”
October 7th 2008 marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of one of Iran’s most celebrated modern poets, Sohrab Sepehri. On that day, hundreds of people will make their way to the lonely, remote mosque of Mashhad Ardehal, (on the desert road between Kashan and Dilijan), to pay their respects, recite poetry and lay flowers on the grave of this much-loved poet.
Awaiting them will be no grand memorial tomb such as that of Hafez or Sa’adi: no pavilion with fragrant gardens, no trees to adorn and give shade. All they will see is a marble flagstone in the courtyard of the mosque (outside the women’s entrance), sometimes trodden below the feet of visitors on their way to prayer. The inscription on the stone reads:
“If you come to visit me
Lest you break the fragile shell
Of my loneliness.”
It is a modest, humble grave, one eminently in keeping with the character of the poet.
His was a truly singular voice in 20th century Iranian Literature: fresh and natural, almost childlike sometimes in its directness. At a time when other poets were wrestling with complex social and political concerns in their works, Sohrab Sepehri was an advocate of all that was small and personal, intimate and homely. He was a friend of roadside flowers, of people walking home from work, of goldfinches and swaying poplars. For him, the most familiar objects - a willow, a red rose - could open suddenly to reveal an aspect of the Divine hitherto concealed. He explained in his poem, “Water’s Footfall”, that the poet need not go beyond his own immediate environment to discover the wondrous and the divine. Transcendence was per-ception, seeing through the everyday details of life to the empowered presence beyond.
“I am a Muslim.
And my direction of prayer is the red rose,
My prayer rug is... the fountain,
My prayer stone is... light,
The meadows are my prayer hall.
I kneel down when the muezzin wind
Calls out the time of prayer
From the cypress tree.”
The words sound almost like a paraphrase of Ibn Arabi’s famous profession of faith.
Born in Kashan in 1928, Sepehri’s imagination was dominated by the Dasht-e Kavir, the desert that stretches before the city like a grey nothingness for a thousand kilometres. Something of that emptiness, that loneliness, filtered into his bones and sank deeply into his heart.
“Come to me and I will tell you
How colossal my loneliness is”
It was as if the desert called out to him in an almost religious voice, (as it called many prophets and mystics in the past) and Sepehri responded both physically and metaphorically:
“Tonight I must go
I must take my suitcase
Large enough to hold the garments of my loneliness
And go to the place where trees sing out in epic song
And where the vast wordless expanse
Calls out to me: “Sohrab!”
Listen! There it is again!
I must find my shoes quickly…”.
He became a restless spirit, unable to settle, travelling the world in search of something he could never quite define, which lay just beyond the horizon, just out of sight. During his wanderings, he encountered a variety of different literary styles, some of which found their way later into his poetry enriching the language in ways which bore the indelible seal of his genius. Through his writing and his painting, he created a new home for himself (another Kashan) “on the far side of the night”, one that could not be taken away from him by force or by distance.
“It does not matter were I am
Because the sky is always mine
And windows, ideas, fresh air, love”…
In the end, his body “descended from a piece of pottery on Sialk Hills”, longed for the soil of its birth. He discovered at the age of fifty that he was suffering from leukaemia and that the illness was incurable. In 1980, the poet made his final journey home to his beloved Kashan to be buried (according to his own wishes) in the grounds of Mashhad Ardehal.
When I visited his grave recently during the baking heat of a torrid summer, the place was almost deserted. There was only a large family of dark-skinned gypsies from Khuzestan taking advantage of the shade and the water. Their children splashed around the fountain and chased each other amid great bouts of laughter. None of them ventured out of the shade of the central courtyard. The poet remained alone in his element.
Until a frail old man arrived asking for the grave, dressed (despite the searing heat) in a smart black business suit. He was supported on a walking stick and was evidently in great pain. I lead him around the side of the building to the poet’s marble flagstone, and he stood over it for some time, seemingly in deep thought. Then he put his stick between his legs and suddenly slipped to the ground. I rushed to assist him, thinking he was falling, but he thrust an open palm out at me to stop. This was evidently something he needed to do for himself. Holding his stick firmly in his left hand, he got down painfully on one knee and reached out an exploratory hand to the gravestone, tracing his finger lovingly over the inscription. I could see by his face that he had reached his destination. He was home.
I was deeply moved. I remembered the words of another poet, one from my own country, who had written
“If you want to drink from a carafe
You can grip its neck and press it to your lips.
But if you want to drink from a spring
You have to get down on your knees and bow your head”.
Over the next few months, many more pilgrims will come to this isolated place to drink from the spring. For the works of Sohrab Sepehri are a breath of fresh air, full of the sights and sounds of nature, redolent with the joys of being alive, of being a human being with a face and a name.
Poet and Painter
October 7, 1928 – April 21, 1980
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