Treading softly

Sohrab Sepehri at 80


Treading softly
by Ryszard Antolak

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
Tread softly,
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.

Sohrab Sepehri
Poet and Painter
October 7, 1928 – April 21, 1980


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more from Ryszard Antolak

Sohrab feeds life

by Alfredo (not verified) on

Thank you, Ryszard
for the beautiful and involving way to remember Sohrab Sepehri. I shall not be, as I would, in Mashhad Ardehal in October 7th, but I'll surely look for Sohrab's presence behind the realm of nothing. I discovered his poems only few months ago. Reading Sohrab's verses was incredible solace and hope for me and some friends. And it was a path to start aproaching Persian culture and people, to confirm how universal are human feelings under any sky.
"Grazie poeta...
ora so che la tua sorte
è sciogliere cuori di sasso,
trovare i colori anche nel giorno più grigio,
accompagnare gli umani alla fonte inesauribile,
perchè noi siamo il calore
noi siamo la luce,
noi siamo l'acqua"
Thank you poet... now I know that your destiny is melting rocky hearts, is finding colours in the greyest day, is conducting humans to the inexhaustible spring, because we are heat, we are light, we are wather.
Alfredo (Italy)


What a lovely tribute. Mr.

by shadi (not verified) on

What a lovely tribute.

Mr. Sepehri was a friend of the family, and through reading his poetry and hearing their stories, I fell in love and awe of everything he stood for. I named my son Sohrab after his gentle soul. Thank you for writing this piece.


what a tribute!

by IRANdokht on

Thank you for remembering Sohrab in such a beautiful way.

His words come to my rescue when I feel lonely and frustrated. This great poet deserves nothing less than the sincere respect he is given in your article.

Best regards, 




by Me (not verified) on

To so many people including myself "Hasht Ketab" is the Bible. Whenever I am sad, frustrated, or happy I refere to it and become myself again. As a matter of fact, I have the book right here by my side.
Thanks for appreciating this great artist of our time. May he rest in peace.

iraj khan

interesting reading for a sunday afternoon...

by iraj khan on

Thank you.


Tanha vs. Tanha

by Abol Danesh, Writer (not verified) on

---------------------Danesh Gate----------------

--Delaa Kho koon be tan-ha-ee
--Ke Az Tanhaa balaa kheezad

Now tell me what is the difference between "Lone" and "Alone" in English tongue...who ever comes up with the right answer will win a free mug of beer filled with excellent german beer payed by those who had particated in this contest but unfortunately had the test...

The surplus money colected from the losers will go to cover the expenses to buy champange bubling fountain to serve to the crowd arriving in multite through the danesh gate....

Good luck!



by maz (not verified) on

Dear Ryshard antolak;

Thank you for your notes and very humbling visit to sohrabs Resting place.

Sohrab is very humble, down to earth.... And I am finding thst you are a very humble person too.

You are Polish, love Persia and their historical sad connection with Poles, and here again you,Polish, not me, Iranian, travel far, far to visit Sohrab. What a mystery and what a simplicity.

Thank you Brother, thank you for reminding us who we are.



Let's Rewrap Him to Sell Him As Gift to the World:Beyond Trajon

by A. Hassan Danesh, Ph.D. (not verified) on

...Yes there is a virtue in loneliness and that is this condition you find few and fewer people to blame for problems in the world and of course when this loneliness becomes collosal... then the ansolute lone finds the words "Betrayl" "Traitor" "Infidel" etc., etc. utterly meaningless ready for quick ejection from man's vacabulary and thought process--

I rather use the word -- the majestic loneliness instead of colossal