Order will come to your distracted mind again

Faces of Love

Faces of Love and the Poets of Shiraz
by Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani
translated from Persian by Dick Davis

This book was a bit of a serendipitous find. I was in West Hampstead to meet friends and had arrived early, so I thought I’d pop into West End Lane Books. I wasn’t looking for anything particular, just enjoying a good browse, and I spotted this book on a shelf of beautiful books. Clearly, I don’t need more books right now, but this was poetry, in translation and beautiful, all of which are things I’d like to have more of! Not only is it well designed (like all Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions) but the pages have been roughly cut in an old-fashioned style – I can’t tell if this is deliberate or a binding error, but I like it either way!

However, that’s not enough for me to consider it truly serendipitous. On the train home, I was reading this book (not that I hadn’t brought any with me, but new book often trumps old, let’s face it) and the guy sat next to me asked if I was reading Persian, as he recognised the style of art used on the cover. He seemed to know a thing or two about Iran and we had a really nice conversation about the book, even reading a couple of the poems together and discussing the oddness of Hafez’s style. Which was rather lovely.

“O sorrow-stricken heart, your fortunes will revive,
Order will come to your distracted mind again
– do not despair

And if the heavens turn against us for two days
They turn, and will not stay forever in one place
– do not despair

Sweet singing bird, survive until the spring, and then
You’ll tread on grass again, deep in the flowers’ shade
– do not despair”

As for the book itself, there’s a chance it was more educational than a discovery of a new favourite poet, but I’m not averse to a little learning. Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani were mid-to-late 14th century court poets from the city of Shiraz in Persia (now Iran). Shiraz is near Persepolis and at that time was not especially important politically but was home to some of Persia’s most famous poets – despite the spread of Islam, which then as now discouraged the music and wine that tended to accompany court poets (indeed much of their verse would have been sung). Most of the 14th century rulers of Shiraz generously patronised artists, including poets, so it was a safe haven for them.

Hafez is the most famous of three poets featured. His work is still studied today and many an academic has tried to unravel the layers of meaning in his work. In his time he was famous and well respected. Jahan Malek Khatun was a princess of Shiraz – her father and later her uncle ruled the city. While not the only female poet whose work has survived, it is likely that she had an easier time of being a female poet because of her royalty. Obayd-e Zakani wrote much more satirical work than the other two, often political, and though he enjoyed fame in his lifetime, he also made great enemies.

“How long will Heaven’s heartless tyranny
Which keeps both rich and poor in agony

Go on? The dreadful happenings of these times
Have torn up by the roots Hope’s noble tree,

And in the garden of the world you’d say
They’ve stripped the leaves as far as one can see.”
Jahan Malek Khatun

As you can tell from my ability to give you these summaries, Davis has written a good (extensive but not dull) introduction to the history and the poets, as well as the poetry. There are also end notes giving plenty of further analysis of the poems without interrupting the reading of the poems themselves.

I especially appreciated Davis’ notes on his translation, with explanations of the challenges (such as recreating the ancient styles of verse used), the things he was able to recreate in English and the things that are lost. I also enjoyed the appendix of three tongue-in-cheek poems Davis wrote about the difficulty of translating Hafez! I learned a lot, for instance that Persian pronouns do not distinguish between male and female, so most of the time it isn’t clear whether the subject of a poem is male or female. (From historical records and those poems that do make it clear – by referencing body parts, for example – we know that it was common for poets of the time to write admiringly of attractive youths of both genders.) It was also common (as with some western poets of a similar era) for references to a person to mean both a flesh-and-blood person and God, or to switch between the two.

“Here with our souls’ companions, bored to death
With hypocrites and all they claim they’ve done,

No pompous pride disturbs our minds, no thoughts
Of purity – no, not a single one!

We’ve drunk the poison of our indigence
And don’t want antidotes from anyone.”
Obayd-e Zakani

And my reaction to the poetry? Some I loved, some was okay, some I disliked. Hafez was my favourite – I see why he is the most famous of these three by some way. I wanted to like Jahan Khatun more, as the one woman featured, but there was a single-notedness to her verse, mostly talking about unhappiness in love, though that’s not to say I disliked it. Obayd I liked politically but not his sexual stuff (which there’s quite a lot of). I’m not a prude, I just didn’t find the verses sensual or sexy at all, instead they were distasteful – this might be the translation but as Davis did such a good job elsewhere I tend to think it was the original that I disliked.

I’m really glad I followed my whim and picked up this book. I’ll certainly re-read the Hafez, and maybe if I give the others a chance I’ll get something more from them as well.

First published in the US in 2012 by Mage Publishers.
This edition published in the UK in 2013 by Penguin Books.

Source: West End Lane Books.

A peek inside

Censoring an Iranian Love Story
by Shahriar Mandanipour
translated from Farsi by Sara Khalili

This is a complicated book to explain, and indeed to read and form a reaction to. But it’s also an illuminating look into a world we in the West don’t get to see in detail: modern-day Iran.

Mandanipour tells the story of an author (called Mandanipour, in a postmodern manner) who is trying to write a simple love story for publication in Iran. The problem is that censorship is so strict in Iran that he keeps having to delete or change sentences or whole scenes, compromising his art. So in this novel we get both his love story and his thought process about it inbetween, including his flashbacks to previous encounters with the chief censor, Mr Petrovich, and imagined future ones.

There are many complications to writing a love story in Iran, not least of which is how your characters can possibly meet. Unmarried men and women should never be alone with or speak to members of the opposite sex outside of their family. This is controlled both in reality – by a combination of genuine religious belief and militia – and in the arts, by censorship.

It’s a very eye-opening, important story to tell but the problem is that by using this two-layer technique, by explaining where the ideas for the characters come from and rewriting scenes as you try to follow them, it’s hard to get involved in the love story. But you also don’t really get to know the author as a character, so you are left at a distance from it all. This doesn’t stop it being readable and enjoyable even, but it did prevent it from being absorbing.

The love story is that of Sara and Dara (named after characters in now-banned learning-to-read books well known in Iran), a young pair whose love story begins with books, in particular banned or heavily censored books. The author explains how the books are either edited by hand with a black marker pen or printed with ellipses all over the place and how this leads the ellipsis to have an almost magical, often erotic, quality. He also explains the various methods Iranian authors use to evade censorship, including heavy use of allusion and metaphor, which he feels makes a story harder to read and less true to its art.

Dara is knowledgeable about great works of literature and film, and both he and the author reference both heavily, almost as though they are secret code, which I suppose for them they are. Dara has a “political past” which means that he can never earn a great deal or risk stepping out of line. Sara is young and nervous about breaking rules or letting down her family, though she does have a passionate nature that can get her into trouble.

What makes this book occasionally hard to follow is that Mandanipour blurs the line between the two stories, so that sometimes Sara or Dara speaks directly to the author, or an anecdote the author tells about his life merges into their story. But even without this, the story isn’t straightforward. There is some toying with magical realism and the fantastical, there is a recurring character who is a street pedlar selling spells and love potions, and there’s a dead dwarf who keeps popping up.

However, it isn’t a struggle to read because what shines through all the complexity of plot is a love of language and a playful humour. For all his frustration, the author loves his country and its rich history and references many Persian poets that I had never heard of. He introduces characters and stories from Persian literature, sometimes veering off again and again from his original point so that it is a jolt to come back to Sara and Dara.

Though he has been writing for decades, this was Mandanipour’s first full-length work to be translated into English. I would be interested to read more (and will look out for the short stories his bio implies are out there somewhere in translation).

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Little, Brown.
Paperback published in 2011 by Abacus.