Iraj Pezeshkzad: حافظ ناشنيده پند (Hafez in Love)
Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī, better known as Hafez, was a celebrated Persian poet of the fourteenth century. He is considered as one of Persia’s greatest poets and still very much read today. He lived in troubled times and, more or less, managed to keep on the side of the powerful, receiving patronage from them, though he did briefly fall out with Shah Shuja and, as we shall see in this book, some were jealous of him and conspired against him, while Shah Mobarez, Shuja’s father, is a potential enemy. The original Persian translates as Hafez, Heedless of Advice but I would agree Hafez in Love sounds better, though the original title is certainly a key part of this book.
This story is told by Mohammad Golandam, purported to be Shams ud-Din’s best friend and brother-in-law. It is he who gives the advice to Hafez, advice which, as the Persian title tells us, is often not heeded. After a brief summary of the current political situation. The sultan Abu Esshaq has been driven out of Shiraz, where this novel is set, by Mubariz al-Din Muhammad (called Mobarez al-Din Mohammad Mozaffar in this book). Mobarez had been a lover of debauchery but has now changed and become, at least on the face of it, austere. This includes banning the teaching and learning of medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics, and dispersing the high-ranking teachers of these disciplines. As religious censor, he has also ordered the cleansing and burning of books related to these topics. Our hero does not like this but had no alternative to out up with it.
Hafez had been on relatively good terms with Abu Esshaq, which does not help him with the new sultan. It also aroused jealousy in other poets, so made him enemies. As the Persian title implies, he does not take advice well, which means he continues to speak out of turn and, as regards his poetry, write out of turn. He has obliquely criticised the new sultan, for example. As well as the sultan and his retinue and the poets he made jealous, other enemies include the new police chief, who is very strict, and his next door neighbour who has made a lot of money and accrued a lot of wives. He needs a place to house these wives and he has his eye on Hafez’s house. Moreover he is in good standing with the new sultan.
When a party, given by a rich man is being held and Hafez is invited, Golandam advises against it, fearing Hafez will shoot his mouth off. Hafez concurs but then proceeds to list all the people who will attend, whom he longs to see. Golandam realises he has lost this battle.
The party is lively with lots of to and fro and poets criticising one another. There is also some criticism of both the current and previous regime. Hafez (and the others, to some extent) frequently quote poetry in response to issues raised. However, things change when Jahan Malek Khatun arrives. Jahan Malek Khatun is a poet but, unusually for this sort of gathering, a woman. Hafez is clearly attracted to her and even sings a poem in her praise.
However, we learn and Hafez soon learns that Kolu Naser al-Din, the ruthless police chief, is also interested in her, though she is not interested in him. However, there is fiendish plot to save her from Kolu Naser al-Din.
The plot develops as it becomes more and more apparent that Hafez is at risk as various enemies have found pieces of his poetry or quoted remarks he was heard to make which are critical of the current regime. Because of the now strict approach to what is considered unacceptable behaviour, various mobs seem to be influential and will not hesitate to physically attack an enemy of the regime. Hafez seems indifferent to all of this, intent much more on wooing Jahan Malek Khatun, while his friends are very much concerned. Shams al-Din customarily closes his eyes and hears nothing other than his own voice.
It is known that Amir Mobarez is ruthless – he claims to have personally executed seven to eight hundred people – and that he does not like poets or poetry, yet still Hafez seems not to be concerned. His friends urge him to leave Shiraz – he adamantly refuses – or to go into hiding in Shiraz. A friend quotes Ferdowsi:
The valiant one who does not fear the elephant and the lion,
One must call him crazy, not brave.
We and his friends can see that the net is closing around him so it is no surprise when he is finally arrested. As he lived to a ripe old age, we know he will get out and leave Shiraz.
While set in fourteenth century Persia with all the features of that era – a despotic ruler, the importance of poetry and rapily changing political situation – in many ways it seems quite modern. The get-togethers of the poets could be, so some degree, similar get-togethers of intellectuals in Hampstead or Brooklyn, with the numerous jokes (yes, even fart jokes), the backbiting, the mockery both of those present and those absent, criticism of both current and past regimes and the various poets niggling one another. Of course a ruler who favours executions, encourages mob violence, is anti-intellectual and does not read, who has a nasty violent streak, who is not prepared to compromise but is full of his own self-righteousness, who does not know when his time is up, who appoints people to high positions purely on the basis of their loyalty rather than their competence and fires them at will and who pretends to be religious, while living a debauched life, is surely not something we could find in this era.
Of course, Hafez is the key character and his poetry (as well as the poetry of many of his contemporaries) is on full display and he continually quotes himself and others in discussions. Hafez shows his love for three items in this book: poetry, Jahan Malek Khatun and his cat, Lily but he also shows that he likes a good laugh. He tells jokes, seems to laugh at those told by many others, particularly those with a touch of mockery in them and is clearly a social person who likes a good time. As such he livens up this book, putting his social enjoyment above his safety, to the horror of his brother-in-law. As a result we are following the plot line – will he suffer for his remarks and for making enemies? can his friends save him? and can Jahan Malek Khatun be saved from Kolu Naser al-Din? – but also enjoying his enjoyment of the social life with fellow poets and intellectuals.
Pezeshkzad beautifully mixes in the various plot lines, so that we are always left wondering what will happen, while, at the same time, letting us enjoy the the interchange between him and his friends, and the poetry of Hafaz and his friends so that the book really is a joy to read.
First published in 2007 by Nashr-i Qatrah
First published in 2021 by Syracuse University Press
Translated by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Patricia J. Higgins