Bigger Than Elvis
Robert Tait, The Guardian:
The pilgrims could have been on day out at Graceland. Representing the full range of the age and socio-economic spectrums, they came to pay homage to an icon of modern popular culture. But the hero being saluted was not Elvis Presley or any comparable figure from the age of mass communication, but a poet who died centuries ago, and whose messages remain disputed and obscure among even the most literary of his fellow countrymen.
The scene was the tomb of Khajeh Shams ed-Din Mohammed, better known as Hafez, Iran's most celebrated bard, set in an elaborately verdant garden in his home city of Shiraz, more than 500 miles south of the capital, Tehran.
Nearly 620 years after his death, a period spanning myriad political upheavals, traumatic foreign invasions, dynastic changes and revolutions, Hafez remains this polarised nation's most popular figure, a role model who can unite all Iranians.
Day after day, year in year out, they travel from all over Iran to pay tribute at this sarcophagus sheltered under a bulbous cupola. Most come with cameras. Many arrive with books of Hafez's verse, a standard possession in most Iranian households. Some of the hero-worshippers are as young as 12.
It is hard to imagine the youth of modern-day Britain hot-footing it to Stratford-upon-Avon to pay their respects to Shakespeare, or travelling en masse to the grave of, say, Wordsworth, in a mood of popular acclaim.
But poetry is Iran's rock'n'roll. In a country where, despite the best efforts of the Islamic authorities, there is a big infiltration of, and popular demand for, the cultural outpourings of the west, it is also the primary mode of artistic self-determination.
The national cultural landscape resembles a veritable society of deceased poets. Hafez aside, the epic works of Ferdosi, who took 30 years to write the Shahnameh, an opus of 60,000 couplets, Omar Khayyam, renowned in the west for the Rubaiyat, Rumi and Sa'adi all occupy places at the core of the national consciousness.
All are memorialised by spectacular mausoleums (Sa'adi's is less than a mile from Hafez's tomb), street names and statues in town squares.
But in this group of literary immortals, Hafez is the main man. His poems are characterised by the Persian literary ghazal, a style which, according to The Divan of Hafez on sale at the shrine's gift shop, roughly equates to the sonnet.
For some, he is a means to transcend the humdrum existence of the present. "I'm sure the feeling Iranians get from reading Hafez is different from that British people have when reading Shakespeare," said Reza Zand, 57, a businessman visiting from the distant city of Kerman. "It has something to do with the Persian language. Just one word can transform or move you to another world. I feel his poems apply to my life when I read them."
For others, this man of the past offers hope for the future. Fereshte Fourginezhad, 40, from Tehran, had been worried about the marital prospects of her sister and fearful of what lay in store for her hyperactive son.
Seeking sustenance, she consulted one of the self-styled sufis - or mystics - working at the shrine, who acted as a fortuneteller through the medium of Hafez's poetry.
"The sufi opened a book of Hafez poems and read from one that said my sister should wait before getting married," said Mrs Fourginezhad. "The poem also said my son would have a very bright future. I believe in Hafez's poems. When I'm at home and I'm worried about something or want to ask for something, I will open a book of his poems. It's a source of spiritual energy for us Iranians."
It may also be a source of tacit rebellion against the political status quo in a society where more explicit forms of subversion are inadvisable. For Hafez, in his time, was a scourge of the clerical establishment, which he saw a two-faced and hypocritical.
His pen name might mean He Who Can Recite the Qur'an From Memory, but Hafez was distinctly unorthodox in his interpretation of the Islamic holy book. Nowhere is this expressed more eloquently than in his lyrical praise for the joys of wine, an indulgence frowned upon in the Qur'an and banned by Iran's Islamic regime.
"Don't sit on my soil without wine and without a musician, So from your aroma I can rise dancing from the soil..." read the words on his tomb. READ MORE
Contemporary religious leaders, laying claim to Hafez as much as their more secular compatriots, explain away the bard's alcoholic references as mere allegories for the heady pleasures of religious worship.
It is hard, however, to reconcile that interpretation with such Hafez refrains as: "Drink wine, set fire to the altar but don't give people a hard time."
Despite these ambiguous associations, Hafez's reputation in the Islamic Republic is growing. Next month, the Hafez Studies Centre will stage the biggest celebration yet in his name at the ninth annual Hafez Day in Shiraz, with coinciding international events being held in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere.
The centrepiece will be a symposium discussing the translation of Hafez into foreign languages. He may never become as famous as Elvis, but his literary acolytes are trying to ensure his voice echoes beyond his time and far outside Iran.