Letter from the Road #32

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


With Hafez in the Islamic Republic of Iran


In the desert city of Yazd, central Iran, I start asking around to meet a Sufi. Having asked this kind of question before in a number of Muslim countries, I know it doesn’t always work as I hope, so I add, “A wise Sufi who knows and loves Hafez, if there is someone like that here.” After a day word comes back there is one old man someone heard of, a simple holy man – perhaps arrangements can be made for me to meet him.

Later that night my young translator, Reza, and I find our way down a dark lane and turn under an even darker archway. We see a crack of light coming from under a door. We knock for a long time until an old woman comes. Beckoning us to follow her, we cross a large unlit courtyard with stars overhead, through another doorway and down some stairs to a small room of mud-brick walls, books stacked on shelves on two sides, a refrigerator, a single pallet on the floor, and a small charcoal brazier with a tea kettle bubbling on it. Sitting on the pallet twinkling up at me is an unkempt man who looks like an ancient Walt Whitman, wild white beard and shoulder-length hair, eyes gleeful and sad at the same time. He gestures for me to sit on the one cushion facing him. Reza sits on a mat beside us.

Introductions are made. His first name, like Hafez, is Shams-ud-Din. Reza explains that I am a Sufi from the west and we have come because we heard he was a Sufi. “No!” he says, “I’m just an old man. I don’t know anything.”

“Good!” I say, “I don’t either!” and we laugh, pulling each other’s white hair. (Later he admits to being a Nimatulahi Sufi.) It doesn’t take long for Shams to become animated, quoting Hafez in great cadences and making gestures with his hands, stopping in mid-air to make a point and then continuing, punctuating his words with little gaps of silence. Although Reza does his best to translate, the conversation becomes less and less about what is being said and more about our delight in the presence of something invisible that begins to break through the humble earthen room, as if you might peel back a seam in the surface of things, revealing a diamond-like brilliance beneath. I tell him this, pretending to peel back the old carpet we are sitting on, and the skin of his arm, and then squinting in the brightness. Shams laughs and sways on his cushion, reciting a couplet from an old Sufi poet about the same wondrous, hidden light. Stories flow, laced with a wine of metaphysics and quotes of Hafez, his eyes winking with joy. He plays the ney (flute) for me, and we speak of fana (self-vanishing) and baqa (abiding in emptiness). I ask him – Do you still seek? He says no. I ask – So you have found God? He says, I have found myself. I quote the hadith – “He who knows himself knows his Lord” – and as we speak it seems the light inside things indeed breaks forth – I feel a warmth of pure benevolence glowing in everything. Almost giddy we lean into each other like old friends, sharing the simple communion of mystic recognition across the ages and cultures and languages. Time passes – we recite poetry, joke, make little castles of words about God and knock them over, and then, before we leave he asks me – So you have no religion? and I say – As Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi says, “My creed is love.” He takes hold of my hand, suddenly serious, and says – God’s shadow fell on you to lead you here. He accompanies us across the starlit courtyard, and at the door we say prayers for each others’ long life, bidding each other “Khoda hafez” – God protect you.

This is the first of many encounters I have following the tracks of the spirit of Hafez – Iran’s beloved 14th century mystic poet and lover of life. I’ve come to Iran to see if Hafez’s spirit can function as a bridge between people in Iran and people in the West, especially in this time of increasing distance between us. My hope is to bring citizen delegations from Europe and America here as we have been doing for some years to Syria, this time using our mutual love of Hafez’s mystic poetry to find a common link. It won’t be as easy to come to Iran – visas are difficult to obtain and relations with Iranian authorities can be tense. Still, I believe as politicians become more distrustful, ordinary citizens have a responsibility to reach underneath politics and make contact across borders in every open-hearted way possible. The Iranians I speak with agree.

In Shiraz, the fourth-largest city in Iran and the home of Hafez, I find his spirit everywhere. In a business office they consult his volume, the Divan, when they need advice on an intractable problem. Each house in Iran has at least two books I am told, the Quran and the Divan. Everywhere people open the book at random, holding a wish in their hearts, asking Hafez for an oracle. Three different times when I am in conversations with white-moustached men about Hafez they pause and reach for their volume. Asking me to hold a question, they ceremoniously open it and then declare in beautiful rhythms the words they find. “Hafez never disappoints!” they say, and indeed he doesn’t. In each oracle his words to me are intimate and seem to know every hidden corner of my life and history. There is no hint of judgment — just kindness and love for all I have loved, and encouragement for my path forward. It is as if he has thrown his arm over my shoulder, speaking softly just for me, letting me know how lovely it is we are together. At his tomb, the Hafezieh, I see the faces of young and old touched by this same sense of intimate connection with the old poet. Each one of us is his favourite, his darling.

You have not danced so badly, my dear,
trying to hold hands  with the Beautiful One,
You have waltzed with great style,
my sweet, crushed angel,
to have ever neared God’s heart at all.

As the days pass in Shiraz, I question people about the contradiction I feel between Iranian’s love for Hafez, who is one of the most unorthodox, free-thinking poets in the world, and the opposing fact that Iran is a place dominated by strict religious authority – “the mullahs.” The answers I receive to this question carry a sad resignation. A retired colonel from the Iranian army and a noted expert on Hafez tells me, “There are two paths in Iranian society – free-thinkers and religious conservatives. They both care about the spirit. But they are in opposition.” And then he quotes a Hafez poem:

The admonisher lusts for Paradise, Hafez seeks his wine;
Let us listen for which song God wishes to sing.

An ever-present sign of this contradiction is the government’s enforcement of the veil for all women – Iranian, foreign, Christian, Zoroastrian. The black chador, covering the head and the whole body, is preferred by the authorities, and about half of all women wear it, the rest wearing a scarf and baggy clothes. I watch women struggle with the chador in the wind, holding bags of groceries and the hands of children. I ask what would happen if they didn’t wear it. The answer is they will be told to put their veil on. And if they refuse? They will be arrested, lose their jobs, or be dismissed from university. Whenever I get a chance I ask women this question: Imagine that in the next five years the government of Iran changes the law, and says that women are now free to wear the veil or not, as they please. What percentage of women do you think would take the veil off? Most of the answers start by saying – Oh but that would not happen! When I repeat “just imagine it does,” the answers are that 50% – 80% of women would take it off. Urban women would unveil sooner than rural women. When I ask, Would you? the answer is always yes.

A taxi driver asks me if George Bush has a plan to get rid of the mullahs as he did Saddam. I tell him the only way to get rid of the mullahs is to free the women. He looks at me sideways to see if I’m making a joke.

In Shiraz I spend an evening meditating with a group of Sufis at a large khanegah – a place of Sufi study and practice. When I ask the Murshid (guide) there his opinion of the mullahs, he quotes Shabistari, a classic Sufi master: “Foolish people carry a candle to look for the light of the sun.”

Again and again Iranians speak to me of this disconnect between the mullahs and the people, between zaheds (religious purists) and Hafez, even between “the Islam of the Arabs” and the spirituality of the indigenous, ancient Zoroastrian culture. Many still express resentment for the Islamic invasion in 640 AD. Fifty miles into the desert outside of Yazd there is a grotto high in the cliffs known as Chak-chak – this is the “Mecca” of Zoroastrians where the last Zoroastrian princess fled from the pursuing Arab Muslim army. The legend says she disappeared into the mountainside and the “chak-chak” of the spring dripping there is her tears for the loss of her people and religion. My guide lowers his voice and tells me, “I am Muslim, but before that I am Zoroastrian.” I ask him if he would like to convert. He says yes, but it is not possible. “The punishment here for converts is death.”

I try to find a voice from the other side, and make arrangements to meet the director of a large Islamic seminary in Shiraz, a man who certainly looks the part of a mullah. But here again I am surprised. Once he becomes comfortable with me he describes the same distance between the ruling Islamists and the people. “They are interested in keeping power, not in helping Iran,” he says.

I’m left with the feeling this inner tension in Iranian society will sooner rather than later erupt. While driving through Shiraz, an Iranian friend and I stop at an intersection as a flock of black-cloaked women of all ages crosses in front of us. I say to my Iranian friend, “I believe one day the black chador will be gone from Iran.” He replies, “I hope not only from the women of Iran, but also the black chador that is a shadow over Iran’s skies. May there be blue sky and sunlight everywhere!” When I take out my notebook to write this down, he says, “Don’t quote me!”

My quest for Hafez’s bridging spirit has led me to this smouldering heat beneath Iran’s surface. It is likely Hafez will have the last word:

Set piety’s cloak afire! Let the curve of the Beloved’s brow
Break open the dome where the imam preaches!

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