In fluid right-to-left strokes, letters emerged on the whiteboard, crowned with an elegant speckling of dots that sprang from the tip of a blue marker.
“Whatever we are looking for is already inside of us.”
I carefully copied the words into the checked notebook I had bought at a stationery on Tehran’s Revolution Street. I felt a surge of joy enter my body. The curvy, still somewhat shaky Persian words gracing the tiny squares of my notebook pages made perfect sense. It was like deep down I already knew it. Our ostād Dr. Shahbazi had a soft voice that contrasted with his imposing physical stature. Everything about him was rather ordinary. He wore a zip neck pullover with suit pants. The frameless glasses on his nose gave him the air of a meticulous academician. Just his sparkling eyes that had read thousands of lines of Rumi poetry distinguished him from the average intellectual.
Dr. Shahbazi turned from the whiteboard to face the small group in his Masnavi-for-foreigners class. Visibly moved by the subject matter he was teaching, his face was filled with compassion.
I and other students at Tehran University’s Persian Language Institute were taking first chances at understanding the great thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Mowlana—as Rumi is known in Iran—in the original Farsi. We carefully read out verse by verse, adding some spice with our Korean, Italian, and German accents. To get pronunciation, rhythm, and pitch right was a spiritual exercise. When I stepped out of the classroom I felt the reward. Something in me was different.
“I often notice a change on my students’ faces,” Dr. Shahbazi said when later I told him about my experience. “Their looks, their energy is transformed. They just don’t get tired, even if the class runs from nine in the morning until late in the afternoon.”
The modern Persian language, Farsi, is so interwoven with eleven centuries of lyrical heritage that you can hardly go out for dinner with Iranians without one or another poet getting quoted at the table. Poetry is imbedded in the Persian world view in a way that is similar to how mythology and stories have shaped the outlook of indigenous societies around the world.
Once I was stuck in a traffic jam in Shiraz when the taxi driver started an impromptu reciting of Hafez, one ode after the other. During my time in Tehran I began to notice poetry everywhere around me: In the window displays of Tehran’s well-resourced bookstores, in large murals and avant-garde graffiti, or in the colorful envelopes sold on the metro by children, envelopes that contain oracle-like snippets of poetry to sweeten people’s daily commute.
Farsi is sugar, a popular saying goes. The language has a unique musical beauty that enchanted me when I first traveled to Iran in 2010. Poems, however, had never played any role in my life.
When I learned the Persian language at university in Berlin and then during a language semester in Iran, it was as if a window to a new world had opened. I encountered poetry as a way of living, a soulful means to make sense of life. I began to understand why Sufis so deeply appreciated the saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “God is beautiful and He loves Beauty.” Linguistic beauty as a pathway to the divine.
However, Islamic mystics had mixed feelings towards language. They knew that no words could ever describe the states of unity they lived in. Yet they used poetry to pass on something of their unspeakable experiences, so that the reader could have her own unique experience through the poem.
The more I searched for the Persian soul, the more I found myself gently transitioning from the role of a foreigner stranded in Iran to becoming a hamnafas—a beautiful Farsi expression I would translate as “someone who breathes the same air.” This shift was a deeply fulfilling experience.
In Zohre’s private library the collected works of Rumi and his commentators took up several meters of shelf space. Here Mowlana was keeping company with other mystical poets like Fariduddin Attar and Saadi of Shiraz. It was winter. A thin coating of snow covered the bushes in this residential neighborhood on the northern edge of Tehran. The large living room was warmed by a gas heater that had fake wood to make it look like a fireplace. The floor was covered with colorful carpets from different regions of Iran, making it cozy to walk around. Next to the bookshelf hung a calligraphic depiction of the name of Ali, Mohammad’s son-in-law whom Sufis recognize as a transmitter of spiritual knowledge.
Zohre was the mother of my friend and setar teacher Hossein. She was also a retired grammarian and college instructor of Persian literature, someone who knew hundreds of poems by heart (not to forget that her hands made the best kashk-e bademjoon I have ever tasted, a smoky eggplant dip topped with Persian yogurt whey).
“Rumi is unlike any other. He is simply pure love,” Zohre said, her melancholic eyes wandering to a distant point in the room. “As a child my grandmother used to sit me on her lap and sing stories from the Masnavi into my ear.”
I began reciting a short passage from the Masnavi that came to my mind. When my memory failed, Zohre continued reciting for well over five minutes.
However I explain Love, when I come to Love I am ashamed of that.
Although the commentary of the tongue makes clear, yet silent love is clearer.
While the pen was hastily writing, it broke apart as soon as it came to Love.
Trying to explain Love, the intellect fell down in the mud like a donkey—Love and being a lover can only be explained by Love.
The sun is the sun’s proof: If you need proof, then turn not your face away from it. (1)
In Rumi’s teachings any kind of love we experience in our lives points us to divine love. Divine love is the ultimate source of all other kinds of love, including Zohre’s love for poetry that runs like a thread of constancy through her life.
Meeting Zohre I was struck by the strength of poetic roots in some Iranian families. Here was a land that had kept poetic wisdom alive for centuries and is still striving to do so, against all the odds of a globalized, largely meaningless culture that now presses against the floodgates of so many traditional societies.
Preserving what was left and fanning young people’s passion for poetry—that had been Zohre’s life purpose. “Although today’s life conditions have bereft many Iranians of this heritage, luckily we can still find its traces in many places in Iran,” she said.
One such place is the northeast Iranian region of Khorasan. Derived from the ancient Persian khor (“sun”), Khorasan is the “land where the sun rises.” A major crossroads of the Silk Road, Khorasan was a fertile soil for Sufi teaching and poetry, for knowledge that continues to shape cultures from South Asia into the Balkans. Rumi is just the most famous on a long list of mystics and saints who were born or lived in this area.
My quest to find some traces of the ancient and poetic Khorasan took me to Neyshabur, a medium-sized city on the Tehran-Mashhad train route. Neyshabur was the hometown of Attar, the druggist-turned-dervish who narrated The Conference of the Birds. This celebrated parable about a flock of birds in search of their mythical king outlines the soul’s journey back to its Essence. Another well-known son of Neyshabur is the scientist and poet Omar Khayyam, whose Rubaiyat was among the first works of Persian poetry translated into English.
It was a grey overcast morning in early March when I first entered the city. Most of the shops seemed shut down except for the odd falafel-and-pizza eatery and a few tired groceries selling the usual domestic Iranian food supplies. From the square-shaped layout of the town center I gathered that the old Neyshabur had fallen victim to modern city-planning. Large street signs directing weekend tourists to the mausoleums of Attar and Khayyam seemed to be the only hint for what I was after.
After a twenty-minute ride towards the mountains that separate Neyshabur from Mashhad, I arrived at a mud and straw house that had the word “Allah” molded with clay on its facade. The settlement around the house looked like someone had randomly placed a few dwellings into the middle of nowhere. The house belonged to Alireza Khatibzadeh, a society breakaway and Sufi researcher.
The complete stillness here struck me. It reminded me of the silence I had experienced in the central Iranian desert. Surrounded by mountains, there couldn’t be a better place to retreat. Alireza received me at the door to his study room. The lean man in his early sixties had a striking face with sharp features and penetrating blue eyes. His long grey hair was combed backwards and tied in a pony tail. “Befarmāyid,” come on in. I took off my shoes and entered the dimly lit room.
About thirty-five years ago, Alireza had quit his job in Iran’s national automotive company and started a communal life in the mountains with a group of friends. “Only one of them is left today. All the others went back to the cities,” said Alireza. “It hasn’t been an easy path. But I don’t regret doing it.” Ever since, he has dedicated most of his time to gardening and studying Sufi poetry.
I sat down on a couch across from Alireza’s study desk and looked around the room. The few inches of wall that were not covered with books had photos of spiritual masters and friends, pieces of calligraphy, and a rectangular mirror. The ceiling resembled an art installation. Hundreds of dried roses in all shades of red were hanging upside-down from ropes tied across wooden beams. Tea was cooking on an antique kerosene stove that produced a discreet hissing sound in the background.
“I became interested in Sufi poetry only because of the meanings hidden in it. I wanted to understand and practice them,” Alireza said, leaning back in his desk chair.
“What exactly is poetry and how does it affect us?,” I asked.
“Poetry is the most beautiful and refined verbal expression of human beings, in all cultures. It is a container to transport meaning through images. The more a seeker has experienced and the more he has matured spiritually, the deeper he can relate to the poem,” said Alireza. His hands were moving along as he spoke, sometimes freezing into prominent-looking gestures.
“You see in the poem who you are. To the extent that you have become closer to Rumi you will be able to understand him,” said Alireza.
Oh, if you only had the capacity to receive the heart’s explanation from my spirit!
Speech is milk in the spirit’s breast: It will not flow freely without someone to suck.
When the listener is thirsty and seeking, the preacher becomes eloquent even if he is dead.
When the listener is fresh and without boredom, the dumb mute speaks with a hundred tongues. (2)
We hiked a hilly path leading up from Alireza’s house. There was a modest grave on top of the hill. According to the ancient tombstone on the ground it belonged to a dervish named Abolhassan. Was he a mystic, a master, maybe a poet himself? There were no sources to really know who he was, Alireza said. The mysterious grave had been there from the very beginning, watching over all that had happened on this piece of land in the past thirty-odd years.
Gradually the light of the day gave way to the flickering lamps of Neyshabur in the distance. With the silence of the grave and the mountains at my back I remained in contemplation.
“When a human being attains to balance inside, there is a kind of equilibrium between anything that happens in the inner and outer world. You start seeing everything based on this balance, not in opposition to each other. Opposites don’t appear as enemies, but they complete each other. Opposites are here for us to learn,” Alireza said when we were back home, sitting once again under the dried roses. “At the end of the day we all have to learn to manifest God in our actions.”
It was three years after my first contact with the Masnavi that I went back to see Dr. Shahbazi in his office. I wanted to hear the story of the man who had been a door-opener for my relationship with Rumi. My former instructor greeted me affectionately. There was no sign of fatigue on his face, even after what must have been a long day of teaching. We sat down and chay arrived to set our conversation into motion.
When I asked Shahbazi about his life with poetry he got up from his office chair and fetched a tattered book that was held together with a strip of duck tape at the binder. It was his first volume of the Masnavi.
I learned that Shahbazi had grown up in a highly orthodox Shia family. When he opened the Masnavi for the first time and found that Rumi was comparing his poetry with the Qur’an, he indignantly closed the book and put it aside. But it wasn’t long before Rumi broke through his inner defenses.
Ever since he has been reading the Masnavi on a daily basis, sometimes for more than ten hours a day. “Each time I open the book it’s like I’m reading it for the first time. Always fresh and superb,” he said. “I feel that I am taken out of time and place. Reading the Masnavi adds a deep inner satisfaction to life, a very sweet tranquility, a beautiful excitement and passion.”
Shahbazi lifted the old Masnavi and stood it on the coffee table between us. There was an odd green-and-blue drawing of Rumi on the cover of an almost psychedelic quality.
“When it comes to inner and soul-related topics, there is no question to which this book does not provide an answer,” he said. This was a piece of certainty coming from a man who had read the Masnavi more than fifty times. As our conversation continued I sensed how both of us were getting immersed in the kind of energy that had flown to me from the pages of the Masnavi.
“What changes in life when you spend most of your waking hours with spiritual poetry of the highest degree?” I asked. Dr. Shahbazi smiled. “The form of life does not change. I am still eating, walking or speaking to my wife. But depth, direction and expansion enter into life. Everything just takes place with more depth.”
“Although I used to be a very proud person before, now I can say that I have fully surrendered to Rumi.”
“I was born in this land and I was always wondering why I am Iranian. Deep inside my mind I knew that there must be a reason why I was born here,” Hossein’s wife, Sara, told me after we had read a poem from Rumi’s Divan-e Shams. Sara was a student dentist who later pursued her dream to become a photographer. “But now I can understand why. Each culture carries in itself certain possibilities and mediums. If my language was not Farsi I would have to try really hard to read Mowlana. This is something that has been offered to me in my life.”
I was moved by her realization. Not that Iran was the only country where Rumi was read—he is equally enjoyed in Farsi by Afghans, Tajiks, and to some extent even South Asians and Turks. What touches me is the presence of a shining jewel, not uncommonly overlooked by Iranians themselves, in a place that is often made to look so frightful.
Since my first visit to Iran in 2010, I was fascinated by the stark discrepancy between Iranian narratives on the media and the country I have come to love. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, they say. Rumi would probably add that both ugliness and beauty are needed to keep the world spinning.
The question then is really: Where do we want to direct our attention? What do we want to amplify? The same old political narratives?
Let me offer this perspective: Iran’s hidden culture of mystical poetry is a source of beauty in a world that sometimes seems to us as engulfed by ugliness. Persian Sufi poetry brings connection to life in a time when many of us, in Iran and elsewhere, experience a profound disconnect at many levels. Like thirsty wayfarers in the desert we long for water. In this longing there is already a cure to so much we have lost:
Where there is pain, cures will come;
where there is poverty, wealth will follow.
Where there are questions, answers will be given; where there are ships, water will flow.
Spend less time seeking water and acquire thirst! Then water will gush from above and below. (3)
(1) Shaikh Kabir Helminski, trans. Sufism.org (adapted by the author)
(2) The Sufi Path of Love (SUNY Press, 1984), by William C. Chittick.
Note: This piece was first published in the Summer 2020 issue of Parabola. It's based on my field study entitled "Sitting onto the Soul – Inner Experiences of Modern Iranians with Sufi Poetry." If you're interested in reading the whole dissertation, drop me a note.