What's the only country that officially celebrates World Poetry Day? I'm betting you would never guess Iran. I admit I was surprised to learn that the Iranian city of Shiraz just wrapped up its week long celebration of the art (World Poetry Day is officially designated March 21 by the United Nations). It featured poetry conferences and events, and the province's aspiring writers were invited to attend and read their work.
The week of cultural celebration contrasts, sadly, with Iran's general climate of cultural inquisition. The British newspaper The Independent recently reported a laundry list of acts of artistic suppression by the Iranian Government. Editors, they note, must heed Islamic guidelines they receive, weekly, from the National Security Council, and works of literature can only be published with approval from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Abiding by these measures, however, doesn't guarantee freedom from persecution. A young novelist who won the country's highest literary award for his approved book was jailed for the behavior of his fictional characters, and a prominent TV personality just got in trouble with authorities for publishing a poem with the line "In my dreams I think of you in the middle of the night."
Ironically, the same religion fueling the suppression of art in Iran once helped it flourish. And Shiraz--still considered Iran's cultural capital --was once a cultural capital of the world. The city is particularly famous for its poetry, having birthed Sa'di and Hafez, two great poets of the Persian Empire (and the middle ages for that matter). Their work (featured below) has influenced and earned the admiration of everyone from Emerson to Goethe to Aleksandr Pushkin.
Though born in Shiraz, Sa'di (1184-1283) traveled widely throughout the Middle East. He was an ardent believer in Islam and an equally strong believer in unity and peace. One of his poems on the subjects is inscribed at the entrance to the UN building in New York. Here's a translation:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.
The city's other favorite son, Hafez (14th Century), has been so heavily mythologized that very little is known about his actual life. He is said to have memorized the Koran by heart at a young age and to have sat for forty days contemplating his love for a woman. Here is Hafez's poem "The Woman I Love" (translated by Daniel Ladinsky). It's still moving today.
Because the Woman I love lives
Inside of you,
I lean as close to your body with my words
As I can--
And I think of you all the time, dear pilgrim.
Because the One I love goes with you
Wherever you go,
Hafiz will always be near.
If you sat before me, wayfarer,
With your aura bright from your many
My lips could resist rushing to you and needing
To befriend your blushed cheek,
But my eyes can no longer hide
The wondrous fact of who
You Really are.
The Beautiful One whom I adore
Has pitched His royal tent inside of you,
So I will always lean my heart
As close to your soul
As I can.
My favorite Persian poet was a man named Mawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, or simply Rumi (13th Century). His name literally translates to "Majesty of Religion," and in addition to being celebrated for his writing, he was a renowned theologian. His importance, even today, is considered to transcend national and ethnic borders. Here is a terrific poem translated by Stephen Mitchell:
When grapes turn
To wine, they long for our ability to change.
When stars wheel
Around the North Pole,
They are longing for our growing consciousness.
Wine got drunk with us,
Not the other way.
The body developed out of us, not we from it.
We are bees,
And our body is a honeycomb.
The body, cell by cell we made it.
Many people in Iran today are certainly longing for more freedom. Iran's great poets help us to remember this can be achieved with the help of Islam and not despite it.