Of poetry and ice cream


“Of one essence is the human race,                                 

thusly has creation put the base;

one limb impacted is sufficient,

 for all others to feel the mace.”

–          Saadi (Persian poet), quoted in the United Nations Building, New York


16 April 2010

Tombs of ancient kings

Today’s big sights kick off with some amazing tombs built high into cliffs, and their accompanying bas reliefs, pondering lives from another age, now turned to dust. 

Ancient Persepolis

Up next, it was the sight to see in all of Iran: magnificent Persepolis, the heart of the Persian empire for hundreds of years, built by Darius the Great.   Persepolis covers 125,000m2, an astounding showcase of ruined palaces, imposing gates through which visitors passed, statues and carved depictions of the numerous nations that comprised the Persian empire – Ethiopians, Turks, Russians, Indians – bearing gifts for the King.  It is an easy rival for other ancient sites in Egypt, Greece and Rome.  Persepolis was finally destroyed by Alexander the Great, who in retaliation rode in from Macedonia as a pay-back for the Persians’ attacks on Greece, burning Persepolis to the ground, marking the end of the Persian empire.  It could be said that another empire died here, too, when in 1971 the last Shah put on an enormous party to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy, setting up luxurious tents for royals and heads of state from around the world: a great party it may have been, but it pissed his subjects off and his reputation never recovered.  The bones of the tents still stand in the shadow of Persepolis, rusting away.

Ariya and his notebook of facts and figures

Ariya tries to ply me with facts and figures; I beg him to keep it “high level” for me or my head will spin (even though I try hard to focus, I literally feel myself going to sleep when presented with too much information on sights).  Rather than try to process the dates and names of kings, I prefer to imagine another age when Persian kings and their armies, wives, and entourages roved through their palaces, governing 23 nations from this massive city.

Mirror work inside the mausoleum

After a rest, Ariya collects me and we visited a magical mausoleum for a former leader, covered in detailed mirror work that reflected all around the space, people sitting on the floor at the edges of the room, praying. 

Yummmm....Shirazi icecream (can you see the little noodle bits?)

After this, it was off for some more Persian ice cream, my particular favourite being the one that Shiraz is famous for: a blend of tiny pieces of delicate noodles with sugar and water suspended in a sorbet.  You add flavours – either lemon juice or rose water – to taste.  It is refreshing and unique, and I love it.  (Once I planned a book called “Buffets of the World”, really a fantasy about travelling the globe assessing international buffets, and getting tax deductions for it.  Really, I think “Ice Creams of the World” is really a more significant and enduring work).

Harfez, the great poet's tomb

We arrive at one of the more famous places for Shirazi ice cream (near the tomb of Saadi the poet), and cars line the streets with passengers scoffing down the delightful treat.  Ariya says that most people come and have two serves each (or perhaps he is providing me with an advance excuse for seconds).  He dashes off and brings us each a cup; he refuses my offer to pay.  After they are polished off, we agree to have another, and to forego dinner: a most excellent sacrifice!

Consulting Harfez

Ariya and I talk about ice creams of the world, and we agree and laugh that Saadi’s UN quote (above) really ought to read: “Of one essence is the human race because everybody likes ice cream.”  We joke about this every day, and it becomes our motto.  Next, it’s off to another tomb.

 If Islam is at Iran’s religious core (although many other religions also co-exist here), then poetry is Iran’s gracious beating heart.  For a thousand years or more, the Persians have revered poets such as Ferdosi, Hafez, Saadi and Omar Khayyam (Persia’s best known poet in the West, but more accomplished as a mathematician who worked out a year has 365 days way before anyone else did).  Ferdosi is attributed with saving the Persian language by using it when the pressure was on to adapt Arabic (while Iranians may have a rich and complex history, and have inherited Islam from the Arab invasions, they are absolutely not Arabs). 

Narges (left) and her buddy

Each Iranian seems to have their favourite poet, with Hafez being extremely popular because of his accessible and insightful writing.  The tombs of the poets rate alongside great monuments and mosques in the Persian mind, with Hafez’s tomb being visited even more than the amazing Persepolis. 

Hafez’s tomb is best visited at night, as the lights in the garden shine onto the tomb and porticos that surround it.  Hafez, alive 700 years ago, requested that on his death there be no mourning, only music, and so today it echoes around his tomb.

It is mostly young people who sit beside the tomb, or pause to touch it with two fingers and, as they do, recall the first book of the Quoran.  Over the two weeks of No Ruz, the Iranian New Year celebration, a staggering 120,000 people visited Hafez’s tomb.  For Iranians, Hafez has a mystical quality far greater than any poet in English tradition; the analogy, in my mind at least, is closer to a Catholic saint. The Persians believe that Hafez will speak to you if you believe in him.  They come to his tomb, open their book to a page of his work, and within it find what they seek:  the answer to their problem, or the telling of their future.  Reportedly, even Kings have successfully done this when deciding whether to go to war.

As Ariya explains this to me, a young woman asks if she can listen in.  Her name is Narges, she is from Shiraz and speaks wonderful English.  Narges asks me (as almost all locals have) what I think of Iran, and whether it is different from what I expected. 

Ariya asks Narges to tell me about Hafez.  She visits his tomb every Friday night (of course Friday is the local equivalent of our Sunday) and she loves him.  She asks me if I believe in Harfez, and I admit to not having heard of him before deciding to visit, and she asks it I will give it a try.  Narges hands me her Divan of Harfez (his collection of poems) and instructs that first, I must believe in Harfez, and then think of my question and open the book.  I hand my open page to her, and peers at the page in the dimming light.  “You have been very disappointed, and feel that many doors have been closed to you.  But if you believe in God, you will be successful.” 

We speak some more, exchange email addresses, and say our good-byes.

 Here, in this place, far from home, from the lips of a young stranger, the words of a poet long dead have meaning for me; perhaps I believe in Harfez after all.


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