Will ancient poet Hafez win the "soft war" in Iran?

Shiraz was Iran's Book Capital of 2020. The poet Hafez was born here in 1315.
Shiraz was Iran's Book Capital of 2020. The poet Hafez was born here in 1315.

Iran is far more modern than many people realise: our view is clouded by media distortion and the overriding political narrative. The nation’s historic and cultural riches are often overlooked. A declaration of love for Iran by Marian Brehmer

By Marian Brehmer

Hafez couldn’t have chosen a more pleasant final resting place. Delicate mandarin trees surround the eight-pillared tomb of the poet in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz. A nightingale sings against the evening sky. The sparkling mosaic that covers the structure is reflected in a pool of water, while the warm air is filled with the gentle strains of lute music piped over loudspeakers.

Fans of the national poet occupy the steps in front of the white marble sarcophagus: groups of students, a loved-up couple, families with girls in jeans and grandmothers in black chadors. Someone has scattered dark-red rose petals over the sweeping lines of the calligraphic epitaph.

It is as though scenes from Hafez' poetry have become a reality. Most of the pilgrims carry with them a copy of his "Diwan" – that famous collection of hundreds of poems first translated into German by the Austrian orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall in 1812.

Threats from Washington

For more than 600 years, Hafez' verses have been a place of refuge for Iranians. An oracle to answer difficult questions, an encrypted guidebook, a trusted home in uncertain times. Most Iranians' first encounter with Hafez would have been a bedtime story read to them by their grandparents. He’s regarded as master of the metaphor and keeper of all secrets – there are few Iranians who have not grown up immersed in his poetic imagery.

My first visit to Iran almost 10 years ago left an indelible impression. Captivated by my warm encounters with Iranians and their culture, I developed the almost messianic habit of explaining to friends in Germany that Iran was not at all how they always imagined it to be. What may now sound rather platitudinous to YouTubers and seasoned travellers of Iran, was at the time still something of a revelation.

Hafez' mausoleum and gardens in Shiraz, Iran (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. J. Fusta)
"The mood in the Hafez garden in Shiraz contrasted starkly with the diet of fist-pumping zealots, flag burners and badgering potentates served to us on our television screens from Iran," writes Brehmer in his declaration of love for Iran and its people

The mood in the Hafez garden in Shiraz contrasted starkly with the diet of fist-pumping zealots, flag burners and badgering potentates served to us on our television screens from Iran. "Did you know that every day, hordes of young Iranians read out poems in Hafez' mausoleum?" I would always ask whoever I happened to be talking to. There followed a comparison devised by me to hammer home the point. "That’s the same as young Germans streaming to Weimar to Goethe’s tomb to read to each other from 'Faust'."

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Iran’s year didn’t get off to a good start. In January, the Iranians had to read a Tweet that made them sick to their stomachs – and not just them. In the spat between America and Iran, President Donald Trump threatened to destroy 52 Iranian cultural sites if American soldiers were harmed in Iranian attacks.

UNESCO protested. I too could hardly believe it. We were familiar with Trump’s tirades by then, but in the heat of the exchange, for a brief moment even an act of madness such as this seemed possible. What if the American President had acted on his threat? If Hafez’ tranquil garden had been bombed to smithereens?

Trump’s comments struck a raw nerve with a civilized nation that has already suffered for years under sanctions and the threat of war. Then came the corona crisis on top of that. Iran was the first nation in the Middle East to be struck by the pandemic. It was also the hardest-hit country in the region. With more than 25,000 corona deaths (more than twice the number in Germany) it continues to be the epicentre of the region.

Thus, the Persian New Year in March got off to a bleak start. But Iran deserves so much better. With the warmth and hospitality of its people, the diversity of its regions and the profound mysticism in the lines of poets such as Rumi, Iran had touched my heart.

Following my first trip to Iran, I decided to pursue a course in Iranian studies. I crammed Persian vocab at a fusty Berlin institute. Speaking Farsi was the most important gain from an otherwise rather dry philological course.

In the autumn of 2013, I spent a semester in Tehran. While I was there, my Persian progressed so well that I was eventually able to attend a course on classical poetry. This opened my eyes to the very same aesthetic realm that had once enthused Goethe. In the "West-Eastern Diwan", he wrote in honour of his Persian poet forefather: "Ah, let the whole world slide and sink! / Hafez, with thee, with thee alone / The strife of song I seek!"

Poems on two legs

I too decided to pay closer attention to the cultural wealth of the Iranians than to the turmoil of day-to-day politics. It was a conscious decision, one that by no means ignored political problems and serious human rights infringements. In a multi-perspective reality, I simply decided to report on equally relevant narratives about Iran, to set counter accents. Why should we hear nothing of this world, which possessed its own validity? If we only look at certain regions through automated schemes, do we not debunk our supposed objectivity?

Rose petals strewn by a pilgrim on Hafez' marble gravestone (photo: Marian Brehmer)
Rose petals strewn by a pilgrim on Hafez' marble gravestone. The Persian poet has been the inspiration for numerous poets in Europe, casting a spell on Orientalists like no other

During my time in Tehran, I immersed myself in the poetic everyday culture of the Iranians. On subway trips through capital, I purchased small envelopes from children which contained scraps of paper with Hafez poems written on them. This method, known as "drawing a 'fal' (omen)", is the Iranian way to inject a spot of insight into tedious journeys on public transport in the capital. I met people who quoted one or two verses of poetry during every moderately long conversation, among them taxi drivers and road sweepers. Some of them proceeded through life like "poems on two legs", as one Iranian friend described it. They infused their surroundings with positive energy, energy drawn directly from the trove of inspiration provided by Persian mystical poetry.

I too learned a few poems in Farsi by heart. This brought me one step closer to becoming part of Iranian society. After all poetry, I realised, was for Iranians akin to a membership card. Those able to recite Hafez or Rumi from memory were perpetuating that trans-generational culture handed down for centuries.

Of course, politics could never be blanked out; that would’ve been unrealistic. I suffered too, as economic sanctions on Iran in recent years also imposed further restrictions on the lives of my friends. Sometimes I would then try to observe the situation through the lens of a simple Persian Sufi adage: "In niz bogzarad – This too will pass."

But it became ever more difficult. Of the many taxi trips I took on my most recent visits to Iran, most conversations with drivers ended in lists of complaints (Iranian taxi drivers love political discussions). Complaints about conditions at home, gigantic levels of inflation, political duplicity glossed over with religion, but also the supposed backwardness of Iran in contrast to the perceived progressiveness of Europeans.

"What on earth are you doing here?" they would ask me. "What’s the point in learning Persian? The money’s a long way away from here." In such situations I found it difficult to respond. Sometimes I tried to explain that hospitality and a keen appreciation of cultural roots were riches that "we westerners" lacked. I enjoyed only moderate success – many Iranians had long ago themselves unwaveringly accepted the polarised negative image of their country.

America as the measure of all things

This post-colonial inferiority complex was also fomented by generously subsidised Persian news channels from England and the United States broadcasting to every Iranian living room despite an official ban. Influenced by subtle promotion of the American lifestyle – for example in Hollywood movies – and advanced by the consequences of globalisation, many Iranians today live consumer-oriented lives.

The values have shifted. The young urban generation looks to America as the measure of all things. Traditional family bonds are snapping. Some see this as a "soft war", an intentional cultural dissolution from within, driven from without.

This image of Iran is all too familiar to westerners: anti-U.S. graffiti in Tehran (photo: Marian Brehmer)
Diesen Iran kennt man zu Genüge: Anti-US-Graffitis in Teheran. (Foto: Marian Brehmer)

All this is producing sometimes pleasing, but also strange effects. "Rumi’s Persian Sufi poetry is also popular in Iran because for a long time Rumi was on the American bestseller lists," the Iranian literature professor Iraj Shahbazi from the University of Tehran once said to me.

Iran’s most prestigious university is located in the bustling heart of this metropolis of millions. And indeed: as I walk along Revolution Street, past the university and along the popular bookstore mile, I repeatedly notice thick volumes of Rumi’s work on display in the shop windows. I’ve never seen so many well-organised book shops in one place. One bookseller tells me that even six-volume literary commentaries on Rumi’s poetry are now flying off the shelves.

Tehran is not a city you warm to immediately. In it beats the pulsating, sometimes restless heart of the nation. Yet this is also where the Middle East’s most dynamic cultural realm is flourishing. "See You in Iran" is an initiative working for several years now to acquaint non-Iranians with this scene and therefore improve the country’s reputation.

It all began in 2015 with a Facebook platform established by young Iranians who had studied in the West and experienced how foreigners perceive Iran. They had encountered people who were genuinely afraid to travel to Iran. Now, travellers to Iran could share their experiences with a continually growing number of members in a virtual setting.

"It’s not just about spreading positive things," says the 28-year-old artist and curator Yasaman Tamizkar, who offers tours of Tehran art galleries for "See You in Iran". "Unfiltered news – both good and bad – is posted to present a more realistic picture." A picture that is far beyond the reach of media distortion and political discourse.

Trapped in a negative spiral

Interpersonal encounters and the openness of many Iranians towards tourists also play a key role. "Many return to their home countries as cultural ambassadors enriched by the experience," says Tamizkar. In recent years, "See You in Iran" ran a handful of hostels and a cultural centre, organised urban walks and workshops on subjects like "Women of the Middle East" or "Nomadism as Emancipation". But the hostels could not be sustained through the corona pandemic; the cultural programme was transposed to the Internet.


This year, the discrepancy between "my" Iran and the one at the centre of public perception grew dramatically once again. At the fuel protests of November 2019, the displeasure of many Iranians spilled over into full-scale fury, particularly in the nation’s Kurdish provinces.

The rulers’ response to civic rage and vandalism was harsh, many people were killed. Then came the murder of General Soleimani by an American drone and the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet just after take-off by an Iranian Air Force general. Everything pointed towards an escalation. And again, I asked myself: to what extent and for how long can a different picture of Iran be drawn by cultural beauty and the human component?

For me, the matter is bound up with a perpetual search, during which I latterly stumbled upon some profound questions. For example: what is objectivity? What do I want to focus on; what should I focus on? How can I remain realistic without contributing to the exhaustively mined news terrain? A few answers for me are: keep travelling to Iran, particularly to places where no-one else is heading.

To maintain contact with my Iranian friends. To allow my enthusiasm for the Persian lifestyle to infuse my writing, even if this means being dismissed as a romanticising Orientalist.

Something that is however very telling is the fact that centuries ago, Hafez chafed against some aspects of religion and politics that are still relevant today. For example, one scathing criticism translates as: "You consider hypocrisy to be allowed and the wine glass forbidden (...) / Drink wine, for a hundred sins (...) / Are better than feigned obedience."

Hafez can be read to improve our understanding of the world just a little more. And to enjoy life, despite the unpalatability of day-to-day politics. Whether Hafez meant real wine, or whether he was using it as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication – that’s an age-old debate I’d rather not get into.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon