Shiraz – poetry, song but alas no wine

Apparently if you look hard enough for wine in Shiraz you can find it. Despite lending the name of famous grape variety most of the vineyards were torn up after the revolution or put to the less life enhancing task of making raisins.

We arrived in the city on the eve of Iranian new year (Nowruz) when the country closes down for two weeks and people go on holiday – many of which to Shiraz. Everywhere we went tables of ‘7 s’ elements could be seen.

Each ‘s’ represents something related to new year, vitality, prosperity etc. and so ingrained is this non-Islamic practice that the main mosques get in on the act.

In the Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh mosque – one of the holiest Shia sites in Iran we were opaquely told to wait at the entrance.

Off bounds to non-muslims we had our own ‘International Services’ guide to walk us around the mirrored interior with supplicants praying all around.

After our tour of the prayer halls we were invited to the international office for tea and biscuits and given some propaganda pamphlets from Ayatollah Khatemei addressed to the youth of the west.

Away from the new year crowd the stained glass and columned hall of the Nasir-al-Molk mosque where the light was perfect in the afternoon.

Known historically as the city of poets and wine, Shirazis are known to retain a certain liberal joie-de-vivre. I noticed this early on with singing and dancing at dinner in a traditional restaurant – something I hadn’t seen anywhere thus far.

They say every Iranian household has two books – the Quran and collection of Hafez poetry, one is read and the other is not. The poetry of Hafez is concerned with love and wine and ridicule of hypocrisy including the religious kind. To the north of the city is the tomb of Hafez which is something of a pilgrimage site.

Here again the religious authorities have run into a bulwark of a Persian past which cannot be dislodged and instead rely on reinterpretation, wine drinking is rehabilitated as akin to prayer and other contortions.

The tomb itself is a simple poetry inlaid marble casket under a beautiful dome. Those admirers come and touch the tomb, walk the gardens, listen to recitations or find a quiet corner with their personal copy and soak up the atmosphere.

Many of the poems are ambiguous and layered with wordplay and double meanings to be flexible enough to allow multiple interpretations – something apparently lost in all but the best translations.

I learned that Iranians have a wonderful custom when facing a problem – they open a random poem by Hafez to see if the old master has advice. For others they just come to sit, read poetry and be with their thoughts.

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