All around the world Persians turn to the poet Hafez to answer their most important questions.
When they read from the book she mouths along, squinting, turning her head intently. It’s a Persian tradition, after a meal, to ask Hafez questions and once we are seated in front of glasses of tea and a bowl of dates she totters out of the room to fetch his complete works. The book is heavy with reverence: the greatest treasure of Shiraz, forget about Persepolis.
She mutters at the cover, as her fingers strum the pages thickly. Then she passes it on to someone else because she cannot read so well. She did not have the luxury of learning. She was married at thirteen, and worked as a tailor to support the family.
Her eldest son puts a sugar cube between his teeth and sucks tea through it, then opens the book allowing the pages to fall and reads her the answer. She listens completely, better than the rest of us do because she was never taught to separate her feelings from her body, to cut the words into pieces of meaning.
Anyone can ask the poet questions about the future or the present – although it is recommended not to ask too many or he gets tired and might lead you astray. He answers backwards, with the details inside the meaning and no one can translate it for me simply.
But even if they could I doubt I’d hear what she’s hearing: it is unthinkable that her intelligence has never been aided with writing or reading. Some things are harder for her, of course, but there are a few advantages. Everyone in the family agrees she is the best at interpreting what the poems mean for the future, that she can feel them. If she doesn’t like what Hafez is saying she always tells them to stop reading: once the words have been heard out loud as a response to a question they cannot be avoided. She also has an incredible memory. She remembers every phone number all of her eight children have ever had, and she can quote the Qur’an in Arabic – long tracts from a book she’s never read in a language she doesn’t speak.
There is no question that leaving Iran was worth it, her family can make choices she never could. They have high-paying jobs and university degrees and they are safe. There is no doubt that education is a gift and logic is a blessing but watching her listen it’s hard not to feel that nothing is gained without losing. On her face is a rare and vanishing way of thinking; something that isn’t simple; one of the oldest ways of being religious: accept what’s been written as if it’s something living. As something deeper than instructions.
Who can tell us why there are so many ways to be human? Hafez, of course. He answers with a question (directed at a pine tree):
Why do you not give fruit, like the lemon tree?
The tree replies:
I may seem poor now but if you
Come to me in winter
You will see I am a friend whose pointed leaves
Provide shelter all year round