As we face this fateful day, we are reminded of this poignant article from around this time four years ago. The U.S. elections can be time markers, moments for hope, failures in democracy, and to many around the world, a strange, emotional show. Whatever the outcome, stay safe and keep reading.
As the US approaches one of its most fraught elections in living memory, let’s take a full step back from the media frenzy. Where is the joy, the innate respectfulness, the genuine love and humility, in the debates and exchanges between those running for such lofty office? I’m not writing to you from the UK to deconstruct your candidates or your electoral system (though there’s much that could be said on that front!) and I’m not interested here in cataloguing the respective horror stories for each candidate; I’d much rather introduce to you a long-dead poet whose place of origin is relevant to some of the key debates in this election, and whose own life and times were characterized by profound political turmoil. Hafez (or Hafiz) was born in Shiraz in the fourteenth century and is among the most celebrated of Persian mystic poets. He is to be found everywhere in Iran, but his influence on world culture, too, has been deep and enduring. His poems are commonly used as an oracle in the Persian-speaking world, and some say that Queen Victoria herself consulted his works in times of need.
I’m not interested here in cataloguing the respective horror stories for each candidate; I’d much rather introduce to you a long-dead poet whose place of origin is relevant to some of the key debates in this election
Even if you don’t believe in oracles, I’d recommend a good look at Hafez. His richly rendered ghazals resonate with musicality, wit, insight, joy and despair, devotion and desire. They’ve appealed across generations to secular and spiritual readers alike, and they continue to communicate positively to the modern world on a variety of moral and epistemological levels. Moreover, Hafez transcends national and religious barriers, the poems ever alert to that tendency for humanity to lose its way. Many of his thoughts and images are freighted with quietly subtle political messages, because (as with all great spiritual texts) the poems deal with how we perceive ourselves and others through our relationship with/to the ultimate authority of the cosmos (and I believe this effect to remain in force in Hafez whether the reader considers that cosmic authority to be godly or not). The messages of such poets are, it seems, rarely absorbed or put into practice by contemporary society and its leaders in any consistent or thoroughgoing way.
In the poem presented here, Hafez offers a refreshing alternative to the voluble severities of election campaigning. He reminds us of this physical world in which “the full-blooded worker is/ bled more severely”, and he exhorts us to “talk on what’s been assayed within – or else, speak silence”. This is not, of course, the kind of softball silence that gives wrongdoing a free pass; it’s the kind of silence that’s radiant with comment, with insightful knowing. What happens, presidentially, in the US is of course of critical concern to those of us abroad interested in global affairs. I’ve been following your election process since its outset, and I’ve waited for those moments in which a candidate might follow Hafez’s suggestion to “let laughing wine sparkle from your lips”. Any early signs of that sparkle have now largely fallen away. In the UK, I recently witnessed the same capitulation of humility and consciousness, and a similar resistance to ‘otherness’, in our ‘discussions’ of Brexit. In electing a new President, the US too is keenly aware of the ‘other’, the ‘foreigner’, the ‘outsider’ in its midst. It’s timely, therefore, to explore afresh the timeless qualities of the ancient Persian poets, perhaps through the lens of a ‘secular spirituality’ that allows full eye contact between believers and non-believers, between East and West.
It’s timely, therefore, to explore afresh the timeless qualities of the ancient Persian poets, perhaps through the lens of a ‘secular spirituality’
This adjustment of perception provides one thin (but significant) thread for that rope we’ll need if we’re ever to shift the common misunderstanding that Iran and its people are defined largely by hatred and venom, by intractable tensions, religious divisions and political turmoil. Through the poems of Hafez, can we move a little closer to empathy, mutual respect, and the reconnection of diverse cultural groups in the US and abroad? If we listen closely, the ancient Sufi master encourages us to be fully in this world but also to transcend it. That doesn’t mean passively tolerating what you consider to be wrong, but to see that, ultimately, there are no ‘sides’. It might be wise for all of us watching, or involved, to avoid taking on those “inward wounds” of a society at odds with itself, of candidates forever at odds with each other. Meanwhile, because we’re so often so focused on the present and its news cycles, it’s all too easy to forget just how gifted the Middle East has been. I hope that this Hafez ghazal might be used by some voters, not so much to decide on a candidate, but as a means of contemplating the election’s impact on our own ‘silences’ and to renew our sense of the potentially unifying treasures of Persian mediaeval culture in a troubled modern context.
(Hafez: born 14th C, Shiraz, Iran)
Last night, I sensed it. Suddenly, the air knew its mysteries,
said: Nothing can conceal from you the Wineseller’s secret.
Then: In keeping with this world, the full-blooded worker is
bled more severely. Take yourself to yourself less strenuously.
I was given a cup. Its oval tilt of liquid was a sky – a dark, red
vault where Venus swayed and the spheres plied one word: Drink.
Child: you think to allay all ills with tears? There’s a story most
won’t touch, though I’d have it couch in you, smoother than a pearl.
With haemorrhaging heart, let laughing wine sparkle from your lips.
When inward wounds split to a ney-mouth, don’t blow to wail its note.
Fail to acquaint yourself with what is hidden and you’ll never earn
the heights. What angelic message can take flight in a fledgling ear?
In the body of Lovers, no part should crow how it heard this, saw that.
In Love, the self becomes an organ entire: a hawk – listening, vigilant.
In search of holy subtlety, so soft underfoot, nothing is sold or bought.
To be gold, talk on what’s been assayed within – or else, speak silence.
So, pour! My drunkard hand full well is known to that lenient Vizier,
Master of forgiveness and indulgence who buries, in sand, every fault.