“Hafiz and His Contemporaries: Poetry, Performance and Patronage in Fourteenth Century Iran” by Dominic Parviz Brookshaw

Qajar

One of the most fascinating and mysterious literary phenomena is the process by which one author, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Dante, or in this case, Hafez, comes to loom so high above all their talented and successful contemporaries. Most poetry lovers outside of Iran will not recognize the names of any of Hafez’s rivals and colleagues, and would be surprised to learn that they once enjoyed reputations equal to his.

Within 50 years of his death, however, critics claimed Hafez[1]Brookshaw uses a scholarly transliteration scheme in this book; “Hafez” is the transliteration most readers are likely to be familiar with to be the “Qur’an in Persian” and the “Tongue of the Unseen”. Dominic Parviz Brookshaw situates us in the world of Hafez, so we can read and admire Hafez the way his patrons and admirers did. Along the way the attentive reader will understand the reasons for Hafiz’s longer shelf-life, though Brookshaw avoids explicitly explaining why this is.

Almost all the poets of 14th-century Shiraz were constantly vying with one another.

Hafiz and His Contemporaries Poetry, Performance and Patronage in Fourteenth Century Iran, Dominic Parviz Brookshaw (IB Tauris, April 2019)
Hafiz and His Contemporaries: Poetry, Performance and Patronage in Fourteenth Century Iran, Dominic Parviz Brookshaw (IB Tauris, April 2019)

The book is constructed as a kind of concordance to Hafez. Each topos or theme found in Hafez and his contemporaries is exhaustively compared. This way the reader becomes with the language, the landscape and the social conventions of the period. Topics include the centrality of Shiraz and its gardens, the conventions of love both homoerotic and hetero, the role of kings and patrons on one hand and that of prophets and saints on the other.

For each of these topics Brookshaw quotes at length from Hafez, Salman, Obeid, Khwaju, Sa’di and others. A real revelation of this book is the sweetness and wit of the princess-poet Jahan Malek Khatun, about whom Brookshaw has previously written. It seems clear that Jahan knew Hafez, imitated him, and in a few verses surpassed him. I especially like this one:

 

Although you broke your promises (payman) to me,
My heart still holds a cup (paymaneh) of desire for you.

 

By comparing Hafez and Jahan, we see that almost all the poets of 14th-century Shiraz were constantly vying with one another to formulate the cleverest yet the most effortless expression of a select number of themes.

Life was unfair for women writers in 14th-century Iran.

There are a few topics on which I don’t fully agree with Brookshaw’s emphasis. The excellent recreation of the live performance aspect of Hafez’s poetry could have said more about music and especially women singers. In 18th-century India, the English Lady Sophia Plowden heard the celebrated tawaif Nawab Jan singing Hafez’ poetry. One can easily imagine the Nawab Jans of Hafez’s time, but Brookshaw does not dwell on them.

Wine drinking is characterized as transgressive behavior, but the Turco-Mongols who then ruled often had their first drink at breakfast and spent the whole day drunk—so I don’t think the book fully captures the boozy ambiance in which Hafez sung.

Finally, the treatment of homo-eroticism suggests that this practice predominated over hetero-eroticism. I prefer the explanation provided in the excellent book The Age of the Beloveds (by Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kapalı): social conventions made it expedient to write about the love of boys, and risky, if not dangerous to write about the love of women, but we should not thereby infer that the beloveds of Hafez and his contemporaries were never women, especially if you consider the possibility of shadowy Nawab Jans.

This boy-girl love enigma is most poignant in the case of the princess poet Jahan. She writes in the same convention whereby her beloved is a young boy, but in that case, as a woman, she is invoking a heavily sanctioned kind of love. Her contemporaries had a field day making fun of her over this. Life was unfair for women writers in 14th-century Iran, even in the relatively gender-egalitarian Turco-Mongol ruling class.

Hafez’s success is very much due  to an implicit collaboration with his immensely talented milieu.

Hafez’s posthumous star status is not the focus of this book. Brookshaw mentions in passing the way in which 15th- and 16th-century manuscript copiers followed a trend of making more and more copies of Hafez’s poems and less of his rivals. Manuscript copying, like Facebook, tended to amplify popularity, creating winners and losers. Several centuries before printing and mass literacy, many households in the greater Persian-speaking world had a manuscript copy of Hafez. This was as close to a mass phenomenon as you could get in those days.

So why did Hafez eclipse Salman, Obeyd and Jahan? Jahan’s being a woman worked against her, just as today it may help restore her place in the canon. Brookshaw suggests some explanations for Hafez’s greater impact. Compared to his rivals, he wrote very little, perhaps one poem a month. Like a jeweler with precious stones, he worked and reworked his poems in the pursuit of the perfect constellation of words and sounds. He concentrated on one genre, the short lyric. He competed with other poets for great rewards from the ruling princes, in a febrile atmosphere rather like “Iran’s Got Talent”. The very greatness of his contemporaries pushed him to out-perform them. Hafez didn’t anticipate that he would be read, as today, in isolation. He frequently boasts of his greatness when he quotes predecessors and rivals only to improve on their verses. Hafez’s success is very much due  to an implicit collaboration with his immensely talented milieu.

Brookshaw concludes this book with a couple of Hafez-like boasts. He is proud to reject rigidly binary readings of Hafez, whereby the poet is either a saint or a sinner. Ambiguity is Hafez’s essence. Brookshaw is also proud to resurrect the reputation of Princess Jahan. In these two efforts, as well as his recreation of the world of Hafez, Brookshaw can say to himself, like Hafez

 

you sang your song, you thread the pearl. Come, sing gladly, for on your verse the heavens scatter the stars of the Pleiades.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019)

Notes   [ + ]

1. Brookshaw uses a scholarly transliteration scheme in this book; “Hafez” is the transliteration most readers are likely to be familiar with