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Far out

Divine nostalgia
Fantastic tension of the opposites in Hafiz poems

By Daniel Parsa
July 29, 2003
The Iranian

Interview with Paul Smith, author and translator of four books on the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz (Divan of Hafiz, Hafiz Tongue of the Hidden, Book of the Winebreaker, Love's Perfect Gift)

How did you come across Hafiz?

I discovered Hafiz in a book someone showed me called The God-Man, by a Shakespearean scholar, C.B. Purdom, in 1965. The book is about the Spiritual Master Meher Baba. I was on this ship sailing from India to Italy. When I returned to Australia six months later I got a job in a bookstore. The first book I picked up was The God-Man. I took the book home and read it. It changed my life. The whole purpose of my life. The reasons for my existence became known to me. I was always searching for God, since I was a child. I looked into Christianity, Buddhism, etc.but never found what I was really looking for. The living Qutub or Perfect Master.

I began composing poetry when I was six-years old. They in the form of ghazals without me knowing they were ghazals. I became Meher Baba's devotee and disciple in 1966. Meher Baba had re-orientated Sufism which had broken down into squabbling factions. I began reading Hafiz whom he referred to as the best poet who ever lived. I had no prior knowledge of any Persian poets except Omar Khayyam. I began collecting all the available translations into English of Hafiz, which were about 95. There were however, only two complete translations by H. Wilberforce Clarke and John Payne then. Now of course there are three more complete versions in English, including mine.

Why didn't you learn Persian?

I've a total lack of ability for learning other languages. So I read every translation of Hafiz instead. I studied them for six years. and everthing about what influenced him and the times. But before starting on the translation myself I had to learn about the structure of the ghazal. No one had written in this form in the English language. So I wrote hundreds of my own. The form of the ghazal is a spiral. The opening line of each couplet doesn't have to rhyme (even the first. for that sets up the rhyme ). And so there is the total freedom of the first line in which the heart can fully express itself.

The second line of the first couplet, the mind comes into play and everything is contracted. and so on throughout the poem. So really it is the expansion and contraction of the heart. So it has this fantastic tension of the opposites. It has this feeling which I call "divine nostalgia". Like in the Blues, there is this longing. In the sufic ghazals the longing is for unity with God, with the beloved. The ghazal is the most beautiful poetic form ever invented. There's no doubt in my mind about it. It's in everything, the DNA, Islamic architecture. It's how words come out, through a spiral. The whole creation comes out through a spiral. The Word of God is a spiral.

How did you start on the translation? Did you follow a particular regime, or structure?

I did 150 ghazals first which took a year and a half.. I'd open the book at random, read all the versions I had, then blank out my mind then ask God for help then the line would come. and so on. Then I'd work and polish it. After doing 150 I felt. It's not working out. It lacked passion. It was too intellectual. I was also under a lot of stress at the time. I was working during the day and we had an adopted Cambodian daughter who needed our attention. I was only sleeping a few hours. I decided to give it up. It wasn't working out. I felt such a weight leaving me!

Then a strange, miraculous thing happened. As I was sitting in the study I heard a voice. It was loud and clear, in my ear, from outside me. It said, "The problem with you is that you're doing it for yourself. Do just one for me and I'll help you." Poetry written by a God-realized soul can help these things happen you. Amazing things can happen.

I thought, shit, if I pick up the pen I'll be back in it again, working on it. you see it was so difficult and I was so relieved to give it up! (Paul laughs). He forced me to pick up the pen and he moved my hand and together we did 12 ghazals that night. He showed me most of what was missing. They were beautiful. Now I had the way. A partnership! You see? He needed me and I needed Him.

Later that morning I had this dream. I was in Shiraz, present day Shiraz. People were visiting Hafiz's tomb, bending down, praying, asking. I stood there beside Hafiz holding his hand, a child, observing everything. He was small and ugly. I said to him, "Isn't it terrible you're lying there dead?" The moment I said this I realized the joke I'd made. If he was dead why was he alive standing next to me? How can he be dead when people read his book today? He burst out laughing. An incredible, infectious laugh . I caught it! I burst out laughing too. It was the most fantastic laughter. I can't describe it. I woke up laughing, with tears rolling down my cheeks. My wife who was sleeping next to me caught it and woke up laughing as well.

I discovered then that the last key in working on Hafiz was in his humour. A great sense of irony. But also laughter for the sheer joy and pleasure of it. I went back and rewrote the first 150 again and kept going for another 12 years until I completed his entire Divan.

Your journey with Hafiz is an ongoing one. I believe you have been working on a number of other projects about him?

Yes, I've written film-scripts, plays, novels and poetry on Hafiz. At the moment I'm writing his biography. A long biographical novel you could say.

Have you progressed anywhere with the film-script, in terms of making it into a movie.

I wrote the original one about 12 years ago. It's a lot different now. Some four years ago I entered into a dialogue with some Iranian government ministers about it. Ten years ago I was invited by the Australian Government to go to Iran and give talks and make a documentary film about Hafiz. But because of some unrest in the country at the time I was advised by our foreign affairs department not to go in. I was in India with a film crew ready to go, but it wasn't meant to be I suppose. This of course didn't discourage me.

Five years ago I talked to some Iranian friends of mine and came up with the idea for a vast project called "Hafiz for our Time". The project introduces Iran to the world as the land of Hafiz. Hafiz being the greatest symbol of Iran, symbol of the true Iranian, independant, open-minded, humane, loving God, hurting no one. The ministers were all for the film part of it. But then censorship came into it. The censorship guys would not allow my script to be filmed as it was.

How did they try to change your script?

The censors wanted to make the film more like what Iran is like now rather than what it was like at the time of Hafiz. Women all veiled, no wine or winehouses and no criticism of clergy. It would have been easier to look for the money elsewhere really. But ultimately we needed the government's permission if we shot it there. And our proposal wasn't just for a feature film. It was also an animated film, a festival of poetry, plays, music, many publications. a vast project. So we had to lobby the government and seek their permission. But they don't really have the final say when it comes to censorship do they?

Are you disappointed?

Very much so. But also hopeful! One day it will all happen and Hafiz and his birthplace will be promoted and loved throughout the world. He is the world's greatest poet, it is true, and his life and work are really for this time more than any other. I'm sure it will happen one day, and perhaps sooner than you'd think.

Tell us something about the feature film that is in the pipeline now.

A famous British film producer, in fact probably the most successful of all time, asked for my Hafiz script and loved it. He is interested in Sufism, Rumi and Hafiz.

Where do you think he will get the money from?

He's been negotiating for two years now with various groups of people in Europe and the Middle East. banks, investors.

What's the length of the movie?

My script is for 2 and half hours. But it might be three 2 and a half hour movies. Like 'Lord of the Rings'. I'm trying to convince him to do it like that at the moment and he seems to be interested. It's such a massive, hypnotic story. I think the best way to really tell it would be a 40 hours television series.

My biographical-novel on Hafiz from which I'm writing the scripts from will be three 800 page books (I've finished over half). there is so much about Hafiz, his friends and Shiraz at the time that is unknown until now. so many other wonderful characters, Nabat (his beautiful muse), Attar (his Master), his friend Gulandam, his minstrel friend Haji Ahmed, the crazy satirist poet Obeyd Zakani, Princess Jahan Khatun (Iran's greatest female poet whom Hafiz taught), Khaju Kirmani and many other poets, minstrels, artists; his wife, son, all the various rulers. It's an amazing story, full of romance, intrigues, betrayals, upheavals, great love, faith and friendship. And all the songs and ghazals, of course. So in a way it's a dramatic-musical. Shiraz at that time was the artistic and spiritual center of the world!

Mr. Smith I'm sure the Iranian community and the lovers of Hafiz everywhere will eagerly follow the development of the Hafiz project. Thanks very much for your time.

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