Monday, August 25, 2008

Baba Kuhi and Hafez

Shiraz has long been Iran's cultural capital. It has produced poets and mystics of such renowned quality that some parents of neighboring countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan teach their children Farsi, just so they too can drink from the cup of divinely inspired verse and prose.

Baba Kuhi's tomb overlooking Shiraz
Baba Kuhi's tomb overlooking Shiraz

Hafez, born approximately 1320 A.D., is among the most famous of Iran's poets. Everyday masses of visitors and locals flock to his magnificent tomb, touching his grave and reciting his poetry. They know him especially for his romantic poetry, but he also composed poems on God and in protest of oppressive political rule. He has become a cultural icon. This was not always so. In fact in his lifetime he had enemies who were jealous of his prodigious talent, including among the conservative religious clergy, who accused him of not being Islamic. However his talent was too great to repress, and the common folk adored him. These days even mullahs may occasionally be seen praying beside his grave.

Hefez's tomb
Hefez's tomb

Baba Kuhi, who died approximately 1050 A.D, is less well-known. Indeed many Iranians know little about him, if they have heard of him at all. Unlike Hafez's tomb, which is prominently located in the city, Baba Kuhi's tomb is found perched on the side of a small mountain ("Baba Kuhi" translates into English as "father of the mountain"). There are no sign posts pointing the way to his tomb, and it is not even located on tourist maps produced by an elegant hotel nearby.

Baba Kuhi appears to have reached the highest levels of divine union, as evidenced by his classic poem, Only God I Saw:

In the market, in the cloister -- only God I saw.
In the valley and on the mountain -- only God I saw.

Him I have seen beside me oft in tribulation;
In favor and in fortune -- only God I saw.

In prayer and fasting, in praise and contemplation,
In the religion of the Prophet -- only God I saw.

Neither soul nor body, accident nor substance,
Qualities nor causes -- only God I saw.

I oped mine eyes and by the light of his face around me
In all the eye discovered -- only God I saw.

Like a candle I was melting in his fire:
Amidst the flames outflashing -- only God I saw.

Myself with mine own eyes I saw most clearly,
But when I looked with God's eyes -- only God I saw.

I passed away into nothingness, I vanished,
And lo, I was the All-living -- only God I saw.

(The translation is from Reynold A. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, London: Arkana, 1989).

Baba Kuhi's modest grave
Baba Kuhi's modest grave

When I visited Baba Kuhi's tomb, I soon discovered it was being reconstructed, from top to bottom. The grave itself was tiny and nondescript. The site was covered in fine dust. Rickety old chairs stood to one side. I looked up and admired what I thought was the handsomely painted ceiling. Only after clambering up the scaffolding using a makeshift ladder did I realize that the ceiling work was made from countless ceramic tiles which had been patiently cut into pieces and neatly arranged, including the detailed geometric designs. The man undertaking the work, Hamid, proudly showed me his handiwork. One day his children will come, and tell their children that it was their grandfather who built the ceiling, piece by piece.

Ceiling tiles at Baba Kuhi's tomb
Ceiling tiles at Baba Kuhi's tomb

Hamid left me at the tomb and headed back into town. I then meditated using Baba Kuhi's poem as my passage, concluding with a different passage that Sri Ramakrishna used to enjoy singing from. I wondered who might have come to this place before me and likewise drawn on these two mystical figures.

I headed down the mountainside and stumbled across Baba Kuhi street. Soon after I saw a woman in her late forties sitting beside the road. Next to her was a battered old car. I asked her if she minded being in a photo. She looked puzzled. I tried to explain that her face would not be seen. She looked even more puzzled. I took the photo. Soon a rotund man from across the street joined us. I showed them the image and they seemed to conclude I was a little deranged. "He's a tourist" she muttered to him, and he nodded in agreement.

There is a charming story linking the lives of Hafez and Baba Kuhi that deserves to be more widely known. As a young man, Hafez had fallen in love with a beautiful woman, Shakh-e-Nabat. His love was a hopeless love, however, as she was due to marry a local prince. In desperation he remembered the legend that if he were to stay awake for forty nights at Baba Kuhi's tomb, he would be granted immortality, the gift of poetry, and whatever his heart wished for. Determined, Hafez undertook a lonely vigil at the tomb. By the end of the forty nights, his most fervent wish had changed. His longing for Shakh-e-Nabat was supplanted by a longing to achieve union with God, which he achieved forty years later.

One a group school children singing Hafez's poetry at his tomb
A girl from among a group of school children singing Hafez's poetry at his tomb talks to her teacher

I thought it was rather neat that I had the good fortune to visit Baba Kuhi's tomb as it was being reconstructed. The symbolism of the two tombs is dazzling. Hafez, poet of the masses, awaits his many visitors in a manner befitting his role as a great troubadour of love. Meanwhile, his spiritual father quietly looks down from the mountain, seeing God in everyone and everything. Just like his tomb, true love is something that always needs to be worked on. Perhaps in future more visitors will come to his tomb and find what they may. Before leaving I had my own conversation of sorts with Baba Kuhi. "It is time", I told him. I hope he agrees.