By Majid Naficy

This is the English translation of the first chapter of my book In Search of Joy: A Critique of Death-Oriented, Male-Dominated Culture in Iran (Baran publisher, Sweden, 1991). See the preface: Worship of Death Before the Revolution.


Being discontented with religious responses, a poet, in our homeland, does not usually have more than two ways of expression: either like the heartsick (sooteh-delan) bereave with dry eyes or, like hedonists (khosh-bashan) laugh out loud painfully.  However, the result is the same: sacrificing life for death. Baba Taher (d 1031 a.d.?) is heartsick. He enjoys bereavement and contrary to Khayyam (d 1131 a.d.) and Hafez (d 1390 a.d. ) the hedonists, he does not want to forget the sorrow of death. 

Baba Taher's sorrow has philosophical roots as well as social and personal ones. Based on the inability of mankind to avoid death he concludes that the world and life are worthless.  He speaks against poverty and social injustice, and expresses sorrow over separation  or death of his beloved.  Nevertheless, this wandering dervish, like all people suffering from depression  who sometimes consider themselves everything and sometimes nothing, turns into a mystic and calls himself the lord of the universe. 

Of course, one cannot criticise Baba because he speaks of sorrow. He fails, however,when he glorifies it.  Mankind cannot escape death and, perhaps, fear of dying never leaves him.  But, for living, one needs other goals: loving oneself as well as people and nature, artistic and industrial creations, response to the everlasting desire for knowledge and so on.
In our country, however, the culture of death-worship has the upper hand.  Death-worship is not only religious.  In secular literature, as well, life constantly gives way to death.  In order to escape fear of death some people like Khayyam and Hafez seek refuge in drunkenness and hedonism and, by encouraging people toward seclusion and passivity, destroys the root of life.  Other people, like Baba Taher, know life as an elegy of death and consider bereavement and sorrow as the only value of living. 

The hedonists and the heartsick although different in life style, start from one common question and end with the same answer: because death is inescapable, therefore, life is temporary and worthless.  In Baba Taher's double-couplets, tulip of the plain conveys this meaning:
Tulip remains on hills for a week
Violet remains by brooks for a week
I preach the word city to city:
The flower-faced remains with you for a week*

Contrary to Khayyam, who seeks refuge in happy drinking and drunkenness, Baba never mentions wine and prefers to smolder with his sorrow:

Nothing grew in my mind except sadness
Nothing grew in my garden except flowers of sorrow
In my heart, a barren meadow
Nothing grew, even the leaves of despair

Baba Taher's sorrow has more than a philosophical aspect. Many of his double-couplets are filled with envy for the past.  For example, in following peace, he pictures himself in the past as a white, proud falcon belonging to his native city, the ancient Hamadan:

I am from that white falcon of Hamadan
Single-handed, I watch the hunting ground
All birds of prey are taken by me
They protect this ground in my name

But now, that white falcon has become crippled and secluded in a corner, envying the past:

I was a male falcon, chasing the prey
An evil hand shot an arrow into my wing
Behold, do not go unprotected into the  hills
Whoever is careless, will be hit by surprise

"Evil hand" is open to different interpretation.  One can see that as a sign of philosophical determinism; or being limited to the horizon of Persian nationalism, interprets it to be representative of Arab and Turkic invaders.  Furthermore, it can stand for tyrants.  As seen more clearly in this double-couplet:

If my hand reaches the revolving wheel
I'll ask: why one is such and the other so?
You have given one full wealth and blessing
The other, barley bread soaked in blood

Finally, "the evil hand" can represent the cruel one's beloved.  In fact, complaints from cruel love comprises one of the main themes of Baba Taher's works:

I will turn your hair into the strings of my harp
What do you want from me, in my misery
You, who do not want my companionship
Why do you come in my dreams every midnight?

In the following, the bee with its sting and honey represents a love with her mutually exclusive sides:

If you're not my love, why are you with me?
If you're not honey, why do you sting me?
If you cannot remedy my pain
Why pour salt on my wounded heart?

In spite of the fact that Baba Taher complains of separation from his beloved, nevertheless, he is not willing to terminate this period and rejoin her. What matters to this depressed poet, is the sad murmuring to himself.  In the following double-couplet, he sees his love both as the cause and remedy of his pain:

What if I had only one pain?
What if my sorrow was slight?
Are you my love or a physician at my bed?
What if you were only one of these two?

Separation, in fact, serves as a pretext, allowing the poet to glorify his irremediable pain:

Pain and remedy both come from my love
Union and separation both come from my love
Even if the butcher separates my skin from my flesh
My soul will never be separated from my love

Who is Baba's love? Indeed, the holder of his heart is no one other than his own heart and his mourning is not related to any specific person:

If heart and its holder are the same, then what's one's beloved?
If the heart-holder and heart are the same, then what is called heart?
I see heart and the heart-holder intertwine
I do not know who's heart and who's its holder?

Sorrow is the only source of infatuation for the poet:

My sorrow is my heart and one who expresses sorrow for my heart is sorrow itself
Sorrow is my companion as well as my love and my friend
My sorrow does not allow me to be alone
Hurray for sorrow! May God bless sorrow!

The place from whence sorrow originates, is the lover's heart which, in turn, acts as an independent figure against the lover and rules over him:

I have a heart which has no remedy
I advise it, alas, in vain
I give it to the wind, the wind doesn't carry it
I put it in fire, it emits no smoke

This heart, like a camel loaded with thorny bushes, is filled with sorrow:

O heart, you are loaded with thorns and twigs
Your road is the same as that of the universe wheel
If you can handle it, remove your skin
Throw it away, and your load will be lighter

One can gauge the weight of this sorrow:

Nightingales, let's sing together
To show each other the pain in our hearts
Let us bring a scale, compare our sorrows
Whoever is more heartsick, will become heavier

The unbearable load of sorrow burns lover's heart to ashes and turns him into soote-del, literally people with smoldering hearts, that is, heartsick.  A man with a smoldering heart  is not like dry wood, which is easily consumed by fire, rather, it resembles wet wood, which burns slowly : from one end drips water and from the other rises smoke.  This image of a heart being consumed by fire is frequently seen in Baba Taher's double-couplets:

O heart, you are giddy from love of the beautiful
When I blink, a flash flood pours down
The lover's heart looks like the wet wood
It burns at one end and from the other, blood drips

And also this couplet, in which the poet plays with the Persian saying "burning ones heart for someone else", meaning "to pity someone",
Your heart, o stoney heart, doesn't burn for me
No surprise, the granite is not inflamable
I will burn, to burn your heart
A wet wood doesn't burn by itself

Being heartsick distinguishes the soote-del, On one hand, from happy hearts and the admirers of life, and on the other hand from hedonists and happy heads:

Long live that heart which has the benefit of sorrow
Woe to that heart which is ignorant of this pain
In the love market, one would get the going price
Whose heart is more burned by fire

If union with one's beloved is not the goal, neither is suicide a solution.  Indeed, there is no way out, and it is a badge of honor for the heartsick to bear this irremediable pain:

Good for those who did not let their souls leave their bodies
The lovers do not give soul to the Creator at will
They are accustomed to this pain year after year
They won't find a remedy in their lifetime

Even the heartsick,  is able to threaten to kill this alienated, cruel heart, yet, it is empty, and he has no alternative other than getting burned:

O God, I am so miserable because of this heart
Take it from me, I hate it, I hate it
I whined so much that whining killed me
Night and day this heart causes me pain

And also:

Are you lion or leopard, oh heart, heart?
You're always at war with me, oh heart, heart?
If my hand reaches you, I will shed your blood
To see what color you are, oh heart, heart

The heartsick seems despised and trivial, but his "sigh" has a superstitious impact:

I have loaded one thousand sorrows on my heart
I have a burning fire in my chest
With one early morning sigh, from my sad heart
I will burn one thousand rivals

God hears the heartsick:

I will sigh so deep that the Wheel becomes aware
My mad heart becomes more and more lunatic
Avoid the dart of the heartsick's sigh
Because his sigh is deeply effective

Depression occurs when one cannot express one's anger at  the hardship of life.  As a result, the anger is swallowed and it is substituted by self-hate and abstinence from the world. At the same time, a depressed patient who is not able to find his freedom in real life, now by rejection of self and the world finds himself capable of removing the obstacles and joining his love in dreams.  Depression is a permanent alternating polarization between two contradictory poles.  A depressed patient, sometimes feels he is nothing and, sometimes everything; now omnipotent, then, a selfless entity. One can see the same polarization in Baba Taher's double-couplets.  For example, he calls himself mad and a wanderer in the following:

In the world, there is no one as mad as me
Nor a stranger to himself or friends
All snakes and ants have a home
But I, a lunatic, have not even a hovel

And also in this powerful piece:

I am that homeless wanderer
I am that sorrow-stricken surviver
I am that bewildered thistle in the desert
Running in front of every wind

Then, the same wandering dervish who sees himself as a lunatic, suddenly leaves the corner of self-denial and poverty, and considers himself that promised messiah, who is supposed to reveal himself at each millennium.  The following poem is full of cabalistic symbolism:
I am that sea in one container
I am like a dot sitting above a letter
At each millennium, a single figure appears
I am that figure revealed at this millennium

Of course, examples of self-glorification in Baba Taher's poetry are not frequent and, it is possible that they do not belong to him.

There is a resemblance between mysticism and Baba's views: on the one hand, between his bewilderment and dervishism and the mystical philosophy of poverty; on the other hand, their glorification of the heartsick and the mystical leaders.  In fact, depression is the psychic mood in which both views are created.  With this difference, in mysticism, depression is used to build a mystical and religious hierarchy; wheras, Baba Taher uses it for his melancholic dialogue with his heart. 

Life without sorrow is not possible, even if poverty and social injustice are eradicated.  One cannot escape from death and separation. Sorrow, inevitably, knocks at our doors.  In usual circumstances, when sorrow reaches its peak, shedding tears begins.  Crying, indeed, lightens one's burden.  However, for Baba, this is not the case. His sorrow never ends but under no condition does he break into tears.  He, sometimes, pretends crying, but his eyes are so dry from bereavement that no tear is shed.  Does this tearless crying stem from the permanent religious and political suppression as well as class oppression in our homeland? Or is it because of the death-worship teachings of religion and mysticism?  Undoubtedly, both have affected Baba's heartsickness.  Social coercion resembles suppression in a person: a lasting and never-ending sorrow which is not relieved with the boohoo of a cry.  Baba Taher idolizes this depression and seasons it with mystical and religious death-worship spices.  Perhaps, his double-couplets can serve as a means of expression for the suppressed people of our country and, as a result, play a role like that of shedding tears.  But, at the same time, it has a negative effect, because through glorification of sorrow, it adds to the unfortunate heritage of death-worship culture in our homeland. 

Sorrow is part of life.  Life without sorrow is nonsense just as life without joy.  One cannot criticise Baba Taher, the poet of the heartsick, for speaking of sorrow.  He fails, when he glorifies it.*

*- I have translated Baba Taher's double-couplets from Persian into English based on this book:Mohammad-Ahmad Panahi-Semnani “Taraneh-ha-ye melli-ye iran”, Tehran, 1364  
*- This text was first published in Par Magazine, V. 3, no. 6, 1988,Washington DC.