A thick, murky haze of opium smoke rising like a Chinese cloud above a vision of paradise as foretold in a Kashani prayer rug, the lover’s cry bellows forth as he invokes the sage Saadi: The one I long for, who yearns to see me slain, for all her coquetry, is ever free from blame. With this olden verse of longing sprung from the boughs of Shiraz, Mahmood Schricker and his caravan of troubadours set forth, commencing a tale as sweet as the songs of sugar-cracking parrots, and as heart-rending as the reed’s song of separation. As the warbling lament echoes on to the slinky, ephemeral sounds of the setar, the listener is forewarned of the lover’s trials to follow: She’s a garden of delight, but none her fruits do taste; save in thought is relished the apple of the tree of her grace. And now, in the name of the Lord of life and wisdom, lend an ear and listen to what befell that lovelorn youth of Shiraz …
‘Don’t go … if you go, take my life with you’, he pleaded, as the narcissus-eyed idol cast him a coy glance before turning away, letting loose a hailstorm of arrows from the bow of her brow and the army of her eyelashes.
Following Dub Davami, the album’s hypnotic, dub-soaked introduction featuring exiled Iranian rocker Mohsen Namjoo (often dubbed the ‘Iranian Bob Dylan’) on vocals comes the ethereal-sounding Stay. Against a thumping electro-beat and Schricker’s intimate setar passages, Ebrahim Rahnama delves into the hidden depths of a Rumi poem in love’s endless ocean, in pursuit of the oyster’s peal. Here, Rahnama’s haunting, desperate vocals take ancient words penned in ecstasy out of their dusty divans and lay them upon an infinite vista of sound and space.My heart is a scroll as long as eternity, written upon from top to bottom – don’t go. ‘Don’t go’, Rahnama implores in vain, acknowledging the futility of his entreaty all the while with his inflections.
‘… That lonely one turned his head to the vernal moon above …’
My Silent City
Sauntering through a dusty alleyway at dusk, the faint melody of a bittersweet tasnif accompanied by the aching wail of a kamancheh resounding from beyond the corner, that lonely one turned his head to the vernal moon above, whispering softly, ‘My silent city – where art the soul of thine springs? Where, the fervour and rapture of thine masses? The night is dead quiet – where art the cry and roar of thine wine drinkers?’
As with the album’s opener, the brooding vocals of Mohsen Namjoo are the focus of this number. Although still buoyant with the album’s signature ‘thud’, Silent City is somewhat of a more delicate number, with Schricker’s intricate setar work and Namjoo’s dirge seamlessly interweaving like the warp and weft of a vibrant gabbeh. Based on a poem by Mohammad-Reza Shafiei Kadkani, the song is at once a nostalgic ode to the Iran of yesteryear, a personal lament, as well as a political protest. Under the Tatar’s spearhead, how dost thou fare? Where art the steel-plated hearts of thine lion hunters? Though Kadkani’s poem, along with Namjoo’s vocals seem as though they’ve sprung from the tumultuous days of Shiraz during the reign of Tamerlane, in a contemporary context and with Schricker’s deft electronic manipulations, they are eerily relevant as ever. O, my silent city …
As he dragged his feet into a nearby tavern crumbling of decay, he fell under the gaze of the dark, sunken eyes of rogues, ghalandars, and fire-worshippers. Reclining in a dank corner moist with the sighs of star-crossed lovers, he regarded the ruby red dregs in the bowl before him, recalling the amorous glance of his departed beloved. ‘Beyond this, ah, yes … it is possible to remain silent … it is possible to sit for hours, with a glance like that of a corpse, dazed by the smoke of a cigarette, by the shape of a teacup, by colourless mud … by a line of fiction, by the wall …’
Bidding farewell to the all but razed gardens and the Tatar hordes of medieval Shiraz, Schricker and his caravan slowly make their way into the winding alleys of 20th Century Tehran in all its jaded squalor. Unlike the grief-stricken, almost ominous laments of Namjoo and Rahnama, Schricker here presents a somewhat light-hearted and jaunty number, albeit with a subject matter no less dark. Seemingly transporting the listener to one of the city’s many downtown cafés – fertile breeding grounds for artists, pseudo-intellectuals, and part-time philosophers – Hamasseh Daneshzad, twirling a ringlet of hair around her pinky in a haze of cigarette smoke and the fleeting steam of cardamom tea, reflects on the inanity and banality of her existence. ‘It is possible, to see one’s world from the glassy eyes of wind-up dolls’, she sighs, echoing the moribund words of the late Forough Farrokhzad ‘… It is possible, with each perverted squeeze of a hand, to cry without reason, “Oh! … I am so lucky”’. Complete with the languid bass lines and rich, colourful keyboard alchemy of Reza Moghaddas, as well as the vibrant notes popping forth from Behrouz Bakhtiari’s clarinet, Kooki (lit. ‘Wound Up’), along with, perhaps, the sublime Salma, represents one of the album’s ‘brighter’ moments.
Heady with Khollar wine and the melody of the minstrel’s lute, the rosy-hued dawn smiled upon that ruined one as he made for the barren highway ahead. Bidding that silent city farewell, as his beloved once did him, he overheard an itinerant dervish reciting the words of the bard Hafez, which seemed to hold a mirror to his soul. ‘Where be the virtue of toil, and I, broken and old? Look at the divergence of this path, where it begins, and where it goes! I’ve grown weary of the hypocrite’s cloak and the shrine – where be the temple of the Magi and pure wine?’
‘ … To remain silent … dazed by the smoke of a cigarette …’
After a brief sojourn in the smoky, seedy cafes andghahveh khanehs of downtown Tehran, Schricker leads the listener back to the flowery environs of Shiraz in the age of poets, tyrants, and star-crossed lovers. With a gritty, growling melange of electric guitars, drums, and bass intensifying simultaneously in fervour with Rahnama’s impassioned requiem, it is perhaps in Salous where Schricker’s vision soars to its zenith. Tastefully selecting and interspersing passages from one of Hafez’s many ghazals, Rahnama, taking on the tongue of the poet (as Hafez once assumed the ‘tongue of the Invisible’), praises the way of the rend over that of the dry, hypocritical believer. What do piety and fear, and the way of the rend have in common with each other? The hymn and sermon are one thing, the robab’s melody another.
As he begins to be carried away by a wave of sonic nirvana, once again finding himself in that vast, unbounded realm of love, he calls on his Beloved, lamenting his separation and expressing his yearning for divine union. Do not, O Friend, expect slumber from Hafez, and for him to idle keep – what is rest, what of patience, and where be sleep?
Turning his back on the sun-baked avenue and the ragged mendicant, he cast a final glance upon the rose gardens of Shiraz beneath the cerulean dome above, before discarding his earthly rags and setting off beyond the horizon with naught but the name of his beloved upon his parched lips. Ey doost …
And so, after the invocation of the ardour and ecstasy of that sagacious one of old, as the last silken sounds of the setar dwindle into nothingness like a moth consumed by a flame, does this tale come to an end. What, you ask, became of that ill-starred one? A mendicant wandering along the road between Shiraz and Esfahan has often been sighted by pilgrims and passers-by, though he is said to bear no apparent likeness to the lover of this tale. Others maintain that he departed peacefully from this weathered guesthouse on the banks of the Zayandeh Rud, not too long ago, with the most radiant of smiles upon his face. What of all these useless conjectures, though? Verily, the truth is known only to God – and, as they say – Khajeh Hafez of Shiraz!
But enough of this talk, Bekhrad; the caravan must trudge onwards yet. Rather, pay heed and lend an ear to the words of the wise Jami, that ever-burning light of Herat:
Do not, like your pen, commit any more acts of blackness; with your own tears wash clean the book of your life. Take your pen from the desolate plain of the page, and close your book on the melancholy business of writing. Bid your tongue be silent, for silence is worth more than anything you could ever say.*
* From David Pendlebury’s translation of Jami’s Yusuf and Zulaikha
By Joobin Bekhrad
Originally published in REORIENT
Translations: Joobin Bekhrad
Images: Hojat Amani