Shiraz is Iran’s “Book Capital 2020”. The regime does not seem to be bothered by the subversive potential of the work of the great national poets born there.

Can it be that this place breathes a very special spirit? The poet Hafiz, born around 1315 in Shiraz, saw it that way. Shiraz, the city in the southern Zagros Mountains, place of origin of two great dynasties, the Achaemenids and the Sassanids, capital also the southern province of Fars, breathes its spirit, the poet found: ” In Shiraz is the gift of the divine spirit / under the wise Population an inner trait “.

Surely Shiraz could exist without the poet’s praise. The city has many advantages even without it: its location in the middle of a fertile plain, intimately connected with viticulture, the archaeological remains of which show the place as one of the oldest centers of wine growing in the entire Middle East. Also known are their parks, which are examples of Persian garden culture.

Center of poetry

And yet the city would be different without its poets. The two national poets Saadi (approx. 1210-1292) and Hafis (1315/25-ca.1390) come from her, plus several others: Obeid-e Zakani, Khaju Kermani, also the princess Jahan Malek Khatun, also artists, which made the 13th and 14th centuries a wedding of Iranian poetry. It was probably this legacy that gave the city its choice as the Iranian capital of the 2020 book.

Iran Shiraz Aramgah-e Hafez Mausoleum and garden (picture-alliance / dpa / RJ Fuste)Shiraz – also a center of Persian garden culture

The appointment as book capital is understandable, says the Iranian Bianca Devos from the University of Marburg. For Iranian society, Shiraz is still the epitome of literary heritage, thanks in particular to the two great poets who were born in it. “The two are the first thing that connects Iranians to the city,” Devos told DW. “You have given the city an enormous appeal.”

The title “Capital of the Book” was awarded for the first time in 2015. At that time he went to the city of Ahvaz. The title is intended to help expand the literary infrastructure – such as libraries, bookstores, reading rooms – of the selected city. Reading is also to be promoted through many actions. Previous capitals were alongside Ahvaz Neyshabur, Busher, Kashan, and Yazd.

Tradition of tolerance

Both poets, according to the English Iranianist Dick Davis in his book “Faces of Love. Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz”, have established a tradition of liberalism and tolerance that is still valued by many readers to this day. “Take, oh man, the advice, where you can find it / Be it from the writing on the corners of the wall,” Saadi writes in his “Golestan” (“Rose Garden”) written in 1259. “There is no flawless art – we are all somehow inadequate,” noted Hafis in one of his poems, and further: “I have seen Hafis, I know him well; / he is an ignoramus.”

Self-irony that lets all the conceit out of the air at Hafis; a call to modesty in Saadi, combined with the advice to look for reason in the most modest sources (“at the corners of the wall”): The two formulate an ethic of personal restraint that also has political implications: Because it is not only aimed at ordinary readers, but also to those who are responsible for the community.

Iran works by Dichter Hafez (picture-alliance / CPA Media Co. Ltd)Game of Liberal Arts: Cover of a book with poems by Hafis

Iranian prince’s mirror

“There was, of course, a tradition of the Prince’s Mirror in Persian literature that described the ideal ruler as the just ruler,” says Bianca Devos. “It derives from pre-Islamic times. But of course with Saadi you also have to take the historical circumstances into account: he experienced a time of upheaval, a time in which the Mongols temporarily subdued all of Iran.”

Around the year 1220, the Mongols began to conquer Iran. “The Mongolian storm represented a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude for Iran,” wrote the Iranist Monika Gronke in her “History of Iran”. “The areas conquered by the Mongols were like a debris field.”

From the horror of those years, Saadi developed an image of the righteous prince, which was characterized by one thing above all: a rule-based exclusively on the law. “Contrary to the law, a drink of water becomes sin, / spilled blood becomes law because of the law”. The logic of the law may not always be easy to understand. But the law creates norms that are well known. Everyone knows what to do and is therefore safe from arbitrariness. The text can also be read with reference to the present, namely that of the Islamic Republic and its legal system. Their reality should also be measured against the principles of Saadi’s ideal ruler.

Saadi Mausoleum Iran Garden Shiraz Shiraz (picture-alliance / dpa / S. Auth)Final resting place: Saadi mausoleum in Shiraz

In this sense, the election of Shiraz to Buchhaupstadt 2020 is a challenge for the Islamic regime. Because it has to clarify how they position themselves towards the two national poets and their tolerance. She does so by relying on a different reading by the two poets. “Hafis, in particular, is a master of ambiguity,” says Bianca Devos. Hafis, in particular, had perfected the art of ambiguity. “His poetry is complex and demanding and that is why there are numerous interpretations.”

Competing readings

Iran works poet Saadi (picture-alliance / dpa / Fine Art Images)Art of Modesty: Manuscript of the “Golestan” by Saadi, around 1645

For example, when Hafis is devoted to topics such as the enjoyment of alcohol or eroticism. “Acts such as enjoying wine or flirting with a handsome young gobbler were considered unworthy by such an important poet and were routinely explained as mystical metaphors,” said Dick Davis in his book. Religiously reinterpreted, such verses are also acceptable to those who believe in it.

Bianca Devos says that other readings would not be compatible with the Islamic Republic’s official morals. “But they can also be interpreted as mystical texts. That is why Hafis’ works can also be read in Iran today.”

Can Shiras provide impetus as the Iranian book capital? On Twitter, a user links to an article by journalist and author Siroos Roomi. “If the awarding of such a title is not a purely formal matter, but leads to a fundamental change if the examination of the book topic is revised from the ground up, then one could say that the selection of Shiras has achieved something,” said Roomi, The choice of Shiras as book capital 2020 shows one, says Bianca Devos – namely how lively the city’s literary heritage is. “It is still very strong as part of the national identity in the Islamic Republic. Of course, there is also Islamic tradition today. But the Persian language and Iranian nationalism, as it was propagated under the Shah Pahlavi, still have an impact and can still exist in the Islamic Republic. ” 


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