Published in AQ: Journal of Contemporary Analysis, 71.1 (Jan-Feb, 1999), 14-17.
Each Thursday morning I pick my way across a familiar Brisbane landscape to my Persian lesson. Sitting across from my teacher, who is an Iranian refugee, I work through primary school textbooks from Teheran. These resemble the School Readers that people in Queensland remember with some affection: each chapter consists of a reading, sometimes a retold classical story, often a pointed story from the history of Shi’ite Islam, sometimes a poem, followed by an explanation of difficult words, some questions, some homework and perhaps some grammar. My lesson lasts two hours and inevitably includes conversation – in Persian wherever possible. It is intellectually about as exhausting a thing as I ever do. When the conversation is one-to-one in a foreign language there really isn’t anywhere to hide and, although Persian is morphologically simpler even than English, it still feels like two hours of the mental arithmetic that I was subjected to on Friday mornings at primary school. I am half way through the Grade Five reader.
One of the paradoxes about learning a language is that the romance of exotic otherness which excites us and gives us the energy to begin, is something that is lost as we are able to speak more fluently. And it has to be lost since a marker of fluency is that we articulate immediately and unreflectively. As a child beginning to learn German at high school I discovered an almost erotic excitement in being able to go around saying “Guten Tag” to myself as well as, for some unaccountable reason, “Die Westdeutsche Bundesrepublik”. This excitement scarcely lasted a week. As an undergraduate and would-be medievalist, I had studied both Old and Middle English as well as Old Icelandic. But I knew enough to be depressed by the insularity of these studies, by the knowledge that the westward movements of Islam contained the most important literary and intellectual activity of the time and by the suspicion that the Islamic influence on the remote west (ie on France and England) was barely understood. No doubt this has been rectified by scholarship done since then. In fact, for all I know, it might well have been done long before I was a student and lack of interest or skill or luck had prevented me finding it. What was clear was that three languages formed the centre of the European middle ages: Latin, Greek and Arabic. I managed to learn some Latin (up to about matriculation standard) with a retired elderly colleague but by this time my aspirations to be a medievalist had mostly melted away. I retained, however, a desire to speak Icelandic and to be able to read Arabic.
At about this time I met Icelanders whose language I could read (to some extent) but not speak and Germans whose language I could read at a reasonable level but whose spoken language I was pathetically inadequate in. I grew to feel, in other words, that my language abilities were merely bookish and would thus be exposed as a sham by any native speaker. It was fine to discuss Heine with visiting Germans but only in English! Some time in this period a Swiss visitor revealed that as an undergraduate he had studied Arabic, Persian and Turkish. I felt, not for the first time, that pang of anguished jealousy that those of us nurtured in rigidly mono-lingual cultures feel when we meet the polyglot. Presumably Swiss know enough about modern European languages as children to have a taste for more exotic linguistic fare. When I told my new friend that I had always wanted to learn Arabic but had found the various grammars for the self-taught got me nowhere, he gave me a valuable piece of advice: I should learn Persian or Turkish first. Both are drenched in Arabic vocabulary but each is easier than Arabic. Turkish is a difficult language as language but has, thanks to Ataturk, the Roman alphabet. Persian uses the difficult Arabic alphabet but is, at heart, a simple and familiar Indo-European language.
At about the same time I found myself with an Afghan refugee as one of my composition students. He promised to teach me the Arabic script and at the same time I began to learn a little of his own language – Persian. This was great fun and, knowing very little about Persian language and culture apart from the doings of the Achaemenids, I decided to learn it from a purely communicative point of view, even though this was exactly the opposite of my original, literary, intentions. I read nothing and simply focussed on evolving some kind of pidgin with him. After he left Brisbane I tried out my minimal skills on a family of Iranian refugees. They were astonished and, I think, both horrified and amused though they took care not to let it show. Iran and Afghanistan are the only contemporary countries that speak Persian but the Afghan dialect, Dari, is considerably different and, like it or not, looks to be somehow backward, compared with urban, Teherani Persian. The differences are in vocabulary, vowels (Iranian seems to have undergone a consistent vowel shift) and intonation – Dari is spoken in a rather flat, English-like, manner while Iranian is deliciously sing-songy to English ears. To these educated Iranians I must have sounded like somebody who had learnt English in the docks of Liverpool or, perhaps more accurately, in a medieval monastery. Eventually, after a bit of persistence, I found another family of Iranian refugees in which the wife, Mehri, had been a primary school teacher. She has been my patient teacher and forgiving native speaker ever since.
The poems of Hafiz, considered the finest of the Persian poets, are often extremely disjunctive. They do not translate well since the very act of making an English poem out of one of them encourages a spurious meditative consistency that the originals simply don’t have or want. Even Sir William Jones, who in his A Grammar of the Persian Language of 1771 translated and helped to popularise one of the most beautiful of these poems, couldn’t escape this distortion. The individual pairs of lines of the ghazal form are linked in that all the second lines rhyme or are the same word and, since Persian is a verb-final language, this produces a kind of linked, discrete assertiveness that is difficult to approximate in English where the core of the utterance comes at the beginning. When you read Persian you are like Mark Twain’s group of German speakers: you have to wait for the verb. Western European poetries when they use metaphors for the act of making poetry, often have recourse to the notion of constructing something or of shaping a unified whole, but in Persian the metaphor is of threading pearls. The task of the reader is, often, to intuit the single theme that generates these couplets but, at other times, it seems to be to appreciate the way in which different themes are interwoven.
The man himself – usually known as Hafiz of Shiraz – was born in that city of southern Iran around 1320. His name was Khoja Shams Al-din Muhammad and the name Hâfez, taken as a pen name, is a traditional cognomen for a person able to recite the Qur’ân by heart. He died in his beloved Shiraz at probably the same time that a young Richard the Second was trying to deal with the Peasants’ Revolt. Legend credits him with meeting Teimur (Tamerlane) shortly before his death and this meeting, apocryphal or otherwise, belongs to that fascinating tradition of meetings between the great of the world and the great poets whose territory is the world of language and the inner life. Pasternak spoke to Stalin on the telephone, Pushkin was kept in the court of Nicholas I, Ovid was probably banished personally by Augustus, Napoleon made a point of meeting Goethe. We are told that Teimur, the epitome of the central Asian conqueror and a true psychopath’s psychopath, after he had captured Shiraz in 1387, sent for Hafiz and upbraided him over one of his most famous and beautiful poems, “Agar ân turk-e-Shirâzi”. This ghazal, which begins, “If that Turkish woman of Shiraz would take my heart into her hand / For her Indian mole I would give Bokhara and Samarqand”, is said to have offended Teimur because the two most precious cities of his domain (Samarkand was his home and base) were being offered for a single woman (or man – Persian has no gender). Hafiz, befitting a literary man, saved himself with a quick wit and a quick turn of phrase by apologising with, “I am an over-generous man, sir, that is why you see me as poor as I am.” Teimur, alongside his capacity for extreme cruelty, possessed a refined aesthetic sense, which he was to pass on to his descendants who established the Moghul empire. He had enough respect for the great poet of the city to be placated by this reply.
If you are a literature scholar and a poetry critic like myself, the process of learning a language to speak rather than read has special difficulties and a special tension. You have to force yourself to ignore the literature to prevent the project becoming merely a part of your reading activity for, if this happens, you will quickly lose impetus at about the point where you can work through a poem in the original. And yet, while you go on week after week in a deliberately blinkered way, the literature sings its siren song at you all the time. You meet simplified passages of classic prose in the reader or some children’s poems that, as you progress through the school grades, slowly metamorphose into snippets from real poems by real poets like Sa’adi or Ferdowsi whose names are familiar. The experience is rather like climbing a ladder inside a long vertical drainpipe of competence. You know that there is a world outside that you can access through doors in the shaft at any point. But you know that the more you resist the temptation and the higher you climb, the better the view will be when you do open the door. It is not for nothing that the great metaphor of literary discovery is the geographical, imperial and visual one that we know best from Keats’ realms of gold.
Hafiz is not an easy poet for a beginner in Persian though the language change that has gone on since the fourteenth century is not as profound as a parallel case in English would be. Also, without knowing that it is doing it, the West prepares itself for Hafiz. This is because Persia, despite its location east of Iraq, is really a border country whose religion is Islam and whose formal vocabulary is Arabic but whose language is, at heart, western and whose gaze has, historically, been to the west as well as the middle-east: in Christopher Sykes’ memorable phrase, it is “a fragment of Europe fallen into Islam”. Modern Australian poets write ghazals. Edward Fitzgerald made a masterpiece from free versions of an infinitesimally minor Persian poet. Goethe read Hafiz in translation and mimicked the Persian spirit in the West-östlicher Divan. One of these poems, “Selige Sehnsucht”, I had read as an undergraduate studying German. It speaks of the great Persian theme of “Flammentod”, flame-death, the death of the moth in the fire of the loved-one, or Loved-One if we allegorise out the lover as God. And so when I was no longer able to resist and, with the help of my teacher and her husband, opened my first door, the view was not entirely of unremitting otherness. There were some eerily familiar features in the landscape of this first, magnificent poem about centres and edges, about truth and illusion:
Last night I saw angels knocking at the door to the tavern. They kneaded the clay of Adam and threw it onto the wheel. Inhabitants of the sanctuary and sanctity and chastity of heaven, They shared the wine of drunkenness with a poor man like me. Praise be to that which caused peace to fall between Him and me. The dancing angels also drank thankfully from the cup. The heavens themselves could not bear the burden of Amânat . The lot fell to the name of a madman - me. The fire is not where the candle laughs in its flame. The fire is that which burns the harvest of moths. Forgive all the fights of the seventy-two sects. Because they do not see the truth they make a fable of it. No-one knows better than Hafiz how to expose the thoughts which lie behind the mask of the face, The better to comb the most beautiful tresses of speech with a pen.
But we only do things for a first time once. When I first read this poem I was entranced by the couplet of the laughing candle and the harvest of moths. Now, over a year (and several more poems) on, this already seems the most conventional of the lines. The mysterious tavern, visited in the opening line by the angels, is now firmly meshed in a regime of interpretation that is very difficult to withstand – it is the place in which God’s grace is dispensed.
We do strange things to ourselves when we learn languages as adults especially when the aim is to communicate rather than passively access a new literature as readers. A great deal of scholarly linguistic activity is devoted to the mysterious process of language acquisition by children: their ability to absorb, apparently effortlessly, the structuring rules of their language. I’m not sure if adult language learning isn’t an even greater miracle. For a start adults know, as children do not, how vast and impossible is the task of achieving even a satisfactory fluency, a forgivable accent. Everyone knows that the word “mastery” is absurd when used of a second language. We set sail, to use another spatial metaphor, on an expanse of water and we already have a clear idea of its overwhelming, oceanic dimensions. Children say the little they want to say or need to say, paddling about in a rock pool of language, not knowing how limited its dimensions are. We stand in the same pool knowing that the ocean continues kilometres deep, thousands of kilometres wide: tens of thousands of words and idiomatic constructions.
Secondly we make ourselves vulnerable and expose ourselves to the abrasion of a continual embarrassment that can take its toll of our egos. Adult language learning, which often seems the provenance of the school and university – with perhaps the adult education class of people wanting to expand their horizons by travel thrown in – is really more likely to be the fate of the poor and dispossessed, the refugees for whom a country of refuge represents the imperative to learn yet another language in order to function. To learn a foreign language in Australia as an adult is, momentarily, to inhabit that nightmare world. With my grade five Persian, I wouldn’t want to be dropped into Teheran as a refugee and forced to make my own way. So much of what we consider our intelligence is actually our facility with our first language. So much of what we consider necessary charm, the ability to extricate oneself from awkward situations, is really exactly the same facility. To speak a language you are learning with a native speaker is to know that you sound like a fool and that you can express nothing of the complexities of your experience of the world.
Finally and most mysteriously we begin, despite ourselves, to make another self. This second self lives inside us but is more an alternative than a complementary one. A linguist, faced with comments about her ability to speak three languages, said “Rather than trilingual, I prefer to think of myself as monolingual in three languages.” And this new self has a mysterious relationship with the native speakers we learn from. They have to learn another version of their own language – one which matches our competence – so that they will speak using mainly words we know. In a sense they watch our other self grow up, though it must be a grotesque process in which the tongue that forms their own selves is constantly mangled. But apart from native speakers it is a self cut off. The self that speaks bad Persian is incomprehensible to my children, for example, who are irritated beyond belief by my tendency, at home, to test whether or not I can “think Persian” yet by saying something in Persian. It is even worse if I burst into what I like to feel at the time is finely articulated Persian poetry. For them my Persian self is beyond comprehension, beyond communication and thus beyond sympathy. And I know that it is this second self – a shambling, semi-articulate, Frankenstein monster of a thing – which sets out each Thursday morning on its way, trying to make itself more fully articulate, more fully human.
The tomb of Hafez lies in the outer suburbs of his beloved Shiraz. It is in a beautiful garden made all the more beautiful by the way it contrasts with the hot and dusty surrounds. The tomb itself is simply a block of sandstone surmounted by a small baldacinno. On my first visit I was prepared for the practice of sortilege – you place a collected Hafez on the tomb and pick a verse at random – it will mark both your character and your fate. I had imagined joining a queue of Iranians to do this. In fact nobody seemed remotely interested but, having come this far, I had no intentions of backing out just to prevent myself looking a fool and so, to the bemusement of other Iranians, present I put my finger on a verse at random from a cheap collected Hafez. My friends recorded the moment on film.
A few years later, on a second visit, there were many more people present, mostly relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere. They walked, as we did, through the gardens. On the ground, in one corner, were two lovers reading Hafez to each other. It was a reminder of the centrality of poetry, at least their own poetry, to Iranians. It was not a scene one could imagine occurring in Australia.