Obayd Zakani

I thought a good deal about what to post first. Hafez, Sa’di, Rumi…it’s been done many times over and by more sensitive and artistic scholars than myself. Then I remembered that I owned Obayd Zakani’s divan, having reviewed it for the Middle Eastern Librarians Association some years ago (see links to the right). Getting to keep the book is the best part of writing reviews. And this one is a doozy – the collected works of one of Iran’s greatest satirists, a man who could, when the mood struck, write poems that would shock even the most depraved of modern sensibilities (you know who you are), even though he was writing in the 14th century.  In most, maybe all, editions published in Iran, the truly graphic poems are removed, but this one was published here in the US and retains every bit of smut and savagery the poet could muster. It also demonstrates that the man could really write poetry, a fact which has gotten lost in the public fascination with the lewd and grotesque. That’s how it goes – write one ode to your genitals and suddenly no one cares that you can really knock out the classy stuff.

I’m resisting the urge to start with something ribald. Also, I’m a bit of a prude. Maybe when we all get to know each other a little better. So here’s the first ghazal. A ghazal is a short erotic poem using monorhyme. The classical Persian line of poetry (known as a bayt) is broken into two parts (misra’). So in the first bayt, the rhyme appears at the end of each misra’. In subsequent lines, the rhyme comes only at the end of the second misra’. I won’t be recreating rhyme or meter in my translation – that way lies madness. Also, it’s been done, without any real benefit to show for all the hard work.

The ghazal form was adapted from a longer form in which it served to open the poem with scenes of courtly love and wine. Gradually, it became a form in itself but the content remained the same. Once Sufism got into poetry in a big way, the content of the ghazal was pressed into more spiritual duties, with the images of the beloved, the wine, the music, all becoming metaphors for the divine presence.  A good Sufi poem (Rumi or Hafez, for example) should leave you wondering if the author is really just an amorous lush.
Obayd, who happened to not only be a contemporary of Hafez but also served the same patron, was a good poet. By that time, poetic imagery had become so entwined with mystic imagery that it’s not really all that useful to try and pick it apart. Relax and enjoy the ambiguity.

The pain of departure knows no bounds;  cruelty has gone beyond all limits

Come, for it is the season to rejoice, make peace with one another, and live in pleasure!

Your lips are lined with the blood of your lovers,

Why must we be constantly fighting?

Your two eyes hurl black misfortune upon me

From where else would I find this intoxication and enchantment?

Where is the person who dares ask of those eyes

“Why have you plundered the world of reason and wit?”

No heart can escape the lure of your tresses or even the beauty-spot on your cheek,

just as the Ethiopian can not flee his blackness

The ringlets of your hair cause my heart to despair, yet they drive me to distraction

Yes, for meloncholy always brings with it distraction

When Obayd speaks of your mouth and lips

See how subtle and elegant his thoughts become.

Commentary to follow…


About M.C. Smith

translatingpersian@gmail.com View all posts by M.C. Smith

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