HedieH:Tehran’s Unsounded PoeticS

Ten minutes into Tehran, I have my first encounter with Hafez. I bring it upon myself by asking the taxi driver about poetry. It’s all the encouragement he needs. He whips out his copy of the Divan of Hafez from the glove compartment, balances the open book on the steering wheel and starts reciting sonorously. Fourteenth-century poetry accompanies us as we barrel down a long straight concrete highway at 90km an hour, heading for the rush-hour crush of downtown Tehran. The words I catch are familiar from Urdu poetry, of wine and the beloved and gazelle eyes. At the end of the journey, he inscribes his copy of the book and gives it to me, as a yadgar to remember him by. Poetry and generosity — they follow me through the rest of my trip. (Anand Vivek Taneja, writing about his travels to Tehran, 2014)

In exploring Tehran as a sounded space - or rather, as a set of sounded spaces - I’m interested not just in the more obvious sounds of the city, but also the more subtle, hidden and marginalised sounds, those that we don’t hear, that have been rendered silent or never admitted into the public realm in the first place. There are also what might be called the ‘unsounded’: spaces or objects that imply sound, embody the potential for sound and even communicate aspects of sonicity without actually sounding. These might include concert posters, for instance, heralding forthcoming sounds; ‘silent’ instruments on display in shop windows; graffiti announcing the names of music artists; adverts for music lessons; statues of musicians and poets; or revolutionary murals declaiming silent slogans and offering imagery filled with latent sound. Among these ‘un-sounds’, poetry occupies an interesting space.

The centrality of poetry to Iranian culture and lifeways is well-known and often noted by visitors to Iran such as Taneja who observed, ‘In Iranian cities, poetry flows like water’ (2014). It may be something of a cliché to say that Iran is a nation of poets and poetry lovers, but it’s true: poetry is literally everywhere. Turn on the radio or television and you’re likely to hear poetic recitation on the airwaves; walk down the street and chances are you’ll hear someone quoting Hafez or Mowlana. This aspect of Tehran, and Iranian culture more generally, has long fascinated me, and in the context of the Sonic Tehran project links also to my interest in the role of sound (and implied sound) in facilitating and fostering an affective relationship with the city. There is no shortage of examples of sounded poetry in public and semi-public spaces, from the traditional practice of naqqal storytellers in traditional coffee houses, itinerant darvish mendicants reciting poetry, the morshed chanting and singing lines from the Shahnameh in the traditional zurkhaneh gymnasium, through to more recent practices such as poetry readings in bookshops like Shahr-e Ketab (Book City) and street rappers. But in this blog, I’m interested in the less obvious and more subtle presence of poetry as part of the taken for granted fabric of the city and in the kinds of subjectivity that are fostered through this. This relates closely to questions of sonic affectivity and how people develop an emotional sense of belonging and attachment to places. In particular, how does the poetic presence serve to aestheticise the urban in ways that are urgently needed in such a frenetic environment, at the same allowing for the nurturing of emotive relationships in urban space that draw on both individual and collective memories and which have strong sonic significance? In this blog, I offer some reflections on the unsounded poetics of Tehran and what the omnipresence of poetry in the city might mean.

At first glance, Tehran is not a particularly poetic space, especially when compared with a city like Shiraz, known as the poetic heartland of Iran and home to the much-visited tombs of two of the great poets of medieval Iran, Hafez and Sa’adi. Beyond the traditional buildings and alleyways of old Tehran, located in the south of the modern-day city, the dominance of concrete and modernist architecture and the busy-ness of the city doesn’t immediately lend itself to a poetic and philosophical frame of mind in the way of less modernised provincial towns and rural areas of Iran. But look and listen attentively and you’ll discover that Tehran is in fact saturated with poets and poetry, from street names and statues to market vendors, taxi drivers and others offering lines of poetry as commentary on aspects of daily life.

Street names are a good place to start. As potent symbolic statements, streets the world over are named in part to memorialise or aggrandise politicians, artists and so on. Tehran is no exception: after the 1979 revolution, many of the major streets of the city were renamed in an attempt to erase the public presence of the previous (Pahlavi) regime. In some cases, such renaming served to score political points, as in the case ‘Churchill Street’, the location of the main British Embassy building and which was changed to ‘Bobby Sands Street’ after the death of the Irish nationalist hunger striker in 1981, thereby obliging the embassy to use his name in their address and serving as a continual reminder of Britain’s colonialist past and present. Places names are clearly heavily invested with social and cultural significance and it’s no surprise then to finds poets well represented in the streets of Tehran. This includes both medieval poets such as Rudaki (858-941), Ferdowsi (c935/940-c1019/1026), Khayyam (1048-1131), Sanai (1080-1131/41), Khaghani (1120-1190), Mowlana (1207-1273, better known outside Iran as Rumi), Sa’adi (1210-1291/2) and Hafez (1315-1390), as well as more contemporary poets. In 2019, the Tehran city municipality followed the recommendation of the Poets’ Association and renamed a number of streets after poets who had lived there, including Fereydoon Moshiri (1926-2000), Mehdi Akhavan-Saless (1929-1990), Manuchehr Atashi (1931-2005), Hossein Monzavi (1946-2004) and Omran Salahi (1946-2006), several located in the area of Dowlatabad (see also

Among the creative arts, poets occupy a rather privileged space in the naming practices of Tehran. And among these certain voices are particularly elevated. But it’s important also to think about those whose names are missing, including many female writers, as well as and poets from religious or ethnic minority groups, including those writing in languages other than Persian. In their 2017 article ‘Resounding the Campus: Pedagogy, Race, and the Environment’, Andrea Bohlman and Amanda Black write about the ‘unheard’, the ways in which certain voices are amplified and privileged whilst others are muted or silenced. In the same way, we might ask what kinds of sonics are valorised and given precedence by the unsounded naming practices of Tehran. A few Tehran streets are named after women poets, such as Parvin E’tessami (1907-1941), for instance. A rather curious case is that of Iran’s foremost female poet of the 20th century, Forough Farrokhzad (1934–1966), who died tragically early at the age of 32 and whose family home was in the area of Amirieh (towards the southern part of Valiasr Street). I’m grateful to Kamyar Salavati for bringing this case to my attention. As Kamyar describes, ‘The house is still there and the city council decided to rename the alley to somehow represent the importance of this house, but probably due to political-cultural concerns about her work and character, the municipality renamed the alley to ‘Tavalodi Digar’ [‘Rebirth’], one of her most well-known poems, and not the poet’s name! It really is a weird name for an alley in Tehran’. To my knowledge, this is the only example of a Tehran street named after a poem rather than the person of the poet. This departure from conventional naming practices is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the poem is so well known to Iranians that the title alone is enough to invoke Forough’s presence without needing her name. Even though she took the title from a poem by Mowlana written many centuries earlier, Forough’s poem has become much better known such that there is no doubt here that the street references her. Second, as Kamyar suggests, it seems likely that the use of the poem title rather than the poet’s name is a way of side-stepping reference to Forough herself and in particular her rather unconventional lifestyle, one that was not entirely acceptable or respectable to Iranian society of the 1950s and 60s, or even today. Whilst it is hard to know for sure, it’s probable that this approach to naming was determined by the poet’s gender and what her lifestyle symbolises in a still religiously conservative society. Public naming practices in Iran tend to amplify the names of already well-known figures, rather than work to bring unheard voices to the fore. In the case of Forough, the gatekeepers seem to have chosen to disembody the poem ‘Tavalod-e Digar’ from the person (woman) of the poet.

On an aside, it’s worth noting that Forough is of particular interest in the context of the wider Sonic Tehran project both for the frequency with which descriptions of sound feature and the central, visceral role that sound plays in her poems. This can be seen, for instance, in the extract below, from the poem ‘Only Sound Remains’ (‘تنها صداست که می‌ماند’) also used as part of the Sonic Tehran logo:

Sound, sound, only sound

Pleading sound, of clear running water

Sprinkling sound, of starlight on sheltered mother earth

Setting sound, of the seed of meaning

And the growing link of mind and love

Sound, sound, only sound remains.

Forough is buried in the Zahir ol Dowleh cemetery near Tajrish in north Tehran. This cemetery is the resting place of many other poets, such as Malek o-Sho’ara Bahar (1884-1951) and Mohammad-Hassan Rahi Moayyeri (1909–1968), as well as musicians, artists and other well-known public figures such as the Qajar princess Zahra Khanom Taj os-Saltaneh (1883-1936) a writer and early women’s right activist. Some of the most prominent musicians of early to mid 20th Century Iran are also buried in the cemetery, including Darvish Khan (1872-1926), Morteza Mahjoubi (1899–1965), Abolhasan Saba (1902–1957), Nur Ali Boroumand (1905-1977), Ruhollah Khaleqi (1906-1965), pioneer santur player Habib Somai (1905-1941), singers Hossein Taherzadeh (1882–1955) and Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri (1905-1959; the first woman to sing in public in Iran with uncovered hair), and tombak virtuoso Hossein Tehrani (1912–1974).

As is common in Iran, unsounded poetry forms an important part of the cemetery aesthetic, adorning the gravestones and tombs of both poets and others. Inscribed on Forough’s stone are the words of her short poem ‘Gift’ ('هدیه', ‘Hedieh’), written as if from beyond the grave:

I speak from the deep of night Out from the deep of darkness And from the deep of night I speak.

If you come to my house, friend Bring me a lamp and a window through which I can look at the crowd in the happy alley.

Forough Farrokhzad’s grave in the Zahir ol Dowleh cemetery, north Tehran.

One of the most lavish tombs in Zahir ol Dowleh is that of Rahi Moayyeri, seen in the image below, again decorated with lines of his poetry.

Returning to place names, as well as streets, there are bridges and squares named after poets - Hafez Bridge and Ferdowsi Square, for instance - as well as metro stations named after Sa’adi, Ferdowsi and Khayyam.

Ferdowsi Square, 1957 Photo: Anna Rezaie

The unsounded presence of poets is further reinforced through the naming of public venues such as theatres and cinemas, some no longer open. The former lively entertainment district around Lalehzar Avenue was the site of two such theatres in the 1930s to1950s, Sa’adi and Ferdowsi, both long closed down. Venues named after poets that are currently open include Cinema Hafez, Cinema Rudaki, Cinema Sa’adi, Cinema Ferdowsi and Cinema Khayyam, as well as Tehran’s main concert hall, renamed Talar-e Vahdat (Unity Hall) after the revolution, but previously called Rudaki Hall and many people still use the original name. That a venue mainly used for music performances should be named after a poet says a great deal about the relative standing and hierarchy of different creative arts in Iran.

Theatre Sa’adi on Baherestan Street in the Lalehzar district.

Talar-e Vahdat (Rudaki)

Rudaki Hall under construction in the 1960s.

And then there are statues. Ferdowsi is well represented, with three statues currently in Ferdowsi square and another at the foot of the Milad Tower, part of the Milad International Trade and Convention Centre in north-west Tehran. The original statue in Ferdowsi Square was made of metal, a gift from the Parsi and Zoroastrian communities of India and erected on 1st October 1945. This was replaced in 1959 by a 3-metre tall marble statue by artist Abolhassan Sediqqi (see below). It depicts Ferdowsi holding a copy of his epic Shahnameh, comprising 50,000 rhyming couplets and telling the history of Iran up until the Arab invasion of the 7th century CE. The Shahnameh weaves together historical and mythical figures and events, drawing on and contributing to a centuries-old tradition of oral storytelling that continues to the present day. By Ferdowsi’s feet we see one of the most endearing characters of the Shahnameh, Zal, as a young child.

Statue of Ferdowsi at the Milad Centre, Tehran. Photo: Laudan Nooshin, August 2015

Other statues of poets in Tehran include those of Khayyam in Laleh Park, of Hafez on Hafez Street ….

Statue of Khayyam in Laleh Park

Statue of Hafez on Hafez Street

… of Sa’adi in the Shahid Ghoddusi metro station, and of Nima Yushij - known as the father of modern Persian poetry - rather incongruously placed in the middle of a traffic intersection.

Statue of Nima Yushji in Sa’adat Abad (district 2) in northern Tehran. Photos: Anna Rezaie

It turns out there are at least three streets in Tehran, as well as a park, named after Nima Yushij (in districts 2, 5 and 22), all in the north of the City.

In contrast to the prominent naming and monuments to great poets, there are other poetic voices that are barely recognised as such. I’m thinking particularly of rap artists who are arguably the most recent manifestation of the long tradition of public performance poetry. Tehran has had a vibrant rap Farsi scene since the mid-2000s, which mostly operates in private, but can occasionally be heard on the streets or parks of the city. Whilst there are no official markers recognising such voices, one finds unsounded references to them, such as the graffiti shown in the image below: Hichkas (real name Soroush Lashkari) is widely recognised as the pioneer and ‘godfather’ of Iranian hip-hop; the numbers 021 reference Tehran’s telephone dialling code, which was early on adopted as a cypher for the Tehran hip-hop scene and was the name of the first hip-hop group co-founded by Hichkas.

But, as they say, one should never say ‘never’ … as I was writing this blog post and having noted that there are no streets in Iran names after rapper poets, someone drew my attention to this tweet about a street in Tehran which a ‘guerrilla’ road sign artist has changed from Shakur Alley to Tupac Shakur Alley; adding some wall art, just to make sure there is no doubt who this refers to.

In the absence of official recognition of certain kinds of poet, here citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Perhaps one day there be streets in Tehran officially named for contemporary performance poets of all kinds.

As well as place names and monuments, there are other poetic practices in Tehran that manifest in largely unsounded ways. One particularly interesting example is the practice of faalgiri, or fortune telling, through poetry, most often using the writings of Hafez. This is a widespread practice in Iran, particularly at ritual or celebratory events such as gatherings to mark shab-e yaldaa (winter solstice), and usually takes the form of opening a book of poetry at random and using the words on the page to divine the future. A particular version of this tradition is found on the streets of Tehran (and other Iranian cities), whereby short extracts of poetry printed on slips of paper can be purchased from a street vendor, who usually has one or more trained birds – often canaries or budgerigars – who select the paper slips.

The practice is described in an article by Joobin Bekhrad and is also recounted by Richard Gilbert in his travel blog ‘Overland Trip from England to Iran in 1970, Part 3: Tehran to Turkey’:

Meanwhile on our side of the road a small boy, leaning against the park railings … accosted passers-by to purchase something from a basket he carried. We couldn’t see what he was selling but Hamid went over and, in exchange for a few Rials, selected from the basket one of hundreds of small pieces of rolled up paper. Inside were a few words in Persian, much like the mottos and proverbs one finds in Christmas crackers or Chinese ‘fortune cookies’, except that this was a quotation from a poem by Hafez. Hamid read the excerpt, taken completely out of context from the poem, and explained that with a little thought one could extract from it a kind of astrology reading for the day. It’s interesting that this form of fortune-telling in a highly religious nation should be based, not on the Koran, but on traditional poetry, an indication of the importance of the ancient poets to the modern-day Persians. The famous names of Hafez, Sa'adi, Rumi and Ferdowsi were revered throughout the land and immortalized not only by their works (quotations from which were on the lips of everyone) but also in statues, stone memorials and elaborate tombs and mausoleums in the towns of their birth

Beyond the printed poetry extracts, what is of interest here is the sonic dimension of the birds that select and ‘deliver’ the quotations; birds are also widely considered to possess spiritual and symbolic significance and regularly feature in poetry and other Persian literature.

Other examples of ‘unsounded’ poetry include murals such as the impressive one shown below, located in Ferdowsi Square and depicting a scene from the Shahnameh: the first battle between the hero Rostam and the Turanian king Afrasiyab. The mural was painted in the typical style of an illustrated manuscript by artist Abbas Barzegar-Ganji and unveiled on 14th May 2017 as part of the annual celebrations on National Ferdowsi Day.

Besides murals, there are many examples of written poetry in public spaces, from poetic quotations hanging from car rear-view mirrors to poems on roadside billboards, such as those shown below with poems by Rumi and Muhammad Iqbal, along the Sheikh Fazlollah Noori highway. My thanks to Mina Harandi for sending these images, and to other members of the Sonic Tehran network for other examples below.