By the time this issue of Friends Journal comes out, I will have returned from my second trip to Iran with my Iranian husband, Ali. On my first trip, in 2009, I visited the tomb of the poet Hafez with Ali’s family. It is located in the city of Shiraz, in southern Iran near the ruins of Jamshid’s Throne, known in the West as Persepolis.
The tomb of Hafez is centered in a garden, where cedar trees and date palms reach up and the walks are lined with colorful flowers and plants. Near the entrance are tables for enjoying a cup of tea. The sarcophagus is atop a low gazebo, whose greenish roof is supported by slender white columns. At night, lights at ground level shine up into the trees and up the columns. Music plays from loudspeakers, which I found surprising in the enforced sobriety of the Islamic Republic.
Hafez is a poet with a special place in the Iranian heart. He is one of those friends that meets you where you are and helps you learn how to live. That is different from teaching you how to behave, make decisions, or look for a place in the world. Other friends, living or dead, help you with those questions. Hafez teaches you how to live by helping you remember Oneness. He helps you to know your heart as a place of perception. He helps you enter communion.
I knew this when we set out for our visit to the tomb, but I wasn’t really prepared for what I would experience there. We approached the gazebo through dusk. The small park surrounding it was beautiful in the darkling light, and warm in the late summer heat of the south of Iran. I had become used to being too warm, the law requiring a covering of my hair with a scarf and my body with a long-sleeved manteau.
People came and went more quietly as we drew near. When we reached the foot of the wide stone steps leading to the tomb, we had long since quieted our exclamations on the loveliness of the park. Quite a few people were on the steps and the stone floor where the sarcophagus sat. They were in silence, perhaps in prayer, and seemingly in communion. A few individuals sat near the sarcophagus with their hands laid on its top; they felt no need to move as we approached. Others sat leaning against the columns. More sat or stood nearby. Some held or read volumes of Hafez’s poetry. Few seemed to be in groups, yet I sensed a corporate activity going on. I remember feeling that I was clearly passing from an outside space into one that was gathered. I remember a thrill of recognition as we entered that silence and stood, being joined to the Oneness there. It was familiar. I let myself settle.
It is hard to describe the awareness that landed in me then. I knew that William Penn was right when he said that the unity we feel in meeting for worship is not ours alone. In our differing liveries of this world—with me an outsider—in that place, the gathered feeling seated itself inside me. I felt not an ebullient happiness in those moments of communion; rather, I was moved into gratitude that I had been brought to this place of stillness, and that strangers in a faraway place were sharing it with me; yet I knew it as my own Quaker worship. It was an opening for me that “the word and power and spirit of the living God endures forever, and is the same and never changes,” in the words of Margaret Fell.
We stayed like that for a short while. Most people stayed longer than we did. I trailed away along the paths with reluctance, but we were expected shortly for dinner at a relative’s house. After we left, the feeling stayed with me. When I described it to Ali, he confirmed that he felt it too, and that it is common. Iranians know that, “you just charge when you are there,” he said. In a little park at dusk near a bustling street in a big city, it was the closest thing I can imagine to a gathered Quaker meeting in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A few days later, we went to visit another garden in Shiraz. This one surrounded a grand palace, one of many owned by the Shah until the 1979 revolution. A relative later snorted that the ticket seller at the palace charged extra for my ticket because I was a foreigner. At the tomb of their beloved Hafez, the visit of a foreigner was regarded with delight. In fact, the ticket seller there ushered in our whole group for free.