What If Sa’adi Had Also Been a Tour Guide?
September 28, 2013
So, we know that the 13th century Persian poet Sa’adi travelled widely, visiting Syria and China, as well as many sites in Europe, and throughout Persia, of course. He liked to give advice and he encouraged “good thoughts, good talks, and good deeds,” according to our guide, Bahman Zenhari. Let’s think about this.
During a visit to the Arg-e-Karim Khan, the 18th century Zand dynasty citadel in Shiraz, two encounters held my attention. At one, I found myself watching an Iranian family look at a diorama which depicted the Khan receiving a French nobleman in his ceremonial room. The backdrop for this scene was the partially restored walls of the citadel.
A few minutes earlier, I had seen and heard a laborer heaving remnants of pipes onto a nearby ledge of an open window. A bit later on, I saw a shopping bag with a Lee’s logo on it leaning up against the stone wall of the bathing area.
Then, just before I left the citadel, I spoke briefly with a Tehrani young woman who had just graduated from a university program in architecture and was soon to enroll in a master’s program.
Later on this same day, we stopped in at a madrasa to see Shi’ite Islamic classes in session housed in a Safavid era building. Mullahs were speaking outside in the central garden spaces. I hoped to photograph a small group and was quickly waved off by one of the individuals. Iran’s supreme leader supervises all of the country’s system of madrasas through his appointees. To truly understand the theological training that occurs in these seminaries, and even to see further by visiting Qom, Iran’s theological center, a city with hundreds of madrasas for men and women, would take a much longer journey. But we can harness twin efforts from what we do see. For one, we can ask questions about religion and its full-bodied dimensions in Iran’s society. For another, we can imagine that Sa’adi is walking a bit ahead of us, encouraging to be generous in all meetings and settings. That’s the point.
Touring with Sa’adi would refresh us in every way. While at his tomb earlier this evening, I saw a mother feeding ice cream to her child. I caught her eye, smiled to her, and simply said, “Salaam.” She followed me, offered to have me hold her daughter and then she took our picture. We encountered many groups of young and older families, youths, strolling through this park that surrounded Sa’adi’s tomb. Not only were the strollers curious about us, but they genuinely wanted to communicate with us. They said, “Hello,”and gave us other greetings. Sa’adi would have urged us, like the small child, to extend ourselves with a warm hospitality somehow, whether we could speak the same language or not. That’s the idea.
Earlier in our stay here in Shiraz, we went to a mausoleum where a service was under way. While the women in our group were already dressed modestly and wearing head scarves, we covered further as female attendants draped fabric over our heads and shoulders. Of course, women and men entered into separate portions of the mosque. As women, we could not see the prayer leader, although we could hear him easily, and we absorbed the contemplative energy that the other women showed in our section. When we left, returning our coverings to the attendants, one woman took my hand and looked at it. She was curious about my jewelry, and wanted a closer look. Well, we all wanted a closer look. That’s the point.
We have returned a few times to a gallery to see a wide variety of Persian carpets, collected from several regions across Iran. Not only are they rich in color and design, but many of them have a single motif that repeats across regional specialty. The cypress tree. Visiting Iran’s 4000-year old cypress tree a few days ago gave me a chance to record bird sounds coming from the tree, and also to photograph families doing what we were doing — getting a close look at this natural wonder. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t done with that part of Iran’s past until I saw the cypress tree woven into many of the carpets.
What would Sa’adi make of this connection? Maybe he would encourage us to see the beauty of both past and present. Again, maybe that’s the point.
So, Sa’adi certainly didn’t need to be a tour guide, too. His poetry is a grand gift from Persia’s past, as well as Iran’s present. As a fellow traveler, I can hope, a bit, to walk just bit behind Sa’adi and appreciate his point of view, “good thoughts, good talks, good deeds.”