14th-century Persian poet Hafez a guide for today's Iranian-Canadians

Hafez, a 14th-century Persian poet, still draws a crowd, if hundreds of Iranians gathering for weekend presentations in Toronto are any evidence. They're eager to hear how their beloved poet is seen in the West.

Iranian engineer lectures on how renowned poet Hafez is viewed in the West

Nasser Kanani, an Iranian engineer better known for his expertise in electrochemistry: "If you believe that God has designed and engineered our world, then you will understand why Hafez refers to God as an engineer, a designer of our fate and our world." (Ehssan Taghavi)

Hafez, the 14th-century Persian poet, still draws a crowd, if the hundreds of Iranians gathering this weekend  for several presentations are any evidence.

Nasser Kanani, an expert in electrochemistry, is the guest speaker, better known in engineering circles for his textbook on electroplating, rather than his recently-published two-volume study of the poet called Hafez and His Divan As Viewed By the West.

Mohandez, the Canadian society of Iranian engineers and architects, sponsored Kanani's lectures at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum and an Iranian community centre.

Unusual mix: Electrochemistry and poetry 

Electrochemistry and poetry aren't your usual mix of engineering specialties but Kanani says the poems of Hafez transcend the boundaries between the sciences and literature.  

"Everybody believes that he has discovered Hafez for himself or herself," said Kanani. "And the interpretation will be a never-ending process."

A painting of renowned Persian poet Hafez, who lived and died in the 14th Century.

As an engineer, Kanani says Hafez gives his readers access to their unconscious mind.

"I am, by education, a scientist and engineer," said Kanani. "But at the same time, I love music and literature beyond imagination. Somehow I don't understand myself because on one hand, I think I am an analytical thinking man, but at the same time, I realize that I am following my feelings and my emotions more than my logic and my reason. And this confuses me a little bit."

But for Kanani, Hafez clarifies these contradictions in himself.

The details of Hafez's own life remain a mystery, said Kanani. He created 5,000 poems before dying in 1390 in Shiraz, Iran, where he lived all his life.

He was educated in Persian and Arab history and philosophy and Islamic theology. His poems were famous not just in Persia, but throughout the Middle East. Renowned for writing about love, it's not known if Hafez ever married.

Turning to Hafez in crisis

Kanani says Iranians, along with many other Arabic and Persian speakers, turn to Hafez during moments of crisis or uncertainty, no matter what their background, education or status.

"You take his divan — the book of poetry — and try to concentrate your thought," said Kanani. "And then you open the divan and read the poem where it opens and try to interpret it for you, yourself."

Nahid MIlaninia says the two books mostly commonly found in the homes of Canadian-Iranians are the Qur’an and poetry by Hafez. “I read Hafez every week. He speaks to the soul.” ( Supplied by Nahid Milaninia)

Nahid Milaninia, an emergency room nurse, said she consulted Hafez every night during her first difficult months after immigrating to Canada from Iran in 1996.

"Everybody said. 'There is no job for you, or for your husband,'" Milaninia recalls of that year when Ontario was closing hospitals and cutting thousands of healthcare jobs. Her engineer husband who'd owned a steel plant in Tehran, was devastated when Stelco, Canada's biggest steel factory, announced it was closing its Hamilton operations that same year.

Milaninia said Hafez spoke to her through the poem, Lost Joseph, about the Hebraic leader whose story is found in both the Bible and the Qur'an. The poem, addressed to Joseph's father, who waited 20 years to be reunited with his favourite son after Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, still brings tears to her eyes.

Lost Joseph

"For the first year in Canada," said Milaninia,  "I couldn't taste the food; I couldn't think. I had two books with me all the time; one was Hafez, one was the Holy Book."

At a time when she felt hopeless, the poet's gently repeated instruction, "do not grieve," became a meditation, soothing her when she felt she'd lost everything. "I couldn't talk to anyone for one month. I felt like my throat was circumcised."

Excerpt from Lost Joseph (Hafez)

Your lost Joseph will return to Canaan, do not grieve

This house of sorrows will become a garden, do not grieve

Oh grieving heart, you will mend, do not despair

This frenzied mind will return to calm, do not grieve

When the spring of life sets again in the meadows

A crown of flowers you will bear, singing bird, do not grieve

If these turning epochs do not move with our will today

The state of time is not constant, do not grieve

Home may be perilous and destination out of reach

But there are no paths without an end, do not grieve

Translated by Marzieh Ghiasi

Even engineers and scientists, says a smiling Kanani,  will consult Hafez in a crisis, as he did when he was struggling to decide whether to stay at MIT to continue his research in fusion reactors, or to return to Germany to teach at a university in Berlin.

"I ask Hafez whether or not I should stay in America," said Kanani. The book fell open to a poem that Kanani read as encouragement to return to Berlin. "I'm not saying I decided to do that just because Hafez told me," said Kanani.  "But it was nice to ask him as a friend, as an old man, as a very wise man."

Asking Hafez

Milaninia also attributes Iranians' deep love of Hafez to their centuries-long struggle to maintain their cultural identity.

In his lifetime, the poet's homeland was ruled by Mongolian forces, whose brutal occupation is echoed today in the atrocities of the terror group, Daesh. The ironic tone of many poems by Hafez is regarded as a template for contemporary Iranian political satire.

"Each time the occupiers come," said Milaninia, "they burned our libraries and books; destroyed our art and country. Raping women, raping our history, our nation. The only way Iranians could keep our culture was word by word, memorizing Hafez and the Holy Book and passing it onto each other."

Many Iranians make a practice of "asking Hafez", said author and engineer Nasser Kanani, when making a decision with far-reaching consequences. (Ehssan Taghavi)