Two Ghazals, translated by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.

LS contributor Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., sends new translations of two ghazals, one by the fourteenth-century master of the form, Hafiz-I Shirazi, and one from 2009, written by poet Simin Behbahani after national elections in Iran ended in mass demonstrations and violent crack-down.

Hafiz-i Shirazi

[Hijab-i chehr-i jan mishavad ghubar-i manam]

The dust of my body veils the face of my soul.
Happy the moment I can pull the veil from that face.

Such a cage is unjust, because my voice is beautiful.
I am a bird of Heaven’s garden. I will go there.

Where I was and why I came are not clear.
It’s too bad I don’t understand.

How can I circumambulate the vast expanse of Heaven
when I am boarded up in the mud brick house of my body?

If the scent of joy spills from my heart’s blood, don’t be surprised,
for it is like the musk sac of a stag from Khotan.

Don’t be distracted by the flickering of my gold-embroidered shirt,
for hidden fires blaze beneath it.

Come, take Hafiz’s life from him.
As long as there is you, no one will hear from me that I am I.


Simin Behbahani

[Sajadeh farsh-i ‘unf-o tajavor…]

O you who preach the sharia on the prayer mat of Rape and Violation—
Whose hand has blinded you to the murder of Faith and Compassion?

Every night those who can’t take it any more cry “Allah-u Akbar!”
We are a volcano that has shattered the demon’s wing.

They are so blood-drunk that Fairness means nothing.
I’m ashamed to say more. They have dishonored Virtue herself.

Nothing is left of sharia’ except its name. And at common law everything is forbidden.
As proof, here is Taraneh’s body, here is Neda’s heart.

Wearing a mask of calm mothers bury their Sohrabs.
Who will cure the hate of these grief-stricken Tahminas?

Some clerics recognized the Imam’s pride and cloak at the eye of this storm.
In what robes can they dress now? How will they try to be kind?

The prayer mat’s warp and weft are ripped.  On it a brutal demon squats.
May a great flood wash away Hypocrisy’s prayer mat and prayer.


Khwaja Shams ud-Din Muhammad Hafiz-i Shirazi (d. 1389) is the pre-eminent mystical lyric poet of the Eastern Islamic world, and the acknowledged master of the classical Persian ghazal. Known as Lisan al-Ghayb (“The Tongue of the Unseen”) or Tarjuman al-Asrar (“The Translator of the Secrets”), his Diwan or Collected Works  stands next to the Qur’an in every Iranian household, and is used for divination. His ghazals are recited and sung in the streets, on the radio, and in secular and religious gatherings. This ghazal, more explicitly mystical than some, speaks of the pain and joy of the mystic’s desire for union with the Divine Beloved. Musk was highly valued in fourteenth-century Iran, and the finest musk came from the city of Khotan in Xinjiang.  When dried and split open, dark red musk powder pours from the sac.

While born a member of the “free verse” (she’r-i now) generation, Simin Behbahani (1927-    ) preferred to write in traditional forms while defying their conventions and turning them to different purposes. Instead of alluding to wine, nightingales, and the Beloved, “On The Prayer Mat of Violence and Aggression” casts accusations against the clerical regime and invokes the names of real people killed in the crackdown: Taraneh Mousavi was arrested and raped to death in prison; Neda Agha Soltan was shot in the streets of Tehran and the video of her death was viewed worldwide on the internet. Linking pre-Islamic epic to current griefs, Behbahani also alludes to the Shahnameh: Tahmina is the mother of Sohrab, who was killed by his treacherous father Rustam. —Translator

Two poems by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., appeared in Little Star #2.  Her translations of the ghazals of Hafiz were collected in The Green Sea of Heaven (1995), and she performs them with Persian musicians on CD (2002).

A classical ghazal is a strict form consisting of five or more couplets in the same meter, the second line of which concludes in a rhyme with the first line followed by a refrain. The second line of each couplet thereafter must also include the same monorhyme and refrain. The final couplet contains the name or pen-name of the poet. They have formed a part of the classical tradition in Urdu, Turkish, and central Asian languages as well as Persian for over a thousand years. A younger tradition of singing ghazals began in Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century and spread through Asia in modern times. For some contemporary English takes on the ghazal, see the late Agha Shahid Ali’s collection Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, which includes new ghazals by W. S. Merwin, Paul Muldoon, Mary Jo Salter, Glyn Maxwell, and Rosanna Warren among others.

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4 Responses to Two Ghazals, translated by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.

  1. Bill Bryant says:

    “Come, take Hafiz’s life from him.
    As long as there is you, no one will hear from me that I am I.”

    Beautiful. What a gift.
    Normally, words soil truth. Not so here.
    Thank you.

  2. These translations really capture Hafiz’s mystical passion and his mastery of poesy, and Behbehani’s passion for justice, her rage at the violation of Islam and its human community by hypocrites in clerical clothing. Many thanks!

  3. ETGSr. says:


  4. […] written in response to the suppressed demonstrations of 2009.  Bebahani’s poem first appeared here in Little Star. Gray has also translated the work of Iran’s most revered poet, Hafiz-i Shirazi, […]