Or, Drunken Meanderings of the Mind in the Land of the Lion and Sun
Poetry translations by the author.
I was at that little hole in the wall again, as usual. I winced at the sensation of cool droplets trickling down my back and sides, yet didn’t doff my tweed blazer or the green scarf tossed around my neck in beggarly fashion; somehow, they seemed to complement the mood of the evening. If you listened hard enough, you could hear, amongst the clanking of bottles and boorish banter, the Kinks playing on the stereo. I wondered then why I’d never once said hello to Ray Davies out of all the times I’d stumbled upon him on Highgate Hill. ‘Who’s that?’, one of my mates would say, noticing me starting at someone in the corner. ‘Ah, just some rock and roller … you wouldn’t know.’ But there wasn’t anyone with me that night; scrunched up in a corner booth, my only companions were a fast-diminishing glass of cheap red wine and an old puce hardback I’d brought along to read by candlelight. I had eaten very little that day, and was already feeling those first warm rushes to the head. The guitars had become dirtier, and Davies’ words clearer. I had yet again found myself upon that sublime threshold of the senses, where I would, but for a moment, behold myself – remember myself – as I really was. Hah! I gave birth to my father! I thought with a wide, smarting grin. Not having the slightest ability to trudge onwards through the paragraphs ahead, I simply played with the book in my hands, flipping to the page opposite the one I’d recently finished reading. Again, a smile, this time accentuated by the levity of my knees. Holding the book closer to the candle, I read a passage:
The people were a laughing, careless set, devoid of fanaticism, having indeed very little religion. Nearly all drank wine to excess. The women seldom veiled, and talked with me without any ‘mauvaise-honte’.1
Oh, how I longed for my Iran then. Smudging the smooth page with my bony fingers, I resigned myself to the whims of the daughter of the vine. Watching her essence tumble back and forth in my glass, it took on a new shade and tinge. An old friend, I thought, relishing her notes on my tongue. That ruddy elixir was my birthright as an Iranian; I was no mere bacchante. I had been baptised with fire and wine – yea, it had long coursed through my veins. My Lord, Wisdom, my lifeblood, wine. In blood and wine is the history of my ancient homeland steeped; and I, as a child of Iran, am a proud wino. Why feel any shame or deny the fact? To do so would be base hypocrisy and artifice. As once asked Baudelaire, ‘Isn’t it reasonable to think that men who never drink wine, whether out of naivety or on principle, are imbeciles or hypocrites?’ Truly, ‘A man who drinks only water has a secret to hide from his fellow men’2. If the Romans found truth in wine, I have also found in it the soul of my people.
Far before my Aryan forebears descended upon my land from the chilly steppes had the pure earth of my homeland been awash with the blood of grapes. Indeed, the stained tongues of the ancient Elamites and those who had come before them knew well the hidden pleasures of the vine, and it is in their vanquished realm that our story begins. The oldest known traces of grape wine – dating back some 7,000-odd years – have been found in the Zagros mountain range of western Iran3. Who knows to which love songs my progenitors drank their draughts, to the strains of which lutes? Proudly they ruled, until condemned to dust by the vicissitudes of time. Those people of the mountains at times appear in my mind as the objects they fashioned of stone and clay; cold, lifeless, and inhuman. But why? For tomorrow, when from this ancient realm we depart, shall we be just like those seven thousand years old4.
Along with the Aryan tribesmen from afar had come a prophet, enrobed in white, his gaze ever directed towards the empyrean. I can see him standing proudly before King Vishtaspa, his Gathas in one hand and a flagon in the other. With the wine given him by the hallowed Zarathustra, Vishtaspa beheld the glory of Ahura Mazda (God) and the Amesha Spentas5. Similarly, it was by way of a concoction of wine and a narcotic mixed in three golden goblets that Arda Viraf, that cosmic traveller, journeyed to the burning fires of Hell and Mazda’s House of Song6. It would not be for divine revelation, however, but something very different that the purple-robed Persian heirs of the Prophet would later quaff heavenly draughts in their courts.
The might and magnanimity of the Cyrus the Great had given rise to the largest empire the world had ever witnessed. The deeds of our illustrious ‘Father’ and the immanent qualities that so elevated him to his exalted position have been extolled by Iranians and non-Iranians alike. In the Old Testament, Cyrus appears as a messiah on account of his liberation of the Jews from Babylon7. Likewise, Xenophon – though bearing an understandable bitterness towards the Persians, as any Greek mercenary would naturally have – presented Cyrus as the ruler par excellence towards which all must aspire8. Centuries later in another ‘mirror for princes’, Niccolò Machiavelli, in making a reference to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, also praised Cyrus as a paragon of leadership. ‘Whoever reads the [Cyropaedia] will recognise afterwards in the life of Scipio how that imitation was his glory,’ he wrote, ‘and how in chastity, affability, humanity, and liberality Scipio conformed to those things which have been written of Cyrus by Xenophon’9. Aeschylus, too, venerated Cyrus, ‘blessed of men, who, as he ruled, established peace for all his friends … God did not begrudge his rule, so wise was he’10.
In their deliberations and debates, though, were the rulers of Iran and Aniran simply looking to follow the example that had been set for them by the one who had catapulted them to greatness? Herodotus – another ‘father’, this time of history – praised Cyrus in expounding on the ways of the Persians, although he also recorded something novel about the decision-makers of the age. According to him, the Persians would customarily discuss and argue over the ‘gravest matters’ not when they were of sound mettle, but rather, when they’d had one too many cups of the good stuff. Afterwards, when they’d sobered up, they would revisit the issues of the previous evening, and accept their initial decisions only if they agreed with them again. The opposite was also true: ‘And if they have deliberated about a matter when sober,’ wrote the Father of History, ‘they decide upon it when they are drunk’11. And so, it was not only with Zarathustra’s idea of ‘good thoughts, good words, and good deeds’ that a realm stretching from Greece to India was governed, but also good drinks.
It was perhaps amidst spilled rhytons and tumblers that Alexander forced his way into Darius’ palace in Persepolis and razed it – along with its libraries – to the ground. Some, like Diodorus, have said that Aristotle’s ambitious pupil had been drunk at the time12, and later repented having committed such a deed13. The idea of a sloshed Alexander is not difficult to digest, especially considering his attitudes towards the Persians. While he had been fuelled by an ambition to crush the seemingly indomitable Achaemenid Empire as a fair-haired child, his desire was arguably a mixture of hate and awe; for not only did Alexander honour the fallen Darius III upon his death (at the hands of two Persian soldiers, whom he swiftly executed on account of their insolence), but also took Persian wives for himself and his generals, and quickly began imitating the ways of the Persian emperors, much to the dismay of his followers14. Thus, while wine may have fuelled the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid centuries, it might have also led to the destruction of that fruit of the genius of Persian architecture and opulence: Persepolis, the Persian City.
Behold, O heart! Look before thee – pay heed!
And Khosrow’s Arch of Ctesiphon a lesson deem.
… Thou wouldst say the Tigris wept a hundred bloody more,
That from its lashes warm with blood, fire didst pour.
– Khaghani Shirvani (d. 1190 A.D.)16
Alas! In the wake of the Arab armies that followed in the footsteps of the Greeks, the palaces of Ctesiphon and Istakhr resounded with the howls of spirits and crows. The place where Khosrow had once reclined on velvet cushions, lending an ear to the strains of Barbad’s barbat and sipping on thick wine, had become but a heap of ruins, roughened cairns in memory of Cyrus’ children laid low. The Abbasids, upon their arrival in Iran, were quick to inherit the Persian notion of court culture and the various traditions (e.g. literary and musical) associated with it. ‘A complete model of imperial rule was thus presented to the Arabs by the Persian realm’, wrote the late Iranologist Richard N. Frye, ‘and the Arabs borrowed more from Sassanian Iran than any other source’16. During the reign of the storied Haroun al Rashid (born in the ancient city of Rey near Tehran17), the poetry and wit of his boon companion Abu Nuwas became renowned in Baghdad and beyond. Staying true to his half-Persian roots, the verses of Nuwas were laden with explicit references to wine and drunken revelry18. Nuwas, however, as a client of the Abbasids, wrote exclusively in Arabic; it was not until the Samanids of northeast Iran came along in the ninth century that the prominence of wine in the psyche and culture of Iranians was again asserted in Persian, in spite of all religious proscriptions19. That’s not to say that the Samanids were the only sots of their times, though; far from it. A saucy passage from the otherwise sterile Tarikh-e Beyhaghi (History of Beyhaghi) paints a somewhat different picture during the Ghaznavid epoch. Concerning the escapades of the wayward prince Amir Mas’ud, Beyhaghi wrote:
… When [Amir Mas’ud] was living in Herat, he used to drink wine without his father’s knowledge, and unbeknown to the eunuch Reyhan, he used to arrange intimate sessions in the cellars of the palace and have musicians and singers, both male and female, brought to him through secret ways … They decorated this summer-house, from ceiling to floor, with pictures from the book called Alfiyya, depicting different ways of intercourse between men and women, all of them naked, so that the whole book with its stories was illustrated there; and apart from these, they painted other pictures in the same manner. The Amir used to go there at siesta time and would sleep there. It is a mark of young men that they do this and similar things.20
During the renaissance ushered in by the nationalist Samanids after the ‘Two Centuries of Silence’ – wherein Iranian (or, Ajam, as the ethnicity was derogatorily referred to in Arabic) identity and the Persian language were forcibly suppressed by Iran’s invaders21 – poets such as Rudaki, Daqiqi, and Ferdowsi found patronage and flourished. Widely known as the first noteworthy poet to write in Persian following the fall of the Sassanian Empire22, Rudaki’s poetry in many ways adumbrated that of the giants who would succeed him, and was of course, replete with celebrations of wine. In one of the extant poems in his Divan, he wrote (or sang, rather):
Wine giveth rise to honour in man;
Divide the freeborn from the slave it can.
Many a merit within doth wine contain;
Whenever one drinketh it, they happiness attain.23
My people, born of fire and smeared with blood, are verily the children of the vine. If it is your pleasure, it is my very essence … Come – do you expect me to finish this bottle all by myself?
So too did Daqiqi – who fared no better, perhaps, than Rudaki, who was accused of being an Ismaili heretic and left to ignominiously die as a blind man24 – eulogise wine, as he did the Zoroastrian faith of his ancestors, to which Rudaki had also made overt allusions. Four things are there dear, which I so need, Daqiqi wrote, more than all the world’s pleasures and beauties indeed. His list came in true Iranian fashion, one could say: the ruby-coloured lip, the harp’s lament, the blood-red wine, and Zarathustra’s creed25. Not surprisingly, Daqiqi paid for his brazenness with his life, leaving Ferdowsi to pick up the pieces and finish the monumental work in honour of Iran he’d only just begun: the Khodai Nameh (Divine Book), which was later realised as the Shahnameh (Book of Kings)26. If only like Damghani, Daqiqi, had you had longed for less! The man was happy with but sharab (wine), kebab, and the robab27.
As I thumbed the creamy pages of my book, not so much reading their words as gazing at little blotches of ink, I remembered another friend. I had first become acquainted with him in an unassuming café in Crouch End, when the down on my cheek was still smooth and my trousers didn’t fit properly. Reading his verses, I imagined a hoary old man reclining in a hovel, etching profundities on parchment, and waiting – always waiting – for the cupbearer to bring him his fill. I could even picture him kneeling down as he cupped his earthen bowl with palms outstretched, looking at the vessel before him and wondering from the dust of whose beloved it might have been moulded. His words, soaked in wine, were sobering for one drunk on the thought of better things to come, and haunting. Like the camel of death that sleeps at everyone’s doorstep, Omar Khayyam’s words seemed to cling to me more tenaciously than even the scrawny little shadow I cast. ‘So what do you think of Khayyam’s poems, baba?’ asked my father, after I’d rung him up outside the 12 Bar Club one afternoon. ‘I’m depressed.’
Perhaps like wine, I needed to give Khayyam’s philosophies a bit of time to mature in my mind before being able to fully appreciate them. As I came, slowly, to shatter the fetters I’d bound myself in the age of ignorance called ‘childhood’, Khayyam’s wine appeared clearer and clearer to me. Looking out at the little alley outside the pub window, naked beneath the revelations of bright white streetlamps, I recalled our long nights together pondering the mysteries of existence and the virtues of the vine. Khayyam! Had I had my grandfather’s little Mini, I’d have run twenty red lights in your honour; but sadly, I only the sweet ichor swirling about in my head and dwindling glass. I drank whatever I had in memory of the greatest Iranian wino there had ever been and would ever be, and slowly made my way through the suited throng to the bar to ask for more. ‘Yeah, I’ll have another glass of the Shiraz …’ What a moment it was, when, walking down Hampstead Hill in the full bloom of spring, Shamlou whispered those verses in my ear:
Bereft of pure wine, can I live not;
Without it, this body’s weight can I carry not.
I’m a slave to that moment the cup-bearer whispers,
‘Have another glass’, and I cannot.27
In vino veritas! And though I did not recall dear Hafez in my drunken hour, his image appears before me now. Lover, sinner, saint – all have tried to label you in vain. As Khayyam would have said, I myself is what I am28. In all your complexities and contradictions, you embodied the human condition; and – you clever rogue – you also enjoyed a nice stiff drink every now and then. Hafez, lurking in the shadows of Shiraz’s taverns, downing flask after flask of choice Khollar wine, waiting for inspiration whilst enraptured by a Turk. In Zarathustra’s children, you found friends and confidantes, and in the Magian Elder, a guide. With them, it seemed you had found yourself and forgotten all you had been forced to commit to memory. Sick am I of the hypocrite’s cloak and his shrine, you once uttered, likely in a paroxysm of passion. Where is the Magian temple and its pure wine?29 Knowing well the fate of poor Daqiqi, you spoke in riddles, confusing the bloody hell out of your admirers and detractors alike, including a teenage me; but, in doing so, you kept your head and ensured your children would, too. And Hafez, how well have you taught them. Today, scholars rack their brains trying to figure you out; hell, they’ve even given their obsession a name: Hafez-Shenasi. I wonder if they’ve ever had their head reeling with the ‘metaphorical’ wine you so adored, and which held no secrets from you. I know well the words of a wino, of the brethren of the bottle. Tonight (for my head is still spinning from last night’s draught on this September’s morn) shall I don the ring of the Magi, and, with my tongue stained purple, flip to a page of your dripping Divan to see what the stars have set aside for me. Goethe’s ambition is mine, as mine was his: Hafiz … To love like thee, like thee to drink, shall be my pride, shall be my life30.
I have been rambling on for ages, but am still stuck in the 14th century! What can I say? Wine maketh quick the passing of time. I have yet to tell you about another Persian renaissance, another golden age drowned in waves of blood-red wine; for, as said the poet, If I do not make merry now, then when shall I?31 Truly, as much as the Safavids loved the arts and fought to defend (and expand) Iran’s borders to the teeth, they fancied getting plastered. In his travelogue, the Italian pilgrim Pietro Della Valle remarked of having partook in a round of wine drinking in the presence of Shah Abbas the Great, that august monarch so lauded by Maraghe’i’s nationalist protagonist in The Travel Diary of Ebrahim Beg32. Although Della Valle didn’t particularly enjoy the Persian varieties of wine he had been treated to33, Shah Abbas certainly seemed to have had a rather good time. A contemporary of Della Valle’s – the French jeweller-cum-English aristocrat John Chardin – also made similar observations of the King of Kings. ‘… The King being in a Debauch, and as drunk as it was possible to be’, wrote he, ‘caus’d some Wine to be presented to the Grand Vizier’. But the Grand Vizier didn’t want a drink; as Baudelaire would not have, Shah Abbas did not approve of the fellow, either. ‘The King seeing his Obstinacy, bid the Cup-bearer fling the Wine in his Face … the King … looking at him with a jeering Air, told him; Grand Vizier, I can no longer bear, that thou shouldst here preserve thy Senses, while we are all drunk.’34 Teetotallers were not, evidently, favoured in the court of the Great Sophy.
Chardin’s account of Persian drunkenness and debauchery was far from being limited to only Shah Abbas and his retinue, though. In the eyes of the jeweller, the Iranians were – contrary to popular expectations of pious ‘Mussulmans’ and ‘Mahometans’ – a nation of drunkards. An anthropologist and linguist he may not have been (his travelogue is rife with egregious statements and inaccuracies), but he knew a lush when he saw one:
Wine and intoxicating Liquors are forbid the Mahometans; yet, there is scarce any one who does not drink of some sort of strong Liquor. The Courtiers, Gentlemen, and Rakes, drink Wine, and as they all use it, as a Remedy against Sorrow, and that one Part drink it to put them to Sleep, and the other to warm and make them Merry; they generally drink the Strongest, and most Heady, and if this does not make them presently Drunk, they say ‘what Wine is this?’35
It’s almost noon, and the bottle is beckoning. I know, however, that if I open that bottle of chardonnay teasing me in the corner of my eye, I’ll never be able to finish our tale. Am I, in the eyes of some, destined for Hell? Perhaps. But, wine aside, my list of sins is a long one. Better then, one might recommend, to follow the advice of another northern soul like myself. Did Keikavus’ son live by the lessons he had so eloquently committed to writing for him? Who knows. ‘If you drink wine, let it be the finest’, he exhorted to Gilanshah in his Qabus Nameh (Book of Qabus), ‘if you listen to music let it be the sweetest, and if you commit a forbidden act, let it be with a beautiful partner’. Been there, done that; but why? ‘So that even though you may be convicted of sin in the next world, you will at any rate not be branded a fool in this.’36 It seems I am finally living up to my name; a wino I may be, but certainly no fool!
Considering the descriptions of European travellers such as Chardin and the frescoes of the Chehel Sotoon (Forty Columns) palace the Qajar prince Zell-ol-Soltan so essayed to cover up with plaster37, can there be any doubt that the Safavids, too, were People of the Bottle? ‘If we can judge by the quantity of wine vessels placed before the guests [in the Safavid-era frescoes], hard drinking seems in their time to have been the order of the day’, wrote James Ussher in A Journey from London to Persepolis38. If the faded Safavids of Chehel Sotoon fame were to Ussher but ‘half-drunken revellers’, the Qajars – who would seize the imperial throne in the wake of the Afghan sacking of Esfahan and the tribal chaos that ensued after the crumbling of Nader Shah’s short-lived empire – were full-blown winos (and rock and rollers, to boot). The mere thought of them is sending my mind into a flurry, but I will resist the temptation (for now) to pull out that sweet-smelling cork. Like the Qajars sucked dry the blood of my people, so too did they the blood of grapes. Would that I could banish such troubling thoughts, and, like Morier’s fabled Hajji Baba and his beloved Zeenab, simply enjoy my wine, guitar, and the poems of that master tippler, Hafez! ‘… We did and felt as if all that surrounded us was our own, and that the wine and our love would last forever,’ remembered the Hajji. ‘Having sang several more songs and emptied several cups of wine’, he continued, ‘I found that my poetry was exhausted as well as our bottle’39. But no, the images are appearing as vividly as ever now: bodies walled up by the roadside; bedraggled pariahs and lepers traipsing through lonely alleyways; slit wrists in a Kerman bathhouse; and above all, Iran, humiliated and sold like a cheap whore to all and sundry. All washed in wine, the nectar of the gods …
There I was, half-drunk in the candle’s glow, thinking the brothers Davies right badasses, having forgotten all about the legacy of sex, drugs, and gol-o-bolbol left by the Qajars. Though Western travelogues concerning Qajar-era Iran read more like tragedies than anything else (as Maraghe’i would have likely agreed), peppered throughout them are juicy anecdotes of not only binge drinking, but also extravagant depravity. Even a toper, dear reader, has their principles. A wino is a wino – that is that; but not all winos, mind you, are created equally. And with this thought in mind, we shall now approach the zenith of Iranian drunkenness and debauchery, the sumptuous fruit of our morning’s labours!
After trekking through the torrid, burning deserts of Syria and Iraq, the redoubtable English explorer Sir Henry Austen Layard set his charred feet on the wine-drenched soil of fair Persia. Considering his account of an episode in Esfahan, it seems the Persians had yet to give up their ancient ways; old habits, after all, die hard. At the house of some nobleman or other (I fail to remember exactly whose), Layard witnessed a rather striking display of profligacy – striking to he, of course, who had not been initiated into our boozy Persian rites:
The musicians were women who played on guitars and dulcimers. These orgies usually ended by the guests getting very drunk, and falling asleep on their carpets, where they remained until sufficiently sober to return to their homes in the morning.40
If that isn’t rock and roll, then I don’t know what is. To top things off (or, rather, to take the top off things), Layard’s Qajar beauties were minimalists when it came to fashion: ‘Their costume consisted of loose silk jackets of some gay colour, entirely open in front so as to show the naked figure to the waist’41. Indeed, we had our ya-yas out, kicking out the jams like it was nobody’s business centuries ago. In Layard’s time, as in Wills’, bacchanalia was still very much in vogue and the ‘order of the day’. When Wills went to visit a patient at around 10 pm one evening, he noticed a slight change of atmosphere. ‘The same stifling room, the same hard drinking, only now everybody was drinking’, he was quick to observe. ‘Dancing-boys and singers, shrieking the noisy love-songs of Persia in chorus, were keeping up the spirits of my patient.’ In Wills’ Iran, fruit gardens were ‘merely a good place to get drunk in’, and mullahs – though ‘mostly at heart freethinkers … Deists … [and] Atheists’, there being ‘very few good Mussulmans’ – were avid oenophiles who would not even begrudge infidels the secrets of their practice. ‘I was considerably amused at the [mullah] actually carrying on the art of winemaking and instructing the unbeliever’, wrote Wills42. To an Iranian, however, it most probably would have been just an ordinary day in Persia.
Like their Iranic cousins the Persians, the Kurds were no different when it came to dissolution. Much of the opulence and joie de vivre of the Persians, had, after all, been passed down to them by the Medes43, another Aryan tribe that had ruled Iran before the rise of Cyrus the Great. An account of the Kurdish Ilkhan of Ghoochan in northeast Iran (blessed be the winos of Khorasan!) takes the cake and makes all other such passages pale in comparison. In the late 19th century, the Russian colonel Nikolai Ivanovich Groedekoff visited the residence of the Ilkhan, who seemingly left our Russian friend in awe:
Knowing that [the Ilkhan] was fond of liquor, we placed several bottles of wine, liqueurs, and vodka before him; and in a very short time the Shuja had drunk several glasses of different wines, and then called in his singers and musicians. The men who came with him, his surgeon, and his favourites, Vali Khan and Ramzan Khan, drank themselves stupid, and a regular orgy began. Next day I went to see the Amir, and presented my documents to him. Bottles were already standing before him, and he explained that he was recovering from his intoxication. During our conversation he repeatedly partook of brandy, opium, hashish, and wine, and by noon was quite drunk. In the evening of the same day he invited us to a European supper, and again got intoxicated to the last degree.44
Tom Waits’ notion of a bad idea is trying to outdrink Keith Richards. ‘Don’t you ever, ever do that’, he once said45. It’s a good thing, perhaps, that the two never had the chance to cross paths with the inebriated Ilkhan.
But enough for now – the bottle beckons, that dear old friend. At gatherings, I can’t help but cringe when I hear an old curmudgeon whine to some Englishman or other, ‘Of course I dee-reenk! When the Shah was around, ever-ee-body used to!’ When the Shah was around? Honey, we hail from a culture of drunks – we were suckled on grapes! No, it is not my doing – this love of wine is something in my blood; in crimson hues was my destiny scrawled upon my brow. It is my heritage, one of the many blessings that have been passed down to me by my noble forebears. If I am to be judged, so be it; and if Hell be my lot? As said the sage, Should lovers and drunkards to hellfire be damned, Heaven tomorrow shall be like an empty hand46. Nay, I worry not for the company I will soon come to keep.
As an Iranian, I find in wine Paradise, damnation, and the shining sparks of Mazda. With it, I forget the ravages of the ages and the rape of Aryanam Vaejah. I drink so that before my dust becomes the clay of another’s chalice, I may savour whatever little is left of this life. With wine, love becomes clear, as does the mirror of my heart; and yes, I also drink because as an Iranian, I am a natural born bon viveur always looking for a good time. Deny me not what is mine! My people, born of fire and smeared with blood, are verily the children of the vine. If it is your pleasure, it is my very essence; but I have again spoken too much when I promised to stop. Come – do you expect me to finish this bottle all by myself? In the words of the great moustachioed Sophy, ‘A drunken Man, and a Man that does not drink do not pass their Time very agreeably together’47.
Here ends our prattle. It is to your health, dear reader, that I shall drink this draught. Be tandorostiye shoma …
Click here to download this article’s bibliography.
Cover image: a detail of a 19th century reverse glass painting from Iran (courtesy Sotheby’s).