Q&A by Sanam Zahir
Aug. 19, 2010, Los Angeles, CA — Born in Iran, raised in England and the U.S., architect, artist, and teacher Afsaneh Mirfendereski shares her passion for Persian poetry by teaching Hafez on Saturday afternoons. With a BA form the University of London and two Masters from Cambridge University and UC Berkeley, Afsaneh taught English as a Second Language in Rome, London, and Boston for 10 years while exhibiting her watercolor paintings. To teach her classes, she draws from her personal experience of Hafez, training with two ostads, and the many books she has studied in Persian and English. I had a chance to sit down with Afsaneh to become her “Mahram-eh Raz”.
SZ: You refer to this class as your “Mahram-eh Del” using Hafez’s words. What started this idea and how was this class formed?
AM: I grew up in an artsy home in Tehran and London in the 1970s and 80s. Although both my parents were architects, we would often have the sounds of Hafez, via Shamloo’s recitals, echoing in our home in Iran. As a child, I had no idea what was being said, except for being moved by and picking up on the profound beauty of these recordings. They would leave me, as a 10 year old, in a trance and that’s when I first fell for Hafez and he became my “mahram-eh del!” Later in life, via Europe, art, architecture, ESL I finally had a chance to pause and properly tend to this childhood awakening. Growing up in England I read and loved Shakespeare, but I was cut off from one of the most profound literary heritages in the world, Persian poetry and literature. Hafez has been revered by poets, thinkers, and philosophers from India to Germany. In the US, the transcendentalists whom I adore expounded upon the virtues of our masters with Emerson penning a beautiful essay on “Persian Poetry.”
My mission was to enlighten myself, and in the process, spread as much of the acquired wisdom to fellow Iranians living outside of Iran. I gathered over 20 books on Hafez, in English and Persian, found a couple of profoundly learned ostads and decided to take the plunge! Our class started in the summer of 2007, with the support of friends whose commitment in assisting me was, and remains, priceless. I always knew that Hafez was the one poet that all Iranians love and respond to deeply. It was my passion to discover why, and in the process, to better understand my own nature. There is a little Hafez, I have come to discover, in most of us as Iranians.
SZ: How many people participate and how often does your class meet?
AM: Typically, we have 3 seasons per year. During each season we meet 6-8 times on Saturday afternoons, at my home in Maryland, a stone’s throw away from Washington, DC. We meet in groups of 4-12 for about 3 hours with a break in between where we chat and have strawberries and sweets. This allows us to go over one Ghazal per session.
Since summer 2007, we’ve had over 45 individuals participate in the program. Having moved here from London and left most of my family behind, the Hafez students have in many ways become a family away from family. The range of characters, like in most families, have been equally colorful and varied, with Hafez wisely playing the role of family patron, keeping us all bonded together.
SZ: Please describe a day in your class for our readers.
AM: Our class is taught with two goals in mind: to “understand” as well as to “feel” Hafez. In that sense, the class is as much an artistic experience as an academic one. Like going to a concert to listen to a piece of music, the goal is to communicate the joy of Hafez. This has helped the appeal of the class to be far reaching, enabling us to have both the absolute beginner and the Hafez connoisseur attend classes and happily mingle. To the beginner, it’s a first listening while to the one who’s heard the poem before; it’s a chance to savor it again.
We use both English and Persian – the Ghazals are obviously taught in Persian – but conversations outside of the Ghazal itself weave in and out of both languages. We have class handouts that I have custom designed for the program. The handouts are in Persian with English transliterations of the Beyts. Per season, I make an effort to select 6-8 Ghazals that represent a variety of moods and settings.
The process used to communicate the “understanding” and “feeling” of each Ghazal is two-fold:
Similar to a painter who first chooses the colors and tones, I teach the key ingredients – the vocabulary and historical references from the day’s Ghazal, beyt by beyt, from the accompanying handout. Then we move on to “feeling” Hafez, with students painting their own personal pictures. Collectively, we delve into the students’ own imaginations and share their individual takes with the rest of the group. This process never ceases to amaze me, and we actually bond as a group, while getting to know each other more intimately. I now understand first hand, why Hafez means so much to so many. His Ghazals, by nature, appeal to readers from a broad range of beliefs, backgrounds and outlooks – allowing each to see in them what resonates within their own hearts.
SZ: What kind of feedback have you received from the (academic) community?
AM: It was important to me to invite observers from Persian programs, here in the Washington, DC area to sit in our class. Over the course of these 3 years, we’ve had much encouragement from visitors from University of Maryland and Georgetown University. The most poignant stamp of approval, to me personally, has come from the daughter of one of Iran’s most revered 20th century poets,
Malek-ol-Shoara Bahar. Parvaneh Bahar has attended our class several times, and has always been very generous in encouraging us with our program. She has also kindly allowed me to share her thoughts with you here, verbatim:
“An Enchanting Afternoon with Hafez”: “I was delighted to discover that there is a weekend class in the Washington area in which Afsaneh Mirfendereski, a young and accomplished British-Iranian, introduces and expounds upon the poetry of Hafez, Iran’s supreme lyrical poet. Her classes provide a magnificent portal to one of the glories of Iran’s unique poetic heritage. Each session is devoted to a discussion and analysis of one ghazal, a lyrical form that, under the pen of Hafez, is unsurpassed – and according to scholars unsurpassable – in depth and beauty of expression. Afsaneh Mirfendereski is a Western-educated architect by profession who, on her own initiative, steeped herself in an in-depth quest of the poetry of Hafez for three years. She has an eclectic collection of books on the Bard of Shiraz and takes great joy in sharing her insights into Hafez’s poetry with kindred spirits, especially enthusiastic young lovers of poetry. It has given me the greatest pleasure to become acquainted with Afsaneh and to participate in her class.” Parvaneh Bahar.
To learn more about the class and how to sign up please contact: Hafezforbeginners@hotmail.com.
Click here to watch Tehran’s interview with Afsaneh at one of her classes.