3. Hafez – Faces of Love (14th Century)

This one is a bit more speculative.

Burroughs read some Arabic work in translation, including The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the Arabian Nights. His reading list features a wide array of Western writers on Middle Eastern and North African subjects; for example, Laurence Durrell, Isabelle Eberhardt, Paul and Jane Bowles. He was a fan of the Sufi band the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and was of course obsessed with the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan i Sabbah.

All of which suggest Burroughs had more than a passing interest in the world of Islamic mysticism. His friend and collaborator, Brion Gysin, even wrote a book – Living with Islam – but I’ve not read that one yet.

All of this is my basis for believing that Burroughs may have encountered the Persian poet Hafez. Or, even if he never read him, he was perhaps influenced at third hand by the kind of poetry that Hafez introduced into the Muslim world.

Hafez wrote for the royal court of fourteenth-century Shiraz. Shiraz, as you have no doubt guessed, is famous for its wine. The fertile green valley buried in an otherwise dusty and dry Persia was the jewel of the Persian empire and, despite subscribing to Islamic beliefs, was nevertheless awash with wine, song, and Greek-style pederasty.

The ghazals, a then-popular poetic form of which Hafez was the master, were poems sung in court that made optimal use of the Persian langauge’s lack of gendered pronouns.

Most were written from the perspective of a powerful older man towards a beautiful young boy, playing with the notion of the powerful becoming powerless in the face of youth and beauty. Without gendered pronouns, however, the song might easily be from a man to a woman, a woman to a man, a poet to his lord, or a faithful worshipper to Allah.

Adding to this ambiguity is the Sufi habit of conflating wine-drunkenness with God-drunkenness, and the mystical tendency to adopt erotic imagery to depict encounters with the divine.

Hafez stands above the other poets of Shiraz for his ability to mine these rich seams of raunchy possibility without ever confirming himself one way or another. Dick Davis, whose 2012 translations I read, makes Hafez’s transgressive potential clear in lines like:

                A loving friend, good wine, a place secure

                                                                From enemies –

                What luck is yours if you can always lay

                                                                Your hands on these!

For today’s Iranian Ayatollahs, whose payments maintain the Hafez institute in Shiraz, this poem is clearly a faithful Sufi’s celebration of his “loving friend” the Lord, the “good wine” of religious ecstasy, and the “place secure” in the Mosque in which he prays.

The Ancient Greeks, who had much traffic with the Persian Empire, particularly Shiraz, would see in these lines a palace culture unchanged since antiquity, when a drunken night with one’s rent boy was often interrupted by the sound of drawn daggers.

Hafez never offers us resolution, however. And in some places seems to conflate his imagery in pursuit of something entirely new and mystical:

                My body’s dust is a veil

                Spread out to hide

                My soul – happy that moment when

                It’s drawn aside!

At other times, his poems feel solidly grounded in their historical moment. As the philosophical but loose-living Shah Shuja was murdered and replaced by ascetic tyrant Mubariz Muzaffar, Hafez’s poems start to feature the character of the “moral officer”:

                Though wine is pleasurable, and though the breeze

                Seems soaked in roses, see your harp

                Is silent when you drink – because the ears

                Of moral officers are sharp!

For Hafez, the “moral officers” brought in by Mubariz Muzaffar are religious hypocrites who stultify everything. They are of the same nature as Burroughs’ “Control”. They serve only to “corrupt and falsify”, where the true Sufi realises that “nothing is true and everything is permitted”.

Although I’m only early in the research, I feel that Hafez has a key role to play in the development of an alternative Islamic world; one of strange pleasures and mystical secrets; one that Burroughs was no doubt in search of in Tangier.

Hafez’s poems have intoxication and homosexuality, murderous agents of control and secrets that lead to eternal life. All of these are clear crossovers.

We might also see in Hafez’s poetry a new way to approach Burroughs’ writings. It strikes me that very little has been written of the theological implications of Burroughs. Certainly he hated organised religion, but then Hafez laments constantly of the “dirty Sufis”, describing them to be “just as bad” as the puritanical “moral officers”. Hafez’s dislike of religious authorities doesn’t stop readers applying mystical interpretations to his poetry.

Perhaps we might apply this attitude to Burroughs, and find beneath the pornographic surface of his writing some nascent spirituality? Not just his playing with Mayan Gods, but something more.

Perhaps not though. We’ll put a pin in that one and come back to it.