‘Life is like a ball of wool’: how Iranian poetry brought me closer to my father – The Guardian

A couple of years ago I decided to collaborate with a poet on a piece of music I’d written – three melancholy minutes of me on piano, my friend Nick on viola – and my mother made a suggestion. Why didn’t I ask my father, Bahram, to recite some Persian poetry over it? I was surprised the idea hadn’t occurred to me before.

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of poetry in Iranian culture. As a child, my father was made to commit the ancient poets to heart, and their words continue to provide a moral template for his life, just as they do for much of Iranian society. I’ve seen many a Tehran dinner party end with my father and his friends seated around the table, bouncing lines of Hafez, Saadi or Rumi between each other – one man reciting, another picking up where his friend left off. There are minor humiliations for those who fumble or forget lines, and the whole thing is wrapped in an air of male bravado, but it’s also an experience shot through with emotional openness, and I’ve seen painful verses reduce grown men to tears.

And Dad in never short of a pithy poetic phrase to draw attention to the profound tragedy or comedy in a situation. The most memorable came after the funeral of my maternal grandfather in 2010. I’d read the eulogy at the Dorchester crematorium, the hall filled with stony-faced farmers looking on as I sweated and stumbled over my words like a schoolboy at his first debate. Later, I slipped out of the community hall wake and found my father sunning himself against a brick wall. I’m not sure how long he’d been there – events like that have never been Dad’s thing – but his car keys were in his hand, and I was grateful when he suggested we go for a drive.

We parked at West Bay and walked the length of the pier, pausing at the far end to look out to sea. It was there that my father turned and told me the lines – in Persian, then in English – that would resonate so loudly in years to come. “Life is like a tangled ball of wool,” he said, his face unreadable against the glare of the sun. “At the beginning is nothing, and at the end is nothing.”

Bahram Shahrad



Bahram Shahrad. Photograph: Cyrus Shahrad

Dad sounded enthusiastic when I called and suggested he come by the studio so I could record him reciting some Persian poetry. In the days leading up to our meeting, Mum texted to say that he had been photocopying pages from old books, and that she had heard him rehearsing passages aloud in the bedroom. But when we got to the studio in Soho, things didn’t go as planned. Dad had brought a thick sheaf of photocopies covered in calligraphic Farsi, and those papers threatened to overwhelm him: he was constantly losing his place between lines, stumbling over unexpected words or trailing off mid-sentence. I let him press on for half an hour, then changed tack. I asked if he would consider reciting a few lines from memory, and translate them into English as he went. He shrugged, a little dejected, and said that he would try.

From that moment on the recording became everything I’d hoped for. Dad opened with Saadi’s lines about a great man never dying, and closed with the piece about life being like a tangled ball of wool, and in between he recited two verses in which the poet rues his mother’s decision to bring him into the world, and blames her for the sins of his life. After five minutes I knew I had all I needed, and I told Dad we were done. I played him a little of what we’d recorded as he loomed over me. He hated it, as I’d known he would; his voice sounded weak, he said, his translations were mumbled and confused. He didn’t ask to hear any of the early stuff that he’d read from the page; instead he reached into his bag and gave me two tangerines, forced a £20 note into my hand despite the usual protestations on my part, and took his leave. I leaned out the window and watched as he shuffled down Great Windmill Street, disappearing into the crowd like just another old man in a city full of strangers.

I set to work on the track straight away, deliberately leaving in most of the pauses and false starts. Preserving Dad’s dignity was important to me, but my aim was to present a portrait of my father as an old man; he wasn’t wrong when he criticised his translations as confused, but his Farsi flowed with the voice of a natural poet. Somewhere in between these two worlds – between the past and the present, between Tehran and London – was the man I called my father, and everything about him was beautiful in a way that nobody’s words but his own could describe.

I laid the recording over the music and called the track Delam, which means “my heart” in Farsi, and is commonly used to describe a longing for people or places from a happier past. Two of my friends were reduced to tears when I played them the result, but I was unprepared for the reaction when I posted it online. More than one person described having recently lost their father, and finding the track comforting in their time of grief. Others referred to the wisdom in Dad’s words, and there were dozens of requests for transcripts of the poems. I copied around a hundred comments into an email and sent them to Mum, asking that she show them to Dad. He never mentioned it, nor did he talk about the track over the coming weeks except to brush off praise on my part; he suggested that he was collecting material for a second attempt, that he’d be able to do it “properly” next time round.

One Sunday, a few weeks later, I visited my parents and asked Dad if he could translate some of the many comments left in Farsi about our track. We soon came across a moving tribute to my father, including an old fashioned phrase about his head remaining “above the shadows”, a reference to mortality, to prolonging a great life. As Dad read these words his voice began to break, and by the time he finished the sentence he was openly crying while trying to pass the whole thing off as a fit of laughter, which I’d seen him do before. “It makes me nervous,” he said through tears. I wanted to embrace him; instead I put a hand on his shoulder, and told him what a wonderful thing we’d done, and how much it had meant to people. He nodded solemnly, as though in grudging agreement.

We didn’t mention the track again. But as Mum drove us to lunch, Dad reached into his jacket pocket and produced one of the warped cassettes of Persian music and poetry that he’d been endlessly copying since the 1980s. He slipped it into the stereo and the car filled with the sound of a sitar and the hiss of aged tape. Through the window I watched small Kentish towns scroll by, and tried to picture the world my father had grown up in.

After a while there was a break in the music, then a male voice began to recite poetry, the syllables worn smooth by repetition like stones in a river. After a few lines my father began translating into English, his voice slow and steady. I glanced up at the rear view mirror, and saw that he was looking back at me.

Delam features on the Hiatus album All The Troubled Hearts, which is out now.

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