Quarantine poetry in Iran

Images and illustrations: Golrokh Nafisi


Quarantine and Nowruz

The home quarantine imposed by the spread of coronavirus in cities of Iran has coincided with the 2020 Nowruz holidays. Taking place at the same time as the vernal equinox, Nowruz celebrates the reemergence of life after winter, which symbolically brings death to nature. 

Iranians, along with many other peoples, celebrate Nowruz as the start of the new year. For Iranians, Nowruz reconnects family, friends and neighbors; it involves large gatherings, parties and sharing food. However, the growing death toll of the coronavirus has eclipsed this meaningful celebration and made gathering impossible.

During the final days of the year capped off with Nowruz, as the natural world reemerges in full force, markets also usually see their busiest days, particularly in cities with official celebrations. But the shadow of coronavirus has dampened the annual energy of bazaars and dragged them into an unprecedented recession. 

With the unavoidable social distancing, all the Nowruz festivities, which find their true meaning in family and friend gatherings, were lost. Facing all this, every individual started to ask themselves, is spring really here? If it is, is there a reason to mark the moment of nature’s resurrection? Is it proper to greet a Nowruz which is nothing like Nowruz at all?


Quarantine windows

Writings on fabric started appearing on some windows, balconies and doorways of houses and buildings in Tehran. They read classical Persian poetry related to spring and the arrival of Nowruz. Most of them were seen in central regions of Tehran and also the west of the city such as Shahrak-e Ekbatan, and a few were seen in other cities, such as Isfahan. The banners were handwritten and in different colors on fabrics and other materials. 

Seeing banners and flags on doorways or windows is a familiar sight in Iranian culture. When hajis come back from hajj pilgrimage, for example, greeting banners appear on doorways of houses. On some holidays or mourning occasions, people hang banners or flags from their windows or on the wall of their buildings. The banners show that the household participates in a certain ceremony, and that they also invite others to join them. For example, a greeting banner for a haji implies an invitation to meet the pilgrim or attend his or her Valime (the gathering in which the haji hosts people to announce and celebrate the achievement of the hajj pilgrimage), though large gatherings have not taken place in modern urban life. Similarly, most of the houses that hang a certain style of black banner during mourning periods, such as Ashura, show that they are ready to host and feed their neighbors for the occasion.

Though springing from from deeply rooted traditions, the banners appearing on the windows and doorways of houses today came with their own innovations. 

For one, most of them are hung from windows and balconies, and less in doorways. In Iranian culture, gazing at people’s windows or balconies is frowned upon. However, over the quarantine days, the Nowruz banners explicitly invite neighbors and passersby to look at the windows.

The traditionally common banners and flags are usually machine-printed or made by calligraphers or skilled embroiderers, and are sold in certain sections of bazaars. But the Nowruz banners that appeared on the windows were written by the very inhabitants of the homes. They are made out of any kind of fabric that can be found in every household, such as old bedsheets, table cloths, etc. The result has been a diversity of design, handwriting, and background.

Watching the Nowruz banners brings to mind the scene of clothes and bedsheets hanging on clotheslines in balconies facing streets, a scene that is only receding nowadays. Modern urban life has pushed such scenes indoors, especially in upper class neighborhoods, where it is believed such intimate representations should be kept indoors. 


Poetry and quarantine

Classic poetry plays a special role in Nowruz for Persian speakers.‌ Following the turn of the year, people who gather around the Haft-sin open Divan-e Hafez just randomly and read whatever poem the book offers. They believe that the poem symbolically reveals the happenings of the new year — a kind of divination by poetry. 

The Shia also believe in hermeneutics of sacred texts, and books (divans) of great Persian poets are replete with Quran verses and Islamic narrations. For Persian speakers, Divan-e Hafez is no different than sacred texts. They believe that Hafez’s poetry can be interpreted for contemporary life, offering them a reflection for the new year. They contemplate verses and try to find answers for their questions.

Transformations of nature and the eternal circle of life and death are pivotal concepts in Persian poetry. In a Nowruz such as this one, with the shadow of death looming large over everything, people searched for the meaning of spring in poems. 

Most of the poems on the banners evoke a spring which has made its way through all the disaster and agony. They depict life’s power to force its unstoppable presence over any dominant debacle. This is what Persian poetry presents as the everlasting philosophy of life and nature.


“From the abode of the beloved blows the breeze of Nowruz, if you ask that breeze you shall kindle a light.”


“From the abode of the beloved blows the breeze of Nowruz, if you ask that breeze you shall kindle a light,” a verse by Hafez that perhaps any Persian speaker knows by heart is featured on the hung banners. The heart has gone cold, and if only you get help from the Nowruz breeze you will be able to kindle its fire once again. It is not the Nowruz wind alone that brings life, it is the breeze that comes with it from the beloved’s abode. The poet challenges the reckless improvisation of the spring and puts forth an innovative understanding of spring.


“How is the meadow doing, O’ Spring Wind? Since the nightingales all let out cries of restlessness.”


“How is the meadow doing, O’ Spring Wind? Since the nightingales all let out cries of restlessness” is found on another banner, a verse by Saadi Shirazi. The poet asks the spring wind about the meadows. Since there is no sign of spring in their own surroundings, he asks the wind to get news about places where the spring has already arrived. The poet speaks of the agony of the nightingales, being far from the gardens and not breathing in the air of a real spring.


“A hundred springs will come and go and I will not step out, I’m afraid that you will arrive and I won’t be there.”


“A hundred springs will come and go and I will not step out, I’m afraid that you will arrive and I won’t be there” is a verse by Vahshi Bafghi which has a tinge of sarcasm to it. Spring is the best time for outings and gatherings. The quarantined use this subtle irony and invite people to stay at home. Besides, they interestingly use the unfortunate occasion for expressing feelings and bringing love to the alley.


“It is a pity for a noble heart to remain broken on Nowruz.”


“It is a pity for a noble heart to remain broken on Nowruz” reads a verse by the poet laureate Mohamed-Taqi Bahar, a more contemporary expression displayed by another banner. The poet speaks the dominance of heartache, but not for a noble heart. Magnanimity for Iranians is a key characteristic of Imam Hossein, who bore the standard of nobility and did not give in to cruelty. In many local Nowruz texts and songs in different parts of Iran, the songs for the arrival of spring are accompanied with mentions of Shia Imams. In Persian literature, nobility and magnanimity refer to those who liberate themselves of mundane needs. The terms carry a powerful political connotation of liberating oneself from any allegiance to power. In Bahar’s verse, the poet considers resigning oneself to sadness, a disgrace to liberation, in the time of nature’s resurrection.


“My patience is still as high as my desire”


On another banner that reads “My patience is still as high as my desire”, a verse by Hooshang Ebtehaj. The message gives assurance that the promise of quarantine will not be broken. While desire is the hope for action that emanates from a strong wish, patience is a reaction to an intolerable event. Remaining in quarantine is unimaginably frustrating and needs exemplary patience. Desires often go for what is beyond our power. Patience should endure and desire should contrive the unimaginable.The poem proposes something useful about patience: reminiscing over desires.  

Some banners display simple phrases such as “Spring is here”, and “Happy New Year, neighbor.” “Happy New Year, neighbor!” appeared on a window in Shahrake Ekbatan,  one of the oldest and densest towns in Iran, and that banner likely faces the largest number of windows that can be imagined in Tehran. Perhaps all other banners with wordy language wish they had the place of this one and intend to simply convey the very message of it.

In the wake of the current social distancing, the window is the only media for talking with a neighbor who probably has never been talked to before. It is as if the banner calls on the neighbor saying: I am here in my home, longing to be free again, and I am sure you feel the same way, we are both yearning to be together and free again.


Ahmadali Kadivar 
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