Towers

Towers

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Delam

Originally published in the Guardian


A couple of years ago I found myself wanting to collaborate with a poet on a piece of music I’d written – three melancholy minutes of me at the piano, my friend Nick on viola – and Mum suggested I ask Dad to come into the studio and recite some Persian poetry. I was suprised it 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.

Nor is Dad ever 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 along a promenade bustling with families making the most of the spring sunshine. We probably turned a few heads – a Middle Eastern father and son in dark suits, strolling through hordes of ice cream eaters like assassins en route to a holiday hit. I remember that the surrounding seascape appeared almost faded, like an image from one of the photographs at my grandfather’s wake, the setting sun so brilliant that it seemed to drain all colour from the world around us. We walked the length of the pier, pausing at the far end to look out to sea, and it was then that my father turned to me and spoke the words – in Persian, then in English – that would resonate so loudly in years to come. “Life is like a tangled ball of wool,” he translated, his face unreadable against the glare of the sun. “At the beginning is nothing, and at the end is nothing.”

***

Dad sounded enthusiastic when I called and suggested that he come by the studio so I could record him reciting some Persian poetry, and 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. He and I met at Warren Street station one Thursday morning in May, and from there we walked to the Indian YMCA, a place Dad had fallen in love with when I’d introduced him to it a few years earlier – the dishes were cheap and delicious, and I felt sure that its old-fashioned d├ęcor, chattering Indian clientele and laidback canteen feel reminded him of one of his old hospital cafeterias. We took our trays into the concrete courtyard, ate at a picnic table in the sunshine, Dad sweating as he forked fish curry into his mouth with barely a pause for breath, one eye on the pigeons that watched our plates from nearby benches. “Relax and eat,” he said, his free hand hovering over a rolled up newspaper beside his tray. “If one comes near I’ll be ready.”

We didn’t talk about the task at hand either over lunch or on the slow walk to Soho. In the studio I set Dad up on a chair in the vocal booth, showed him how the headphones and microphone worked, and he opened his suitcase to reveal a thick sheaf of photocopied pages, each one covered in calligraphic Farsi. I closed the door, seated myself on the far side of the glass and gestured for him to don the headphones that he was inspecting as though for a brand name. I spoke to him over the talkback system, which impressed him in exactly the way I’d hoped it would, and had him read a couple of test sentences to get a level. I shifted in my seat so that he wouldn’t have to see me every time he looked up, hit the record button, and encouraged him to start.

At first it didn’t work at all. That great stack of paper threatened to overwhelm Dad, as I had feared it might: he was constantly losing his place between lines, trailing off mid-sentence as he struggled to read the faded photocopies, stumbling over unexpected words; worst of all, there was a perpetual shuffling and dropping of pages in the background of the recording. For half an hour I let him press on, watching as his voice alchemised into the waveform unscrolling on the screen in front of me. Finally, when frustration seemed to be getting the better of him, I told him to wait while I stepped outside for coffees, and when I opened the booth and passed in his cup I told him that we had enough of the hard stuff, and that what I wanted now was a few snatches of the poems that meant the most to him. I asked if he would consider reciting a few lines from memory, and translating into English as he went, and 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. He removed his headphones and stepped out of the booth, and 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 in the sun, turning on to Shaftesbury Avenue and disappearing into the crowd like just another old man in a city full of strangers.

***

I set to work straight away. Those last five minutes didn’t require much in the way of editing, and I left 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 piano music and called the track Delam, which means ‘my heart’ in Persian, and is most commonly used to describe the heart pining for people or places recalled from a happier past. I played the track to two friends who stopped by the studio over the coming days, both of whom were in tears by the end of it. Even so, I was unprepared for the reaction when I posted it online. Comments began popping up on various social media sites – 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 – there were dozens of requests for transcripts of the poems – and many wrote of tears flowing as the track unfolded. 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.

Then, one Sunday a few weeks later, I found myself at my parents’ house killing half an hour before we were due to drive to a nearby hotel for lunch. I poked my head in the living room and found Dad in his suit, staring at a shouty cookery program while a chaos of paperwork slid off the couch around him. I asked for his help, led him to the study and seated him at the computer, and asked if he could translate some of the many comments left in Farsi about our track.  The first two were innocuous enough – someone asking if I would listen to their tracks, someone requesting links to download my music, the major retailers being blocked in Iran – but the third was a moving tribute to my father, and included 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 when he reached the end of 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, his neutral way of explaining these states, which come and go with the suddenness of a Tehran spring storm. I wanted to embrace him; instead I put a hand on his shoulder, and told him what a wonderful track we’d made together, and how much it had meant to people. He nodded solemnly, as though in grudging agreement.

After that we rose awkwardly and went our separate ways – he to the living room and the reassuring glare of the television, me upstairs to pack for the return to London. We didn’t mention the track again, but after lunch Mum drove to Swanley to drop me at one of the few stations not affected by weekend engineering works, and in the passenger seat beside her 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 setar 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.

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