Tucked away in a small street in the centre of The Hague’s old town, you might notice a wine shop, watched over by the imposing form of a large Persian cat. The owner, Ofran Badakhshani, is of Persian descent who moved to the Netherlands from Afghanistan over twenty years ago. Describing himself as a wine lover, poet and philosopher, Ofran talks to me about the rich history of wine-making in the Persian world and the Middle East. He also talks of the strong relationship between wine, poetry and philosophy that existed in Ancient Persia and can still be found today in some parts of the world, including his shop, right here in the Hague.
‘Oh come, let’s scatter rose petals and fill the cup with wine,
Let’s tear the ceiling of the universe and create a new one.’
These lines from a gazelle written by famous Persian poet, Hafez, are typical of the tradition of Sufi poetry that celebrates both the spiritual and the sensual through metaphors related to wine and drunkenness. In this tradition, wine is viewed as divine. Some readings of the Islamic creation story, compare Allah to the first wine pourer and the bodies of believers to a cup that is being filled with wine, a symbol of the soul. Wine, from this perspective wine may be seen as the gift of life itself. Drinking wine thus purifies the soul and allows you to become one with the beloved.
‘There are many reasons to drink wine’ – Ofran Badakhshani
Archaeological evidence shows that wine production was happening as far back as 7000 years ago in parts of the Middle East, including Ancient Persia, now Iran. Wine played an important role in Ancient Persian society. It was viewed as both a truth serum and a purifier of the soul. Stories of the Ancient Persian kings claim that they considered all important decisions in two states of mind – one sober and one drunk. If an idea held merit in both of these states, the King would go ahead with it. Ofran explains that the drinking of wine, according to the Sufi tradition within Islam, was touted as a way to escape the self and thus enables the drinker to get closer to God. ‘The wine empties us of the self and so there are many reasons to drink wine’ Ofran affirms, not without a trace of irony.
The irony of course is that the consumption of alcohol is forbidden in Islam and yet Ofran tells me that wine production continued in Iran until very recently, as it does in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East. How to reconcile this apparent paradox? The answer it seems is the subtle fusing of Islamic teachings with those of the cultures that preceded it. ‘So there is a bit of taking and giving’ he explains. ‘If you follow the religion very strictly, life is a little miserable’, the wine merchant smiles, but if not, ‘there is a lot of fun stuff on the side’.
The Middle East has produced wine for over 6000 years
To illustrate, Ofran shares an experience he had on a visit to Azerbaijan. Wine has been produced in this region for 6 000 years yet when he asked about the drinking tradition in Azerbaijan he was told there was none as it is a Muslim country. At dinner that same evening, Ofran found his glass filled with wine and a shot of spirits placed near his plate. He was told that tradition requires that should you touch it, you must drink it. Again, he asked if this was the Azerbaijani drinking tradition, and was again told, that as an Islamic country, they have no drinking tradition.
The idea of taking and giving extends to the realm of philosophy where the Ancient Persians and the Greeks fought long and hard for supremacy over both territory and ideas. Ofran explains that he named his Persian cat, Socrates, in the spirit of reconciliation. He also tells me about a project he has recently started that involves growing native grape varieties from Iran on Greek soil. Perhaps what is most inspirational about my discussion with Ofran Badakhshani is his philosophy of universality and inclusion, associated with wine, poetry and philosophy. He argues that communities of wine lovers, poets and philosophers are typically open to beauty in all the shapes and forms in which is may reveal itself. In this way, these traditions bring people from all cultures together in joy and celebration of life.
Souwie Buis April 2021