Oregon Folklife Network

Azar Salehi

2017-2018 TAAP Awardee

Traditional Skill/Art Craft: Persian Storytelling and Poetry Recitation

Apprentice: Mahsa Darabi

Contact Information

E-mail: azar.salehi@comcast.net

Describe your traditional skill/craft/art, when and why it is done, and your history with it.

For most Persian, both in Iran and abroad, poetry recitation and storytelling are traditions that are practiced as much in day-to-day lives as during monumental events. The average Persian household typically includes a copy of the collective works of Hafez (Divan-e-Hafez) which is often used as an oracle for direction during times of uncertainty. Similarly, verses from the book are read during Norouz, the Persian new year, and sometimes even during weddings. This is done irrespective of religion or faith; it is a universally accepted and celebrated form of spiritual guidance.

I first became interested in poetry recitation as a young child through my encounters with the oral tradition at my aunt's school of the arts. By middle school I was actively involved in school plays and an avid story teller and by high school I was directing school plays and teaching my peers about proper enunciation and the importance of injecting the spirit into the spoken word.

How and from whom was the tradition learned?

Growing up in Iran, my aunt operated a school of arts where I spent a lot of time, mostly as a silent observer. The school provided lessons in everything from literature to ceramics and pottery. These classes, which consisted of only women during those days, were far more than just learning an artistic craft. They were social mixers and a breeding ground for folklore and stories that were passed down through generations. The women who attended the classes were there as much for the tribal communion as for the skills acquired during class. At a young age I found myself drawn to this communal exchange of information. I fell in love with stories and the spoken word and this passion only gained momentum over the years.

Why is this cultural tradition important to your community?

Persian (Iranian) culture is deeply steeped in poetry and storytelling. Whether it's invoking Rumi for spiritual guidance, calling on Hafez as an oracle, or referencing the tragedy of Shirin and Farhad as the apogee of true love, the Iranian diaspora relies heavily on the oral tradition as an atlas to retrace old roots and the thread with which to weave the fabric of future generations.

Artist Biography

I was born to a traditional family in Tehran, Iran. In 1988 along with my husband and two children we migrated to Oregon and from early days I volunteered along with my family to practice and celebrate our traditional values and share them with Oregonians. In 1990 Portland State University Middle Eastern Studies program invited me to set the traditional tables and educate visitors about different exhibitions that I learned from my parents, family, and schools. I began teaching Nowruz (New Year) tradition to my students at PSU’s Persia House in 1992 when I was on the Board of Iranian Women Association of Oregon. First year with my students (about 25) and then with the whole Persia House school (85 students). I taught Farsi and continued collaborating with other community members to educate children with Iranian culture through storytelling, costume making, and celebrating Nowruz by growing wheat sprouts and setting New Year table. It’s heart-warming to know that tradition is still being practiced by current staff. Since 2000 I have been an organizer, advocate and volunteer at the annual Iranian Festival, running the Children’s Tent, and for twenty years now, I volunteer to recite Persian Poetry and relate stories at Iran-e Man TV.

Experience/Honors

The first valuable certificate of recognition I received from Queen of Iran where I won first place in Poetry Reciting (1970). I received several certificates followed by that as an active member of cultural values.

In 1992 I wrote and narrated a story; the performance at Portland State University was well received and was repeated by popular demand at Reed College and Scottish Rite.

In 1995 I was selected as president of Iranian Womens Association of Oregon and served on the Board of Directors for 5 years, volunteering to pass on the Persian language to my next generation.

I received a letter of appreciation from Persia House, ArtMax Academy.