Women in the Middle East and North Africa, Nonprofit media organizations, Iran, Iranian literature, censorship in Iran, Marjane Satrapi, Omar Khayyam, Rumi, Yadollah Royaee, Reza Baraheni

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Iran’s Radical Poetry in the Making

A radical poetry movement in Iran breaks rules and challenges censorship.

For several years before my immigration to the Czech Republic, I had experienced something like living in Prague. The experience was extremely similar to Milan Kundera’s and Klima’s description of the city because our life in Tehran under an ideological and religious regime was extremely similar to the life in Prague during the communist period. We were and still are experiencing the same repression, censorship, bans, division into “good people” and “enemies of the state,” arrests, executions, exiles, fears and hopes in today’s Tehran.

That was what I had learned about the old life of Prague. Now, after living in the city for more than three years, I must confess that I still don’t know what it is about this city that makes an exiled poet or writer create more than ever in her life; to think about the world deeper than ever; to discover him or herself again and again. I know that the same thing happened to the exiled Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva and now, almost a century later, to me.

Because people in the Czech Republic can relate in many ways to life in today’s Iran, the literature created by Iranian independent poets and writers—either censored or underground literature—would seem attractive and touching to a Czech audience, as well as anyone who has had the same experiences.

Perhaps some of you have read the graphic novel, Persepolis, by Iranian-French artist Marjane Satrapi, or watched the animation adapted from this novel. By its creative illustrations and attractive and humorous narration, the book tells the true story that happened to Iranians during the 1980s and 1990s.

Language Games

Perhaps some of you have also heard about Iranian classical poets such as Rumi and Omar Khayyam, as they have been widely translated. Iranian poetry that is a true art form and can be considered among the most acclaimed in the world focuses on language. Unfortunately, the texts that have been widely introduced as the translations of Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez are actually just commentary on them or, in the best case, recompositions in which the form and the language of the poems look simpler than the originals. So, this type of translation hasn’t been able to reveal the main value of their poems that is their special approach to language rather than the Sufism or philosophical thoughts they address.

Iran is known as the country of poetry, and the legacy that today’s poets inherit from those great classics is the very thought created not by direct expression, but by changing the rules of the dominant language—the language that the rulers confirm, and reaching a specific language that defines new rules.

European journalists and poets often ask me whether I chose this language of indirect expression to escape the censorship. They think I write complex poems because I don’t want the censors to understand what I am saying. That’s not true.

First, a piece of art that changes the existent rules to create a new rule, even if this creation just happens in its form, not in its content, will be more censored than others. According to many language poets in today’s Iran—I mean the poets who define new linguistic rules based on their own unique approach to language—their poems are more censored than the expressive poems.

You see this in the censorship of the great Iranian language poets’ such as Yadollah Royaee and Reza Baraheni’s works and the elimination of their names from publications during the past decades, just like many language poets of my generation such as Pegah Ahmadi, Alireza Behnam, Mohammad Azarm and myself experienced during all these years.

In fact, as no avant-garde and modern mind would tolerate dictatorship, the dictator regimes would suppress and censor any type of avant-gardism and modern thinking. One of them is the postmodernist thinking about language that can appear in language poetry.

Second, this is our style of writing poetry, not a way to avoid censorship. You may have heard about the language poets such as Charles Bernstein in the United States. We are the Iranian language poets.

Language poets believe that a poem isn’t something simple and quick. It isn’t something that can be read in haste and forgotten quickly either. Therefore, as a radical movement, language poetry stands against any conservative literary movements that simplify everything in the process of writing poetry or self-censor to get published and sell more.

At the end, I’d like all of us to remember that we are tied by common experiences, in spite of our cultural differences. So, like other Europeans, I expect Czech people who have experienced the suffering of being occupied and living under dictatorship for years to give a bigger and more loving hug to the asylum seekers who have escaped from countries still under the weight of dictators’ rules.

*[Note: The selection of poems in the audio file were narrated by Kholoud Khalifa. Click here to read the full list of poems translated into English.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Wwing