London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Every spring Tehran hosts a festival of poetry drawing thousands of participants from all over a nation whose love of poetry is perhaps unique in the world. This year’s event, held earlier this month, was supposed to offer a special feature: a series of recitals by Yadollah Royaee, one of the most popular poets of the “New Wave” pre-revolution era. The 82-year-old Royaee—whose name means “the dream”—has been living in exile in France for decades. He had agreed to take the trip to test President Hassan Rouhani’s version of Glasnost (Openness policy).
Iranians love wordplay. So it was no surprise that news of Royaee’s visit led to jokes about “the dream” coming to “the nightmare”—that is to say the Islamic Republic. In the end, however, Rouhani’s Glasnost turned out to be even less serious than that of Gorbachev decades ago. The invitation was withdrawn and the poet was threatened with instant arrest if he dared show up.
This year’s festival started under a dark cloud, cast by the execution of Hashem Shaabani, a young Ahvazi poet, and the arrest of two other poets from Baluchistan and Gilan. Despite heavy security presence, samizdats (self-published pamphlets) containing some of Shaabani’s latest poems were distributed among the participants. In one poem, Shaabani foresees his execution:
I am not sure how they mean to kill me.
All I am sure is they mean to kill me.
They have denied me laughter and music,
Taken away my share of sunshine,
Confiscated my pen and writing pad.
Now they plan to steal the walls of this cell,
On which I scribble a rhyme or two.
There are a thousand ways to kill a man.
As expected, the festival, led by Abdul-Jabbar Kaka’i, has angered the mullahs and their security services. The daily Kayhan, published under the supervision of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, has branded the festival “a nest of plotting against Islam.”
The claim is clearly baseless. What is certain, however, is that few of the thousands of poems submitted this year have religious themes. Worse still from Khamenei’s point of view, not a single poet took the time to compose a qasida (poem) praising his leadership.
For over 1,000 years Persian poetry has always made liberal use of religious themes and motifs without degenerating into propaganda. At times it has also lampooned those who make commerce of their piety.
What angers Khamenei, himself a known lover of poetry and a secret versifier, is that a new generation of poets is openly challenging the official narrative of the revolution, holy war, and the creation of the “ideal Islamic society.”
Here is one example by Majid Karimi:
The hunchback moon laughs above us,
As it sees this land of broken backs.
Where worship of beauty was once the faith,
Ugliness now reigns supreme.
Here is another one by Ahmad Amir-Khalili, referring to the Iran–Iraq war:
I am still paying back for that war,
The war you labeled as holy.
We are both victims of that war,
A war that was enough for seven generations.
There are some direct attacks on the regime’s core ideology. Here is an example by Abdul-Hamid Muqtada’i-Rad:
Many years have now passed.
Your ideologies have been exposed.
My dear son, you thought you were fighting death,
However, what was being approved was a ban on life.
They found it hard to understand “la ikraha fi’ din” (“There is no compulsion in religion,” Surat Al-Baqarah 2.256)
They even denied the text of God’s own Qur’an.
They hit your sister so hard on the head
That she now hates the hijab.
With slogans, shadows and money
They brought us poverty and prostitution.
With their swords, rosaries and gold
They built villas on our broken backs.
In another poem, Reza Javadi offers a cry of despair:
I have nothing they could take away,
Nothing because nothing is given.
Nothing is given and all is on loan:
This moment, this day, this life.
One poetess who has especially incited the anger of Khomeinists is Maryam Behruzi. Her poetry has echoes of feminist liberation that turned the late Forugh Farrokhzad a literary star in the 1960s. Here are a few lines from Behruzi’s poems recited at the festival:
The men in my life,
Conceived a poem, each in his way,
Ah! So many illegitimate children!
My poems are my babies.
In another poem she evokes the desperation of women treated as second-class citizens:
I am not quite steady these days,
In the midst of crying I laugh.
At night, fearing suicide attempts,
I tie my hands with ropes.
Daytime, I have no appetite,
except for bitter pills to wake me up.
I go round and round with memories.
You press the accelerator.
I am not quite steady these days.
Sometimes the poets use biting humor to comment on the situation in the “Nightmare land.” In one poem Abbas Khosh-Amal addresses a civil servant:
Poor fellow, you have no economic sense,
So don’t buy and sell, don’t even borrow.
Your fate is sealed as a man too many,
Thirty years you wasted your life,
Hoping they won’t laugh at your beard.
Nostalgia for pre-revolution times is strongly present, especially in the works of poets who were not even born at the time. Here is one by Ihsan Rashidi Mehrabadi:
We have to revive our memories,
We have to return to the past in whatever way possible.
We have to loosen the knots of the headscarves.
Come, let us talk together with our eyes,
Let us have a private conversation
Away from those hidden ears.
In another poem he calls for discarding the headscarf:
I wish you would end your silence,
I wish you would discard your scarf tonight.
Tonight is not a time for timidity.
The way you are, one is not comfortable with you.
Love has always been a major theme in Persian poetry. These days, however, the slightest deviation from strict rules of conduct for men and women make the expression of any form of love outside traditional marriage if not a crime at least an “insult” to the revolution. And, yet, many of the poems recited this year openly violated that rule.
Here is one example by Yalda Engali, a young female poet:
Someone sits in front of me, in your place,
Someone whose eyes are full of life.
Remember I always asked, “Will there be any hope after you?”
Now I know that I will have a feast.
Now I know that this tremulous clot
Will kill the sorrows of the past.
Finally, there is a note of defiance in many poems. Here is one example by Abbas Fumani:
What will you do more than you have done?
Who will you kill next?
Which falsehood will you propagate next?
Which trees will you cut
To make more gallows?