Iran has long been one of the few countries where poetry enjoys mass popularity. So, it came as no surprise that the death earlier this week of the poet Moshfeq Kashani was treated as a major event with a special message from Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei paying tribute to the poet and miles of coverage in the official media. Kashani collapsed and died during a ceremony honoring another poet in Tehran. “With his death we have all become orphans,” said former president Mohammad Khatami who was present at the ceremony.
At the same time, however, the same authorities that heaped praise on the 89-year-old Kashani were determined to prevent any attempt at marking the first anniversary of the execution of another poet, the much younger Hashem Shaabani, who was sentenced to death by hanging on a charge of “waging war on God”.
Shaabani, then aged 32, was put to death along with another human rights activist Hadi Rashedi after three years of imprisonment and a trial before the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal that violated even the laws of the Islamic Republic itself.
Last week, Shaabani’s friends and relatives tried to organize a memorial service in his native town of Ramshir, southwest Iran, but were refused the needed permits. And when some friends gathered to recite some of his poems in Arabic and Persian, a contingent of Baseej (mobalization) militiamen arrived to break up the gathering and arrest a number of “troublemakers.”
Over the past year, the Islamic authorities have also refused to release the poet’s papers, including manuscripts of some of his poems, seized in raids on his home and the homes of his parents and other relatives.
So why does the Islamic Republic honor one poet while trying to efface the memory of another?
The answer is simple: Kashani was an official versifier dedicated to employing the little poetic talent he had in the service of regime propaganda. He wrote ghazals (sonnets) and qasidas (ballads) praising the late Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Khamenei. As president of the Association of Islamic Poets, founded on Khamenei‘s orders, he was a prominent member of the nomenclature. Once a month he was called in by Khamenei to listen to the latest ghazals written by the Supreme Guide who, perhaps imitating Khomeini, has always fancied himself a poet.
To Kashani, a true poet had to be committed to the revolution. “What is poetry if not a weapon in the service of Islam and our revolution?” he asked in a recent interview.
[blockquote]When I remember the tragedy of Muharram, the martyrdom of Hussein,
My heart is set on fire.
In Muharram tremulous chagrins explode.
Poets are guardians of this tale of love.
Do not let the chain of that narrative to be broken.[/blockquote]
Because the Persian language is extremely musical, even the most amateurish poems could resonate with Iranians. Kashani’s poems are no exception. Using a limited vocabulary, heavily dominated by clichés borrowed from classical poems, things like “your eyebrows resemble the crescent moon” and “Zohreh (Venus) playing the sitar in the sky,” Kashani’s poems sound familiar and thus, to many, somehow reassuring. Because he introduces no unexpected images and absolutely no new ideas, Kashani gives us a poetry that is there and not there, part of the ambient noise of life something like pumped music in lifts or shopping malls.
Kashani’s panegyrics for Khomeini and Khamenei belong to a tradition over twelve centuries old in which poets wrote long odes to emirs, sultans and viziers in exchange for their generosity. Some panegyrists, like Anvari, Onsori and Manuchehri, became great poets because they did not limit themselves to formal odes of praise for the patron. Yet another factor saved them from utter banality: the novelty of the poetic forms in those early days of Iran’s national renaissance. Such factors do not work for Kashani because Iran today is not what it was such a long time ago.
It is no surprise that in an interview, published by Khamenei’s official website, Kashani advises young poets to steer clear of “innovations”. He insists that “writing free verse is a big mistake.” Not for him Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Shaabani, on the other hand, is a modernist through and through. He represents the new Iran which wants to be part of the modern world with its gift of nonconformity, diversity and, yes, risk-taking.
Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani prevented Iranians from remembering Shaabani even with a simple ceremony. However, history will remember him long after they are forgotten.
Here are three short poems by Shaabani (translated by Fadel Sultani and Amir Taheri):
[blockquote]Message to Baal
No, we shall not, tell this to your Baal*
We shall not kneel for hollow idols.
Kneel we shall not when his chorus sings
Hymns made of lies with tunes of hate.
Would we don the red shroud of love-
if kneelers we were?
We shall not kneel!
Neither his knout, nor words of poison
Shall make us kneel, tell you this to Baal.
His jingling chains, his solid locks, his barbed wire fence
Cannot make us kneel.
No, we shall not, tell this to your Baal.
What are his mosques? Dens of corruption
Where we shall not, we shall not kneel.
We know of his numerous armies-
All composed of ruffians and thieves.
We know of his Ali Baba caves, filled with stolen gold.
We know of his steel-walled prisons,
Of his spy-flies on every wall, watching
Of his torture chambers- called
The compliance workshop” euphemistically.
But comply we shall not, we shall not kneel!
We were born free and intend to die
As free as when we were born in this land.
We shall not kneel, no we shall not!
* Baal was the principal idol in ancient Babylon[/blockquote]
[blockquote]He Flies Over the Town
He rides the clouds on wings of thunder
Surfs the Karun* on skates of fire.
He is like no one, and no one is like him.
And yet, in a sense, he is everyone.
He is everyone, even though no one
Knows it- not knowing the secret.
Wayward Sufis look to him for the path
Silent, he smiles points a finger,
To the rose-tinted East.
No one is like him, though everyone could be
If they knew how to fly with wings of thunder.
If they knew to surf on skates of fire.
He is the singer and he is the song
He is the drinker and he is the wine.
He will live for me, for you, for all
He will die for me, for you, for all.
He is like no one, didn’t I tell you?
He is everyone, didn’t I tell you?
* Karun is the great river passing through the city of Ahvaz[/blockquote]
[blockquote]On the Wrong Side
From our side of the river, befogged in darkness
We saw beacons on the other side-
beckoning us to a feast of light.
We swam the river, daring the waves.
But when we reached, there was another river
another river with another bank-
where beacons shone invitingly
to us on our new dark side.
From the window of our frozen winter
We saw spring dancing in the garden
But when we broke the wall of ice
to descend and join the dance of spring
There was another window in another winter
And another garden where the spring . . .[/blockquote]