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When the Ayatollah Dictates Poetry | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A handout picture made available on 24 June 2015 by the Supreme leader official website shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking during a meeting with Iranian government in Tehran, Iran on June 23, 2015. (EPA/SUPREME LEADER OFFICIAL WEBSITE)

A handout picture made available on 24 June 2015 by the Supreme leader official website shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking during a meeting with Iranian government in Tehran, Iran on June 23, 2015. (EPA/Supreme Leader official website)

A handout picture made available on 24 June 2015 by the Supreme leader official website shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking during a meeting with Iranian government in Tehran, Iran on June 23, 2015. (EPA/Supreme Leader official website)

“There are hands at work to lead our young poets away from their epic revolutionary mission, putting them in the service of a corrupt culture.” This is how last Monday night Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s “Supreme Guide,” revealed his latest concern. According to him unidentified “conspirators” want Iranian poets to write about “sexual desires, physical beauty, personal gain, and even praise for cruelty.”

Khamenei was addressing a group of poets at one of the by-invitation-only events he organizes each year. Himself an amateur poet, although he has so far shied away from showing his work outside small circles, Khamenei outlined a road-map for what he described as “a comprehensive plan for the further development of poetry in the Islamic Republic.”

He called on government to provide the resources necessary to encourage poets to steer clear of “trivial themes” such as physical beauty and love. The modern Islamic poet, he believes, should use poetry as “a weapon in the war of the Truth (Haq) against Falsehood (Batil).”

Some poets still write about the hair and eyes and body of a beloved and depict scenes of joy when lovers meet to drink and dance and be merry. But that is not the kind of poetry that the Islamic movement, grown on the concept of jihad and martyrdom, wants.

“The poetry that we want must be in the service of revolutionary goals,” the Ayatollah said.

“Today, only poems aimed at leading the ummah [Islamic community] into the battlefield against tyranny are regarded as valuable,” he said. “In that context, especially needed are poems about Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Gaza, Palestine, and Syria”.

Sadly, the Ayatollah notes, few Iranian poets were writing about those “vital themes.” Worse still, some were even tempted to side with “the Falsehood Front,” in which case they were guilty of “crime and betrayal” and had no place in the Islamic Republic.

Among the poems recited at the session, Khamenei praised two. One was written by his relative Ghulam-Ali Haddad-Adel and the other by a young poet Reza Nikui. That the Ayatollah was pleased is no surprise. Written in traditional style, both poems heaped on him praise that would have made even a medieval Persian potentate blush in embarrassment.

Khamenei is not the first ruler of Iran with whom poets have run into trouble.

For some 12 centuries poetry has been the Iranian people’s principal medium of expression. Iran may be the only country where not a single home is found without at least one book of poems.

Initially, Persian poets had a hard time to define their place in society. The newly converted Islamic rulers suspected the poets of trying to revive the Zoroastrian faith to undermine the new religion. Clerics saw poets as people who wished to keep the Persian language alive and thus sabotage the ascent of Arabic as the new lingua franca. Without the early Persian poets, Iranians might have ended up like so many other nations in the Middle East who lost their native languages and became Arabic speakers.

Early on, Persian poets developed a strategy to check the ardor of the rulers and the mullahs. They started every qasida with praise to God and Prophet followed by panegyric for the ruler of the day. Once those “obligations” were out of the way they would move on to the real themes of the poems they wished to compose.

Everyone knew that there was some trick involved but everyone accepted the result because it was good.

Despite that modus vivendi some poets did end up in prison or in exile while many others spent their lives in hardship if not poverty. However, poets were never put to the sword. The Khomeinist regime is the first in Iran’s history to have executed so many poets.

Implicitly or explicitly, some rulers made it clear what the poet couldn’t write. But none ever dreamt of telling the poet what he should write. Khamenei is the first to try to dictate to poets, accusing them of “crime” and” betrayal” if they ignored his injunctions.

The idea that poetry is a weapon in the service of an ideology is not new.

In the old Soviet Union it was presented under the label “Socialist Realism” in the service of the global proletarian revolution. Two of Stalin’s literary mentors, Andrei Zhdanov and Alexander Fadeyev, promoted the theory that before Communism human literature had been nothing but “a fog of superstition and lies” in the service of feudalism and, later, the bourgeois capitalist system.

“The cliché about art for art’s sake is a bourgeois trick to deprive the proletariat from using literature as a weapon in the class struggle,” Fadeyev wrote.

For a while, Socialist realism seduced many, including some genuine poets as Vladimir Mayakovsky.

“The revolutionary poet writes on commission from the people,” Mayakovsky wrote.

Soon, however, he realized that the “commission” came from Soviet commissars not the people. He committed suicide.

Stalin’s Socialist Realism produced no lasting works of literature. Today, even Mayakovsky is all but forgotten. Instead, “bourgeois” and “counterrevolutionary” poets such as Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsevetaeva, and my late friend Joseph Brodsky remain the shining stars of Russian poetry.

Four decades after the mullahs created the Khomeinist republic their revolution has not produced a single poet worth the name.

Khomeini and Khamenei, both amateur poets, have produced nothing but frankly embarrassing imitations of classical ghazal without its charm.

The last remaining great poets of the pre-revolution era are all in exile, among them Hushang Ebtehaj, Manuchehr Yektai, Yadollah Roya’i, Esmail Khoi, Muhammad Jalali, and Hadi Khorsandi.

Inside Iran, some promising younger poets such as Sa’id Sultanpour, Heydar Mehregan, and, more recently, Hashem Shaabani were executed by the regime but gained posthumous popularity greater than any officially endorsed poet.

At the same time, almost all of Iran’s poets, from the 9th century to this day, are either censored or, in rare cases, totally banned by the mullahs. Most poets of the past 100 years are on various blacklists established by the oxymoronically named Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture.

And, yet, Khamenei calls on the government to prepare a plan, and allocate resources, to increase the production of poetry as if it were the same as centrifuges churning out enriched uranium.

“How could anyone tell me what poem to write when I myself don’t know what I am writing until I have written it,” demanded Fereidun Moshiri, one of Iran’s best-known pre-revolution poets. “The poet does not work according to any plan. He is seized by the throat by an invisible angel, who guides him to the desk and cajoles him write.”

Whoever he or she may be working for, the “invisible muse” is certainly not an apparatchik of the Islamic mukhaberat.

Poetry interprets the chaos of human life and tries to bestow meaning on it. Without imagination there could be no poetry; and imagination chained by ideology produces only propaganda.

Here is an example:

We cry: Allah, Quran, Khomeini
On our way to martyrdom and paradise
We know that when the time comes
The Hidden Imam by our side shall rise!

Khamenei was a jealous admirer of Mehdi Akhavan, one of the greatest of Persian poets in the second half of the last century. Akhavan did not wish to go into exile and thus was forced to reach some accommodation with the mullahs. Of course, he could not compose qasidas in praise of a regime that represented all that he had detested as a progressive and secular artist. What he was prepared to do was to meet Khamenei every now and then and listen to the latter’s latest poems.

“It was a kind of soft torture,” he later admitted in private.

However, he always drew a red line when Khamenei tried to tell him what kind of poetry he should write.

“I may have been forced to read the poems that he wrote,” Akhavan told friends during a brief visit to Paris. “But I could not be forced to write the poems that he liked to read.”

Before Khamenei, many failed poets who achieved political power tried to dictate to poets, among them the Qajar Nassereddin Shah and the Chinese despot Mao Zedong. They failed because poetry has a magic genius that defies attempts at definition let alone dictation. Poetry is like love, Rilke wrote to his imaginary young poet, everyone knows what it is but no one can agree on a definition.

Khamenei, aged 77, no longer fits the image of Rilke’s young poet. Nevertheless, maybe for his next birthday someone could give him a copy of Rilke’s magical essay. (Two excellent Persian translations are available.)

To get an idea of what kind of poetry Khamenei likes here is the translation of a ghazal by Muhammad Reza Nikui recited in the presence of the “Supreme Guide.” It is in the classical style of panegyrics for despotic rulers:

In Your Praise

Wine-houses tell each other about your wine
When glasses clink together.
You are the truth promised to us
By myths and fables woven together
Every house is a minaret for Allah is the Greatest
This is how our houses are linked together.
With you as the candle burning in our circle
What a sight is the gathering of moths together
Like the beads of a rosary we are together
Creating a chain of unity together.
Your great miracle is that of love—
Which has brought us from ruins together.