Poet Ali Al-Damini: Voice of Modernity in Saudi Arabia is still High


Dammam – “On the way towards the poem’s doors”, the paths meet at the threshold of the experience of Saudi poet Ali al-Damini, who actively contributed in the establishment of the modern poetic movement in Saudi Arabia and became a prominent name in the stumbling modernity project.

Two years ago, the elite of poetry, criticism and literature met to present their appreciation for the poetic and literary experience of Damini, and his dedication to the modernity project. They poured all their gratitude in a book called “On the way towards the poem’s doors… Ali Al-Damini, studies, readings, and testimonies on his poetry and cultural experience”.

Dr. Mojab Al-Zahrani described him as a “transparent lyricist whose original poeticism is expressed when he talks about love.” Poet Fouzia Abu Khaled meanwhile described him as the rebel poet in both form and content just as the sea winds that cannot bear the burden of stability.”

Asharq Al-Awsat met Damini at his Saudi residence in Dammam to talk more about the modernity project, his poetic and literary experience.

– You were the voice of the stumbling modernity project in Saudi Arabia. How do you look at this project today?

Modernity in accordance to its values that govern the sovereignty of rationality, freedom, democracy, liberation of the self, and creative existence from the burdens of heritage, customs, style, and social and political oppression, can only be achieved in general within a system of dialectical and integrative interactions between the cultural, social, economic and political component of any society. It is not limited to thought, literature and arts alone, although the latter maintains a different privacy and independence.

We have therefore seen that the effects of modern thought, philosophy and creativity have accompanied the Renaissance and contributed to the emergence of modernity in the West in general. To a much less extent, the intellectual and literary interaction in the Arabic capitals, from Cairo to Beirut to Baghdad, has been affected within the particularity of the superstructure. This superstructure has since the beginning of the 20th century been open to all that is new in the world, with output that is outside the Arab world intellectually and literary, despite the lack of Arab cultural, social, and political structures.

– How is the project of modernity born from the womb of a tribal society and how can it grow in a fundamentalist environment?

We can look at our society in Saudi Arabia where we witnessed Mohamed Hassan Awwad’s loud voice in the stronghold of fundamentalism and tribalism to usher in a new era that looks forward to freedom, free thought and new creativity. He was a pioneer in writing free verse poetry in the Arab world. This happened despite the ferocity of confrontation with socially and politically conservative structures. Many names can be stated here, especially in the fields of literature, social thought, and creativity, such as Abdullah Abdul-Jabbar, Hamza Shehata, Abdulah Al-Qassimi, Ahmad Sbaie, Abd Al-Kareem Al-Juhaiman and many others.

– What about you?

If we talk about the field of poetry specifically, I count myself as a branch in the tree of renewal, freedom and renaissance in the whole world. I consider myself as one of those who walked on this long path in our country, such as Hasan Qureishi, Ghazi Al-Gusabi and Mohammed Al-Ali.

– Can a modernistic experiment in literature be accomplished in isolation from society?

The journey of modernity in literature and poetry in our country precisely cannot be accomplished unless all components of society are integrated to reach the values and mechanisms of modernity in its different aspects. Here comes the part of poetry and other arts to play an enlightening role in this stage and context.

– What did this project achieve at the public level?

I affirm that the project of literary and artistic modernity in our country has overcome all the violence from all social and official sides. Despite all the obstacles, it was able to draw a bright picture that we cherish in literary criticism, poetry, narration, experimental theater and new cinema.

Concerning poetry in particular, we can name some prominent poetic names in the Arab world, such as as Mohammed Ali, Mohammed Al-Thubaiti, Fawzia Abu Khaled, Ahmed Mulla, Jassim Al-Saheeh and Ali Al-Hazmi and others.

– You supervised the cultural appendix “Almarbad” in the climax of the battle between the modernists and their opponents. To what extent did you succeed in embracing the marginalized voices at that time?

There were many newspapers at that time along with Al-Marbad, such as Al-Yamama, Riyadh, Al-Jazeera, Okaz newspapers, and then Iqraa magazine. Al-Marbad, despite the limited resources, was able to embrace many creative pens in poetry, story and criticism. It was an early platform for the publication of poets in our country who suffered from marginalization.

– Where are the voices of modernists today?

Those following our cultural platforms in newspapers, literary clubs, art associations, social networking platforms, libraries and book fairs, will hear the high voice of modernity in various fields. We have recently prepared a special file on the poetic movement in the Kingdom. It will be published soon in the Moroccan magazine, “House of Poetry”, and you will be delighted by its rich creative innovation and the multiplicity of sources. Poetry is written as a vertical poem, free poetry, and prose, in addition to the modern popular poem. As for literary criticism, we are living in its brightest stages, especially among our youth as seen in their masters and doctorate theses.

– Opponents of modernity raised the issue of religious sensitivity to block its movement. What did the modernists do to avoid falling into this trap?

The opponents of modernity used every possible way to stand against us, from fabricating charges of westernization, to vandalism, and distortion of the language of Quran. But modernity has won despite all odds.

– Do you still chant: “My blood is thirsty, and the stones of the valley are my tongue”? Are you still haunted with worries?

Yes, I’m still haunted with worries, looking for new aesthetic poetic paths that quench my thirst on the long path towards a better tomorrow, which I do not see today, but I never doubt it is born in every moment to shine on our bloody existence.

Where Writing Poems in Arabic Could Land You in Prison

Tomb of Hafez, Iran

Ask any Iranian who the persons they most admire are and you are likely to hear a list of poets- from Ferdowsi and Saadi centuries ago to Iraj Mirza and Sohrab Sepehri more recently.

For an average Iranian, the poet is not only a creator of beauty but also the guardian of the nation’s conscience.

Iran is one of few countries in the world where the list of celebrities at any given time includes a number of poets and where poetry recitals draw crowds that compete with those of pop music concerts.

Because of that deference to, not to say reverence, for poetry, Iranian poets always managed to escape the worst effects of repression during centuries of despotic rule. No autocrat, no potentate, dared send a poet to prison, let alone have him killed.

What is known as modern Persian poetry has a history dating back to almost 11 centuries ago when a handful of Khorassani poets revived writing in their native language. In all those centuries we have a few examples of poets being imprisoned. The most notorious case was that of Masoud Saad Salman, born in 1046 in Lahore, now part of the newly created state of Pakistan. After being hailed as a rising star in the Ghaznavid court, Masoud fell victim to intrigues and was imprisoned in the Nay Fortress for almost two decades. The odes (qasidas) he wrote while in prison have become treasured parts of the Persian literary canon.

“A ruler who jails a poet earns internal infamy”, wrote the poet Manuchehr Atashi.

More recently, the brief imprisonment of the poets Mirzadeh Eshqi and Farrokhi Yazdi became black marks in Reza Shah’s otherwise impressive record as a modernizing leader.

Respecting poets and tolerating their political and social “misbehavior” has been part of the code of Iranian-ness.

And, yet, that time-honored tradition has been broken by Iran’s current “Islamic” regime created by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

Himself a minor poet, Khomeini seems to have had a grudge against poets. One of the first acts of his regime was to have the young poet Saeed Soltanpour, abducted from his wedding ceremony, and executed on a spurious charge of “Communist militancy.” Later, the poet Rahman Hatefi-Monfared, alias Heydar Mehregan, who was also a noted journalist, was put to death under torture in one of Khomeini’s prisons.

Under President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a plan to kill a busload of Iranian poets on their way to a festival in Armenia failed at the last minute. Nevertheless, Rafsanjani succeeded in eliminating more than a dozen writers and poets through extra-judicial killings. The worst spate of killings happened under President Khatami, when more than 80 intellectuals, including the poets Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad-Ja’far Pouyandeh, were murdered by the Islamic regime’s security agents.

Poets who escaped prison or death were subjected to psychological pressure, including a ban on the publication of their work. The poetess Simin Behbahani was frequently called in by Islamic Security for “an informal talk”, a trick to exert psychological pressure. Mehdi Akhavan, one of the towering figures of Persian poetry in the past 100 years, suffered similar intimidation and was for years not allowed to travel abroad. The case of Muhammad Qahraman, a classical poet, was even worse as, it seems, he was victim to a personal grudge of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. In his late 70s, Qahraman had his civil service pension stopped after he circulated a sonnet (ghazal) lampooning the mullahs.

According to an account that may be apocryphal, Khamenei developed the grudge in the 1970s when Qahraman criticized one of his poems during a private gathering in Mash’had, their hometown. Since then, Khamenei has refused to read his own poems to anyone or to have them published. Instead, he organizes annual poetry competitions and presides over poetry reading sessions at least three times a year. Recently, he ordered poets to write only about revolution, martyrdom, wiping Zionism off the map, and destroying the American “Great Satan”. It is not hard to see what kind of poet may be attracted to his circle on such terms.

Since the mullahs seized power, many poets had to choose exile, among them such popular poets as Nader Naderpour, Esmail Khoi, Yadallah Royai, Reza Baraheni, and Muhammad Jalali, alias M. Sahar. Even Hushang Ebtehaj, an ex-Marxist poet who still supports the regime, prefers to live in exile in Germany.

Hashem Shaabani, an Arab-Iranian poet and teacher, was hanged on the eve of President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Ahvaz in January 2014. Also under Rouhani the poetess Fatemeh Ehktesari, possibly the most interesting Iranian surrealist, was sentenced to 11 years in prison along with his companion Mehdi Mussavi, also a poet and publisher.

Last Monday, Islamic Security arrested two other poets Saheb Mushaylashi and Ahmad Hadhbawi, both Arab-Iranians living in Ahvaz in the southwest province of Khuzestan. Both are in their late 20s and are known as friends of the late Shaabani.

Their crime? Organizing a poetry recital at Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan festival. Government propaganda claims that their poetry, both in Arabic and Persian, is designed to foment “discord and anti-Islamic deviations”.

Regime propaganda claims that by writing poems in Arabic, the two, like Shaabani before them, try to undermine national security and unity. However, Iran has a long history of poets writing in both Persian and other languages, including Arabic. Such great poets as Sana’i, Roumi, and Khaju Kermani, and even the great Saadi himself wrote many verses in Arabic.

Over the centuries, there have been hundreds of Iranian poets who have written in their native tongues and dialects or even foreign languages, in addition to Persian. More recently Muhammad Hussein Shahriar, one of the greatest writers of “Ghazal” in the past 100 years, also wrote in Azari, his mother tongue. His long epic poem, “Heydar Baba, Salaam!” is a classic of the Azari language. Before the Khomeinist revolution, Shahriar was bestowed with the highest national honors because of that epic.

Iran is rich in poems written in Kurdish, Baluchi, Turkmen, Tati, Marati, Luri, Mazani, Gilaki and the other 18 languages native to the Iranian Plateau.

There are Iranian poets who wrote or still write even in European languages. Fereidun Rahnema’s poems in French are cherished examples of literary beauty and Mimi Khalvati’s verse in English is a gem in modern English poetry.

Writing in German we have Saeed (who uses only his first name) producing work important enough to get him elected as the first non-German writer to become President of Germany’s section of the PEN.

That writing poems in Arabic, which is after all the language of the Koran, is regarded as a crime in a regime that claims to be “the sole true defender of Islam in the world” is bizarre to say the least. It is also strange, as one commentator noted on his Twitter account, that people writing in Arabic are allowed to recite their poems in public in Israel but not in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There are many ways in which the current regime operates in ways that are in contradiction with the essence of Iranian-ness. Imprisoning and killing poets is one of the worst of those ways.

After Trump’s Election … U.S. Interest in Rumi Peaks

Washington- Last week, The Washington Post wrote: “How wonderful it is that Rumi, the 13th-century Muslim versifier, has become the best-selling poet in the United States! He might enjoy knowing that Trump’s America is snapping up translations of his tinged work even as the country toys with banning Muslims and rolling back gay rights”.

The Los Angeles Times also wrote: “Rumi, like Omar Khayyam, has become the warm and fuzzy ecumenical poet of choice for weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies and funerals. A benign mist dews our lens on a golden-age Islam”.

“Edward Said would rap our bourgeois knuckles for the way we idealize classical Persia”, wrote the Chicago Tribune.

These comments were published to emphasize the release of “”Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love,” book by Brad Gooch, an English professor from Paterson University in New Jersey.

Rumi was born in Afghanistan and lived in Baghdad, Damascus, and Turkey. He was the chief of Sufism.

However, Americans’ interest in Rumi is recent. The U.S. Poet Coleman Barks translated some of the Sufism Chief’s poems including “Necessities of Rumi” in 1995 and ‘The Book of Love” in 2003. Some of the U.S. most prominent singers like Madonna and Demi Moore sang Runi’s words, as he was an important musician and used to play flute.

American’s interest in Rumi peaked in 2007and in his 800th anniversary, the UNESCO distributed medals holding his name.

Sayed Hijab: Great Poet from Egypt Passes Away

Cairo- With deep feelings of sadness and pain, Egyptians mourned Sayed Hijab, one of the Arab world’s most eminent poets. Hijab passed away at the age of 77 after a long battle with illness at Maadi Armed Forces Hospital.

A large number of intellects, artists, and writers including Culture Minister Helmi el Namnam, Amr Moussa, the former Arab League Secretary General, and the former Minister of Culture attended the poet’s funeral.

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail also mourned the eminent poet and praised his contributions to poetry, literature, and art, considering him one of the most important poets in the country.

Namnam mourned the death of Hijab, saying he was one of the 1960s poets, who witnessed many political events and circumstances which directed him to be a leading figure supporting national, social and political issues.

He added that many singers sang the writings and lyrics of Hijab, which made him even more famous.

Hijab was born in Daqahliya governorate on September 23, 1940. He was influenced by his city’s climate and the world of sea and fishing. His father, who was his first instructor, loved popular poetry and encouraged him on growing his talent and enhancing it with education.

He worked with the best poets in Egypt like Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi and Salah Jahin. He also composed lyrics for many movies and TV series.

Hijab was a co-founder of the Gallery 68 magazine, which published studies and poetry. This magazine was an attempt to compose an independent literature group and to mark the presence of writers amid the absence of an efficient union for writers.

Hijab spent his life striving for freedom and justice. He also provided myriad of modest works that touched the hearts of simple uneducated people.

The late poet received many awards and was honored by the 26th Tunisia Book Fair as one of the best poetry symbols in the Arab World.

The Nation’s Bitterness, Burdens the Heart

Ghareeb Iskander

London- The Iraqi poet and translator Ghareeb Iskander has made a remarkable step by translating a bouquet of poem for the Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, aiming at enhancing dialogue among different cultures and to offer the Arab reader a new opportunity to acquaint a new rich experience in poetry, for one of the most important modern poets according to The Sunday Times.

In his introduction, Iskander has pointed that the majority of poems he translated for Walcott have been selected from the “White Egrets” collection, which received the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2010.

The Iraqi translator has revealed that the Caribbean poet has used some fictional titles and has chosen time as a dominating theme in his poems.

Walcott received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature and was a leading candidate for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. However, he was obliged to withdraw his candidature after he was accused of harassing a student.

Who is Derek Walcott?

He was born in Saint Lucia in 1930 and was known as the best cricket players in that region. However, he realized his love for poetry and composed his first collection that comprised 25 poems while he was 18 years old; two years later, he wrote his first play.

Walcott speaks and reads English, French and Spanish. He believed that poetry is a space of expression which can embrace all the human energies and be guided by people’s longing, especially for motherland.

Ghareeb Iskander masters English and Arabic and has been significantly interested in English-written poetry; he is an academic who has focused his efforts in the fields of poetry and translation studies and has many poetry collections and translated books.

Fruitless Festivals, Conferences


In the past, while the unions of Arabic books, public and private cultural institutions didn’t exist or were in the founding stage, we used to have special magazines that represented real interaction means among poets, writers, critics, and the Arabian reader.

Thanks to a magazine like “Al-Risala” owned by Ahmad Hasan al-Zayat founded in 1933, Arabs met the first free verse poem ‘Cholera” written by the Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Malaika in 1947, which raised debates across the Arab world. Thanks to another magazine like Al-Adab for Suheil Idriss; “Al-Adib” for Albert Adeeb; and later on ‘She’r” magazine for Yussef Al-Khal, Arab readers from all regions knew Iraqi, Egyptians, Lebanese and Syrian poets including Ounsi el-Hajj and Ahmad Matar.

Would modern poetry had spread or realized its biggest revolution or would the Arab Arab reader have heard about those poets and their leading experiences without these national magazines? We doubt that; rather, the new wave of literary works could had been limited within the borders of the poem’s country or needed a long time to reach the other Arab cultural field, like what’s happening during these days.
These magazines were the reason behind the fame of the aforementioned poets in the Arab world.

However, the most important thing is that they have created a sort of real interaction among Arab writers and critics and provoked cultural debates that advanced the cultural and literary movement in a short time; at the same time, they provided the writer with a remarkable knowledge on different cultural schools.

The objective here is not to highlight the achievements of those magazines, but to point to their absence, which triggered a huge need for real interaction among the Arab cultural elite.

Our world is rich of festivals and ceremonies that are retake place with the same figures without significant results. All these events have failed to fulfill the vital beneficial role played by the four or five magazines that brought a fruitful interaction among Arab intellects despite their limited sources and staff; those magazines believed in their cultural message and neglected social appearances.

Unfortunately, all festivals and events that have been held in our days depend on spending huge amounts of money and holding attractive celebrations; however fail in leaving any impact by the end of the ceremonies.

Moroccan Intellectuals: Today’s Debates, Title of Damaged Cultural Scene

Moroccan Intellectuals

Marrakesh-With deep remorse, Moroccan intellectuals recall the positive debates that distinguished the cultural Arabic scene over the past decades, before they got involved in the current damaged reality controlled by grudges and immoral values.

Supporters of these values beg for fake compliments and hypocrisy to take place of old fruitful debates by other worthless conflicts controlled by lobbies, envy, plot, and bad intentions, far from literature and intellect.

The Moroccan poet Mohammad Belmo says that discussing the reasons behind the lack of national and Arabic cultural debates is very important, because it will be based on comparing today with the past decades that had writers like Mahmoud Al-Akkad, Mahdi Amel, Taha Hussein, and others who played a critical role in the Arabian intellectual and cultural renaissance, and because it reflects the low level of decay reached by the debate and dialogue in the Arab region over the past years.

The poet insists that the lack of cultural debate today is not only the result of lacking such intellectuals, yet, it is also caused by the invasion of a political-ideological debate that filled the gap caused by deterioration of social liberal, democratic, communist, and national projects adopted by Arabian intellectuals.

Belmo sees that when reviewing the current political ideological debate that’s controlling the scene, people should notice the weakness of the spread intellect. He adds that debates of the past, like those which took place between the Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Kassem in their letters in the “Yom Sabeh” magazine were based on respect and civilized dialogue, unlike today’s debate, which is based on rivalry, mutual despise, distrust, and despicable speech.

Belmo concludes his point of view saying that this new form of debate in an extremist ideology pointing to an intellectual regression that aims to control and acquire the area and the details of the community by oppressing the voices of wisdom.

The Moroccan novelist and critic Ibrahim Al-Hajri says that regression in the function of debates among intellectuals of the Arabic world indicates that those people are no longer concerned with the world around them, as if they have resigned from their social mission.

According to Hajri, this transformation in the debate is due to many reasons especially the growing gap between the politician and the educated, and the spread of technological devices, which dumped each individual in an absolute isolation and obstructed him from direct interactions and fruitful discussions.

Observers of the Moroccan cultural scene agree that poetry is one of the most fields that witnessed conflicts among intellectuals, yet with maintaining a level of respect, morals, civilized dialogue, and fine language.

Certainly, this conflict is based on the difference in the perspective of poetry among individuals and generations of modern poetry in Morocco. The Poet Yassine Adnan says that the Moroccan poets considered themselves as alternatives for all the writings of other Moroccans. He added that things today began to change and that he discovered that they rejected many forms of poetry without even reading them or understanding their motives.

He continued that today he became a more humble poet with less expectations and ambitions, feeling that poetry has never been spread in his country.

Opinion: The Battle Between Excellent Writers – “The Last Two Lines of the Article”

The war of the press did not last as long as the war that was based on Nizar Qabbani’s poem “Margins in a Book of Setback” after the 1967 war. There was not a single writer or a poet, major or minor, who did not attack him, praise him or gain fame by saying “I am also here and I can respond to Nizar”.

Those who scolded him were many in number and the first of them was President Gamal Abdel Nasser who considered himself to be the first person concerned with Nizar’s words. He said “I announce to you, my friends, the death of the old language, old books, old words of sorrow and insults. I announce to you … I announce to you, the end of the ideology that led to the defeat”. However, Nizar wrote to Abdel Nasser to explain his sorrows and their causes, and the Egyptian president decided that the issue had been resolved. However, his supporters thought otherwise.

As usual during these kinds of battles, Nizar said his words and walked away. In her book “Nizar and Forbidden Poems”, the writer Nawal Mustafa said that Nizar came out of that crisis victorious just like he did with other crises. The controversy over the “Margins in a Book of Setback” continued for many months. You would see both famous and unknown people making comments and responding to them. On the inside, Nizar felt flattered and proud that he had shaken the pillars of the nation. He was the type of poet who felt that he “must marry the public” as the poet said. He used to happily say to me whilst laughing “I will follow every reader of Arabic to the other side of the world to collect a hundred dollars for the price of the collection of poems from them”.

After the controversy that Nizar’s poem caused, he enjoyed stirring political storms around him as opposed to the storms of adoration that he had stirred since the end of the forties. When he was seventy five, I wrote a lengthy opinion article in praise of the great poet and the beautiful person that he was. I ended it with two lines in which I expressed my wishes that he would stop writing love poetry out of respect for his age. I knew in advance that my phone would not ring anymore.

After a long time, we met by chance in front of Harrods and we hugged each other “like nothing had happened”. Then we strolled to a nearby coffee shop and after more than an hour we got up to leave. I said to him “Abu Tawfiq, you may have been upset by my article…” He immediately responded in his Levantine dialect “Of course not! There were two articles; the second consisted of two lines that the Editor in Chief added to the first one!”

He continued to stir storms until his illness, either through his weekly article in “Al-Hayat” and sometimes as a poet burdened with grief and full of revolt.

A Rainbow That Makes the Heart Leap

Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation
Edited by Sasha Dugdale, David Constantine and Helen Constantine
Published by Bloodaxe Books, London, 2016

In his seminal study of translation, “Mouse or Rat?” the late Italian linguist and novelist Umberto Eco argues for the Latin proverb according to which translating a literary text is always tantamount to a betrayal. He even hints at the possibility that Eve decided to devour the forbidden fruit because of an inadequate translation of the injunction not to do so.

On a more mundane level, translation could cause confusion and even conflict in many walks of life even within the same family of languages. For example, in British English the verb “to table” means “to put forward a text or a resolution” while in American English it means “to withdraw a text.” As Eco notes, a mouse is a cuddly creature while a rat is a revulsive pest. On a different level an “orchard” isn’t a “grove” and an epistle is somehow more than a letter. A “gate” is somehow more than just a “door” and you would take a “damsel” for a “wench” at your peril.

In Nabokov’s black comic novel “Pnin”, a misunderstanding of the trains’ timetable leads the eponymous hero, a Russian exile in America, into boarding a different train and ending up where he didn’t want to go and into a story he hadn’t imagined.

If translating even the simplest text, say a manual for your made-in-China washing machine is difficult, you can imagine how much more difficult translating poetry it. You have to be either heroic or reckless to attempt it.

I did so when I was a reckless teenager, working for “Ashna” (The Acquaintance), a literary magazine in Tehran edited by the poet Ahmad Shamlu. I translated dozens of poems, mostly by modern German and French poets until I hit Edith Sitwell’s celebrated poem “Still Falls The Rain” which took me a week to complete and undermined my health, also ending my ambitions as a translator.

So you can imagine how I felt when faced with this amazing object of bravura that is an anthology of 250 modern and post-modern poems in translation from more than a dozen languages.

The poems are chosen from the many issues of the magazine “Modern Poetry in Translation” (MPT) founded by the late Ted Hughes, England’s most celebrated Poet Laureate, in 1965. The fact that the magazine has enjoyed such longevity is a tribute to England’s status as one of two or three countries where poetry is still regarded with keen interest, and even a certain deference.

The anthology shuns any particular order; a fruit of Catholic, not to say chaotic, tastes of the translators. The translators, many of them poets themselves, wanted to share with others what they liked. Inevitably, perhaps, the bulk of the poems offered here are from European languages, including some like Irish and Franconian German, which thrive in very small communities.

There is also no chronological order, perhaps because poetry, or at least good poetry, is timeless. Instead, the editors have tried to erect a thematic structure. Again, inevitably, the themes chosen are those that reflect the existential reality of the past century or so- an age of revolutions, wars, genocides, oppression, betrayals, but also of struggle, hope and, occasional triumph of good over evil.

Lovers of poetry would appreciate the fact that the anthology has not been limited to well-known poets like the Russian Osip Mandelstam, the German Bertolt Brecht, the Spanish Federico Garcia Lorca, the Italian Cesare Pavese, or the Iranian Forugh Farrokhzad.

The volume offers much opportunity for happy serendipity as the reader discovers poets he hadn’t heard of before. Examples of this include the Bulgarian poet Georgi Gospodinov and his superb poem “My Mother Reads Poetry”, the Armenian Zahrad and his short poem “Sentence”, and the Chinese poet Yu Jian with his long elegy “Event-Digging”. Other surprises include the poems “Entertainment” and “Liberation” by Hochi Minh, the father of Vietnam’s independence, both written in prison.

Several modern Arab poets are also present, including the Iraqi Fawzi Karim and his tongue-in-cheek ”The Usual Story”, the Sudanese Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi with his short ode “Nothing” and the Iraqi Fadel Assultani and his Larkinesque poem “A Tree”. The Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim is present with an excerpt from his long poem “An Inquest” as is Mahmoud Darwish with two of his longer poems.

Some poets of Arab origin who write in European languages, are also included although, notably the Moroccan Tahar ben Jalloun, a renowned novelist in French. Another Arab poet writing in French is Ridha Zili who is included with two excellent short poems.

The anthology includes some of my favourite Iranian poets who are better known abroad than at home, notably Mimi Khalvati and Ziba Karbassi. There is also the translation of a Persian poem “Dear Fahimeh” addressed to a young woman executed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Intriguingly, we are told that the author is “unknown or concealed”, presumably because he or she is in Iran and thus in danger of being executed by the mullahs.

Some of the interesting later Iranian poets like Hashem Shaabani, executed in Ahvaz under President Hassan Rouhani, or Fatemeh Ekhtesari sentenced to be caned in public, are not included presumably because their work appeared in translation in the West after the anthology was put together.

The poems chosen are of varying lengths. Ernst Jandel’s German poem “Time Flies” consists of only one word ”Lustig” (lusty) written several ties to form a visual pyramid. The Serbian poet Vasco Popa’s “Cape of Good Hope” contains only 49 words. In contrast Pascal Petit’s “At the Gate of Secrets”, after the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhasz, runs into more than a thousand words. Juhasz’ own fascinating poem “The Boy Turned Into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets” is offered in a shortened version.

Some of the most interesting poets of recent times, at least in this opinion, are either not included or presented with just one poem. Among them are the simply divine Polish Wislawa Szymborska with a short poem ”Innocence” and Eugenio Montale who isn’t included along with Jorge Luis Borges who has had great fun with the art of compiling anthologies.

Because the poems are translated by many people, some of them poets in their own right, the anthology reflects a rich variety of styles, tones and sensitivities, providing a real treasure for lovers of poetry everywhere. The publisher Bloodaxe is itself some kind of a miracle and a credit to England, being one of a handful of publishing companies in Europe, still surviving and to some extent even prospering solely by mass-marketing poetry.

This anthology is a veritable literary rainbow of the kind which Ernst Jandl said your heart leaps in the sky when you behold it.

Opinion: Iran, Where Poetry is a National Crime


Does a seminar on reforming the meter and rhyme schemes of Persian poetry violate “Islamic values” and threaten the foundations of the Islamic Republic in Iran? That is the view of the Islamic Court in Tehran which last month sentenced two poets to 9 and 11 years in prison respectively plus 99 lashes of the cane for each in public.

One of the two, Mrs. Fatemeh Ekhtesari, sentenced to 11 and a half years, was found guilty of “undermining the security of the Islamic state” by composing and reciting in public a number of “poems full of ambiguity and capable of being read in deviant and dangerous ways.”

Ekhtesari is a surrealist poet whose verse could, and indeed is intended to be read in many different ways. One of her diwans (collections of verse), for example, is called “Crying on the Shoulder of An Egg”. Another comes under the title “A Feminist Discourse Before Baking Potatoes.”

Feminism is a strong theme with Ekhtesari who insists that since God created both men and women presumably from the same “red mud” mentioned in the Koran, there is no reason to prevent the latter from enjoying any freedoms available to the former.

The Tehran Islamic Prosecutor, however, insisted that Ekhtesari’s “ambiguous poems” were meant to pass “dangerous political messages that could encourage people to distance themselves from the True Faith.”
“She writes something but means something else,” the Prosecutor claimed. “Her trick is to avoid saying anything in a straightforward way, creating space for all manner of dangerous thinking.”

The Islamic Prosecutor based part of his case on the claim that what matters in Islam is “zikr” that is to say constant remembrance of God by repeating, if necessary in silence and to oneself, the formula “There is no God but Allah”. Those who abandon “zikr” for its opposite, which is “fikr”, that is to say thinking, move away from the Path of Faith.

The irony in all this is that Ekhtesari is not a political poet. In fact, she has written that those who try to use poetry to advance political ideals betray both. As editor of the monthly literary magazine “Only One Tomorrow”, Ekhtesari offered space to writers and poets across ideological spectrum, including some Khomeinists.

However, as a poet she cannot be but affected by the ambient social and political order in her homeland. She cannot turn her face the other way when she sees ugliness, oppression and terror, themes that force their way into some of her poems.

Ekhtesari is also an original theoretician of poetic modes. Her collection of essays entitled “Linguistic Tricks in Postmodern Sonnet” is both intriguing and instructive.

Ekhtesari’s fellow convict-cum-poet is Mehdi Mussawi who has received a six-year sentence. Mussawi is the founder and principal animator of a poetry workshop in Tehran where Ekhtesari has often spoken and recited her poems. The workshop is supposedly dedicated to developing a new form which Mussawi calls “postmodern ghazal.”

The argument is that, having experimented with modern forms including European-style prose-poetry for almost a century, Persian poets need to return to traditional forms, albeit with radical changes to reflect modern realities.

Mussawi rejects the argument of older generation poets such as Ahmad Shamlou who claimed that the traditional ghazal is so beholden to the musicality of its meter and rhyme schemes that it cannot relay any meaning in a powerful way.

According to Mussawi, once the Persian poet has learned to play with the traditional rules, he could invent virtually countless meters and rhymes capable of expressing any sentiment.

The Islamic court, however, has charged Mussawi with propagating “immoral images” in his poetry and thus “insulting sacred values of the faithful community.”

Equally painful is the Islamic Court’s decision to impose a blanket ban on the publication and recital of any poems by Ekhtesari and Mussawi. Under an edict issued by the Islamic Guidance Ministry in 2003, people in that position become “non-persons”, even their names and pictures are banned.
Both Ekhtesari and Mussawi spent several months in prison two years ago but were released after the prosecutor failed to prove any political crime. This is why this time, the prosecutor focused on a claim that the poets had attacked “sacred tenets of faith”.

The sentencing was made easier thanks to a recent lecture by “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laying down the rules of what he believes “good Islamic poets” should do when writing poetry.

However, as exiled poet Yadallah Roya’i once noted, one could write an advertising text or a police report on order, but not poetry. “Even the poet cannot order himself to write poetry,” Roya’i noted.” The poet is like a tree, shedding its leaves and flowers so that there is room for future leaves and flowers.”

Iran is one of the few countries in the world where poetry has always been regarded as the highest form of literary creation. Iranian cities, streets and parks were more often named after poets than conquerors or empire-builders. If an Iranian home has at least one book it is likely to be a collection of poems.

And, yet, with the seizure of power by mullahs in 1979, Iran has experienced one of the most dangerous phases in its long history as far as poets and intellectuals in general are concerned.

The irony is that both the founder of the regime, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor as “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cast themselves as amateur poets. Khomeini banned publication of his diwans while he was allowed, believing that appearing as a poet might soften the dour persona he was building as leader of a revolution that could execute 4000 people on a weekend. After his death, however, hundreds of his poems, most of the traditional-style sonnets (ghazals) have been printed by the foundation bearing his name. Khamenei does not publish his poems but organizes private readings with a few dozen “appreciators” once or twice a year.

Ekhtesari and Mussawi have been sent to jail, not killed. Others haven’t been that lucky. Hashem Shaabani was hanged on the eve of President Rouhani’s visit to Ahvaz in 2014.

Shaabani was not the first Iranian poet to be murdered by the mullahs. The left-wing poet Sa’id Sultanpur was abducted on the day of his wedding on Khomeini’s orders and shot dead in a Tehran prison. Rahman Hatefi, writing under the pen-name of Heydar Mehregan, had his veins cut and was left to bleed to death in the Evin prison.

Under President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a plan to kill a busload of Iranian poets on their way to a festival in Armenia failed at the last minute. Nevertheless, Rafsanjani succeeded in eliminating more than a dozen writers and poets. The worst spate of killings happened under President Khatami when more than 80 intellectuals including the poets Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad-Ja’far Pouyandeh were murdered by government agents.

Let’s give the final word to Mussawi: “I hope to see the day when no one is sent to jail in this land for writing poems.” Inshallah!