Ask the average Iranian about the persons they most admire 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 (if not reverence) to poetry, Iranian poets have 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 them 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 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 (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 poet 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 “Great Satan,” America. 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 poet Fatemeh Ehktesari, possibly the most interesting Iranian surrealist, was sentenced to 11 years in prison along with his companion Mehdi Mussavi, another 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, Rumi, and Khaju Kermani—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 that contradict the essence of Iranian-ness. Imprisoning and killing poets is one of the worst of those ways.
Edited by Al Bawaba
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