The different attitude towards poetry in Iran and the West
The Persian poetic mind
25 Aug 2011
■ Ann De Craemer
When a Dutch magazine asked two writers the question ‘how to avoid unhappiness?’ they came up with two totally different answers. ‘Get an abortion’, was the reaction of Flemish author Dimitri Verhulst. ‘Don’t follow any leaders’, said Dutch-Moroccan author Hafid Bouazza.
Their surprisingly different answers have stuck in my mind, but maybe the difference is not so surprising after all. Verhulst is an author who was born and bred in Belgium, whereas Bouazza was born in a poor Moroccan village, his parents emigrating to the Netherlands when he was seven years old. In his autobiographical bestseller De helaasheid der dingen (‘The Shittiness of Things’, 2006), Verhulst describes how he did not want the child when his girlfriend got pregnant, but she decided to keep it. Both in his novel and in interviews, Verhulst has told how he would rather not have been a father – today, he barely has any contact with his son. Without wanting to judge Verhulst’s answer, Bouazza’s answer to the question ‘how to avoid happiness’ reveals a different sort of personality and writer. Bouazza gives an answer which is not cynical and much less related to his personal life, and in his writings, he is indeed much more committed with the world at large than Verhulst.
Thousands of people turned up for Ahmad Shamloo’s funeral in July 2000, which is totally unthinkable in the West when a poet dies
I am giving this example because I thought about it when reading a new Dutch translation of the poetry of Ahmad Shamloo. I read about how thousands of people turned up for his funeral in July 2000, which is totally unthinkable in the West when a poet has died. As far as I know, there is no country in the world where poetry is so highly revered as in Iran. The difference with the way poetry is dealt with in my own country, Belgium, could not be starker. In 1928, Dutch writer and poet E. du Perron wrote two famous lines which are still – and even more than in his day and age – applicable to poetry in the Low Countries, and probably Europe/the West at large: ‘Poetry remains, naked and unbowed, a pastime for only the gentle folk.’
Poetry is longer of any importance in my country. If a new volume of poetry sells 300 copies, the publisher is counting his blessings. Nevertheless, both Holland and Flanders, ‘the Low Countries’, have a ‘Poet of the Fatherland’, something which Dutch-Iranian publicist Afshin Ellian ridiculed in one of his latest columns: ‘Only in low countries do we find comedians who accept this weird title in a non-poetical culture.’
Ellian may exaggerate somewhat in his column, but he does have a point when he calls my culture a non-poetical one. How different is Iran: the love of Persian people for poetry is definitely one of the reasons why I will eternally be in love with Iran. In my country, ‘only the gentle people’ indeed read poetry, while in Iran poetry belongs to all classes. In June 2009, a taxi was bringing me from Arak to Kashan. When I saw the glittering colors of a mosque in the small village of Mashhad Ardehal, I asked the driver to stop, but changed my mind when noticing the mosque was still under construction – as so many mosques are in Iran. Hamid however smiled mysteriously and told me I should really visit the mosque. We walked around the site for some minutes and then he gestured me to come closer. He disappeared around a corner and stood there waiting for me with a big smile on his face. He pointed at the ground, where I saw the gravestone of Sohrab Sepehri – one of my favorite Iranian poets, but I had never actually asked myself where he was buried. Hamid kneeled down, touched the gravestone and murmered the lines that are written on Sohrab’s grave: If you come to visit me, /Come gently and slowly/ lest the fragile china of my solitude cracks.
I then fully realized how important poetry still is in Iranian daily life, and I think I know part of the answer to the question that is the case: poetry in Iran is also political, because its subtlety, its metaphors and double meanings allow poets to express their opinion in a country where having one can lead to death. In the West, poetry is indeed a pastime: we are living in such (political and social) luxury that we don’t need the subtleties of poetry as a vehicle for freedom of expression.
Let me express a double wish now that people in Libya have taken to the streets to fight for their freedom. Let me wish that their joy gives hope to Iranians, and let me also wish that when Iran is free and politics becomes a less urgent matter, poetry keeps having its importance in the Persian mind. Let Iranians still think of their poets when they rejoice in their freedom and remember the darker times that a master like Shamloo has described so stunningly: I dread to die/in a land where/the grave diggers’s wages/exceed the price of human freedom.
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