1. June 16, 2009: “Defenseless People”
2. June 19: “Where is This Place”
3. June 20: “Listen Closely”
4. June 21: “Let Us Not Forget”
Even the poster of these four anonymous compositions puts “poem” in quotation marks, and indeed the subtitled translations exemplify many of the faults of quickly written, emotionally laden political poetry. But these are nonetheless extremely effective videos, of which the foregrounded words form only a part. The true poem here is Allah-o akbar, and the videos — pitch-black except for occasional flashes of light — create a quintessentially Islamic atmosphere of religious aniconism verging into political iconoclasm.
The title of this post is the preferred title of Chas Danner, the Brooklyn-based freelance writer who got them translated into English, added subtitles, and posted the results to YouTube. “Where is This Place” made the front page of the Huffington Post back on June 20th and was widely forwarded as a result, making it one of the most-watched video poems on the web.
Speaking of HuffPo, journalist Shirin Sadeghi posted a great essay there on Monday that should help put these videos in cultural context, Voices of Protest: The Iranian Word.
They are a nation with a keen sense of their rights, and an audacity to speak up for themselves, whether it’s in the streets, on the page or on the web.
They are also a nation that has never had a truly representative government and thus has adapted its discourse to the guile and euphemism which are required to express thoughts — political in nature — which could otherwise tempt misfortune.
Double entendres, metaphors and symbolism are a part of the gift of “gap” (the Persian word for “gab”) so it is no wonder that literature holds such an eminent position in Iranian culture.
For centuries, poetry in particular has been the ultimate form of expression for Iranians: Iranian poetry is a manual for life and thought, a centuries-old avenue for political dissent.
“In its essence, literature is not tied to politics. If literature has any duty, it is a commitment to language and the creation of beauty,” says Esmail Kho’i, Iran’s pre-eminent poet philosopher, “however in certain circumstances, writers and poets become forced to give rise to politics. The reality is that they do not seek politics, it is politics which obliges them.”
The article includes an excerpt from a poem called “The Rooftoppers,” by Iranian-American poet Mahnaz Badihian:
Our home is possessed
At night we turn to our rooftop
From rooftop to rooftop we protest
Asking ferociously: where is the compassionate God
Our voice echoes with the wind, blow dear courageous wind
Our voice grows taller than poplar trees, so together we stand
Up there, our naked souls together invent bravery, in the moonlight
From rooftop to rooftop we go, till the gaze of morning glories calls us
Up there, again we ask ourselves: who measured God on the rooftops
But we know up there the hands of fear are bigger than the eyes of truth
According to Sadeghi, the aniconic tradition lends an additional, potent weapon to the poet’s arsenal:
When all else fails, even silence is a defiant statement in Iranian literature. “The power of silence and the intentional refusal to take pen to paper can be a political act,” Kho’i says.
The article’s conclusion is worth reading in full.
Last year at the Orange County Poetry Festival, Talebi discussed the translation process using this poem as an example.
Poems by A.H. Afrasiabi, translated by Niloufar Talebi
Video from The Translation Project — a scene from Icarus/Rise, “a multimedia theatrical piece based on new Iranian poetry, created, translated and narrated by Niloufar Talebi, in collaboration with choreographer and video artist Alex Ketley and composer Bobak Salehi” (text from YouTube).
The Translation Project’s page goes on to say:
Based on the poetry in BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, ICARUS/RISE is inspired by the Iranian spoken word tradition of Naghali, which is practiced in the streets, cafes, public rituals, or ‘art music’ stage. By giving this spoken word tradition new content (new poetry in BELONGING) — rather than its usual content of classical Persian poetry and myths — and fusing it with western theatrical elements, ICARUS/RISE gives voice to hybrid-Iranians, reflecting their experience in contemporary society.