Thursday, June 18, 2009

Poetry and Politics: Iran

From the Huffington Post: 6/18/09

1:47 PM ET -- Life imitates art. Today's mourning rally passed through Ferdowsi Square in Tehran. Ferdowsi is, as an Iranian-American friend put it, "like the Persian Homer," having written the epic Book of Kings.

Here's a shot from the Square today sent in by an Iranian, of Ferdowski being inducted into the Uprising:

As it turns out, English professor Rich Newman is in the process of translating the Book of Kings, and wrote a moving post about how it ties into the current unrest:
The connection between literature and politics is always a difficult one. Treating politics as if it were literature, politicizing literary texts, are strategies that people use to advance agendas that are fundamentally political, and often not progressive/egalitarian, in nature. Especially in connection with what is going on in Iran right now, when people are really dying and when the Iranian government is doing everything it can to isolate the entire nation of Iran so that it (the government) can restore what it believes should be the (clearly repressive) order of things, to talk about life imitating art, to read what is going on in Iran through the lens of Iran's own literature, has felt to me like a self-indulgent and gratuitous intellectual exercise.

Yet literature, and in this case specifically poetry, also helps people give meaning to their lives; it can inspire, and it can connect us to something larger than ourselves in ways that political feelings, not matter how strongly felt and/or acted upon, often cannot. And so, precisely because people are really dying in Iran--because I really do believe, along with William Carlos Williams, that people die every day for lack of what is found in poetry--and precisely because there is so much at stake over there, and because Iran is a culture that loves and reveres its poets, I have decided to write.

Perhaps connecting the unrest in Iran not only to the specific history of the Islamic Republic and the revolution out of which that republic was born--which most analysts, reasonably, are focusing on--but also to the Iranian culture that is larger and older than both the Republic and Islam, will make a difference. What that difference might be, and to whom, I have no way of knowing, but I just don't think it is mere coincidence that the current unrest finds echoes in a story Iran has been telling itself about itself for centuries: the tale of Kaveh and Zahhak from the poem commonly referred to as Iran's national epic, Shahnameh (Book, or Epic, of the Kings), part of which I am in the process of translating.


  1. Great article. For those who are not familiar with the stories of the Shahnameh, there are American Comic books which can give you a "Cliff notes version" of the main stories. It can be found at