Poetry | One Tongue, No Tongue: 'Return' and Afghan-Iranian Dialogue
by ARIA FANI
13 May 2012 00:34
Merrier to speak / in one heart than in one tongue
--Rumi[ poetry ] San Diego, California. "Hey, Afghani!" an Iranian student scoffs at his Afghan classmate. The term, often used as a pejorative epithet in Iran, is empty of associations for most Americans. It resonates meaningfully with the two of them, having evoked the narrative of Afghan suffering in Iran. The Iranian student's condescending tone reflects the profound sense of marginality and hardship that Afghan communities have faced while living in Iran.
Kerman, Iran. November 2011. Following a law banning illegal immigrants from attending public school, an underground school is reported to have begun serving the children of Afghan residents.
Tehran, Iran. A small school for Afghan children kickstarts a project to document the lives of undocumented Afghan children in Iran. Through photography, children take an active role in capturing the environment around them, as they see and experience it.
Isfahan, Iran. Nowruz 2012. A discriminatory law banning Afghan residents from entering Sofeh Park on the New Year's celebration's 13th day, traditionally spent outdoors, is protested by many Iranians. The picture of three young men holding signs attacking racism, including one that reads "I am also an Afghan," goes viral on the Internet. Authorities claim that the decision was made to ensure the "safety" of Iranian families.
Mashhad, Iran. 1991. Mohammad Kazem Kazemi writes "Bazgasht" (Return), an iconic poem in the history of modern Persian literature. Today, almost every Afghan and Iranian can recite a line or two of it. Against the backdrop of two postwar societies, "Return" narrates the story of an Afghan refugee in Iran who has decided to return to Afghanistan following a period of hardship. Kazemi evokes a number of religious narratives and symbols to emphasize the common Islamic faith of Iranians and Afghans and the similar pains they have endured, in light of the Iran-Iraq War and the Afghan-Soviet conflict of the 1980s. Through ironic accusations, the poem challenges Iranians' apathy in the face of Afghans' suffering. The literary scholar and translator of modern Afghan verse Zuzanna Olszewska writes that Kazemi "was able to say in verse what few others had been given the right to say in a public forum and to engage in a critical dialogue with [his] Iranian counterparts and Iranian society in general."
"Return," first published in an Iranian newspaper, inspired a host of responses, many also composed in verse. One, "We Will Not Forget," was written by Bijan Taraghi (1930-2010), a revered Iranian songwriter, who had not only expressed solidarity with the Afghan struggle, but also emphasized the common tongue and heart of Iranians and Afghans: "Though your child threw a stone at our window / it did not break our lasting bond." By virtue of its great popularity, observable at poetry recitations, "Return" ignited a dialogue between two nations with a common cultural past and a multitude of recent political divisions and social scars.The poem's deep sincerity has contributed to its popularity beyond the borders of Iran and Afghanistan, shedding light on a community known by many almost exclusively within the context of physical labor. "Poetry and intellectualism, and not merely poverty, hard work and socio-legal marginalization, have been part of the Afghan refugee experience in Iran over the past three decades," writes Olszewska. Many Afghan writers have been involved in poetry circles and literary organizations in the past three decades in Iran. In the city of Mashhad, the Dorr-e Dari Culture Institute holds weekly poetry readings, runs writing poetry workshops, and publishes Khatt-e Sevom (The Third Script), a quality literary quarterly. "Return" exemplifies and showcases the invaluable contributions of Afghan poets and writers to the Iranian literary scene.
Not all the responses to Kazemi and his work have been sympathetic. In 2011, Hadi Khorsandi (b. 1943), an Iranian satirist living in the diaspora, criticized him for attending a literary event held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the month of Ramadan. "At sunset, when the road's breath is warm, you departed? No! / You came here on foot, and on foot you departed? No!" Evoking the opening lines of "Return," Khorsandi goes on to remind Kazemi of the many writers and poets who have been incarcerated and repressed by the Islamic Republic. He views Kazemi's presence at the event as an endorsement and legitimization of a brutal regime. "If you don't distance yourself from this dying regime / your popularity as a poet will die soon."
Kazemi has dedicated some of his poetry to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution. A prominent figure in the movement known as Sher-e Moghavemat (Poetry of Resistance), Kazemi was among a generation of Afghan poets in Iran whose belief in littérature engagée was expressed by pledging allegiance to political parties and resisting the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Khomeini was popular among the members of Sher-e Moghavemat not only for his attempts to inspire Shia revolutionary zeal in the region, but also for his tenet that "Islam has no borders," a statement often quoted by Afghans in Iran.
Born in 1967 in the historic city of Herat, Kazemi is a book editor by profession, as well as a poet and literary critic. He has published extensively on poetry as well as literary criticism and movements; his books include Poetry of Resistance in Afghanistan (1991) and The Sweet Persian Tongue: Dari-Persian in Contemporary Afghanistan (2010). His Persian-language weblog is both an interactive platform and a rich, referential source for poets and poetry enthusiasts alike. He serves on the editorial board of Khat-e Sevom, and he has published and edited three collections of poetry: A Tale of Stone and Brick, I Came on Foot, and Morning in Chains.
"Return," which I cotranslated with Adeeba Talukder, is in the masnavi (or mathnawi) form, with an indefinite number of rhyming couplets in an aa, bb, cc scheme. The rhyming music of the original is unfortunately lost to a significant degree in translation. The distinguished writer Mahmoud Dowlatabadi has compared the process of translation to the game of Chinese whispers. Indeed, Kazemi's work loses not only its original music, but its cultural and historical context in this process. However, if the translation achieves the challenging task of conveying the poet's profound, heartfelt cry of displacement and desolation, then the exercise has achieved its purpose.
At sunset, when the road's breath is warm, I'll depart.
I came here on foot, and on foot I will depart.
Tonight, the spell of exile will be broken;
tonight, I will wrap my empty sofra.1
Around the nights of celebration, O neighbor,
you will no longer hear the sound of cries.
That stranger2 without a piggybank, he'll depart
and that little girl who has no toys -- she, too, will depart.
I who have walked struggle's horizon, its length and length
I who have only been seen on paths and roads
I whose bread was brick-hard
whose sofra, if any, was full of hunger --
every mirror reflects my broken image
every structure, every stone bears imprint
of my laboring hands
and whether they look at me with kindness or hostility
all men know me:
I stood up even as the sky broke its back,
I kept faith even as they all turned to ibn Muljams.3
How can I not return?
There, my refuge
there, my brother's tomb
the mosque, the mihrab,4
the sword waiting to kiss my head.5
Here there is only the prayer's call,
there we exclaim God's greatness. We rise.6
Here I am broken-winged, afraid of breaking again,
there skies and skies of flight.
I've got a leg and a cane
and my other leg is there.
I am broken as I pass by you tonight
humbled by your infinite heart.
I know the silence of your cold nights
the lone grief of loss.
Like me, you've seen
only the severed heads of stars,
had not a father but his ashes,
walked the streets of exile,
carried burnt corpses on your shoulders.
You've bled as I was scourged,
fed on rocks as I ate seeds and water.
Though our barren land produced
few grains worthy of harvest
though we broke your lasting calm
though my child threw a stone at your window
though I am guilty before the law
fit for grave punishment,
friends, don't dishearten me
give me your blessing, even if it's a lie.
I'll leave behind all that I do not have,
I swear on our Imam,7 I won't take anything
other than the dust of his heram.8
May God bless your piety and grace your lives,
grant you your prayers,
a skyful of blessings, fullness
of your children's piggybanks.
And the bread of your enemies -- whoever they are --
may it turn to brick.
1. Sofra: a cloth spread on the floor or table upon which one's daily bread is served; also a symbolic item in cultural ceremonies.
2. Ghariba means "stranger" and "foreigner," here intended to evoke a sense of dispossession.
3. The poet evokes the story of ibn Muljam, who assassinated Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law. Ibn Muljam struck Ali with his poisoned sword while he was praying at a mosque.
4. Mihrab: the prayer niche of a mosque, akin to the altar.
5. A reference to the manner in which Ali was assassinated.
6. "Rising" (ghiam) implies both lining up for prayer and insurrection.
7. Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Twelver Shia Muslims, whose mausoleum is located in Mashhad, Iran. It is an important Shia pilgrimage site.
8. Heram: sanctuary; here it refers to the shrine of Imam Reza.
Cotranslator Adeeba Talukder lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works as a script translator at Sesame Workshop. She has translated and performed work by Pakistan's progressive poets and writes poetry in her spare time. To hear the Persian original of "Return," along with the English translation, please click here.
"Return" by Mohammad Kazem Kazemi, translated by Aria Fani and Adeeba Talukder, previously published in Consequence, spring 2012.
The title of the article is from Kazemi's 2003 book Hamzabani va Bizabani (On Sharing a Tongue and Being without a Tongue; Tehran: Erfan). Kazemi describes the findings of a survey he conducted among Iranians in Mashhad, most of whom did not know that the people of Afghanistan and Tajikistan speak the same language as Persian-speaking Iranians. Referenced in: Olszewska, Zuzanna (2010) "'Hey, Afghani!': Identity Contentions among Iranians and Afghan Refugees," in Dispossession and Displacement, ed. Dawn Chatty and Bill Finlayson (London: British Academy), 197-214.
Olszewska, Zuzanna (2007) "'A Desolate Voice:' Poetry and Identity among Young Afghan Refugees in Iran," Iranian Studies 40:2, 203-24. (Quotations in narrative)
Top photo by Lorenzo Tugnoli.
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau