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Verse of Defiance


16 Aug 2010 10:32Comments

Shahin Najafi and the power of protest poetry.

25188_376307708173_50043108173_3807528_2161163_n.jpg[ spotlight ] "A protest song is a song that's so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit," wrote Phil Ochs, the American folk singer. Protest verse -- whether expressed as poetry or song -- aims to question, destabilize, and undermine the repressive values and codes of behavior imposed by a government or other authority. In the United States, protest poetry is renowned for the way it has been woven into the fabric of innumerable social movements, including those that struggled for the abolition of slavery, for women's suffrage, for workers' rights.

Iranian protest poetry has its own traditions, its own deep and distinctive roots. "Protest poetry has always been an integral part of social movements in Iran," writes Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University. The modern history of Iranian protest poetry begins with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11. Aref Ghazvini composed the song "Tulips Have Grown from the Blood of Our Land's Youth," famously commemorating the martyrs of that struggle. The history of Iranians' resistance to oppression over the past hundred years wells over with such examples -- Ahmad Shamlu's "Friday," sung by Farhad Mehrad; Aslan Aslaniyan's "My Brother Is Restless"; and Mansour Tehrani's "My Grade-School Friend" have all become potent symbols of the country's seemingly endless efforts to achieve a humane and just society.

Honoring and emulating this tradition of protest verse, a new generation of Iranian singers and rap artists are confronting sociopolitical taboos head on and keeping lit the flame of resistance against a corrupt, totalitarian regime. Their music not only echoes their own defiance, it also voices their generation's demands. Poet and singer Shahin Najafi is among the most accomplished representatives of this generation. His works offer a sharp critique of Iranian society, boldly rejecting the unquestioned devotion that the clerical establishment and its vociferously devout adherents demand from all Iranians.

Najafi's polemics are mainly directed at theocracy, poverty, and sexism. His furious lyrics and music condemn every form of injustice and oppression. He mourns the death of Farzad Kamanagar, a Kurdish social activist who was secretly murdered by the Iranian regime in May 2010: "Every night / stars will give birth to another Farzad / I swear on your name / engrained on my heart / I swear on your mother's grief / Oh Farzad!"

He continually evokes the rich history of Iranian literature, which continues to inspire many today even as the official culture would prefer it annihilated. His poem "Bamdad" is dedicated to Ahmad Shamlu, one of Iran's most influential intellectuals (Bamdad, Shamlu's pseudonym, is Persian for "morning"): "Father, you are the echo of our pains / Father, you are the meaning of poetic life / Father, you are the rage of a land you hold in your hands / Father, you are the poet of a generation that stands by you / evil slaughtered love / so that no canary would sing again / the night executioner wept by his victim / and Kaveh's cries were no longer heard / Father, you are the echo of our pains." In Persian mythology, Kaveh is the symbol of resistance against tyranny.

Najafi laments the status of women in Iranian society: "My mother and her oppressed life / a woman summed up by pans and kettles / her body unseen / her head covered." His poem "We're Through!" protests both the passivity of the generation that experienced the 1979 Revolution and the hypocrisy and debasement of the ayatollahs' rule: "My vessels carry the blood of an unruly generation / who doesn't buy your story / stories that have taught us nothing / but poverty and misery / let me put it this way / we've fallen into corruption and destruction / and our only weapon is this cry / don't be outraged by my remarks Haji! / we are of two different generations!"

Najafi skillfully employs common, everyday phrases and expressions to connect with a broad audience and reflect their demands and aspirations. He is skeptical of authority in the broadest sense -- he makes light of grand narratives and symbols, and emphasizes the crucial role of the act of criticism, the ethic of criticism, plays in the honest pursuit of real progress. For any scholar interested in the comparative study of protest poetry, his lyrics, reflecting both domestic and various international traditions, offer a rich resource.

Najafi's deep, thunderous voice is at the heart of his music. In translating his rap lyrics, I have deliberately avoided referencing any vocal and visual elements, in the hope of facilitating a more straightforward reading experience and a clearer evaluation of the power of his words. Through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and such, the Internet has opened many avenues for the uncensored distribution of art and music, but due to the pace and quantity of what flows incessantly onto our screens, attention and focus are inevitably fragmented, disrupted. If these translations of Najafi's lyrics achieve the simple, yet increasingly challenging task of conveying the artist's perspective, his heartfelt intent, then the exercise has achieved its purpose.



One morning, she sees her image
in the mirror, lifeless, one who hadn't lived but
was only breathing, she turns on the TV, how is it possible
streets are flooded with people, men and women, young and old
demanding their vote, time had arrived for justice, it was
injustice that was bound to go.

Her mother's warning, have all these deaths brought us any change?
What happened to those in prison? Does anyone know
their pain, or bother to ask their name? Nothing will change,
demanding your rights? It's only mentioned in books, all is vain.

But Neda2 hears a calling, the streets are roaring:
This is your day Neda, the day they'll celebrate your
wedding, the day you conceive the Messiah of Death,
virgin Neda, Amir Abad3 is thirsty for your blood
the groom is the bullets, the bridal chamber your casket.

God see how your sanctity's broken?
your virgin Mary's shot
these savages are ruling,
God see how worthless human lives are?

What were you trying to say by your gaze4 Neda?
I will not silence my voice Neda
your blood runs through every alley
every street's marked by your blood
Sleep! close your eyes, you no longer
have to fear tomorrows, sleep for as long as
we are awake we will echo your name
in the streets.

Take your hands off her chest, No! she will not stop
bleeding! This blood has been gushing out for
a thousand years, this is not Neda's blood, this is the
blood of Iran, our lonely land, the land without a coffin
the land that exiled us, with its self-resenting rulers
how can they show Neda mercy?

I don't rely on ifs and maybes anymore,
I will demand my rights
JUSTICE is here to say, it's injustice that's
bound to go, and until our rights are given,

1. "Neda" is Najafi's response to the violent crackdown on protesters after the June 2009 elections in Iran. It is dedicated to Neda Agha-Soltan, whose tragic death received international attention.
2. Neda in Persian means "calling" and "voice."
3. Amir Abad is the district in Tehran where Neda was killed.
4. During her final moments, Neda was looking directly at the protesters' cameras.

--Translated by Aria Fani

It Means You Can Live

Your execution means you can live
entrapped, like a free bird, it means you can live
your deep wounds become infectious, grow old, you die
you smile at death, find peace, it means you can live
you don't always need your nails to play the guitar
tell them to pull them out, you are untamable, it means you can live
shout on the gallows, tell people it's not time to weep
do something or you will be all massacred, it means you can live

the bride of this tragedy is a whore
every kid in the neighborhood knows it
tell them to say silence doesn't give their consent
it means you can live

--Translated by Aria Fani

I Am a Common Pain, Cry Me Out


I am an Iranian-Afghan-Turkish-American
an Arab-Russian-Chinese-African
I am a Jewish-Zoroastrian-Christian-Baha'i
a Hindu-Muslim-Secular-Buddhist

an Iranian whose culture is tied to simplicity and serenity
an Afghan whose history is replete with oppression
I am a Kurd whose companions are mountains and guns
a Palestinian who's been at war for decades

I am an African, black as the depths of the forest
who's treated like a parasite
a German who's been slapped by the Nazis
ashamed by their atrocities

I am an American who's suffered hand in hand with Iraqis
in war, death and uproar
I am a beautiful teardrop shed by a Tibetan
who yearns for his country's freedom
an Iranian whose flag has been lost
in the midst of turmoil and confusion

In every form, costume, or language, where ever I am
in the name of love and freedom
And above every law, I celebrate our common humanity

I am a common pain, cry me out, crush the wall
burst out of your body, free, free with the world
free with every language, every skin color

--Translated by Aria Fani

Shahin Najafi was born in 1980 in Bandar-e Anzali, Iran. He works as a poet, musician, songwriter and singer. Najafi began writing poetry at a young age. He studied sociology, but soon abandoned his formal studies in order to immerse himself in Iranian society as a more genuine and dynamic learning experience. As a musician, Najafi has been trained in both Classical and Flamenco guitar. He has played and sung in numerous Iranian underground rock bands. Under pressure and censorship imposed by the Iranian government, Najafi immigrated to Germany in 2005, where he currently lives and works. His music and poetry are accessible on YouTube and Facebook, as well as his website. You can follow his blog here.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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