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Voices in Exile: Three Poets


10 Oct 2010 15:341 Comment
CoffeeHousePainting.jpg[ spotlight ] Mana Aghaee, Granaz Moussavi, and Maryam Hooleh are among the most accomplished representatives of the new generation of Iranian poets in exile. None participated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and they were barely young adults when the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Referred to as the "children of the Revolution," they represent a generation with a silenced political consciousness, a generation whose attempts to probe an entirely social concept of youthful activism have been politicized and ruthlessly repressed. They are a generation dissatisfied with the failure of a totalitarian ideology that has transformed Islam into a grand-narrative, an absolute source of morality in society which demands unquestioned devotion from Iranians and strives to annihilate any voice of opposition.

The "children of the Revolution" have grown to be skeptical of authority; they are potent and distinctive voices that search for alternative avenues of political and social expression. Their works are an idiom of political and social defiance in a society where the official culture has systematically refrained from investing in the voices of women since its establishment in 1980. Through poetry, the new generation of Iranian poets rise to narrate their own story, echo their defiance, and cling to a degree of resistance. Granaz's creative language and original sentiments, Maryam's powerful polemics and daring voice, and Mana's sincere tone and unadorned phraseology offer just a sample of the diversity of expression that exists within Iranian poetry today. Their unique voices not only attest to the impotency and absolute failure of the regime's misogynistic and authoritative policies, but also showcase our humanity in the face of marginalization.

Mana Aghaee is among the most prolific and accomplished poets of the Iranian diaspora. Her poetry is sincere and easy to understand. Mana's language is simple and unadorned and yet extremely imaginative. She doesn't attempt to conceal her vulnerabilities through complicated imagery or complex concepts -- her poetry is true to itself. She writes, "For me, poetry is like a siren raiding in matters of urgency. Poetry is a friend, a foe, a potent poison, and an intense tranquilizer alleviating my pain. Poetry is a lover who can commit an abrupt act of betrayal. I admit that poetry is a lover whom I love only for myself." There is no place for lofty, embellished phrasing in her poetry; she masterfully combines colloquial and common language with poetic sentiments.

Aghaee approaches her craft on the basis of poetic concepts more so than poetic imagery, notes literary critic Mohmmad Akbarniaee. "Aghaee interprets and analyzes the world around her through concepts, and she definitely succeeds in this endeavor," he writes. Thematically, the majority of Aghaee's works are personal, though a number are fraught with profound social sentiments: "No Sir! / I'm from here / the ghetto neighborhoods of this very town / my jalopy's rental / and all I've got in this world are these very hands holding the wheel / a heart always at dead ends / and way too many miserable failures." Mana Aghaee currently resides in Sweden, where she is coediting a Persian anthology of poetry by the new generation of Iranian poets in exile.

The Bandage

We have been injured too many times

Enough to have a first aid kit

With bandages in our kitchen

And we have encountered prophets

Enough times to claim our own prophecy

You and I are blood related

You turn your cuts into poetry

And I dress my soul with a bandage

What difference does it make

To know how many cuts are engraved in a book?

An injury is not a sign

Trust me:

My share from the vein has forever been the knife

But it never was my intention

For your poetry to bleed because of me

This poem that I dedicate to you

Is one written by a wounded woman

To which I add:

Bind up your injuries

And publish those

Before they become some old news.

--Translated by Sheema Kalbasi


I submitted to

the most poisonous stings to

suck his lips

he swore on the conscience of

beehives not to assault

the flowers of my scarf

Then he unbuttoned

my shirt and mingled with

me just like a bee falling

head on into

a glass of honey.

--Translated by Aria Fani

"They showed us force, exaggerated to a degree, and they used it to repress the most private aspects of our lives...on the streets, they created an environment of utter paranoia and fear. The youth feared walking down the street; you'd feel the danger and the need to protect yourself. That is how you'd gradually become more and more repressed."

Maryam Hooleh, an accomplished poet as young as the 1979 Iranian Revolution, speaks of her generation's daily struggle with dictatorship and repression. Her poetic voice is rebellious and daring, and she is particularly skillful in scrutinizing and questioning her society and identity. Incongruous imagery, offensive tone, confrontational style, dark humor, and powerful polemics are unmistakable components of Hooleh's work, perhaps best described as "protest poetry." Her poems constantly challenge authority and official narratives, in any shape and form, resulting in an alternative viewpoint that is dynamic and infused with social and political awareness. Niloufar Talebi, the award-winning translator of contemporary Iranian verse, writes of Hooleh, "Her poetry is irreverent; she questions everything; nothing is off-limit to this scrutiny." This tone is evident in "The Sticky Dreams of a Banished Butterfly."

The Sticky Dreams of a Banished Butterfly (excerpt)

The flower I sent you yesterday wilted on the way


But smell its stem!

I'm still coming toward you....


Civilization has devoured my fears

I no longer fear beheadings on my breathing platter!

It would have been fair if at least

I would have had a hand in MY OWN DIGNITY

Is smiling mandatory? To increase my card's privileges

with my uniform and hair dye!?

Me whose lines are unclear in this revolt for selfhood

In a bourgeois scheme I have no color in!


In a free European country

A naked gene tans under the sun, like everyone else

It's hard to know how far humanity here will take us!

I don't fear the sting of mosquitoes

But if I leave my body whose uniform will I be?

I take issue with my soul since it became a socialist

on Resurrection day




I want my hands

My glasses The dead borders of happiness!


I want my differences

My bad luck, my birth certificate

I want the earth to drop dead!

Headless, Civil Society is posing

It its uniform for a black and white photograph!

--Translated by Niloufar Talebi

Return To Me

Return to me!

Let the treason reverse its face!

The opposed elements are 2 obverse sides of the coin

Strictly this moment when I'm the lover!

--Translated by Sheema Kalbasi

Without any doubt, one of the challenges faced by Iranian female poets in the past four decades has been finding a balance between devotion to the works of iconic modern poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967) and establishing their own distinctive voices. Many failed to develop a voice original enough to emerge from Forough's literary dominance. Granaz Moussavi is one of the emerging voices of contemporary Persian poetry. Also a literary critic and filmmaker, her poetry has been widely published, anthologized, and critiqued inside and outside of Iran in the recent years. In her poetry, she masterfully uses and plays with language. Her language is innovative and imaginative. Granaz Moussavi has an enviable control over language. Her poetry is succinct, imaginative, and fraught with imagery. Granaz is torn between two worlds, moving between Iran and Australia, and her viewpoint reflects her constant longing and belonging. In "The Sale," she moves from bidding farewell to her life and belongings in Iran to returning to it later, but perhaps to discover change, both inwardly and outwardly. Her first feature film, My Tehran for Sale, released this year, is also the first feature coproduction between Iran and Australia. It won the Best Independent Film Award at the Australian Inside Film (IF) competition. My Tehran for Sale aims to present urban-dwelling, middle-class Iranians to an international audience, a break from the rural representations that predominated in Iranian cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Sale

I wrap a scarf around the moon's head,

slip the world's bangles on her wrist,

rest my head on the gypsy sky's shoulders,

and say good-bye.

But I don't wish to look.


I won't look

to see the radio and all its waves

finally gone,

and the decorative plate, priced high,

not sold.

The bed was taken,

and the bedding -- now asleep on the floor --

is full of fish without a sea.

Don't haggle -- I won't let go

of my messy homework on the cheap,

and that book, The Little Black Fish, is not for sale.

"Always a few steps untaken.

The latecomer carries away nothing

but his own chaos and mess."

What remains is only a crow

in love, and never tamed.

You've come too late,

I gave my shoes to a cloud -- a keepsake

to one who does not crush lovesick ants.

You're too late.

Nothing remains but a dress

invaded by vagrant moths.

Remember the gown that was home to tame butterflies?

Always a few steps untaken,

and so much time passes

that we begin to fear mirrors,

to stare at our childhood hair

that now plays a gray melody --

string by string.

We have forgotten our dance beneath this sky,

a sky dying of a black hacking cough.

It's time to leave.

In their letter they say the sky

is not this color everywhere.

The day my plane takes off with a sigh,

hand an umbrella to the clouds

to shield them from my tears.

If you see someone returning from night roads,

returning to seek her old bits and pieces;

if you see a girl who without a reason

whistles to herself and to the moon;

That would be me.

I'd be coming to gather the torn pieces of tomorrow,

to glue them together before it's time for dawn prayers.

That days, go to my house and water the geraniums;

perhaps spring will come

and then in five minutes I'll be there.

I'd close the door because

the moon always comes in through the window.

--Translated by Sholeh Wolpé


Mana Aghaee was born in 1973 in Bushehr, Iran. She began writing poetry as a teenager and her work has appeared in several Iranian publications. She has translated numerous works of modern Swedish writers into Persian. She holds a doctorate degree in Iranian languages from Uppsala University, Sweden. She is the author of three collections of poetry, In the Duration of Flight (1991), If Death Had Your Lips (2003), and I, Jesus My Own Son (2006). During the Iran-Iraq War, she immigrated with her family to Stockholm, where she currently resides. You can follow her literary blog in Persian.

Maryam Hooleh was born in Tehran in 1978 to a Kurdish family. She left Iran -- illegally and on foot -- for Greece. She stayed one year, which led to her second volume of poetry, In the Alleys of Athens (1999), the censored version of which is her only published book in Iran. In 2003, she was invited to participate in the Iranian Women's Studies Foundation, with whom she published her third collection, Cursed Booth. Her other books include Inferno Inc., Leprosy Now, Kites Will Never Fly Away in My Hands, and The Sticky Dreams of a Banished Butterfly. She currently resides in Sweden.

Granaz Moussavi was born in 1974 in Tehran. She earned a graduate degree in film studies from Flinders University of South Australia and has made four short films, one of which won the Best Director Award at Flinders. Her second book, Barefoot Till Morning, is currently in its fourth edition. Her third collection, The Songs of the Forbidden Woman, is now in its second edition. She is currently studying for a doctorate degree in filmmaking and film theory at the University of Western Sydney.

The Sticky Dreams of a Banished Butterfly retrieved from BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, Niloufar Talebi ed. (2008)

Copyright © 2010

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1 Comment

Many thanks for the article and with much congratulation to poetesses,

It seems to me that your statement about Iran as "a society where the official culture has systematically refrained from investing in the voices of women since its establishment in 1980" seems very vague and confusing as it blurs the distinction between government policies and the cultural dynamism of the Iranian society, producing numerous reviews written in support of women presence in the society ( just take a look an the web; they are in fact many more now than previous to the revolution). Even the totalitarian regime favors women presence in condition they adhere to the state politics. I am wondering if that was not the case under Shah as well. Did people really heard about so women activists in jails and had the opportunity to read their texts? Finally the "official culture" seems not a suitable synonym for the "official politics ( state politics ).



Azaryan / October 11, 2010 2:55 PM