Reviewed by Fatemeh Madani Sarbarani
At first I was reluctant to read I Am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief, an anthology of seven younger Iranian poets edited and translated by Alireza Taheri Araghi, thinking that the book, like many others, would be a dark representation of Iran or the Middle East. This representation seems to confirm the ideology that the “Middle East is moving backwards and the people are responsible for what they are dealing with,” more prevalent now that the chaotic Middle East is in the spotlight. For instance, Muslims are often blamed by Islamophobes for ISIS. In her article “Is Hypocrisy The Silent Strategy of Western Democracy?“, Dominique Von Rohr writes of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003: “It is this kind of western incompetence and adoption of imperialistic war tendencies that have created a platform for years of strife and conflict in the Middle East.” The irony here is that the West is a source of the chaos in the Middle East and at the same time it is making the Middle East a topic of its scholarly, scientific, and artistic conversations and projects. Surprisingly, some Middle Eastern artists take advantage of this situation and give the audience what they want to hear, even at the cost of exaggerating. Nevertheless, both politicians and scholars benefit by playing the part of Western saviors.
The cover of the anthology comes from the “Trash or Fashion” series by Iranian photographer Golnaz Shahmirzadi. I opened the book and read the first poem I found, “Shitkilling” by Arash Allahverdi. What does it even mean in Farsi? I asked myself. I couldn’t resist and read the whole book. This is what we need to do in translating Persian into English: keep the foreignness. I’ve often wondered why “whale” is changed to “shark” in translations of Persian Sufi poetry? Is it because a shark is considered more dangerous in the West and if we use whale our readers won’t feel the same amount of danger and fear we Iranians do? Why don’t we teach our target audience that in Persian literature the whale is a symbol of danger rather than the shark?
Reading the translations encouraged me to read the original poems. I was fascinated by the choices Taheri Araghi made— the language, images, metaphors, and styles of the poems, and especially their translation into another culture and language. I had to go back to the English translation to understand the meaning of some words in Farsi because it helped me interpret the poems. Taheri Araghi’s translation is already an interpretation made through consulting the poets and their intentions. For example, because we don’t write short vowels in Farsi, “shitkilling” (gohkoshi) can be read as “shitpulling” (gohkeshi) or “shitdrawing” (gohkashi) depending on the pronunciation. This complexity and ambiguity can lead to mistakes in pronouncing and understanding the meaning of some words, but it also gives writers a chance to be more creative.
While most of the poems in the anthology are translated from Farsi, some contain other languages, such as Gilaki, spoken in the north. For example, “Rasht” by Mahnaz Yousefi is in Farsi with words both in Biah Pish (East Gilan) dialect and Biah Pas (West Gilan) dialect. Taheri Araghi keeps these words in the original, maintaining the poem’s bilingualism: “you should say hani instead of hande / you should say tara instead of tebe / and use no verb other than fuck,” along with the poet’s footnote, “Hani (West Gilan) or hande (East Gilan) means ‘again’ and tara (West Gilan) or tebe (East Gilan) means ‘for you’” (89; 102). In my conversation with Taheri Araghi, he said translating these bilingual poems was a challenge for him and he had to work with the poets to be able to understand their work. Regarding Yousefi’s work, he said: “her work is language and culture oriented and I tried to show that to the target readers through my translation.” Yousefi is interested in Gilaki literature and history and creating local images in her poetry. Taheri Araghi asserts that: “she believes the way she tackles with the language in her poems will suffer in translation unless she is as proficient in a second language as her mother tongue to translate her poetry herself” (102). While she was reluctant to translate her poems into English, after working with Taheri Araghi and going through the poems, she changed her view.
In some poems, Taheri Araghi changes the syntax in his English translation to make the poems fluent and easy to read by the vast range of readers and poetry admirers. However, he reminds readers that these poems are from another culture. In “Limping” by Yousefi, he translates the Farsi words ab and baba as “water” and “father.” While “papa” or “dad” might be closer to baba, Taheri Araghi’s choices of “water” and “father” (pedar in Farsi) maintain the rhythm and fluency of the English poem.
The poems in the anthology challenge authority by sharing their feelings about religion, politics, morality, tradition, socioeconomic, and historical events such as war. For example, we see references to the dark and frightening atmosphere of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s in Babak Khoshjan’s “Arena”:
a red alert siren is on
“Dear listeners” trample trample
they shelter me in the basement
I pound my fist on the door
“I won’t do it again! On grandma’s grave!”
this is the white alert siren
you may now leave your shelters
this is the white alert siren
you can come out of your shells
this is the white alert siren
Some of the poems in this anthology suffered censorship in Iran. For an artist, it’s difficult to predict what part of her/his work might be censored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance prior to its submission. The reasons for censorship in art, literature, theater, cinema, and other forms of media, can be religious or political. For example, Allahverdi wasn’t able to get a publishing license for The Book of Blood for political and moral reasons, so it is available as an e-book for Iranian readers. Allahverdi’s long poems are full of surreal images and references to the social, economic, and psychological situations of Iran, connected to politics in a dark and sometimes humorous tone. In “Bleeding,” Allahverdi portrays depression and despair caused by repression:
bloods of madness
bloods of philosophy
bloods of depression
bloods of unemployment
bloods of indifference
bloods of anemia
Allahverdi’s “Shitkilling” is filled with profanity, forbidden concepts such as sex, drugs, voyeurism, and the female body (or objectification of it):
I have slit myself from before myself
and I slit everything
and every slit deserves a cock
deserve a cock
deserves a violation
deserves an entry
deserves an employer
is my right
Khoshjan’s last poem, “A Poem for You” is only two words with a footnote to refer to the moral censorship that makes him marginalize his love and passion.
[Footnotes: *the warmth of your lips
the passion in your arms
the calm of your shoulders
and even the delicateness
of your hands
have been censored from
the frankness of this poem
due to the meanness
of public morals.]
In Yousefi’s “Rasht,” lines near the end of the poem were cut by censors, so she chose to take the whole poem out of her first book. The reason for that censorship was using profane language and talking about sex. Yousefi’s first book was handed to the publisher but not published until three years later when she wasn’t writing those kind of poems anymore. She believes that, like many other people, her ideas and poetry change with society and at the time her first book got published, she wasn’t concerned with those issues, themes or language anymore. In Taheri Araghi’s translation, the lines are restored:
who was it that announced the international blood day
when we returned—mature—
from the apartment bathroom to your streets
too afraid to tell mother
about the below-the-belt pains
in the first unfinished municipal pothole? (90)
In her second book in Farsi, Yousefi didn’t want to self-censor anymore, and surprisingly, all the poems were published without many changes. Yousefi believes that artists shouldn’t allow censorship to change them— they have to resist and change the issue of censorship in society.
This anthology is not merely about Iran: it is about the Middle East, about the third world, about Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, or maybe all Americans in the near future. It’s about anger, despair, suppression, and dark future. It’s about my generation, the generation of the war or as some Iranians call it the “burnt generation.” The cover, the title, now make more sense—as if these young Iranian poets are telling us “we are sympathizing with you.”
Further reading and listening:
“Shitkilling” by Arash Allahverdi at Asymptote with Farsi recording by the author.
“Rasht” by Mahnaz Yousefi at PARAGRAPHITI with recording.
Taheri Araghi, Alireza, ed. & trans. I am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief: Seven Younger Iranian Poets. Normal, Il: co•im•press, 2015.