July 17, 2015
Nuclear agreement with Iran no signifier of poetic agreement with Iran
by Andrew Karpan
During the lip-biting anxiety (in certain circles, at least) of the negotiations that preceded the final nuclear deal with Tehran earlier this week, a number of news sources caught on to the release of a Youtube video by one of Iran’s biggest names in the talks, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who somewhat opaquely rounded his online manifesto off with a line by 11th century poet Hakim Abolghasem Ferdowsi: “Be relentless in striving for the cause of good/Bring the Spring you must. Banish the winter you should.” But there was more: Zarif’s Facebook page soon betrayed a love for the vague langue of the big name poets and mystics of his homeland (western New Age mainstay Rumi was quick to make an appearance). Sources say these lines are personally provided by Zarif’s wife, Maryam Imanieh, who also interprets Rumi’s poetry on the side.
The New Yorker reports that this interest in poetry may contain something more than the typical farcical interest that Western political figures often play in the literary world — “In the depths of these lines, Iranians hear the echoes of their historical selves,” no less. For instance, current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an amateur poet himself and addresses invitation-only gatherings of Iranian poets every year to express concerns with current directions of artistic license. Details are just trickling in that, in last month’s gathering, Ali Khamenei expressed worry that unidentified “conspirators” are urging Iranian poets to dictate their muses toward “sexual desires, physical beauty, personal gain, and even praise for cruelty.” In its stead, the Ayatollah called for more poems to be written about “vital themes” tying them to the conflicts in “Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Gaza, Palestine, and Syria.”
This fear runs deep. Where the typical image of postwar globalization is something like the nominal American chain restaurant or coffee shop appearing in a popular cultural spot, it was fear of writers like Walt Whitman encroaching on more organic fare during the Western-friendly Shah years that encouraged the ire of the now-ruling Islamic Republican factions. This is because, as is commonly anecdoted, Iran remains one of the few countries where ‘not a single home is found without at least one book of poems.’ For more insight, the New Yorker cites the work of poet Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who had met Ruhollah Khomeini while the latter was still just a rather outspoken cleric and not yet an Ayatollah. For a hint at the nature of the former’s rhetoric, Ahmad’s most famous work is most commonly translated as Occidentosis – A Plague From the West.
As the latest generation of Iranians are quick to jovially celebrate the lifting of nuclear fears and maybe even long-standing sanctions with the West, one still detects this pervading anxiety. Iranian commentators have reacted negatively in the past to photos of Maryam Imanieh alongside female entertainers around the world and during some of the earlier celebrations, the New Yorker mentions some anxiety over a picture that circulated of a young Iranian already donning a t-shirt with the name of the hip Western locale, Brooklyn, sprawled across his chest. Keep it out of the books, kid.