In Iran, Listen for the Metaphor

By Roya Hakakian
Sunday, June 19, 2005

It may not have looked that way on the outside, but Friday's presidential election in Iran was historic. Not because it held out the promise of the kind of transformation that the 1997 elections, which heralded the reform era, once did. Nor because the candidates in the first round of voting were very inspiring -- the front-runner, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, failed to win a seat in the last parliamentary elections and has been accused by German prosecutors of approving the murder of Iranian opposition members at a Berlin restaurant in 1992.

But there was something new in the campaigns themselves. It was the language. From Cambridge to Tehran, Rafsanjani was hailed for a quality for which no Iranian politician has ever been hailed in the past: pragmatism.

The use of that word was a change in rhetoric that signals a shift in the Iranian attitude toward the political process. It offers evidence of an Iran that is growing less idealistic and more realistic, one that is struggling to shed the fundamentalism of the last quarter-century and readying itself for the establishment of a new political order. That Rafsanjani has been called "the can-do candidate" and "Mr. Fixit," instead of a "visionary" or a "power," is a radical departure for a country where the primary mode of expression for most of its history has been the romanticized, ambiguous language of poetry. And this embrace of a more practical, explicit prose speaks volumes about the national mood.

Take the word "pragmatism." It doesn't exist in the historical Persian lexicon. In the past, when necessary, scholars resorted to using the English word, but without much success in conveying its real meaning. A neologism was invented a few years ago, but the public has embraced it only slowly, as the very concept of pragmatism, especially in politics, is a novelty.

Nothing could be at greater odds with the Iranian spirit than pragmatism. For centuries, Iranian culture has been defined by precisely the opposite: the mysticism of the poets Hafez, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, which is all about giving up the wealth of the world simply for a tender glance from the lover.

This anti-pragmatism played a major part in the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The world knows Ayatollah Khomeini as the leader of the Iranian revolution. But Iranians know otherwise. The ayatollah appealed to the rural and the devout, while the urban and the educated heeded their poets, chief among them Ahmad Shamlou. He and others transformed modern Persian poetry into a clandestine language that was understood by all as the language of resistance and the forthcoming revolution.

In October 1978, Tehran's intellectuals staged something they called "Ten Nights of Poetry." Sixty-one of Iran's best-known literati appeared at the Goethe Institute in the capital, and over 10 nights, they recited 218 poems. Altogether, there were 275 mentions of the words "blood," "bloody," "bloodied" or "blood-red." That's how the city's elite galvanized tens of thousands for the coming months of protests, demonstrations and martial law. The codes became so popular that a city dweller's heart would race upon reading certain phrases: "crimson dawn," which alluded to the toppling of the shah; "dark winter," which alluded to the absence of political freedom under the Pahlavis; "red rose/ tulip," a metaphor that was soon understood by all readers to symbolize imprisoned or executed opposition figures. So commonly understood were these words that the shah's censors banned any mention of seasons in literary texts if they were accompanied by adjectives referring to primary colors.

And Iranians celebrated the poems. Political prisoners were said to have etched these famous lines by Forough Farrokhzad on the walls of their cells: "Remember Flight. The bird is mortal!" And everyone had the same understanding of what "flight" meant, and who "the bird" was. When Shamlou wrote a poem that ended, "I am the common pain/ Shout me!", the word "pain" was not an abstraction to the public.

The Tower of Babel is the perfect metaphor for Iran's revolution. All through 1978, Iranians spoke a common language: a language of romance and opacity, of poetry. Then came victory, and the people saw that they were speaking in different tongues. In constructing their narrative, the architects of the revolution, both secular and religious, had dismissed the importance of clarity. When the time came to chart the future of the new Iran, it became apparent that the religious conservatives who had formed a united front with the secular and liberal forces did not share the same understanding of the popular codes. But by then, the religious faction had gained the upper hand.

Nothing in history had ever challenged the supremacy of Persian poetry like the events of 1979. The revolution's failure to deliver on its democratic promises became one with the failure of poetry. Within months of the revolution, Shamlou himself, deriding the new ban on alcohol, eulogized the death of his hope for freedom in a famous poem: "They sniff your mouth/Lest you've uttered the words I love you / They sniff your heart/ Oh what strange times are these/ my beloved!" But by then, no amount of eloquence could redeem him, his fellow poets, or poetry itself, in the eyes of the fans who had followed their words into a theocracy.

After the revolution, feeling betrayed by words, a nation whose foremost sport, art, hobby and means of cultural dialogue had been poetry turned away from it. Whereas the 1950s, '60s and '70s had been marked by the emergence of several giants of poetry, the past 26 years have not produced a single major poet comparable to, or as popular as, those. For the first time, poets are paying to get their books printed, and less than a thousand copies of each new collection is put out. The classics, especially Hafez, do still sell as many copies as the Koran. But just as the continued staging of Shakespeare is no reflection on the state of drama in the English-speaking world, neither is the popularity of Hafez an indicator of the state of poetry in Iran.

Among today's most popular books in Iran is a slim collection called "The Dictionary of Clandestine Words." It's a handbook of the new generation's codes. But today's codes bear no resemblance to the old. The youth of the revolution adopted Marxist vocabulary -- "bourgeois" and "proletariat" -- and held workers, farmers and the "downtrodden" in the highest esteem. The new generation appears to have shed all utopian ideologies. It's not entangled with such romance and it readily ridicules the lot. In the "Dictionary of Clandestine Words," working-class names such as Hassan, Batoul, Javad or Ghazanfar, which were regarded as humble but noble names, now each carry a range of demeaning connotations, from "outdated" to "embarrassing" to "unsophisticated" and even "stupid."

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