RECOLLECTIONS AND AFTERTHOUGHTS - K a r i m E M A M I
lecture delivered in Austin, Texas is reprinted by the kind permission
of Mr. Karim Emami.
Please allow me
to start the painful process of recalling the past with a series of
small vignettes. Some of these go back twenty-five or twenty-six years,
some even go back twenty-seven years. That is, to some time in the
summer of 1959 when I first joined the Golestan Film Unit, which was
how Mr. Ebrahim Golestan's film studios were officially referred to
in English at the time. The Oil Consortium, or the so-called Operating
Companies that managed the affairs of Iran's then recently-nationalized
oil industry had decided to dissolve their own film unit and have
instead documentaries made to measure by a contractor. At that time,
it was very fashionable for major oil companies in the world to sponsor
costly documentaries as an exercise in public relations: you know,
the sort of thing which shows a barren land with a few local inhabitants
eking out a miserable living, then oil is discovered and there is
a flurry of activity to get the oil out of its subterranean lair and
down to the market, and life in the barren land is miraculously transformed.
Well, at that time not many qualified film-making outfits were, available
in Iran to undertake the production of classy documentaries, and so
the Oil Company allowed Mr. Golestan, who was on their staff in the
public relations department at that time to resign, so that he could
establish his own film company, with more than a little financial
support from the Consortium, and with some technical help from an
outfit in London called the Film Centre.
Golestan Film Unit was already one year old when I was recruited,
fresh from a year's teaching of English in Shiraz and relatively fresh
from my two years of study in the United States. It was on the premises
of the Golestan Film Unit, then located on Arak Street in central
Tehran, when I first met Forugh. Naturally I was familiar with her
early poetry which had created a sensation of sorts in the early fifties,
but I had met her never before. It was not much of a meeting as a
matter of fact. She simply accepted me as one of the boys, hardly
casting a second glance my way. I was yet another assistant among
the ten or twelve Iranians who had been employed to help the handful
of British technicians who manned the film crews: a film director
who had himself served as assistant to the famous Dutch documentarist
Bert Hanstra, a cameraman, a sound recordist, etc. I doubled as assistant
director when the crew flew down south to Khuzestan or Kharg Island,
and as administrative assistant when we came back to Tehran. Mr. Golestan
had discovered that I could be helpful in composing letters in English.
Among the Iranian staff, there were besides Forugh, some others who
were well-known intellectuals and had a body of published work to
their credit, such as the poet Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales, Najaf Daryabandari
who was fresh out of prison and had completed his translation of Hemingway's
A Farewell to Arms ; there was also Fereydoun Rahnema, a French-educated
film maker and poet. The actual contribution of these artistic and
art-minded assistants to the day-to-day affairs of the Golestan Film
Unit was not perhaps all that significant, but their presence created
a very intellectual ambiance, and there were many lively discussions
going on, sometimes at the same time; there were also visits from
a number of well-known people such as Sadeq Chubak, Jalal Al-e Ahmad,
and Farrokh Ghaffari (who spells his name Gaffary for the convenience
of his European friends). So it appears now that a person's admission
card to the inner ranks of Golestan Film Studios was his or her list
of publications. I was encouraged by Mr. Golestan to undertake a translation
myself, and it was at his behest that I translated John Osborne's
play Look Back in Anger, which was published after I had left Golestan
Film Unit, in 1961.
Well, during the first few months I saw very little of Forugh. Most
of the time she closeted herself in the editing room, where she was
acquiring experience in the techniques of film editing. What occupied
most of her time at this juncture was the editing of Yek Atash [A
Fire] which was the account of an oil well fire near Ahwaz and how
it was brought under control. The footage had been shot on location
by Shahrokh Golestan, Ebrahim's younger brother, and Forugh was putting
the film together under the supervision of Ebrahim, or Aqa Shahi as
he was familiarly known. When the door of the cutting room was left
open I would sometimes get a glimpse of our poetess turned film editor.
If she had nothing to do, she would be usually seated by the window
and she would be pensively staring at the sky or the distant buildings,
a cigarette between her fingers. If she was at the editing table she
would have her head down, and all that I could see of her was a mass
of black hair that covered half her face.
Forugh was relatively
short, with two large dark eyes that were the most prominent feature
of her face. "At school they used to call me cheshm-gavi [with eyes
similar to those of a cow]," she told me much later, when we were
friends and she would sometimes confide in me. She was very moody.
Sometimes she would be very gay, and her peals of laughter could be
heard in between the hee-haws of the two Golestan brothers who both
laugh very loudly. At other times she would be very silent and preoccupied.
When she was writing a poem, you could notice it in her mood. She
would be very serious for a number of days until she had unburdened
herself and the poem was committed to paper. Then she would be light-hearted
for a few days, until the nucleus of another poem would start building
up in her.
Golestan Films she had been on a trip to Italy, and then to Germany,
where at least one of her brothers resided. In Munich she had acquired
a working knowledge of German, and I remember her speaking German
on the telephone, but how much Italian she had picked up in Rome I
never learned. Later on she began to take a serious interest in improving
her English, and it was my knowledge of English that broke the ice
between us. Sometimes she would ask me to help her with a text. She
was very keen on improving her reading skills in English so that she
could read T.S. Eliot and other modernist English or American poets
in the original. She also made one or more trips to London for visits
to film studios, and so she realized that she would be much better
off in England if she had a sounder knowledge of English.
Perhaps I should
now concentrate on her film-making career before speaking in more
detail about her life as a poet. At Golestan Films, after acquiring
all the skills of a creative film editor, she turned to script-writing,
and then handling a movie camera. I remember the very first rolls
of film that she had shot with a super-8 hand-held camera in Agha-Jari,
an industrial town in the midst of the oil fields of Khuzestan. She
had run her camera as she was seated in a touring car, and there were
shots of the streets of the town and the oil wells and the petroleum
pumps, all filmed from the interior of the car. One of her script-writing
efforts was an episode for the rites of betrothal in four countries
of the world that the National Film Board of Canada was producing.
She wrote the script for the Iranian episode, and assisted Ebrahim
Golestan in directing it. She herself also acted in it. No, she was
not the bride or the fiancee. But her best effort came in 1962 when
she spent twelve days with a crew of three in a leper colony near
Tabriz to shoot a real masterpiece: The House Is Black. Her poetic
vision and the strong content of the film have been fused together
to create a documentary of lyric quality from a subject that appears
so macabre from a distance. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison, but
I believe that this film has had a much stronger impact than any other
documentary or feature film made in the Golestan Film Studios at Darrous,
including such major efforts as the documentary Rock, Wave and Coral
and Ebrahim Golestan's two feature films, Khesht-o Ayeneh [The Mirror
and the Mudbrick] and Asrar-e Ganj-e Darreh-ye Jenni [The Mysteries
of the Haunted Valley]. As you may all know, The House Is Black won
the grand-prize of West Germany's Oberhausen Film Festival in the
following year, and there is no doubt in my mind that the film now
ranks among the very best documentaries ever made.
of Forugh's activities in the domain of cinema are eclipsed by the
brilliance of her masterpiece, and they do not amount to a great deal:
One or two scripts that were never filmed, a short commercial for
the classified ads page of Kayhan newspaper, two films which were
made about her which I have not seen, and her participation in the
Festival of Cinema d'auteur at Pesaro, in Italy.
of her visit to the leper colony in Azarbaijan was of course Hosein,
a young boy she brought back with her to Tehran and later adopted.
He has grown up to become a fine student, continuing his education
abroad with the help of royalties from Forugh's books in the course
of their frequent reprintings. Forugh's own son, Kamiar Shapur who
is 33 now, lives in Iran ; he both paints and writes poetry, but so
far he has failed to impress.
Much has been
said and written about Forugh's personal relationship with Ebrahim
Golestan, the so-called affair. Well, I am not going to add any details
that would feed the gossip mills. First of all, I did not learn of
this matter until much later, naive and provincial that I was. I only
believed the rumours, when Tavallodi Digar was published in book form
early in the Iranian year 1343. I had left Golestan Films by then,
and I was working for Kayhan International, the English-language Tehran
daily. My review of Tavallodi Digar appeared in the issue of July
21, 1964. Some of the poems that make up this collection had already
appeared in one of the Tehran periodicals such as Arash that Sirus
Tahbaz edited. But none of the love poems -- fifteen by my count --
had been published before. The dedication of the book, to the not
so mysterious E.G. (or perhaps I should say Alef Gaf) let the cat
out of the bag for me. Love poems of such intensity coming from a
woman -- all her 'frank', 'uninhibited', 'liberated', what you will
-- had not been encountered by Persian readers before.
relationship was evidently very important in Forugh's life. It opened
her eyes to the world, it opened her horizons to a higher level of
understanding and appreciation in arts and literature. And it also
gave her professional skills that enabled her to create something
so magnificent as The House is Black. And it generated in her the
passions of an all-consuming love.
This love did
not make her happy. They did not live happily ever after. If you go
through the love poems in Tavallodi Digar carefully --and they are
not arranged chronologically in the book -- you will see for yourselves
that the affair has its ups and downs. In one poem she is gay, ecstatic,
even orgasmic. In another she is sad, morose, impatient, petulant.
She does not bemoan her love with the hackneyed cliches of yesteryear
but with vibrant words of everyday speech that we all can grasp. When
she soars in these love poems, she really soars high, and let me once
again predict -- stick my neck out as you might say here ----- that
she is going to be read and remembered best and longest as the universal
woman in love, and not so much as the voice of an intellectual Iranian
woman in the 1950s and 1960s. Her satirical piece "Ay Marz-e Porgohar"
is an excellent mirror of the way things were in Tehran in the 1960's,
depicting the socio-economic conditions that perhaps led to the Revolution
of 1979. This is all very fine, but when she cries out "Ay, ay ba
jan-e man amikhteh / ay mara az gur-e man angikhteh," she is totally
another person; she is passion incarnate, and she communicates directly
not to our mind but to our heart, exacting an immediate response from
the very nerve centre of our emotion. And poetry in my humble opinion
sounds strongest when it is an expression of a person's feelings.
Well, among Forugh's
love poems, two of them have a place of honour, "'Asheqaneh" and "Mordab
", [Swamp] both of which have been composed in the rhyming couplets
of the masnavi verse form. So there is a lilting music to them that
evokes a response in the chords embedded in the common unconscious
of the Iranian people. Translating such a poem into English, or any
other language for that matter, means in effect that it will be immediately
robbed of its special musicality. And recreating that music in another
language will naturally produce a different effect on the ear.
When I accepted
Michael Hillmann's invitation to participate in this memorable gathering,
I dared myself to attempt the nearly impossible task of rendering
"'Asheqaneh" into English. And what I will read to you now is the
result. I already know that it is inadequate, and does not match the
sterling qualities of the Persian original, but it is my humble offering,
a true green leaf, to the memory of Forugh, who is being remembered
here after twenty years. When I was at Oxford, on my way here, I saw
for myself that Amin Banani and Jascha Kessler have already made a
rendition of this poem into English, but no matter. So many people
have translated Forugh, that multiple renderings are becoming the
rule, rather than the exception. She will be translated again and
again until she finds her FitzGerald and her rightful place among
the best poets of the world.
My nights are painted bright with your dream, sweet love
And heavy with your fragrance is my breast.
You fill my eyes with your presence, sweet love.
Giving me more happiness than grief.
Like rain washing through the soil
You have washed my life clean.
You are the heartbeat of my burning body;
A fire blazing in the shade of my eyelashes.
You are more bountiful than the wheat fields,
More fruit-laden than the golden boughs.
Against the onslaught of darkening doubts
You are a door thrown open to the suns.
When I am with you, I fear no pain
For my only pain is a pain of happiness.
This sad heart of mine and so much light?
Sounds of life from the bottom of a grave?
Your eyes are my pastures, sweet love
The stamp of your gaze burning deep into my eyes.
If I had you within me before, sweet love
I would not take anybody else for you.
Oh it's a dark pain, this urge of wanting;
Setting out, belittling oneself fruitlessly;
Laying one's head on chests hiding a black heart;
Soiling one's breast with ancient hatred;
Finding a snake in a caressing hand;
Discovering venom behind friendly smiles;
Putting coins into deceitful hands;
Getting lost in the midst of bazaars.
You are my breath of life, sweet love,
You have brought me back to life from the grave.
You have come down from the distant sky,
Like a star on two golden wings
Silencing my loneliness, sweet love,
Imbuing my body with odours of your embrace.
You are water to the dry streams of my breasts,
You are a torrent to the dry bed of my veins.
In a world so cold and as bleak,
In step with your steps, I proceed.
You are hidden under my skin
Flowing through my every cell,
Singeing my hair with your caressing hand,
Leaving my cheeks sunburned with desire.
You are, sweet love, a stranger to my dress
But so familiar with the fields of my nakedness.
O bright and eternal sunrise,
The strong sunshine of southern climes,
You are fresher than early dawn,
Fresher and better-watered than spring-tide.
This is no longer love, it is dazzlement,
A chandelier blazing amidst silence and darkness.
Ever since love was awakened in my heart,
I have become total devotion with desire.
This is no longer me, no longer me,
Oh wasted are the years I lived with "me."
My lips are the altar of your kisses, sweet love
My eyes watching out for the arrival of your kiss.
You are the convulsions of ecstasy in my body,
Like a garment, the lines of your figure covering me.
Oh I am going to burst open like a bud,
My joy becoming tarnished for a moment with sorrow.
Oh I wish to jump to my feet
And pour down tears like a cloud
This sad heart of mine and burning incense?
Music of harp and lyre in a prayer-hall?
This empty space and such flights?
This silent night and so much song?
Your gaze is like a magic lullaby, sweet love,
A cradle for restless babies.
Your breathing is a breeze half-asleep
Washing down all my tremours of anguish;
It is hidden in the smiles of my tomorrows,
It has sunken deep into the depths of my worlds.
You have touched me with the frenzy of poetry;
Pouring fire into my songs,
kindling my heart with the fever of love,
Thus setting all my poems ablaze, sweet love.
Well, so much
for the aria. Let us get on with our narrative. In the course of the
years that followed, when I was a journalist with Kayhan, I did not
see and meet with Forugh as regularly, but we kept in touch, and I
followed her activities with great interest. Her new home, the one-story
red-brick house off Hedayat Street within a stone's throw of the film
studios where she worked was a gathering place for her friends on
Friday evenings. Such people as Mahmud Azad Tehrani the poet, Sirus
Tahbaz the editor, Sohrab Sepehri the poet and painter, and even the
great Shamlu would assemble there, but somehow, I never got around
to attending these gatherings, even though I had a standing invitation.
I had maintained my interest in films, and I would regularly attend
the Tuesday film showings of Kanun-e Film, the Iranian version of
the cinematheque that Farrokh Ghaffari so valiantly organized at Farabi
Hall. Forugh would also show up whenever a really important film was
being shown and we would chat a bit.
Another source of my contacts with Forugh was the translations that
I made of a few of her poems into English. I made these with her knowledge
and prior permission. First I translated "Dar Khiyaban-ha-ye Sard-e
Shab" [In the Cold Streets of the Night] and "Ayeh'ha-ye Zamini" [Earthly
Gospels]. These were published together with some other translated
poems in Kayhan International as representative specimens of modern
Persian poetry. Later I translated and published "Man az To Mimordam"
[I Was Dying of You] which she herself thought had come over well.
Her English had improved, and she would read the translation and try
to form an opinion on its values. And that is how my translation of
"Tavallodi Digar" came about. I have already written of this episode,
so I will be brief here. She had received an English version of the
poem that a team -- an Iranian collaborating with an American poet
-- had drafted in the States. She was not happy with the translation,
and she asked me to render the poem into English so that it may serve
as a basis for a further effort by the above-mentioned team. I agreed
only after she accepted the idea of helping me with the textual difficulties.
So one Thursday morning she came over to our house. I sat at my desk
behind my typewriter. She sat on the opposite side of the desk facing
me. We worked together and by noon we had finished. I gave her a copy
of the translation, and the next day I wrote up an account of what
she had said, which appeared in Kayhan International a day later,
on Saturday January 27, 1966.
During the next year, I saw very little of Forugh. She went to Italy,
to attend the Pesaro film festival, and on the way she stopped over
in London, where she noticed a da Vinci painting at the National Gallery
in which "everything is bathed in a light blue hue." It is so beautiful
that "I felt like stooping and saying my prayers," she wrote Golestan.
"It is only during the moments of love and adoration that I feel religious."
In her letter to Golestan -- some excerpts have been published --
she says many things that are worth quoting. I will only quote two
I am glad my hair is turning grey and there are lines on my forehead
and there are two deep furrows between my eyebrows. I am glad that
I am no longer a dreamer now that I am nearly thirty two, even though
being thirty two years old means having used up and having left behind
thirty two years of one's allocation of life. But instead I have found
I love our own Tehran, whatever it may be. I love it, and it is only
there that my life finds a goal worth living for. I love that numbing
sunshine and those heavy sunsets and those dusty alleyways and those
miserable, wretched, vicious, and corrupt people.
She returned to Tehran and busied herself with considering the offers
she had received in Europe: to direct a film, to put together a collection
of her translated poems for publication abroad. Then the Hour Struck
I heard of her accident as I arrived at the offices of Kayhan late
that Monday afternoon. As I was about to climb the stairs that led
to the newsroom, a colleague stopped me. "Have you heard? Your friend,
what was her name..." I heard the details and I composed a news item
for the front page, and still I could not believe it. Until the next
day, when we bade her body farewell in the small Zahir-od-Dowleh cemetery,
just north of Tajrish under grey skies that occasionally sent down
a few snow-flakes. Then I returned to the office and wrote her obituary.
Such is life. The show must go on, and you find yourself obliged to
come up with hasty evaluations, when you prefer to say nothing and
just grieve. Please allow me to quote a few lines:
Forugh had earlier had several close brushes with death, two car crashes
and one attempted suicide. I think she had a somewhat fatalistic view
of death, and I think she believed in a perhaps life after death of
sorts, not in any religious way... no perhaps a belief that an artist
will live on in his or her created works.
Well, Forugh of course lives on. During the past two decades she has
been read in Iran by ever larger numbers. The last printing of Tavallodi
Digar, the 14th impression, was two years ago with a print run of
twenty thousand copies. And the book is now out of print in Iran.
And abroad she has been translated more than any other contemporary
Iranian poet. And this is just the beginning. Whence this staying
There will be different answers to this question, but in my humble
view one quality that gives her poems a lot of power is that they
derive so much from life, from Forugh's life, from her direct experiences
and feelings that are conveyed to us by strong words handpicked, no,
not from classical Persian poetry, but from everyday speech. Words
brimming with meaning, overflowing with connotations, words that hit
you smack in the face and the impact reminds you of certain experiences.
Forugh chose her words carefully and she was very conscious of this
effort. In several of the quotations that we have of her, either in
letters she wrote or from interviews, she discusses how she goes about
selecting key words. In one she says: "For me words are very important;
each word creates its own characteristic atmosphere, just as objects
do. "And in another: "I realized that I needed words, fresh words
that related to the particular world...words that are full of life,
and I don't care if they are not yet considered poetic." Some of the
words I have picked from a few of her poems that occur more than once
are the following: "hajm" [volume, mass], "tashannoj" [convulsion,
tremour], "rekhvatnak" [languid], "mafluj" [Paralyzed], "moztareb"
[anguished]. As you can see for yourselves most of these words appertain
to the senses and the nervous system. An analysis of Forugh's vocabulary
in Tavallodi Digar and Iman Biyavarim... to determine the frequency
of the key words may well prove to be a worthwhile exercise, and may
give us a better insight into the way she composed poetry. I remember
that one day we were discussing the differences of usage and nuance
that existed between the Persian word "sir" and the English word "full."
Then I passed on to "sated" and then to "insatiable." She was very
interested in this last word, and wrote it down in her notebook.
Forugh's poetry ranks with the very best of Iran's top modernists.
She benefits from the liberated verse forms of Nima Yushij and in
some of the poems of Tavallodi Digar which I deem to be the earlier
ones, there are here and there traces of Nima's characteristic phraseology,
but that is all. She herself has said: "Nima was my guide, but I was
my own creator. I have always depended on my own experiences." As
for Shamlu, well, his breadth of expression and his mastery of the
poetic idiom are tops, but when it comes to the intensity of feeling
Forugh would be very hard to surpass. Forugh calls Shamlu a kindred
spirit "who is closest to me in poetic taste and feeling." Akhavan's
elegant language and rich music of words were admired by Forugh but
she had no desire to engage in similar poetic acrobatics. She was
not so immersed in classical Persian literature as Akhavan was; it
is only during the last decade of her life that we see her reading
Rumi, Hafez and Sa'di seriously. Like Sohrab Sepehri, Forugh was never
a political poet of the left, in the way that Shamlu and Akhavan,
and a host of others, professed to be, at least during the earlier
decades of their poetic life. Sohrab and Forugh were great friends,
and both of them introspective souls, who have influenced one another
in ever so subtle ways that may be worth exploring.
Have we seen the totality of Forugh's output in the five volumes that
now make up the body of her work, or are there still a few unpublished
poems here and there? One day in 1969, I was told by Forugh's father,
Colonel Mohammad Farrokhzad, in my office at Franklin Books in Tehran,
that Forugh's private papers disappeared from her home the same night
that she was killed. He did not tell me who had taken these papers,
and I am not going to offer you any conjectures. I only hope that
whoever has them will release them in toto when he or she deems it
appropriate. I may be wrong, but I feel that there will be no unpublished
poems in this lot but there is bound to be a lot of material that
will shed new light on her artistic creativity. Let us hope that we
will see these papers in our lifetime.
Well, before I end, let me offer you a capsule summation of what I
think will be Forugh's place in Iranian literature, not just the contemporary
scene but during the whole span of the history that is associated
with the emergence and usage of the neo-Persian Language, i.e. from
the times of Rudaki onwards. We have not lived through obscure times;
momentous events have shaped and shaken our country during the past
half a century. Persian, as a language, has been rejuvenated and is
at the height of its expressive powers now. Our times are going to
be remembered and some of Forugh's best poems are going to be remembered
and read in Persian, and in many languages, in the course of the future
centuries. If I am the last speaker in this gathering, then this means
that I have been allowed to have the last word on Forugh. Then let
me say that she was great, no doubt about that.
And I am here echoing the first line of Sohrab Sepehri's elegy for
Forugh, which I have rendered into English as a homage to the memory
of the two departed friends.
by Sohrab Sepehri
"I should be glad of another death," T.S.Eliot
She was great
she came from nowadays
she was related to all the open vistas
and how well she appreciated the tone of the water and earth.
sounded like the scattered sorrow of reality
and her eyelids
pointed out to us
the path taken by the pulse of the elements
and her hands
the clear air of generosity
pushing toward us
She was shaped to the form of her solitude
and she interpreted for her mirror
the most amorous curvatures of her time.
like rain she was full of the freshness of repetition
and tree fashion
she spread out into the healthiness of light.
she always called out to the infancy of the wind
and she always tied the conversation
to the hasp in water.
one night she performed for us
love's green prostration so candidly
that we felt under our fingers the affection
in the surface of the earth.
and became refreshed like the accent of water in a pail.
And we often saw
with how large a basket
she would set forth to pick grapes of tidings.
But it couldn't be
for her to sit facing the clarity of the doves
and she went to the brink of naught
and lay down beyond the patience of lights
and she did not think at all
that in the midst of the discordant enunciation of the doors
how lonely we would be
to eat apples.