Fish out of water
A moment to remember Shamlou
By Asghar Massombagi
August 1, 2000
So I'm on the phone with this friend in Tehran a few days ago and after
the obligatory pleasantries he casually says "oh, Shamlou died today"
and I feel a cringe in some buried region of my brain; the region where
long forgotten memories of childhood resides and the snap shots of old
neighborhoods and the first days of school and the crisp bills you got
One careless phrase is uttered and you feel the dry heat of Tehran's
mid-summer afternoon on your back, the pick-up soccer games in the dusty
streets and back alleys and the aroma and taste of halva. Such is the cruelty
of exile and immigration (or the settling in the new country if you will)
that one has to measure the passage of time from the pictures of grown
up nieces and nephews and news of deaths of icons and cultural heroes.
Time is a treacherous country.
Ahmad Shamlou was arguably Iran's greatest contemporary poet. His fiery
passion inspired generation of poets, writers and filmmakers and his poetry
articulated the rage and rebellion of many. He was at the vanguard of revitalization
of a culture mired in the lethargy of feudalism it had inherited from the
medieval Qajars and the ruthless comprador reformation of the Pahlavis.
In his boldness and sheer audacity, he cut a Promethean figure, heroic
in its reach and sense of destiny. At the beginning, Shamlou's heroes were
Mayakofsky, Elourd, and Breton. The prodigal son had to leave home in order
to enter it again, this time a man. He had to discover the surrealists,
Neroda and the Russians so he could reach back to Hafez and Molavi.
Shamlou's career and life mirrored the contradictions, complexities
and dilemmas of his homeland. An ethnic Azari, he became one of the most
eloquent wordsmiths in Farsi literature. As a Moslem, he borrowed from
the rhythms and music of the New Testament to construct his lyrical and
To the dismay and chagrin of the cultural reactionaries, the translator
of Mayakofsky and Lorca became the poet who democratized Iranian poetry,
integrating the language of the street in his poems and edited the definitive
book of slang.
Although in many ways the most Western of Nima's early disciples, Shamlou
became quite the scholar of time-honored classical Iranian poetry. If he
had to takes risks with Hafez, so be it. Shamlou was at the receiving end
of much ridicule and bile when he dared to take on editing the collected
works of Hafez and although his work had flaws - whose doesn't? - in its
directness and audacity, it was vintage Shamlou. No sacred cows, no taboos.
Anybody is fair game.
The freshness and liveliness of a culture depends largely on the vitality
of its language. If Europeans dare to muck around with Shakespeare, we
should be able to make Hafez more accessible.
That day I went home and dusted off my old collection of Shamlou's poems
and leafed through it. All that struggle, blood, rage, love, sacrifice,
betrayal, longing, trembling of lovers at the touch of their hands, the
pain of breaking down, the violent beauty of the early morning fog in the
desert and the unbearable fragility of life. It was all too much for one
living in the post post-modern collective white noise of "whatever"
and "cool". How do you explain Shamlou to your friends and neighbors
outside Iran? It felt like being on the bus and subway when you first came,
all fish out of water, all strangeness.
Shamlou wrote the best requiems of any Iranian poet and I eventually
ended up reading his pieces on the occasion of deaths of Forough Farrokhzad
and Jalal al Ahmad over and over again. I can't imagine anyone else articulating
the sense of loss as Shamlou did, so let's take a moment and read "The
requiem for the man who passed on to shadows." Let's take a moment
to remember Ahmad Shamlou.