Interview with Iranian Poet Farideh Hassanzadeh

Farideh Hassanzadeh (Mostafavi) is an Iranian poet, translator, and freelance journalist. Her first book of poetry was published when she was 22 years old. Her poems appear in the anthologies Contemporary Women Poets of Iran and Anthology of Best Women Poets. She writes regularly for Golestaneh, Iran News, and many other literary magazines and newspapers. Her poems translated into English appear in Kritya, Jehat, interpoetry, museindia, earthfamilyalpha, and Thanalonline. Her anthology of contemporary American poetry will appear in 2007. You can read her poem Isn’t It Enough? here.

Melissa Tuckey: What role do poets play in Iranian society?

Farideh Hassanzadeh: Our great poets like Hafez, Rumi, Saadi, and Ferdousi have the largest circulation in book fairs of Iran, after our sacred book, the Quran. This means poets after prophets rule the heart and mind of my people. To inspire confidence, politicians recite poems by classic or modern poetry in their speeches. During the imposed war between Iran and Iraq, one journalist reported about the poetry he found in the trenches and foxholes that survived after the dead soldiers, poems like this from Forough Farrokhzad:

Remember the flight
the bird is mortal

And everybody knows that one of the most important reasons why people rebelled against the Shah regime was the persecution and execution of a young poet, Khosro Golsorkhi, who was a political prisoner. In military court he refused to ask the Shah for amnesty and bravely declared: “I don’t beg for my life. I have always written for my people and I defend only my people not my own life. “

My people never forgive the execution of a poet. It is the execution of words. That is why Federico Garcia Lorca is the most popular foreign poet in Iran.

Tuckey: How do people in your country learn such a deep appreciation for poetry?

Hassanzadeh: In Iran, from remote places to modern cities, in each house you may find two books: the Quran (our sacred book) and a book of Hafiz (our great classic poet). People planning to travel or to marry or to do business consult with Hafiz by choosing at random a poem from his book. If Iran is still Iran and after so many foreign aggressors, has not yet lost his identity, it is because of its loyalty to its culture. My son, in his latest article, writes that “losing the lands and cities in wars can’t defeat a nation. We Iranians know we must keep our culture. The real borders of our country are our culture.” And one of the most vivid aspects of our culture is the poetry of Hafez, Rumi, Ferdousi. Khayam, Nezami, and of many other poets from classic to modern.

Tuckey: What is it like to be a woman writing in Iran? Do women poets receive an equal amount of admiration, support and respect?

Hassanzadeh: In recent years, women writers have been more popular than men writers for they are better to able to express the hidden realities of family and society. Women writers like Roya Pirzad, Fariba Vafi, and many others have won the most famous literary prizes and people buy their books in spite of financial problems. The books of women writers reach the 20th or 30th edition within a very short time. But as for poets, our great poets are still Forough Farrokhzad and Simin Behbahani from the 1940s and 1950s. Meanwhile, among our great directors, women like Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Tahmine Milany have achieved international success and fame. And our best playwrights have been women too. Increasingly, more women than men are studying in universities.

Tuckey: How has war affected your life and your writing?

Hassanzadeh: Before war my poetry was not familiar with words like: bombs, alarming sounds, ruins and fears. The sky and the beauty of clouds or the brightness of stars turned into a terrible roof above me where bombs could fall and explode all my dreams. Before war I used to see the killed only on TV; in the news about Palestine. I never was able to smell the warm stream of blood shown in massacre reports. War acted like a sleight of hand to make the distance between me and the world disappear, beyond the TV. It turned my first little son to a bird without wings to fly, a bird good only to be buried forever.

Tuckey: I am sorry to hear about the loss of your son. How old was he and when did this happen? How do you cope with the loss?

Hassanzadeh: I almost lost my second child too. On my way to the hospital to give birth to my daughter Sufi, Iraq bombed my city of Tehran eight times in less than one hour. An old man who was looking at me big with child, shouted to the sky: “God! What is wrong that this child must fear coming into this world?” With each bomb the baby inside me tried painfully to take refugee in a peaceful place she couldn’t find. In fact during the war instead of the doctor’s protective hands, bombs gave birth to many Iranian women’s children in the streets. In the past soldiers targeted enemy positions, but now they drop bombs on women and children. My son, before he could experience the fear of his first day of school, experienced the fear of his last breath, his hands gone with the bombs. He never tasted the joy of putting a pencil on paper to write a word.

As for your question: How did I cope with the loss? Honestly I could forget his death but my feet, indifferent to me, sometimes go to the place where my son was bombed. All mothers of dead children know their children never leave them, never forget them. They wait for the night to return in dreams. They live behind the closed eyelids of their mothers.

Tuckey: Do you believe poetry is by its nature political?

Hassanzadeh: In Farsi the word for poetry is “sher”—from” shou-our”, which means wisdom. And wisdom can’t ignore political realities. In my country the great poets from classic to modern, have always been speaking in their poems of social problems and political events. Hafez (1320-1389) in one of his most famous sonnets says:

Kings find good reason for the wars in which they are stuck
since truth they cannot see, to falsehood they would flock.

And, in an excerpt from a longer poem, our contemporary poet Forough Farrokhzad says:

All our neighbors are planting
bombs and guns
in their gardens instead of flowers
I fear the time
which has lost its heart

Personally, in the depth of my heart, I have a deep fear of political poetry. My fear of political poetry as a poet relates to my fear of producing political mottoes rather than pure poetry. Remember the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books objecting to a praiseworthy review by A. Alvarez that called him a “witness.” In Milosz’s view, the label narrowed the meaning of his poetry and implied that his poems were a kind of journalistic response to events. Anyway when you live in a country that is always prey to superpowers, you feel guilty when you write love poems even for your husband!

Tuckey: In the current crisis do you see Iran as a prey to superpowers? I think that is interesting because here in America we are given an image of Iran as being powerful and dangerous and an instigator of problems.

Hassanzadeh: Imagine a cottage in the morning of a village. The man is ready to go to his farm to harvest wheat. His wife and children are full of hopes and desires. When the man opens the door, instead of a pleasant breeze, he finds himself surrounded by a band of cruel invaders. This cottage is my country. After rebelling against the Shah regime, my people were ready to reap the benefits of their freedom and independence but they found themselves involved in an imposed war by Iraq, supported by superpowers for eight years. Now tell me please who is dangerous and the instigator of problems? Of course, I admit that my people, in spite of all the difficulties are very powerful in their spirit. They surely will never accept any foreign country to decide for them.

Tuckey: How do you feel about US foreign policy toward Iraq and Afghanistan? And, more recently, U.S. policy toward Iran? How as a poet do you deal with these developments?

Hassanzadeh: To know my feeling and many other Iranian ‘s feeling about the U.S. big-stick policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq, I refer you to this poem: “You see no one, you hear no one,” a poem by my son, 14 years old ,which was published widely in Iranian newspapers and magazines. This poem was also selected to be published in UN Observer on Valentine’s Day.

A Letter to George W. Bush
Hossein Mostafavi Kashani

You see no one, you hear no one
You are an important person!
So important T.V. shows you every night,
You hold the microphone
And you talk important words,
So important even Satan listens with gape mouth.
Only the flies don’t take you very seriously,
And while you talk
They are busy with their usual work.
They search for dirty, stinking things
And then they rub their hands together
while saliva drips from their mouths.

Flies don’t have a president
but some of them are very important,
So important TV shows them every night.
But they don’t have a microphone,
And unlike you they are not all dressed, making speeches,
But with dirty hands and legs,
They move on Afghani* children’s lips and eyes,
The same children on whom you drop bombs
And then send them food parcels.

By the way, how long has it been since you saw a fly?
How many years has it been since you read a poem?
Would you recognize the breeze if it passes you by one day?
Just think! When you were a child, like all other children,
you saw a fresh rose whenever you looked in the mirror.
But now you see an important person
Who will die one day
Even if he is the president of America.
If you were to ask your heart
It would say it doesn’t want to beat in your chest
And be the runway for all the planes
that bombard cities and towns.
For, God has created the heart
Only for love.
So have pity on your heart even if you can’t pity anyone else.
It is an apple that will burst one day
And suddenly you will find your self,
Standing before the gate of paradise, begging
the pieces of your heart
from every single person you killed.
But no one sees you
No one hears you just as you neither see nor hear any person
on TV every night.
You only hold a microphone, and say big words
Because you are the president of America
And a very very very important person!

Hassanzadeh: And as for an attack on Iran, I am sure Bush is going to dig his grave with his own hands. History has proven that all fascists are successful for a short time but final victory is with the oppressed people.

Melissa Tuckey is a poet, an activist involved in DC Poets Against the War, and a FPIF contributor. Farideh Hassanzadeh an Iranian poet, translator, and freelance journalist.