Thursday, February 07, 2008

Strange Times, My Dear

As you read a foreign novel, you are actually invited into other people's living rooms, into their nurseries and studies, into their bedrooms. You are invited into their secret sorrows, into their family joys, into their dreams.

Which is why I believe in literature as a bridge between peoples. I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better businessperson or a better lover but even a better person.

Over the past few days I have been reading Strange Times, My Dear – The Pen Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature and its no surprise then that these lines by Amos Oz have been coming back to me time and again. The importance of what Oz says can’t be overstated and these lines hold especially true when you are reading about a country that is (in general) so misrepresented, so caricaturized and to a large extent so cut off from public knowledge and imagination.

When PEN and Arcade Publishing contracted to publish this anthology, they found out that to do so could subject them to a possible fine of $1,000,000 and ten years in prison. Reason being, no writers from the “Axis of Evil” countries could publish books in America without applying for a permit by the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). (It was this inane rule that prevented Shirin Ebadi from publishing her memoirs in the States as well.) So, Arcade went to court, the OFAC backed down and it’s our good fortune that we can now read about people in these rogue states and know that their sorrows, joys and dreams are not all that different from ours.

I am still making my way through the collection. There are many pieces I haven’t read at all and some that I have gone back to again and again. Among those that I have returned to are Ahmad Shamlu’s gorgeous poems – they have stayed with me all week, the images beautiful and heartbreaking. What strange times indeed.

In This Blind Alley

They smell your breath
lest you have said: I love you,
They smell your heart:
These are strange times, my dear.

They flog love
at the roadblock.
Let’s hide love in the larder.

In this crooked blind alley, as the chill descends,
they feed fires
with logs of song and poetry.
Hazard not a thought:
These are strange times, my dear.

The man who knocks at your door in the noon of the night
has come to kill the light.
Let’s hide light in the larder.

There, butchers
are posted in passageways
with bloody chopping blocks and cleavers:
These are strange times, my dear.

They chop smiles off lips,
and songs off the mouth:
Let’s hide joy in the larder.

Canaries barbecued
on the flames of lilies and jasmines:
These are strange times, my dear.

Satan, drunk on victory,
squats at the feast of our undoing.
Let’s hide God in the larder.

Ahmad Shamlu
Translated from the Persian by Ahmad Karimi Hakkak


iz said...

Anything else you think would be a good read?

Zee said...

even blogs let u into someone's life huh...

thalassa_mikra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thalassa_mikra said...

Ahmed Shamlou is perhaps the most well-respected of all contemporary Farsi poets (alas deceased now).

indifferent loser said...

"They chop smiles off lips,
and songs off the mouth:
Let’s hide joy in the larder.

Canaries barbecued
on the flame of lilies and jasmine
These are strange times, my dear"


Anonymous said...

"They chop smiles off lips,
and songs off the mouth:"

Gruesome thought - don't they chop off lips too?

Szerelem said...

iz: so many, many things too read, really!

zee: Yes, though the language barrier crops up. That's why translators are so important and books the best bridge between cultures.

t_m: His poems are gorgeous. I have another collection of his reserved at the library so have to pick that up!

indifferent loser: it is, isn't it?

lekhni: Gruesome but unfortunately aslo a reality in far too many places.