My mother and her sisters were born in Ishqabad, “the city of love,” in Turkmenistan. She was educated in Cypress as a nurse, speaking both Turkish and Greek. She then went to Tehran, met my father and married him. This is how I came to be born in Iran. And what a country! A place where in every home you almost always find a copy of poems of the revered Iranian poet, Hafez; a country where even the illiterate can recite a line or two from the poems of Rumi, Hafez, Saʿdī or any other classic poet to make his or her point in a conversation. It’s a country where an amusing children’s game—and I played this as a twelve-year-old with much gusto—is moshaereh, a game of poetry and memory where using poems learned by heart, one child recites a line of a poem, and the other child using the last letter of the poem must recite another poem that begins with that letter. For example:
Child one: A seasoned traveler on the road to love’s door
Your blood leaves its mark on every step [i]
Child two: Prophets of words! You pen-wielding idols.
If your message was the Truth, why did it crash
like waves at the shores of degradation? [ii]
Child one: Not for the sake of forests or for the sea
but for a leaf, for a drop brighter than your eyes. [iii]
… and so on. There was so much poetry stored in our little heads that we sometimes kept the game going for as long as a half hour.
For Iranians, as for people living in many parts of the world, poets occupy a lofty position and to them poetry is like bread, air, and colors. It is in this way that poets wield power, and at the same time set trembling the hearts of politicians, dictators, and even religious leaders. Indeed from Damascus, to Beijing to Tehran in every revolution or uprising, poets are among the first to be jailed. But the voice of the poet cannot be arrested, and that makes them dangerous to oppressive regimes such as Iran and China.
As an Iranian-American poet, I have always been a great advocate of literature in translation. As a poet who writes in English and saddles two languages and cultures, I have made it my duty to spend a portion of my time translating the poetry of Iranian poets. Not having access to the literature of a culture, movies like Argo and Not Without My Daughter, and news reports from sources such as Fox network bring to focus a whole nation through a single, and sometimes distorted, lens. I consider this kind of one-sided distorted presentation of any story dangerous, unfair, and in opposition to the peaceful direction towards which most human beings in this world wish to move.
In a country like Iran, a great number of laws are passed just so that injustice can be carried out legally. In many cases poets bearing witness to injustices and atrocities are guardians against lies and half-truths perpetrated by the lawmakers and fanatic religious leaders. These poets are harassed, jailed, or forced to flee. It is imperative that their poems are translated into other languages, and that it is done so in a caring manner: as living poems translated by poets who are fluent in both languages and cultures. Carolyn Forché in her groundbreaking anthology Against Forgetting writes, “One of the things that I believe happens when poets bear witness to historical events is that everyone they tell also becomes responsible for what they have heard and what they now know.”[iv] In my opinion, taking on this responsibility is crucial to our progress towards a harmonious and tolerant world society because to know the poetry of a nation means a closer look at its soul. Kenyan novelist and essayist, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who has always urged dialogue between nations through culture writes:
Culture is a product of a people’s history. But it also reflects that history and embodies a whole set of values by which a people view themselves and their place in time and space. Cultural contact can therefore play a great part in bringing about mutual understanding between peoples of different nations. Instead of armaments and nuclear weapons, instead of imposing one’s own version of democracy on tiny islands and continents through Rapid or Low Deployment Forces, let people of the world dialogue together through culture.[v]
Presently, only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. Yet, literature in translation is a tool necessary in building bridges that connect people of different cultures and religious persuasions. When there is a bridge, there will be foot traffic; and when we cross and engage with other cultures, through poetry, novels, and plays, we are that much closer to understanding them. That, I believe as a poet and a woman, is a good solid stride towards peace.
[ii] A Homily on Leaving by Nader Naderpour, translated by Sholeh Wolpé and Sahba Shayani. From The Forbidden: Poems From Iran and Its Exiles, edited by Sholeh Wolpé, Michigan State University Press, 2012.
[v] Moving the Center: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o; Heinmann Portsmouth, NH; EAEP, Nairobi; and James Curry Oxford, 1993.Sholeh Wolpé was born in Tehran, Iran, and has lived in Trinidad, the UK, and the United States. Her publications include Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), Rooftops of Tehran (Red Hen, 2008), The Scar Saloon (2004), and Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (2007) which awarded the 2010 Lois Roth Translation Prize. Find a complete list of titles here. Wolpé is the editor of The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its exiles (Michigan State University Press, 2012), Breaking the Jaws of Silence--Sixty American Poets Speak to the World (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), and a regional editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East (Norton 2010).
Her Persian translation and reading of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (co-translated with Mohsen Emadi) was launched by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in October 2012, in celebration of Whitman’s work. Find out more about Sholeh Wolpé here.