Iran Roundtable

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The Iranian Protest Literature

Bejan Baran, PhD

Keeping my words with the boatmen, amidst the storm, 
Beyond my own life, I have to pass through the storm.
In the dark nights, my rendezvous with my love-
Is to set fire in the mountains.
Song: Kiss Me
Date: Summer 1953
Lyrics: Dr H. Reghabi 1931-1988
Singer: H. Golnaraghi 1921-1993
Composer: M. Vafadar 1912-1978

The epigram is a sample of an everlasting song of commitment in the Iranian culture.  After the 1953 Summer Coup, the political persecution followed. Similar coups patterned thereafter in Guatemala, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Viet Nam, and Chile. The above song was a lament, a farewell, to the loved ones imprisoned and facing firing squads after the Coup. Following half a century, the song sublimated into the Iranian collective cultural psyche; hummed in every urban quarter and played in national radio stations. This stanza alludes to the 5 elements of struggle in a coded message using poetic metaphors. Mountains stand for the people, love for the party, fire for awareness, covenant/ rendezvous for commitment, and storm for the State’s violence.  The party is committed to human rights for the enlightened people amidst the State’s repression. 

What is certain about the protest literature is that the literary work of the writer lasts longer than the repressive apparatus.  It is in line with Sartre's littérature engagée, to argue that apolitical authors ignore the moral and conscience in their writing and forget the state violence against committed authors. McCarthyism is much more violent in the repressive countries – such as Spain of 1936-75, Greece of 1967-75, Argentina with 6 coup d’états of 1930, 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976, and Chile of 1973-1988. 

In 1973 Chilean coup d’état, a news cameraman was shot by Pinochet’s stooges.  His camera’s field of view was in circular scan, due to his falling and twisting as the camera was rolling on the track.  The camera was taken by a comrade; the film was published around the world.  In the film, the death of a newsman was recorded in the circular motion of the frames; then the pause/ stop on a point in the sky.  It became a documentary to record the reporter’s death on the spot; so after his death it exposed the crime of the coup d’état.

The Noble in literature mostly goes to committed writers who are deeply engaged in changing the world status quo, both through their writing and activism. Boris Pasternak of Russia and Herta Muller of Romania are among the Noble Committee’s selections. Ravi Vyas explains committed literature further: 

Sartre in his Speech in 1945 said: Writers do not see the danger from the State’s brutality towards moral and political concerns in the literary works.  He used the terms literature of commitment or engaged, in Arabic Adabiate Eltezaam and Aladab Olmoltazem for an activist writer with a social conscience.  In Sartre’s death, the Paris Press headline was: France lost its conscience.  Sartre meant literature, vis-à-vis reality, should not be sleeping pills or sedatives. Also, the critiques in comfort should not be unaware of the danger of state violence against the committed literature; for censorship is the first step in the coarse stairs descending to the dark dungeons and torture chambers of the state.
But "commitment" did mean at least one thing: That literature should not be a sedative, a feel-good pill or a sub-division of the entertainment industry. It should be an irritant that would provoke men to change the world in which they lived and in so doing change themselves. By adopting this role the writer would ensure that the content of his/ her work would avoid sterile dogmatism; it would be addressed to the potentially free reader and by doing so, the writer would also be freeing himself. The process is dialectical and reciprocal. Also, it meant that there would be no room for ambiguity, for what could be called the "music of chance."
The danger of committed literature is that it will fall into a thesis novel, what the French call Roman a these -- a story with an axe to grind; rather than a novel of ideas Roman D'idees -- which is a genuine exploration of ideas in the context of narrative. 
Literature is a verbal category of works in the culture of a society that is for communication with readers under the state’s visa for its publication.  Since literature has a close link with progressive forces in society, its form is synchronized with the development phases of the growing social strata.  The commitment means truth, humanity, and social fairness. The most famous writers/poets are in the camp of committed literature: Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Hafez, Molana, Dostoevsky, Shaw, Dickens, Lorca, Neruda, Twain, Heine, Shelley, Eco, Marquez, Shamlu, Yushij, Forugh. Simin.
Protest literature is part of committed literature to fight against oppression in society.  Literature of commitment is universal; it is present in the history of all nations.  It is as old as history itself, some 4,000 years.  Literature of commitment is part of people’s struggle in the face of the government and in the direction of historical development for the defense of truth and fairness.  It also facilitates social democratization; ultimately accelerates the society toward democracy.  
Protest is patriotism.  Contrary to the ruling clique who is the purveyor of the status quo, protest is for the sake of social development.  In the 20th century other movements gained praise: internationalism, cosmopolitism, Marxism, Islamism, nationalism, chauvinism, patriotism.  Protest could be progressive for the sake of further social development.  It could be reactionary for the return to the past; tradition of fundamentalism of the right- the looking back to the golden age which is idealized into an iron rule of total order authority.
Protest literature plants hope in society. It proves word is important; pen triumphs over clubs. It encourages the writer to fight using the pen and participate in the struggle.  Protest literature is the fastest means to promote the public demands following the law. With the advent of mass media in the second half of the 20th century and the virtual social networks in the first decade of the 21st century, one could see, read, hear daily.  The news in any locality is transmitted to the world via satellite and the internet.
In every revolution, the masses rally for the progressive slogans.  After victory, the egalitarian slogans are pushed into the mud by the leadership under their intolerant culture of the past.  The human love of Jesus ended up with dark ages of inquisition, liberte- egalite- fraternite of the Great French Revolution led to the beheading by guillotine of the opposition factions to the power.  Bread, housing, work for all in the October Revolution ended in the Gulags and purges. Fundamentally the conservatives fear power rotation and despise periodic election. They prefer ruling for life, or even hereditary in their family.  Example: North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates. Commitment can be affirmative in defense of exploitation, freedom, truth, independence, and progress or could be negative anti-reaction, anti-dictatorship, against colonialism and foreign invasion. 
In the first group in Iran, Pervin Etessamy in sympathy with the oppressed, Bahar for freedom, Eshqy for independence, put their pens at the service of the nation.  In the second group, Farokhy Yazdy exposed reactionaries; Seyfe Forqany lamented the Mongol’s invasion of Iran, Lahuty attacked the reactionaries in words.  Dehkhoda spent his life in a relentless fight against the Dark Age of the dictatorship. He at times was a poet/ writer, other times an activist.
The presence of social conscience in an individual, according to his gift and rank in society makes him have an “honorable doubt” about the government, using Emerson’s euphemism.  Zoroaster’s teaching is about good “thoughts, words, deeds” of a human. They arise doubts in the conscience which lead to protesting activism.  The beginning examples in the first millennium BC are fleeing Zoroaster to a more safe area for his gospel of Gathas for social reforms, the banishment of Tao, and conviction of Socrates to take deadly drink – has repeated throughout history and keeps repeating over and over to this day.  Writers are part of society which has the gift to express.  They use their gift in the service of telling the truth for the return of the rights of the oppressed.  Giordano Bruno in Italy was an example of bravery in telling the truth and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany advocated for the rights of the oppressed.
As the reformists on the streets rise for the social rights of the oppressed, writers too write for the rights of the persecuted in a society; they also participate in social activism.  Some extraordinary examples of activism are Sartre and Russell in the 60s with their anti-war march in Europe.  Dr. Arany, Lahuty in the past century, in protesting against colonialism and oppression in Iran, they contributed with the pen and the blood.  It led them to prison, exile, death, torture, and execution.
Therefore, commitment in all people including writers is in various degrees.  Also, the interests of the individuals in social and political positions have to be considered.  So, the committed writers have their counterparts in the protest activists; Nima, the committed poet, had his brother Ladbon who had to be banished in the North because of social justice ideology; he later vanished by the Soviet security forces.  Keyvan, Ruzbeh, Vartan, Dr Fatemy, Qandchi, Dr A’zami, the murdered couple Foruhar in their home, they are martyrs of the struggle – they are all from the same substance; each chose the means for their fight against darkness.
In the middle ages, some writers like Hallaj, Sohrevardy, Attar- sometimes reached martyrdom either as a Zandiq/ Heretic or a patriot.  Molana, Khayyam had to leave their birthplace for years; because of the local fanatics, Molana wrote in exile: Hear the reed; it is played/ It complains about separation.  Therefore, the committed literature is universal; it is suppressed by the rulers.  Censor is one of the modern means to restrict the spread of protest.
In the last 100 years in Iran, an alleged political activist in the preliminary investigation has no legal defense.  Therefore the independence of judiciary power from executive power is superfluous. Sometimes based on the forced confession extracted by the investigative team with torture and threat and a promise of leniency in the punishment, the team denies the leniency promised. The prosecutor and the court ask for the execution of the accused anyway.  The court convicts the accused for a summary execution.  In this process of treating the prisoner, the integrity of the accused and the honor of the conscience of the detective get questioned, violated.  
In every nation’s constitution the alleged guilt of expression, is lighter than activism; therefore the protest writers are more immune than the activists in the society.  In the 1960s, the committed poet Farakhzad for the equality of women’s rights to men and Shamlu for the integrity of human dignity- fought against the reactionary forces. Dr Saedy, Behrangy, Dr Rahimy, Dr Hezarkhany, Prof Aryanpur, N Pakdaman, Homa Nategh taught implicitly the rights of citizenry.  On the streets Dr. Khanaly for teachers’ rights, Jazany along with 8 other political prisoners were murdered.  In the summer of 1988, 4000 young political prisoners were executed in the jails.  The poetry of commitment for the progressive works and thoughts in society becomes an opposition to the government.  Here, the government is not just the official; it includes the powerful people with repressive and reactionary ideas.  Farokhzad’s entanglement was more with the patriarchal elites rather than with the SAVAK, contrary to Soltanpur.  But both possessed social courage to fight their opponents.
The apex/peak of protest literature in Iran was the start of the Writers Guild in 1968.  Poet such as Golsorkhy, Soltanpur, Sirjany, Mokhtary, Puyandeh; they put their lives on the line and got slain.  Sometimes, the protest leads the poet to become a member of a progressive political party: Sartre, Picasso, Theodorakis, Brecht, Montaigne in the West.  In Iran Lahuty wrote the lyrics of the Internationale March, and Soltanpur wrote the Jahan / World. It is a part of World’s Poets Essayists, and Novelists (PEN).  The Guild has been a bastion/fort of the defense of Freedom. It has added more martyrs to the list of people for freedom.  Its exiled wing is active in the EU. 
 In the summer of 1996, by the invitation of the Armenian Writers Association, 21 Iranian writers, poets, essayists took a bus to go to the neighboring country.  Up in the Caucasian mountains at night, the driver, who was at the service of the Security, tried to crash the bus into a horrific valley.  The bus got stuck on a bolder underneath; the front wheels were in the air, the rear stuck to the rock.  The passengers woke up, eventually they were saved from a certain death.  Among them were Kushan, Sarekuhy, Behnud, Manadanypur, Sepanlu, and 16 other literarians.  Some of them later on were murdered; others left the country.  Over 150 activists, poets, and writers abroad and inside were on the death row by the Ministry of Security and butchered.  In the 1990s with courageous expose by Ganji and Baqy, and the fair legal defense by Dr. Zarafshan, the society woke up.  Ganjy’s books were sold in 200,000 per print.  This tremendous appeal to the book buyers was unprecedented in the last 100 years in Iran.

There are exemplary samples of commitment in the literature.  One of the persistent protesting literarian is Dr. Baraheny.  He fought against tyranny for 50 years with his activism, writings, and teachings.  In universities, he taught the literature of protest and commitment.  As a member of the Writers Guild in Iran, USA, Canada, Dr Baraheny amplified the voice of oppressed for the ears of the intellectuals in the World; still he is active in this sphere. With his literary criticism book, titled The Gold In Cupper, he brought modern, objective and non-judgmental critique to Iranian literature. Thus teaching the book at the universities, it institutionalized modern literary criticism.  He petitions, protests letters, signing against 100 years of tyranny in Iran in the world forums and media, amplifies the voice of struggle by women, ethnic, workers, and fighters. 
Prof Kadkany is another example of an Iranian scholar who with his humanitarian outlook critiqued the dictatorship.  He used his artistic sensibility to teach humanitarian outlook to the new generation of university students.  Among a few Iranian expatriates and exiles abroad, the majority and almost all the intellectuals are against the status quo in Iran. Dr. Bahman Nirumand whose best seller book in the 1960s in Germany exposed the new colonialism backing the comprador regime of Iran.  Professors like Ahmad Ashraf, Karimi Hakkak, Kh. Shakeri, Yarvand Abrahamian, M. Darvishpur, Cyrus Bina, Vahabzadeh in various western Universities rose up to the defense of the truth and the oppressed. They devote their pens and take action to protest the human rights violations in Iran.  
Most poets are from the middle class; in their educational process and in the presence of their social conscience they see the prevalent poverty and injustice, and devote their writing to expose the blatant human rights violations.  Sometimes, under the pressure of the oppressing state, sickness of old age, financial distress- some of them  go through a change of heart, to side with or disregard the state repression. Examples are Tavalloli, Kushabady, Karo.  Only in the next round they regretted the change of heart; and ask for the people’s forgiveness.  Sometimes due to unawareness and lack of conscience they serve the state, like Dr Shafa, Dr Khanlary, Moayery, Naderpur.  But in the next phase of their life cycle, in defense of alleviating oppression, they write against the oppressive regime like Naderpur or get silent, as Karo.  There are times they switch sides and serve the oppressive regime such as Lashai, Nahavandy, Nikkhah, Lajevardi, Shariatmadari.  
The protest literature exists in all 193 UN member countries.  However, this type of literature in the US has more appeal in the world, both in content and tradition.  In the last 200 years in the US, the protest literature has mirrored the hardship for: poor emigrants, slaves, forced migration of the native Indian, the struggle for women, universal  women suffrage, the striking workers, pressure on the minorities, lynching of young blacks, the big depression of 1930s captured by Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath, the hypocrisy of the conservatives in the works of Mark Twain, civil rights movement in the 1960s, the second feminism, protest against war in Indo-China, the rights of Latinos, homosexuals, expose of the state intrusion in the privacy of the citizens, the uninsured poor, homelessness, crimes due to poverty and hunger, protest against the Persian Gulf War.
Protest literature goes back to Jefferson’s era in the Declaration of Independence in the 18th century in opposition to the plundering British colonialism.  In 1846, Thoreau was jailed for his civil disobedience in not paying the poll tax.  The tax was to restrict the right of the poor in national voting.  His friend, Emerson, went to visit him in the jail; behind the bar, asked what are you doing in here?  Thoreau answered, what are you doing out there?!  The protest literature is the demarcation line between two types of literature in a country.  Emerson wrote on one side, “An honorable doubt which repeats itself.”  On the other side, art with a social impact of activist artists.  Therefore, protest literature against the status quo, for diminishing social oppression, is related to a trait in an individual’s personality, related to honor and fairness.
A committed poet’s conscience is awakened.  Brecht in a 1942 letter wrote, “love of truth and fury against injustice” cause banishment and exile.  In his research on the chronology of exile in history, he found some Chinese poets in the 8th and 9th centuries in exile, like Lao-tsu, Te Ching, and Tao from the 6th century BC.  Saadi spent 30 years away from his birth place; Nasser Khosro was banished too.  In Greece, Euripid, Rome Ovid, Iran’s Mani, Mazdak were on the run or hiding away from the autocrats.
In any language, only a few poets ascend to the cultural conscience of the people.  In Persian, they are Molana and Saadi.  But in the history of a language spoken by the people, there are hundreds of thousands of poets.  What is the secret of longevity of the committed poets that distinguishes them from the marginal poets?
In every age in culture, there is a main stream and there are marginal, eddy currents.  The literarians on the margin sometimes come up with novelties which get absorbed into the main stream. 
Commitment in literature is universal, from Einstein to Mandlestam in exile by the Soviets, Mahmud Dervish of Palestine and Zhaleh Esfahani is a long scroll in history and spreads across the world.  In Iran: Khaqany with the verse on Madaen Terrace/ Ctesiphon, to Obeid.  They have their brethren and sisters in other social arenas:  Babak, Jangali, Pessian, Shushtari, Bozorgnia, Dr. Mossadegh, Dr. Qasemlu, Mokhtari, Neda, Taraneh, Sohrab.
The committed literature existed all along the contemporary, the classic, modern eras in Akhavan, Azarm, Dr Khoyee, Reza Maqsudy, and Monir Tah.  Poets like M Huleh, Reza Farmand, M. Sahar; artists like M Satrapy, Moslem Mansury, Alamehzadeh with their underground movies can be added to the list.

Dr Bejan Baran 
July 8,2014 


Summer of 1953 Coup d’états: Foreign agents, a part of the military forces, and the Palace staged against the Nationalist government of Mossadeq. It followed by arrests, execution of many patriots, including Dr Fatemy, Col Ruzbeh, and Vartan.
American Revolution 1775-1783.
Great French Revolution 1778-1799.
October Revolution 1917.
Gulag -the main Soviet forced labor camp systems of Stalin, from the 1930s until the 1950s.
Gatha- 17 hymns believed to have been composed by Zoroaster.
Chile Coup of 1973 military against Dr Allende’s government.
Writers Guild of Iran started 1968 against censor.
SAVAK Ministry of Security formed 1957 to spy on the people and culture.
The Internationale anthem of 1864 by Eugene Pottier attending the First International Congress.