'The Iranian regime commits crimes against its own people'
How can we peace
work when there is no democracy?” asks Sheema Kalbasi,
Iran born poet and human rights activist in an online interview with BIJURAJ.
Award winning poet and literary translator, hers is an outstanding and
honest voice from the Middle East. She left Iran twenty years ago after
the birth of the current regime and has worked for the United Nations
and the Center for Afghan Refugees in Pakistan. Today she lives with her
husband and daughter in the United States.
is writing for you and how did you turn to writing?
is a way of expression to me. A line we all walk but some of us take it
to a different level. I write in many styles. An experiment I have been
doing lately is combining the political, social, and economical issues
with erotica, and historical facts.
How much of yourself do you expose in poems? Also, how do
people respond to it?
I believe in the universality of human experience. That’s the general framework and the reason why we can read each other’s poems and enjoy them. But there is also a particular element at work here and that’s my individuality. I experience life in a particular body, in a particular age, and in a particular culture. In a sense, when I talk about “me” I am talking about us and when I talk about “us” I am talking about me.
You created the horizontal and vertical, a new style in poetry. Tell us about that.
It is a style of poetry written parallel to one another but can be read both horizontally and vertically.
Is it easy to write with others? Can you share your experiences of collaborating with other poets?
For me it has been an easy and enjoyable experience to write with other poets. I have joint poems with Roger Humes and Ron Hudson, two American poets, Alessio Zanelli, an Italian poet, and Yahia Lababidi, an Egyptian-Lebanese poet in English. I have also co-written several poems in Persian with Naanaam (Hossein Martin Fazeli,) an Iranian-Canadian poet, and filmmaker.
You are actively engaged in translation. What method do you generally use? There's a phrase that goes, "the poem is that which is lost in translation." What do you say?
I only translate poems that I feel connected with. I don’t see translation as just translation. I believe the translation of a poem should also embody the accent and mood of the original poem. The Seven Valleys of Love, the Bilingual Anthology of Women Poets from the Middle Ages Persia to the Present Day Iran is an upcoming book that I have translated and edited.
You are also an activist. How does poetry mesh with your activism?
Being a Human Rights activist, poetry has been a way to bring attention to the crimes committed by the Iranian regime and other human rights issues around the world. In fact one of my poems Hezbollah, where I have described the suffering of Iranian religious and ethnic minorities in addition to the arrests and executions of the political prisoners, was awarded the Harvest International prize last year.
One senses a lot of restlessness and agony in your poems...
Yes. I am. My parents did their best to provide me with everything I needed. But I was born in Iran and, before I left as a teenager, experienced totalitarianism first hand.
While dealing the woman subjects in a poem, you seem more aggressive. Do you agree?
I primarily write as a human and not as a woman. People like to say that I am a woman activist. I don’t deny that I am a woman activist or a feminist but first and foremost I am a human rights activist. I believe in equality and therefore I don’t see myself as a woman first. This applies to my poetry and art as well.
Your poem For
The Women of Afghanistan has a strong local flavour. Have you ever been to Afghanistan?
I have never been to Afghanistan. When I lived in Pakistan in the eighties I worked for UNHCR. I heard about Afghans’ sufferings first hand and later when I moved to Denmark and Taliban came to power I decided to write the poem For The Women of Afghanistan and got it published in 1998. Ever since its publication this poem has received great deal of attention. It has been anthologised, presented by students, taught in colleges and school classrooms by professors and teachers around the world including India, and has been used in art and crafts as well as paintings by artists.
What forced you into exile \? Tell us about your life in the US.
What forced me to leave my country of birth was the current regime of Iran. Your readers may be familiar with the ruling regime of Iran. Just to give you an example, in the last fifty three days there have been seventy nine executions in Iran. Twenty seven of those were public hangings. Twelve of those broadcast on the Iranian TV. Women have no right to divorce, or to leave the country unless they have permission from their husband or, if they are single, from their father or guardian. For as long as I lived in Iran and remember and from what I read and hear, the political activists are routinely imprisoned and executed. There have been massacre of ethnic minorities such as Kurds. Recently 700 hundred Iranian Baloch were arrested to be executed. University students are hanged under false accusations. When I turned 14 I simply decided I had to leave the country. In the words of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese philosopher and writer: “He who does not prefer exile to slavery is not free by any measure of freedom, truth and duty.” Today I no longer see myself just as an Iranian. I am a Danish citizen as well as a U.S. resident and that said, I like to once again say that I see myself as a human and not a citizen of this or that country. In answer to your question about my life in the U.S., I like to say that in my opinion the United States is definitely not perfect but it is the one country where democracy is at its best.
US now placed its eyes on Iran. Do you think war is imminent?
I don’t know if war is on the cards or not but the world has been quiet when it comes to the human rights crimes committed by the Iranian regime. I believe they have to voice their outrage at these violations before everything else. Why has the world been quiet for the past thirty years while our best people have been killed in the prisons of the oppressive regime of Iran? Why all we hear is 'Peace' and never do we hear 'Democracy'! How can peace work when there is no democracy?
If there's war, as an Iranian living in the US, you may be put in complex situation...
No. I don’t believe my life will be any more complex than it was when I was living in Iran. In fact I believe the United States is the one country where my dignity as a human being is never questioned.
How you evaluate the governments in Iran and US.
There is no comparison between the Iranian regime and the U.S. government. The Iranian regime commits crimes against its own people and supports terrorism around the world. The United States has a democratic government and if people are dissatisfied with one political group they have the chance to elect a different one four years later. Even when they U.S. government commits war crimes in Abu Gharib prison in Iraq we hear and read about it and people get convicted. The same doesn’t apply to the ruling regime of Iran.
You have been criticising Iranian government, so is there a chance that you might be in danger when you go back to Iran? Have you visited Iran lately?
I don’t travel to Iran. I left Iran twenty years ago. Ten years ago I traveled back to Iran because my grand mother had passed away. That was when I decided to voice my concerns even more. A year or two years later I published an opinion article where I wrote my observations and experience of the visit. Here is what I wrote for the Iranian Times:
“With pain and sorrow I saw a dreadful, poverty-stricken, dark Iran on the eve of the new millennium. My childhood dream of the year 2000, for the most part, looked something like rocket-shaped cars, lunar colonies, and electric toothbrushes! It was disillusioning to find Tehran 2000 as a city of beggars, of barefoot children with cheeks of tan and dust, of the dark-red sun trying to breathe through the heavy dark clouds of municipal mismanagement. Iran 2000 is an economy based on subsidies, to fill people's bellies just enough so they can survive. Survive to see more of the misery. Survive to receive token dowries and pastries for the blood of their raped virgins in the prisons of oppression. Survive to see fellow human beings buried in a hole up to their chests, stoned to death by a bloodthirsty mob of howling beasts. Survive to find that questioning, yes even questioning this bloodbath, is punishable by death.
So much for our economy. So much for our individual and intellectual freedom. So much for justice, and above all so much for our human dignity.”
Let us go back in time a bit. What is your opinion on the Iranian revolution? Do you think what was originally a progressive revolution got hijacked?
Iranians in hope and search for democracy started the revolution. Unfortunately the outcome, only two days after the regime change, was killing, and stabbing the army and intelligence officers in the streets. Such bloodshed is never a good start for any change. Later Bahais, Kurds, and political activists become the targets for the new dictators.
After the September 11 attack, we often hear that people from Middle East and Asia are under suspicion in US and Europe...
Yes. I do feel so when I go to the airport. Recently my husband, the director of a research center in Washington, D.C. was humiliated on the airplane and his safety was put in danger by the flight attendant when he was on his way back from a business trip. But the United States is where we can voice our concern and are heard.
Tell us something about Iranian writers in exile...
Exiled writers are contributing a lot, not only to the Persian literature but to the world literature as well. Exiles and immigrant writers and poets have, throughout history, had an important role to play in discovering new frontiers in articulating experience and finding new means of expressions. Think of Russian exiles like Marian Tsvetaeva or Josef Brodsky. Think of German exiles like Paul Celan. The same applies to Persian literature. Not many people might know the bright exiled Iranian writers now. But in time they will.
Iranian films have been appreciated the world over.. do you follow Iranian cinema?
I like some Iranian movies. Movies like Gaav (the Cow) by Dariush Mehrjui or Baad Maa Raa Baa Khod Khaahad Bord (The Wind Will Carry Us) by Abbas Kiarostami. But in general I am not an Iranian film buff. That said, I am happy about the success of Iranian movies on the international stage. I think it brings attention to richness of my culture and also exposes the problems we’re facing in Iran (in movies like Zendaan-e Zanaan, Women’s Prison).
I just remembered reading an article in New York Times in 2001 in which the author, a renowned film critic, had called Kiarostami “arguably the most important filmmaker alive”. That’s a pretty big statement by a big paper! I am not crazy about Kiarostami’s cinema but that statement made me happy!
In Decolonizing the mind, Ngugi wa Thiong'o argues that the primary duty of any writer is to write in his\her own language first. However, writers like you prefer to write in English. What do you say about this?
I write in English but also in Persian and Danish. In fact I am one of the few Iranian contemporary poets who write in rhymes as well as the free style in Persian. Any language the writer feels comfortable with is great to write in.
There are human rights violations happening in the US as well. As you know, writers like Mumia Abu Jamal and Marlyn Buck are now in prison. What are your views on this?
I disagree. There are not many Human Rights violations in the United States. If there were, we would hear about it. How many cases are there like Mumia abu Jamal? As for Marilyn Buck she and 6 others were convicted in the Resistance Conspiracy Case of the bombing of the United States Capitol Building to protest the US invasion of Grenada.
What about American literature... what are the trends there?
Well, we just lost Vonnegut, whom I really liked. But there are still many good writers at work in America. Updike still writes. Bly still writes. And many more…
America has its own island in the ocean of the world literature.
Are you in favour of classifying literature into Women's writing and so on?
No. I don’t like arbitrary categorisations. I only know two categories in literature: good literature and bad literature! In literature I don’t like stuff that have their expiry date on them!
What do you know about India? Are you familiar with the country, as well as Indian literature?
My great aunt was married to a Sikh in India and that is perhaps what I as a child learned of India before everything else. At one point in history, Persia and India were neighboring countries so we are not that far apart. We have had a lot of give and take throughout our history. After the Arab invasion of 1400 years ago, millions of Persians left Persia. It was the first exodus in our history. And where did most of them go? To India. One of our greatest poets, Bidel Dehlavi, was born and raised in India. His name Dehlavi means from Delhi! So, there are a lot of links.