18 February 2021
Poetry and terror.
By Neil Tidmarsh
A volume called Poems From The Persian caught my eye the last time I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop. (Was that really a year ago? Such simple and innocent pre-Covid pleasures – why did we take them so much for granted and when will they return?). I pocketed this collection of translations from Firdausi, Sa’adi, Hafiz and other classical Persian poets for less than a fiver and I’ve been feasting on their beauty ever since.
The book was originally published in 1948 (though my edition is only thirty years old), the translations were made by John Charles Edward Bowen who was His Majesty’s vice-consul in Tehran from 1938 to 1947, and the original material is up to a thousand years old. Bowen’s English renderings are delightfully smooth and polished. I don’t know how close they are to the original; in his introduction, Bowen says he “tried to translate into English verse the spirit rather than the exact words of the original”, but he was apparently a gifted scholar and linguist (he was one of the first to expose the serious flaws in Robert Graves’ 1968 version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) and the originals are printed in Persian above his translations, so readers qualified to judge their accuracy can do so. But if his translations are so exquisite, how much more exquisite must those originals be?
Poetry is not a minority interest in Iran (modern Persia). It’s a national passion. Eighty years ago Bowen wrote that the verses of the classical Persian poets “are constantly upon the lips of even the poorest of the people”, and BBC Four’s recent series The Art of Iran presented by Samira Ahmed emphasised the country’s universal reverence for those poets and its widespread knowledge of and love for their works even today. Everyone in modern Iran seems to treasure their brilliant literary heritage and to enjoy poetry as a living art.
All of which, of course, presents something of a puzzle.
In Belgium two weeks ago, a serving Iranian official was found guilty of terrorism offences and sentenced to twenty years in jail. He apparently planned a bomb attack on a rally in France in 2018 organised by a group of opposition figures and their supporters in exile from Iran. The rally was attended by 25,000 people, including prominent politicians from the UK, the USA and elsewhere. Hundreds of innocent people would have lost their lives if Belgian police hadn’t foiled the plot and arrested its mastermind Assadollah Assadi (an officer in the Iranian intelligence service with diplomatic cover based in Vienna) and his three accomplices (who have joint Iranian-Belgian citizenship).
On the same day that this was reported, it was also reported that Lockman Slim, a publisher and journalist who was an outspoken critic of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, had been shot dead in Lebanon.
A few days later, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the British-Australian academic who was arrested in Tehran in 2018 and imprisoned mostly in solitary confinement for almost three years, was at last released – hot on the heels of the release of three Iranians being held in Thailand for a failed terrorist bomb plot there.
And a few days after that, the UN’s atomic energy watchdog – the International Atomic Energy Agency – reported that Iran had at last succeeded in producing uranium metal, essential for nuclear weapons. This is in clear breach of the 2015 deal which Iran claims to be observing (and expects the European signatories to continue to observe) following the USA’s withdrawal from the treaty.
Iran – a civilised and sophisticated country of poets and poetry lovers? Or Iran – a country which most of the rest of the world condemns as a barbarous and renegade sponsor of global terrorism, as a pariah state secretly developing nuclear weapons, imprisoning innocent civilians as pawns in an international game of power-politics and exporting brutality and violence to its neighbours Iraq, Syria and Lebanon?
How to reconcile this apparent contradiction, this paradox?
The obvious answer is that you can’t judge a whole country by the repressive regime which governs it. This must be particularly true in Iran, dominated as it is by an authoritarian theocracy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, exerting huge internal repression on the whole nation. The anti-government protests and demonstrations which break out on a regular basis are apparently met with ruthless, bloody and brutal suppression. (Such harsh conditions can be a fertile ground for poetry and literature, after all; J C E Bowen points out that “most of the classical poetry of Persia was being written when the country was being ravaged by invaders as cruel and destructive as Ghengiz Khan and Timur”.)
It’s tempting to leave it at that, to insist that a repressed people and a repressive government are two different things, with different characteristics, and not to be confused with each other. But one small detail in the report about that foiled terror attack in France suggests that this is not quite the whole story.
One of Iranian intelligence official Assadollah Assadi’s three accomplices, found guilty and condemned to seventeen years in jail in Belgium two weeks ago, was Mehrdad Arefani, who is, according to The Times, an Iranian poet. A poet who took part in a murderous terrorist plot which France insists was authorised by the Iranian state.
So it seems that it isn’t so easy to separate poetry-loving Iran from terrorist-sponsoring Iran after all. It seems that the two are indeed confused, the one with the other. And this suggests that the puzzle is merely part of a deeper, more complex and more universal mystery. And not a specifically Iranian one either.
It’s the same question as: how did Germany – that most civilised of countries, the country of Beethoven and Goethe, where philosophy was more or less the national religion – succumb to Nazism? Why did many of its professors of philosophy not merely accept its evil system but positively welcome it? (actually, the academic career opportunities opened up by the sacking of Jewish professors might have had something to do with that). How could lovers of Brahms and Beethoven have governed death camps and listened to violin concertos while imposing that hell on fellow human beings? Why was a civilised populace as a whole happy with the barbaric Hitler? How could Shakespeare’s original London audiences have enjoyed the public spectacle of horrific executions as well as the beauty and humanity of his plays?
It isn’t that Iran or Iranians are schizophrenic; it’s that mankind in general is schizophrenic. The fact is that beauty and ugliness, civilisation and barbarity, cruelty and kindness, co-exist in humanity and are difficult to separate in the actions and products of our species. Sometimes they co-exist in the same individual: Caravaggio was a murderer and violent trouble-maker as well as a painter of genius and sensitivity; the wise and witty poet John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, was an appalling human being; the poet Ezra Pound threw in his lot with Mussolini and fascist Italy; recent biographies of Lucien Freud reveal him as something of a monster; Louis-Ferdinand Céline, doctor to the poor and one of the greatest French novelists of the twentieth century, was a vehement anti-Semite convicted of collaborating with the Nazis… The list could go on and on.
This doesn’t solve the puzzle, of course. It just means that it’s part of a bigger mystery which has preoccupied philosophers, artists, historians and psychologists since the beginning of history. And which remains unsolved.
J C E Bowen’s Poems From The Persian present a second puzzle, another paradox. I hadn’t heard of him before so I Googled his name and learnt that he was born to English parents in India. He was the third generation in his family to serve the British Raj. He was an officer in the British Indian Army, a civil servant in the Indian Political Service, a diplomat in Iran, Afghanistan and India, and a District Commissioner in Africa. In other words he was a typical man of Empire and Colonial administrator, the very species which is being demonised today as evil, exploitative and callous, as blood-sucking parasites. And yet, here he is, a poet and scholar deeply and passionately immersed in the culture of the countries and people he served (he also published translations of Indian Moghul poetry and Afghan tales), determined to be an ambassador for their literature to the whole world. A worthy life well-spent, surely. Even eighty years after their publication, his Poems From The Persian are a timely and invaluable reminder that there is more to Iran and the Iranians than the headlines in today’s newspapers might suggest.
Who knows, in a hundred years’ time they may well still exist and still be read as a monument to Iran’s civilisation, a celebration of its true and immortal culture, long after the Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards have gone.