When the Ayatollah Dictates Poetry: The Persian Classical Style Of Panegyrics For Despotic Rulers
16 August 2015
By Amir Taheri
There are hands at work to lead our young poets away from their epic
revolutionary mission, putting them in the service of a corrupt culture."
This is how last Monday night Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's
"Supreme Guide," revealed his latest concern. According to him unidentified
"conspirators" want Iranian poets to write about "sexual desires, physical
beauty, personal gain, and even praise for cruelty."
Khamenei was addressing a group of poets at one of the by-invitation-only
events he organizes each year. Himself an amateur poet, although he has so
far shied away from showing his work outside small circles, Khamenei outlined
a road-map for what he described as "a comprehensive plan for the further
development of poetry in the Islamic Republic."
He called on government to provide the resources necessary to encourage poets
to steer clear of "trivial themes" such as physical beauty and love. The
modern Islamic poet, he believes, should use poetry as "a weapon in the war
of the Truth (Haq) against Falsehood (Batil)."
Some poets still write about the hair and eyes and body of a beloved and
depict scenes of joy when lovers meet to drink and dance and be merry. But
that is not the kind of poetry that the Islamic movement, grown on the
concept of jihad and martyrdom, wants.
"The poetry that we want must be in the service of revolutionary goals," the
"Today, only poems aimed at leading the ummah [Islamic community] into the
battlefield against tyranny are regarded as valuable," he said. "In that
context, especially needed are poems about Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, Gaza,
Palestine, and Syria".
Sadly, the Ayatollah notes, few Iranian poets were writing about those "vital
themes." Worse still, some were even tempted to side with "the Falsehood
Front," in which case they were guilty of "crime and betrayal" and had no
place in the Islamic Republic.
Among the poems recited at the session, Khamenei praised two. One was written
by his relative Ghulam-Ali Haddad-Adel and the other by a young poet Reza
Nikui. That the Ayatollah was pleased is no surprise. Written in traditional
style, both poems heaped on him praise that would have made even a medieval
Persian potentate blush in embarrassment.
Khamenei is not the first ruler of Iran with whom poets have run into
For some 12 centuries poetry has been the Iranian people's principal medium
of expression. Iran may be the only country where not a single home is found
without at least one book of poems.
Initially, Persian poets had a hard time to define their place in society.
The newly converted Islamic rulers suspected the poets of trying to revive
the Zoroastrian faith to undermine the new religion. Clerics saw poets as
people who wished to keep the Persian language alive and thus sabotage the
ascent of Arabic as the new lingua franca. Without the early Persian poets,
Iranians might have ended up like so many other nations in the Middle East
who lost their native languages and became Arabic speakers.
Early on, Persian poets developed a strategy to check the ardor of the rulers
and the mullahs. They started every qasida with praise to God and Prophet
followed by panegyric for the ruler of the day. Once those "obligations" were
out of the way they would move on to the real themes of the poems they wished
Everyone knew that there was some trick involved but everyone accepted the
result because it was good.
Despite that modus vivendi some poets did end up in prison or in exile while
many others spent their lives in hardship if not poverty. However, poets were
never put to the sword. The Khomeinist regime is the first in Iran's history
to have executed so many poets.
Implicitly or explicitly, some rulers made it clear what the poet couldn't
write. But none ever dreamt of telling the poet what he should write.
Khamenei is the first to try to dictate to poets, accusing them of "crime"
and" betrayal" if they ignored his injunctions.
The idea that poetry is a weapon in the service of an ideology is not new.
In the old Soviet Union it was presented under the label "Socialist Realism"
in the service of the global proletarian revolution. Two of Stalin's literary
mentors, Andrei Zhdanov and Alexander Fadeyev, promoted the theory that
before Communism human literature had been nothing but "a fog of superstition
and lies" in the service of feudalism and, later, the bourgeois capitalist
"The cliché about art for art's sake is a bourgeois trick to deprive the
proletariat from using literature as a weapon in the class struggle," Fadeyev
For a while, Socialist realism seduced many, including some genuine poets as
"The revolutionary poet writes on commission from the people," Mayakovsky
Soon, however, he realized that the "commission" came from Soviet commissars
not the people. He committed suicide.
Stalin's Socialist Realism produced no lasting works of literature. Today,
even Mayakovsky is all but forgotten. Instead, "bourgeois" and
"counterrevolutionary" poets such as Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak,
Tsevetaeva, and my late friend Joseph Brodsky remain the shining stars of
Four decades after the mullahs created the Khomeinist republic their
revolution has not produced a single poet worth the name.
Khomeini and Khamenei, both amateur poets, have produced nothing but frankly
embarrassing imitations of classical ghazal without its charm.
The last remaining great poets of the pre-revolution era are all in exile,
among them Hushang Ebtehaj, Manuchehr Yektai, Yadollah Roya'i, Esmail Khoi,
Muhammad Jalali, and Hadi Khorsandi.
Inside Iran, some promising younger poets such as Sa'id Sultanpour, Heydar
Mehregan, and, more recently, Hashem Shaabani were executed by the regime but
gained posthumous popularity greater than any officially endorsed poet.
At the same time, almost all of Iran's poets, from the 9th century to this
day, are either censored or, in rare cases, totally banned by the mullahs.
Most poets of the past 100 years are on various blacklists established by the
oxymoronically named Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture.
And, yet, Khamenei calls on the government to prepare a plan, and allocate
resources, to increase the production of poetry as if it were the same as
centrifuges churning out enriched uranium.
"How could anyone tell me what poem to write when I myself don't know what I
am writing until I have written it," demanded Fereidun Moshiri, one of Iran's
best-known pre-revolution poets. "The poet does not work according to any
plan. He is seized by the throat by an invisible angel, who guides him to the
desk and cajoles him write."
Whoever he or she may be working for, the "invisible muse" is certainly not
an apparatchik of the Islamic mukhaberat.
Poetry interprets the chaos of human life and tries to bestow meaning on it.
Without imagination there could be no poetry; and imagination chained by
ideology produces only propaganda.
Here is an example:
We cry: Allah, Quran, Khomeini
On our way to martyrdom and paradise
We know that when the time comes
The Hidden Imam by our side shall rise!
Khamenei was a jealous admirer of Mehdi Akhavan, one of the greatest of
Persian poets in the second half of the last century. Akhavan did not wish to
go into exile and thus was forced to reach some accommodation with the
mullahs. Of course, he could not compose qasidas in praise of a regime that
represented all that he had detested as a progressive and secular artist.
What he was prepared to do was to meet Khamenei every now and then and listen
to the latter's latest poems.
"It was a kind of soft torture," he later admitted in private.
However, he always drew a red line when Khamenei tried to tell him what kind
of poetry he should write.
"I may have been forced to read the poems that he wrote," Akhavan told
friends during a brief visit to Paris. "But I could not be forced to write
the poems that he liked to read."
Before Khamenei, many failed poets who achieved political power tried to
dictate to poets, among them the Qajar Nassereddin Shah and the Chinese
despot Mao Zedong. They failed because poetry has a magic genius that defies
attempts at definition let alone dictation. Poetry is like love, Rilke wrote
to his imaginary young poet, everyone knows what it is but no one can agree
on a definition.
Khamenei, aged 77, no longer fits the image of Rilke's young poet.
Nevertheless, maybe for his next birthday someone could give him a copy of
Rilke's magical essay. (Two excellent Persian translations are available.)
To get an idea of what kind of poetry Khamenei likes here is the translation
of a ghazal by Muhammad Reza Nikui recited in the presence of the "Supreme
Guide." It is in the classical style of panegyrics for despotic rulers:
In Your Praise
Wine-houses tell each other about your wine
When glasses clink together.
You are the truth promised to us
By myths and fables woven together
Every house is a minaret for Allah is the Greatest
This is how our houses are linked together.
With you as the candle burning in our circle
What a sight is the gathering of moths together
Like the beads of a rosary we are together
Creating a chain of unity together.
Your great miracle is that of love—
Which has brought us from ruins together.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.