By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
Why do I speak in poetry? Because in this heavy mist, I cannot be a lighthouse For drifting boats.
THE BACK DOOR TO MAJID NAFICY'S MODEST SANTA Monica apartment is open. The aroma of sweet and sour wafts in from a Chinese hole-in-the-wall across the parking lot. A clay pot full of fresh mint sits on the railing of the small patio. On his bookcase shelves, well-worn volumes in Farsi and a few in English, including Walt Whitman and a Hebrew-English dictionary. On an old desk there's an enlargement device that allows the nearly blind poet to magnify text 60 times so that he can read. Az√Ęd, Majid's 12-year-old son, is at school -- but he has left behind ample evidence of an American boyhood: skateboard, baseball mitt, Pok√©mon cards, sneakers, a Michael Jordan poster taped to the refrigerator.
Majid is a political refugee from Iran, where he was an active participant in the revolution against the shah. He lost his first wife, Ezzat, his brother Sa'id, his brother-in-law Hossein, numerous friends and, ultimately, his country to the death squads of Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalist Islamic regime.
On the table, there's a framed, faded black-and-white photograph: a young unveiled woman with a heart-shaped face and a shy, serious expression. "This is Ezzat," Majid says tenderly, as if introducing someone physically present. He has described this photo in a poem, "To a Picture":
I see you in the middle of the garden The red roses have covered your skirt. You seem to be standing on tiptoe To get a better view of the other side. Alas, you fell down in the execution field And my body did not cover you How short was the landscape of the other side! But our love still stands upright.
The edge of the picture is torn. "Ezzat's mother used to be in the photo," he says, "but I promised her that I would cut her out." There are no photos of Majid and his first wife together. They both lived underground in the dangerous years following the 1979 revolution. "We did not want the secret police to recognize us," he says.
I first encountered Majid at a "Writing in Exile" conference sponsored by Villa Aurora in 1995. The Villa, an artists' residence and cultural center in Pacific Palisades, is now maintained by the German Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut. The former residence of novelist Leon Feuchwanger, a Jewish-German refugee, it's now dedicated to preserving the memory of writers who fled the Nazis, and to other exiled peoples. At the conference, Majid read from one of his essays. I was impressed with the sense of authority he projected, his quiet intensity, his keen insights into the painful experience of leaving behind one's native tongue, one's family, one's history: "My body lives in L.A., but my soul is still rummaging through the ruins of a lost revolution back in Iran."
In 1999, Beyond Baroque Literary Center published Muddy Shoes, Majid's first collection of poems translated into English. Soon after, Majid read from his work at the downtown Central Library (where I program the reading series). Az√Ęd sat in the front row of the auditorium, swinging his legs, busy with his Gameboy. Majid walked to the stage of the Mark Taper Auditorium. A small tape recorder hung from a strap around his neck. He put on earphones and pressed the "start" button. Until then, few in the audience realized that Majid, who doesn't use a cane, is legally blind. He never glanced down at a page, but instead prompted himself with his own voice, his calm, uninflected phrases following the rise and fall of his breath on tape. The audience was mesmerized.
His poems were indeed rummaging through the ruins of the lost revolution, places with names like the Cemetery of Infidels, Evin Prison, the Tower of Silence. History and the sad weight of personal and cultural loss were compressed into haunting lyrics: "I don't want you, petroleum!/Oh, bloody stream! For a long time,/I thought you gave me blood./Now I see, you made me bleed."
In Iran, this gentle, soft-spoken, middle-aged poet had been an ardent revolutionary. When asked for an interview, he was slightly incredulous: "Haven't you read my poems? My life is already an open book." Nevertheless, over the course of several weeks, he patiently attempted to describe to me his experience of the 1979 revolution he so fervently worked for, the revolution that so spectacularly failed, the revolution that ended up turning so many lives upside down and inside out.
MAJID WAS BORN IN ISFAHAN, AS HE PUTS IT, "ONE year before the CIA coup in 1953," the ominous event that toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had nationalized Iran's oil industry. Initiated by Britain and approved by President Eisenhower because of fears about oil and communism, the CIA-orchestrated coup brought Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to power. Thanks to a recently leaked CIA report (excerpts of which were published in The New York Times), Americans can now read for themselves how, by deposing a still-popular nationalist leader and installing the despotic shah, the U.S. government short-circuited an evolving democratic process and indirectly set the stage for the 1979 Islamic takeover of Iran. "There are no shortcuts in history," Majid said soberly during one of our sessions at his kitchen table. "I believe in that. If you think you can take a shortcut, you have to pay a price for it. And that's what we're suffering from now. When there is no civil society, the group of people that comes to power -- however good-intentioned they are -- ends up becoming dictators themselves."