Poet of the Revolution
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. Azâd, Majid's 12-year-old son, is at school -- but he has left behind ample evidence of an American boyhood: skateboard, baseball mitt, Pokémon 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). Azâd 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."
Isfahan, a city nearly as old as Iran itself, is world-renowned for its architectural beauty. I found a book on Isfahan and leafed through the glorious images: the central bridge with 33 arches over the Zayandeh River; blue-tiled mosques with vaulted archways and towering minarets; the Palace of the 40 Columns, with its long reflecting pool lined with rosebushes; the vast central plaza, twice as large as Moscow's Red Square; the Palace of Ali Qapu ("sublime gate"), Iran's first skyscraper; the 17th-century Imam Mosque, with acoustics so perfect, according to L.A. Times Middle East correspondent Robin Wright, that "stomping on the black paving stones beneath the dome generates a ripple of seven equal echoes."
The Isfahan of Majid's childhood was a tolerant city, Jewish, Armenian and Ba'hai communities mingling with the majority Muslims. It was also a city that was mixing, for the first time, modern with ancient -- fumes from the Soviet-built metallurgy plant collided with the fragrance of cherry trees in spring. The Naficy family was large (nine children, five boys and four girls) and relatively affluent. Majid's father, a cardiologist trained in Tehran and the United States, is a seventh-generation physician in a family lineage extending back to the 14th century. His mother was a religious woman who preferred to wear the veil â in public even though, under the shah, it had been banned. His parents were both peaceful people. "My father gave me a sense of being curious," says Majid, "in terms of books and different cultures. He took us to all different parts of Iran. My mother was very kind. She gave us a sense of how to know other people, and she was always optimistic."
Majid's talent for poetry was recognized at an early age; his first poem was published in a literary journal in Isfahan when he was only 13, thanks to a poet who was the teacher of his older brother. This teacher, who edited the journal, invited the young protégé to the literary salons that rotated among the houses of Isfahan's various writers. This was a considerable honor in a country with a rich literary and cultural past, where people revere great poets and plant luxuriant gardens around their tombs. Fortunately for Majid, his extreme nearsightedness was also discovered at an early age: "I was 5 years old, sitting in a room with my uncle, who asked me to turn on the light. I looked up and I couldn't see the switch. So the first summer before I went to first grade, I wore eyeglasses. It was very unusual for a child to have eyeglasses, especially in Isfahan. Perhaps that is what made me feel separate from the crowd."
Life in Isfahan among his large family made possible a childhood that even now conjures pleasant memories. There was a grape arbor in the back yard; he was close with his siblings, especially his sisters, and confided in them. From the shelves of the huge library -- some 3,000 volumes -- that his family had collected over the years, the young poet selected his first long novel, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Yet even a young child sheltered by a loving family could see the evidence of a cruel regime. A memory from age 6: "My school class was taken in the early morning to watch the shah pass by in a parade. We had to stand in the street a long time. It was very cold. When the shah passed in his special car, a man tried to reach his window -- to give him an envelope, perhaps a complaint. Two guards rushed forward and beat the man with their ceremonial swords. This made a deep impression on me."
As he grew older, the oppressive presence of SAVAK, the shah's secret police, filtered into all aspects of daily life. Citizens could be imprisoned for any imagined slight against the government. In the shah's dungeons, torture was routine. At the same time as he was forcefully modernizing the country, fattening the military, importing specialists from abroad to build his "Great Civilization," the shah was silencing the most enlightened Iranians. Intellectual discourse was stifled. Over the years, there was increasingly heavy censorship of films, newspapers, books and fiction. In 1969, the shah dissolved the Iranian Writers' Organization.
The year after he graduated from high school in Isfahan, Majid came to California to study. UCLA, like other American campuses, was at the time roiled by protests against the war in Vietnam. It was Majid's first exposure to democratic protest, and he was impressed by the vigor of young Americans' opposition to the war. At UCLA, he also met other Iranians, members of the Iranian student confederation that opposed the shah's government. Their Marxism rubbed off on him. "I'd been an existentialist," he tells me. "A conscious existentialist who was very influenced by Sartre. I read existential books which criticized Marxism, but when I came here, because of the situation of exile, and because a new radical movement was taking shape in Iran, I became very involved with what we called the urban-guerrilla movement."
At the end of that year, Majid transferred to Tehran University and committed himself to the movement to overthrow the shah. The newly minted Marxist revolutionary was not just opinionated, he was -- as he now describes -- "self-righteous, intolerant of others' beliefs." He vowed not to write poetry again "until the liberation of the proletariat." "I criticized my poetry as a petit-bourgeois part of my life," he says. "I was not alone. Many intellectuals in Iran went that way. When the guerrilla movement started in the 1970s, it polarized the intelligentsia. Some of them were subsidized by the government, and some of them joined the armed opposition movement." Majid's own brother Sa'id was arrested by SAVAK in 1973. His family was tipped off that their house would be raided; aunts, uncles and cousins split up the library, distributing the 3,000 volumes in basements and closets all over Isfahan.
IN 1977, MAJID MET EZZAT TABAIAN, FIVE YEARS HIS junior, a student of physiotherapy at Tehran University. "The first thing we did together was to organize a protest on campus," he says. "To control the students, SAVAK had set a curfew on the women's dormitory. There were guards everywhere on campus. The women could not get in or go out of their residence after 8 p.m." Majid and Ezzat made large posters calling for a protest, and posted them around campus. The ensuing demonstration was a success: The curfew was rescinded.
Ezzat and Majid became inseparable and soon married. In 1978, just a year before the revolution, the couple traveled around Iran to villages and factories to organize workers and write about the socioeconomic situation. Majid translated and edited a book about women's liberation as well as a Marxist critique of existentialism, both banned by the censors. Around that time, their political group, Peykar, broke with strict Marxist ideology. "We decided that armed struggle was not right. The masses have to make revolution."
By January 1979, the shah had fled the country. There was a brief, sudden state of freedom, but the revolution was soon hijacked by the extreme right, and hope of real democracy fast faded. "I condemn the corrupt intellectuals and the poisoned pens of conspiring writers and democrats," Ayatollah Khomeini declared soon after his victory. During the terror that ensued, thousands of intellectuals were executed or arrested. Majid and Ezzat went underground, using false identification and living in a safe house. Majid, as a key member of Peykar's "theoretical team," continued to write, edit and produce a monthly underground publication for the organization.
One afternoon during the fall of 1981, Majid waited at the Shadabad bus station in Tehran for a 5 p.m. rendezvous with his wife. Five p.m. passed, 6 p.m. passed, but Ezzat did not appear, nor would she ever appear again. She had already been captured and sent to Evin Prison. In his essay, "Prison Letters: A Look in the Correspondence of an Iranian Political Prisoner," Majid wrote, "I remember that on precisely January 7, 1982, I felt that the heart of Ezzat, my late wife who had been detained for four months, was no longer beating, and when two days later I heard by telephone the news of her execution, I was not surprised. The prison walls were not able to separate our hearts."
Disguised as a shopkeeper with a derby and beard, he sneaked into the Cemetery of Infidels, where the Khomeini regime buried its executed opponents in a series of fresh, unmarked graves. Families of the deceased located the graves by measuring paces. Majid found it eight steps before the gate and 16 steps from the wall. Ezzat had been buried with one other woman and 50 men, all of whom had been executed together.
In the wake of his wife's murder, the poetry returned. "It was winter," he says. "There was snow on the big mountains around Tehran. I'd gone up to the mountains with friends to commemorate Ezzat. When we came down, I went to the safe house. I sat down, and all of a sudden poetry came back to me. 'I must create her again,' I thought. 'I must take revenge on her killers.' I wrote nine poems in one sitting. I hadn't written poetry in eight years. Now I know how those cavemen felt when they drew those bulls on the walls of caves. You want to create what was lost. It gives you energy -- for hunting, for magic. It's when you feel powerless against reality, that's when art comes to you."
Eight months after Ezzat's execution, Majid met a fellow revolutionary named Esmat. "We met each other at a very bad time in our lives," he says. They rented a safe house and lived there together for six months. In April 1983, they fled Iran. With the help of Kurdish guerrillas, they traveled seven days by horseback over the border from Iran into Turkey, moving only by night to minimize detection. Majid carried very little with him: the nine poems for Ezzat he'd written the day he came down from the mountain, some money, an Afghani passport, a photo of his brother Sa'id, and the torn photograph of Ezzat as a teenager in her garden in Isfahan -- the one that sits on the table of his Santa Monica apartment today.
After a year-and-a-half stay in Turkey and France, Majid successfully applied for political asylum in the United States. "I considered France my second homeland, but my eyesight was failing and I already knew English very well." Settling in Venice with Esmat, who became his second wife and the mother of his son -- now divorced, they remain good friends -- he re-dedicated himself to his vocation as a poet and commenced a period of intense soul-searching. Where had his ideological thinking led him? Where had it led his country? "I said to myself, 'Ezzat is dead. The revolution is defeated. Okay. But now, what do you want to do with your life? You have to start a new life.'"
He started from scratch, first rethinking and criticizing Marx, then looking squarely at his own culture. "I started to see what had happened, because both the left and the right -- both religionists and atheists -- admired getting killed, and killing. We wanted to change the regime, no matter what came after that. Khomeini used the religious feelings of people to his advantage. He mixed death worship, or martyrdom worship, with political ideals." Majid's re-examination yielded a book-length collection of essays, written in Persian, with the self-revealing title In Search of Joy: A Critique of Male-Dominated, Death-Oriented Culture in Iran.
There was still plenty of death to reckon with. The Iran-Iraq war was claiming thousands of Iran's young men. In September 1987, about 800 members of L.A.'s large Iranian community (there are 600,000 Iranians now estimated to be living in Los Angeles) gathered outside the Federal Building to protest a visit to the United Nations by the president of Iran. It was at this demonstration that Neusha Farahi, a friend of Majid's who owned a Persian bookstore, also in Westwood, set fire to himself as the ultimate act of protest. He died 13 days later. "I touched his hand while we waited for the paramedics," Majid recalls, wincing. "It was like a burnt chicken wing." When he came home that same afternoon, Majid wrote "The Self-Immolation of Neusha," lamenting the seduction of martyrdom. It contains the lines:
The crowd cried in fury Trying to gain strength from death. I told myself, "Again a corpse in front. Again a casket behind." Alas! We were guardians of life, But the guardians of death killed so much. Killed so much. Killed so much. So that life tasted of death in our mouths.
IT'S A HOT SUMMER NIGHT IN LOS ANGELES, AND it's Majid's turn to host the monthly gathering of "Saturday Notebooks." This Persian literary group has been meeting together for 10 years, and they have published three chapbooks of their work. Majid's small apartment has been transformed: Twenty people -- men and women -- crowd into his living room. Everyone has brought something to read and critique, as well as something to eat. There is a vase of pale-pink roses, bowls of fresh basil and mint leaves, hummus, peaches, plums. Chicken-and-squash stew simmers on the stove. The scheduled start time is 7 p.m., but participants straggle in late from a demonstration at the Federal Building, commemorating the one-year anniversary of the government crackdown on pro-reform â student demonstrations in Tehran.
As the session finally gets under way, Majid asks for a moment of silence in memory of his dear friend Houshang Golshiri, one of Iran's greatest fiction writers and a prominent advocate of human rights, who has recently died in Tehran. Everyone stands, heads bowed.
Even to a guest with zero comprehension of Farsi, plenty is communicated over the next several hours. All these writers bring seriousness and passion to their work. When your colleagues at home are being arrested, imprisoned, even murdered, for their exercise of free expression, the right to exchange words and ideas is not a privilege you take for granted. I can't help stealing glances at the man sitting beside me, who is missing the ring finger on his right hand. Later, Majid confirms my hunch: This writer lost his finger during a torture session in one of the shah's prisons.
Around 10 p.m., the group pauses for supper. I heap onto my plate some of Majid's stew. "Delicious!" I comment to one of the writers. He sidles closer. "Actually," he confides, "Majid is a much better poet than he is a cook." He takes another mouthful himself. "And he is a most wonderful father."
AZâD AND HIS BUDDY DAVID ZOOM in the front door of the apartment on their shiny scooters. Azâd is a robust, handsome kid with meltingly beautiful dark eyes. He is not shy. To the time-honored question of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Azâd has a ready, earnest answer: "I don't want to have poetry for a job when I grow up. I'd like to be a basketball player or a baseball player." What does he think of his father's poetry? His eyes light up. He grins at his dad. "My favorite is 'Secret of the River.' My dad wrote it for me. I've read it to my class at school." Before heading out the door with his friend, he does something I've never known a 12-year-old boy to do. He recites a poem from memory:
Every day we go along the river And your body Takes on the smell of the water.
Seeing us, the wild geese Tune up their battle horns, And a cat behind its green hideout Lifts his tail in triumph. The old fishermen, With their buckets full of sorrow Move from place to place And a palm frond in our way Forces me to bend my head.
I stand still. And as you sleep on my shoulder I think to myself: "It's too late for me But maybe you will find The secret of the river."
CAN MAJID IMAGINE EVER GOING back to Iran? "Only if the government apologized for what they did," he says emphatically. Isn't that unlikely? Is there even a precedent? "It's not unprecedented," Majid insists. "Madeleine Albright recently apologized for what the U.S. did to Iran in 1953, for the CIA coup. It's just like a personal relationship -- if you want to have a relationship, apology is the first step."
However, he's not holding his breath, for an apology, or for his return. In the years since receiving asylum, Majid has become an American poet. Editor Ardavan Daravan, who included Majid's work in an influential anthology of Iranian-diaspora literature, spent years trying to find significant voices for his collection. Majid was among those writers, Daravan says, "who had made the transition . . . who could connect their experiences living abroad with their original cultural traditions." Fred Dewey of Beyond Baroque wrote in his foreword to Muddy Shoes that Majid's poetry "is born of great suffering yet affirms deep dignity and respect for that wider experience of the world, brought here through danger and carved out of solitude and reflection. Tragically, we are seldom allowed to hear or see such things, blocked from sensing the reality of other countries, knowledges, forms of speech; when these are allowed in, or come in, they are, without recourse, smoothed out, conquered, if you will, without mercy. Majid, as a poet of Los Angeles, suggests a new route."
Majid's adopted city has recently adopted one of his poems. At the intersection of Brooks Avenue and Ocean Front Walk in Venice, where Majid frequently jogs with Azâd on a scooter beside him, the L.A. Recreation and Parks Department has engraved on a concrete wall a stanza from his long poem "Ah, Los Angeles." The poem is Majid Naficy's manifesto, one that proclaims he is no longer in exile.
Ah, Los Angeles!
I accept you as my city,
And after 10 years
am at peace with you.
Waiting without fear
I lean back against the bus post.
And I become lost
In the sounds of your late night.
A man gets off the Blue Bus 1
And crosses to this side
To take RTD 4.
Perhaps he too is coming back
From his nights on campus.
On the way he has sobbed
Into a blank letter.
And he has heard the voice of a woman
With a tropical accent.
On the RTD 4 it rains.
A woman is talking to her umbrella
And a man ceaselessly flushes a toilet.
I told Carlos yesterday,
"Your clanging cart
Wakes me up in the morning."
He collects cans
And wants to go back to Cuba.
From the Promenade
Comes the sound of my homeless man.
He sings sadly
As he plays his guitar.
Where in the world can I hear
The black moaning of the trumpet
Alongside the Chinese chimes?
And see this warm olive skin
Through blue eyes?
The heedless pigeons
Have perched on the empty benches.
They stare at the dinosaur
Who sprays old water on our kids.
Marziyeh sings from afar.
I return, homesick
And I put my feet
On your back.
Ah, Los Angeles!
I feel your blood.
You taught me to get up
And look with love
At my beautiful legs
And along with the marathon
Run on your broad shoulders.
Once I wanted to commit suicide.
I coiled up under my blanket
And was a recluse for two nights.
Then, I turned on the radio,
And I heard the poems of a Russian poet,
Who in a death camp,
Was denied paper
But his wife learned them by heart.
Will Azâd read my poems?
On the days that I take him to school,
He sees the bus number from far off.
And makes things easier for me.
At night he stays under the shower
And lets the drops of water
Spray on his young skin.
Sometimes we go to the beach.
He bikes and I skate.
He buys a Pepsi from a machine
And gives me one sip.
Yesterday we went to Romteen's house.
His father is a Parsee from India.
He wore sadra and kusti
While he was painting the house.
On that little stool
He looked like a Zoroastrian
Rowing from Hormuz to Sanjan.
Ah, Los Angeles!
Let me bend down and put my ear
To your warm skin.
Perhaps in you
I will find my own Sanjan.
No, it's not a ship scraping
Against the rocky shore;
It's the rumbling of Blue Bus 8.
I will get off at Idaho Street
And will pass the shopping carts
Left by the homeless.
I will climb the wooden staircase
And will open the door.
I will start the answering machine
And in the dark
I will wait like a fisherman.
Majid Naficy reads at Beyond Baroque on Saturday, February 17, at 7:30 p.m. (310) 822-3006.
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