[Hpn] Poet of the Revolution
Wed, 07 Feb 2001 21:32:31 -0700
February 9 - 15, 2001
Poet of the Revolution
Majid Naficy¹s tragic journey home
by Louise Steinman
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. Azād, 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
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).
Azād 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
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
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 ā 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
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
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
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
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
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."
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 ā 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
AZāD AND HIS BUDDY DAVID ZOOM in the front door of the apartment on their
shiny scooters. Azād 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?" Azād 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 Azād 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 Azād 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.
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