Mohsen Emadi: Report from the Besieged City

The translation of the interview with Mohsen Emadi published in Slovak newspapers SME on 2 February 2012.

What is the project “Report from the Besieged City about?”

The title “Report from the besieged city” comes from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, the great Polish poet. This poem describes the nature of the project. It is about war and a besieged city. In this project we are bearing witness to the discourse of war against Iran through the lens of all the wars of the world. Therefore, it is a project confronting the war against Iran and also against all the world’s wars. My country is besieged. Ringed around Iran are the military bases of the USA.

Why have you started working on this project?

I was in Spain working on my new book of poetry. One day an old friend of mine, a good poet, who lives in the south of Iran, on the Persian Gulf, sent me a letter: “Mohsen, everywhere is in ruins. You are not in Iran to see it, to feel the threat that lives in all the corners and secret places of your life in every moment. I know you have also your problems. Being a Middle Eastern is like having a cancer, especially now, when everything is getting worse. When I am living beside the Persian Gulf and the smell of the oil and petrol reaches my room, I can understand where the danger lies. That year, when the American Navy attacked the passenger jet aircraft , I was 16, working on an island helping people. Just two years before I met you. It was around 12am, we said “God is the greatest!” when we were informed about the attack and near sunset on the boats we were gathering body-parts of people, the innocent passengers, from the ocean. We were casting fishing nets into the water and we were gathering body-parts, they were mixed up with the fish in the net. Here, in Iran everything is worse than before. I miss you.” The incident he is referring to is that of Iran Air Flight 655 which was a civilian jet airliner shot down by U.S. missiles on July 3, 1988, over the Strait of Hormuz, toward the end of the Iran–Iraq War. 290 innocent civilians died then. After the event Newsweek quoted Vice President George H. W. Bush as saying “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America! Ever! I don’t care what the facts are.” Then the poem of Herbert came to my mind where he says “we look in the face of hunger, the face of fire, face of death / worst of all – the face of betrayal / and only our dreams have not been humiliated”.

What is its aim?

Report from the besieged city is a series of short texts initiated in response to the new round of propaganda and sanctions in the escalating covert and overt the war on Iran and published as a symbol of solidarity by world poets with the Iranian people. As a symbol of solidarity with people on the one hand oppressed by the dictatorship of their country and on the other threatened by world powers with sanctions, games and cries of inglorious wars. We are aware that politicians never pay attention to the art and thought, they just listen to the voice of capital, but we are going to bear witness to the events, to bear witness to the lives of individuals and their dreams.

The project started recently and we have received quite a lot of texts from all over the world, poets from USA, Germany, Japan, Spain, Slovakia, Egypt, Portugal and many other countries wrote to us. I formed a group of translators to translate the texts into several languages; in this short time we have Persian, Slovak, Czech, Spanish, English, Greek, Serbian, Japanese, Chinese, and German and Arabic. Soon we will have Polish, Swedish, French, Italian, Bengali and Finnish. A major Iranian reformist newspaper started to publish the texts but unfortunately after the first text the regime banned the newspaper.

How do the poets and artists react to your manifesto when you ask them to write about war?

Poets are against war. Against the madness of a few politicians which throw the life of individuals all over the world into chaos, hatred and misery. The voice of the poets echoes what Jana Bodnarova, a Slovak writer, asserts in her text: “I say no to war in Iran! “Not in my name!” And may this call echo in all the languages of the world.”

What does the word “war” mean to you?

You know, we lived through a long war in the last century. Eight years of war, when the USA was backing Saddam Hussein. War for me, is a city empty of civilians and the hunger of dogs thirsty for blood, because they get used to eating the flesh of human remains after bombardment. War for me is a father who does not come home. A ruined primary school; it is the despair of the people trying to help the children “buried alive”. War is when you are left without a leg, a hand, eyes or you are disabled and your wife has left you for another man. When after chemical weapons you need to drink water every minute because you are parched and you are continually coughing. These all are parts of my own memory. War is the establishment of criminals and dictators when they kill all the voices of freedom, all the songs and dancing in your city; when smiling and love are forbidden. It is waiting in lines for milk. It is cheap and ugly clothes; children without dolls. Angry fathers, sad mothers.

In the house of  Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Why did you choose the poem of Zbiegniew Herbert as the name of the whole project?

Herbert was one of the best poets of the last century. He had a great consciousness about all the miseries of being human. He was not a kind of castrated poet; he was active, not in terms of politics, but in the name of human beings. His poetry at the same time remains strong and without sloganeering, without falling into the cheap discourse of politics. He touches us deeply.

What exactly is going on now in Iran? (in the present circumstances – Iran vs. EU and USA)

Madness vs. Madness, criminals vs. criminals. This is the story. Before the Arab spring we started a movement for freedom, the Green movement. Something like about 3 millions people marched and the result was torture, arrest and bullets. Ahmadinejad empowers the fundamentalists in Israel, the fundamentalists in Israel help the fundamentalists in the USA and fundamentalists in the USA empower Ahmadinejad. Their life and their power are tied to each other.

Just couple of days ago Ahmadinejad said that Iran will release “the new nuclear projects” shortly. What do you think of it? May it is true? What does it mean for us?

Ahmadinejad bluffs too much. He can look into your eyes and tell lies as he did about the death of Neda or as he says about the freedom of expression in Iran. But what does “the new nuclear projects” mean? Does it mean nuclear weapons? Before speaking of it, have you asked yourself why Israel who is not a party to the NPT has more than 200 nuclear weapons? Why Pakistan, the neighbor of Iran, has those weapons? Ask whether Iran has attacked any country in the last century, while the Taliban and fundamentalists were living in Pakistan and Israel’s history is full of invasions and attacks on other countries and whose history contains a bunch of war crimes? I am not in a position to speak in terms of international politics, but I can speak about my people. Ordinary Iranians have several times declared that they do not seek out nuclear energy, if somebody was witnessing the protests after election coup there were a lot of slogans which clearly were expressing “we need human rights, freedom of expression, they are also our right.” The lives of dictators, all over the world, are bound to crisis. Be it in Iran; be it in USA or in Slovakia. Ahmadinejad uses an old strategy of projecting his incapability for managing the country. Simply, he is not the size of a president. As George W. Bush never was; or Ariel Sharon could not be. If one reads the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, one will find out what is the desire of the ordinary people of Israel. Amichai’s poetry does not permit the massacre of Palestinian people.

Does the western world (excluding the politicians etc.) know what the current situation is in Iran? Do Westerners really care? Why should they care? (Or why do they not care)

The Western world (in terms of political geography) in general does not have information about Iran. Its mind is full of stereotypes owing to propaganda. Westerners (is it a correct term? We all are human) also do not even care about their own country. Democracy will fail if people remain indifferent. I think people in West must be mindful of their indifference after these crises. They must ask what happened in their own country. Where is their dignity? Why are almost all of the politicians corrupted? How can we change it? Imagine, in the old Czechoslovakia, Jan Rypka wrote 5 volumes on the history of Persian literature, he also was a friend of Hedayat, the father of Iranian modern novel. Vladimir Holan, Nezval and Rypka translated Nizami, a Persian poet into Czech. But you think the young generation cares about the whole world? No, the challenging question of culture and art is absent. The only thing that governs is money. Iran is an old country; it was one of the early centers of civilization.

What kind of role does the media play in this “game”?

Media implies capital. Few independent media exist in the world. You can see, world powers want war and the media creates the atmosphere and legitimizes their will. I always stop to wonder, at one time through this very same media, people like Jean Jaurés were stopping the wars, but it seems with the First World War, all the Jean Jaurés’s of the world have been assassinated.

What do they tell us and what are the facts we don’t know about at all?

I think the media nowadays replaces the individual and the body of human beings with numbers and prices. I ask, in which terms the media speaks of Iran? In terms of its people or in terms of its government? Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian cartoonist and the writer of Persepolis, wrote recently: “The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we do not know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same. “She is right. This is the perspective of an artist. This way of thinking has gotten to be absent in the media. Sanctions and war are just empowering the discourse of militia and at the same time are weakening people.

How do you keep in touch with your relatives, friends from Iran?

More than 5 million Iranians (more or less the whole population of Slovakia) live abroad. Almost in every Iranian family someone lives outside the country. Now, the internet exists and connects us, thanks to anti-filters and anonymizers.

When did you leave your homeland? And Why?

From the age I was a university student, I was politically active, but not in terms of political parties, but in the Greek term Politika (the origin of the word politics) which means “of, for, or relating to citizens”. I was in the student movements of 1999, and in many other protests. I left Iran two months after the election coup of 2009, after struggling in the streets with tear gas, horrors and violence. My friends who remained in Iran have been arrested or have been killed. Last year we translated the elegies of Jiri Orten in memory of a friend who dies in jail after 12 days of hunger-strike. If you were to ask him about war, he would assert “No war on Iran.”

How does it feel – to look at your country from abroad?

Exile is a horrible experience. Herbert says in the same poem “he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile / he will be the City”. In exile you carry the weight of your city, the smell of your mother, the streets and the eyes that you may never see. Memories are more painful than history.

Do you sometimes feel helpless or is it better that you can live in Europe and try to do something from here?

As a writer, I could not do anything in such a brutal situation in Iran. I could not keep my mouth shut when I see my friends are suffering in prison; also I myself would be useless in jail. Here, at least I can write. But of course I would prefer a situation where I could live in my country and be able to write amongst my own people. Mousavi was not our ideal president, but in his presence, at least we could write with less danger and of course with a true hope of change.

Mohsen Emadi with Spanish poet Antonio Gamoneda.

Do you feel (think) that being a writer – poet, is a kind of a mission?

In my country yes, poets were as important as prophets. In every Iranian house beside the Quran or Bible or Torah or Avista, you can find the book of Hafiz, a poet who speaks of love and wine. In the world of the media, the discourse of art and poetry has been swallowed by politics and capital. But, I believe that a world without poetry will turn against human beings.

Why and  when did you start writing poems?

I have written poetry since my early childhood. It was war time, I was living in the north of Iran, near the Caspian sea which has a Mediterranean culture and the landscape is green, full of forests and close to high mountains. I had my own horse. My family were farmers; we had cows, sheep and chickens. My grandmother was singing for me, the sad folk songs of love. I lived in a beauty where the horrors were threatening us every day. I became a poet, discovering the danger of existence and the beauty of childhood.

What is the aim of poetry nowadays?

Nobody is in a position to dictate the aim of poetry in general. But if I am going to speak concerning my own poetry I would say: our world is an interpreted world, and “in this interpreted world, we do not feel securely at home.” This world is not a safe and secure place for us all, and Rilke thinks that interpretation has created this danger. The main role of a poet is to bring this lost safety back into the world. The safety which is not the child of this or that conceptual interpretation, but it is the child of experiencing a mystery that suspends the interpretations and as Ryokan says, there you can see: “Enlightenment and Illusion are two side of a coin, universal and particular are the same, and the heart searches for a true companion”.

Is it the same as it was before the “computer” era?

I studied Computer Science and I continued my education in Digital Culture. Poetry will remain alive as long as human beings live and vice versa. The problem of new media is related to the question of embodiment which can emphasize the separation between body and word. Also there is the question of commitment as Kierkegard says and Dryfus formulizes for the new media. We are still in the beginning of this era; we have to wait more to make a judgment. I can be neither optimist nor pessimist.

It has been said, that social media/networks helped the revolutions in Egypt or Syria to come about. What do you think of them? Is Facebook or Twitter or any of the others really helpful?

The Iranian green movement has been called a Twitter revolution and has been called by Webby Awards as one of the 10 major events of the internet world. It is helpful, but we cannot exaggerate its power. The question of separation of body and word is important and also the problem of commitment. Digital activism cannot be successful without the presence of the body. One cannot sit and share the news and tweet and think that he is changing the world. No, the body must move in a committed  way as well.

Last year – you worked on the poems of Czech poet Jiri Orten – and you translated them into Persian – and you are up to do the same with the poems of Milan Rufus. Why did you decide to do that? Why is it important?

I am editor-in-chief of the Persian Anthology of World Poetry and I am translating poetry going back 12 years now. After the Islamic Revolution, Iranian modern poetry has suffered from a great absence of new voices due to the governmental censorship and restrictions. For me, all poets, in all corners of history and in all regions of the world are my contemporary poets. I admire the poetry of Rufus. He was one of the greatest voices of last century and if people would listen to him, instead of corrupted politicians, the world would be a better place to live in.

Jana Močková (translated by Mohsen Emadi and Anthony Durity)

Interview in Slovak can be viewed here.