By Nathalie Handal
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Tehran as you feel/see it?
I can feel Tehran most of the time as a destructive intensity. I was eighteen years old when I arrived in Tehran. I spent most of my childhood in a village in northern Iran, surrounded by forests, wild beasts, and rice fields. In 2007, while still living in Iran, I went to Zaragoza, Spain, and spoke of Tehran as the hell of the Orient. I could not find any destiny in its development, streets, and spaces. That was my definition of hell: a place without destiny. Tehran was a hell. Ilhan Berk, the great Turkish poet, whom I knew, wrote: All the colors of poetry come from hell. Now, after going through other extremes, like life in Finland—a country of lakes, islands, snow, solitude, and melancholy—to my time in Prague—that unfaithful, beautiful woman—and then Mexico City—a metropolitan monster—I see Tehran in the lights of my nostalgia. Far, far away stands the city and my longing, my hatred, all in their ultimate intensity. I’m filled with sorrows and lost desires.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
I cannot name it. In a life of intensity we lose the sense of comparison. Was it the afternoon that we were forced to leave the University of Tehran during the student movement of 1999—lost in tear gas, the bitter taste of defeat, chaos, fear, and the dark streets? Or was it the day I came to the university dormitory and cried after touching every object, for my friends were dead? Seven friends, three of them my roommates, all dead in a car accident. The attack of their absence manifesting itself in every object. It was raining, their fathers were coming to collect these objects, the song playing, “The lovely spring has arrived and the heart is not in its place / Bahar-e delkash resid o del be ja nabashad”? Or was it the night that the most beloved poet of my country, Ahmad Shamlou, died? I could not bear to see his burial. Or was it the day I was left on the highway by the girl I loved? The fast current of the cars, the gray afternoon, the echo of my own voice telling her, You betrayed me, but I still love you. Or was it the night I was leaving Tehran? I got into a taxi, one hour after making love with my girlfriend. She was left behind like the city. At the airport, the images of the past two months flashed by me—after the Green Movement, the street fights, bullets, deaths, hopes, and despairs—as I gave my mother a last embrace while my sister cried. Yes, in such intensity we lose the sense of comparison. I suppose Tehran itself was the most heartbreaking memory I’ve had. That I still have.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The way the city devours itself—the graves of the freedom fighters of the Constitutional Revolution, the ruins of abandoned houses replaced by a hospital. Such images can be found all over the Old City.
I’m fond of the villages within the city, like Evin, near that famous prison, and Darake, which still has the feel of old gardens and houses. And there is a coffeehouse in southern Tehran where all the lame-o extras, supernumerary actors from the cinema gather. You can see the traces of despair on the walls in their eyes. They wanted to be famous and here, in that coffeehouse, they’re left behind with their fantasy. They drink coffee then go behind their peddler stands selling junk in hopes someone will come by and hire for a television series. They used to teach me the history of Iranian cinema.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Sadegh Hedayat, Ahmad Shamlou, Forough Farrokhzad and Ahmadreza Ahmadi. Hedayat and his two masterpieces, Boof-e Kour (The Blind Owl) and Toop-e Morvari, are must-reads (the latter never was translated). Shamlou, the most notable poet of the last century in Iran, a monument of love and commitment. He knew by heart the geometry of words. Farrokhzad—the sad, rebellious voice of woman. Ahmadi and his unfinished poem in Tehran—the empty spaces and melancholies of a dream he saw once. He keeps rewriting variations of the same vision in every poem.
Is there a place here you return to often?
Different apartments I had in different parts of Tehran, east to west, north to south. These days, I search for them on Google Maps and remain still as I imagine the new lives in them. Or at the house of A. Pashai, an Iranian thinker, where I regained my sense of having a family. Or on Vali-Asr Street, the street of my night strolls, full of trees and sidewalks; on Enghelab or Karim-khan streets, where all the libraries are, where I would meet my friends. Or at the coffeehouse near Haft-e Tir, Vanak, or Jomhouri, where my friends and I would meet, read poetry, share music and losses. I cannot count them all. They are all over me.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
I’m not sure. I know where masterpieces of modern Persian poetry were written, but these are no iconic images I could recount. I know where Forough Farrokhzad had her car accident and died cruelly young. I know her grave. Is that an iconic place? Perhaps the only place I can mention is the passion for books on Enghelab Street, in front of the University of Tehran. There you find library after library and people searching for books. A place of paradoxes. In the bazaar, whispers asking, Do you want a porn movie? while in the obscure corners, black-market vendors sell censored literary classics or forbidden books. It’s unforgettable.
Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Tehran was built as consequence of civil and foreign confrontations. It was a small village, near the ancient city of Rey. It’s a city made by politics and immigrations. So you see different cultures in the same city: Azaris, Armenians, Gilaks, Mazandaranians, Kurds, Baluchs, Arabs, and so forth. Tehran is collage of hidden cities. Evin Darake, a village inside Tehran, has always been fascinating to me. I still imagine a romantic life there with its shadows and lights.
Where does passion live here?
In Tehran, there is dark passion, or as Bachmann expresses, playing death on the strings of life. This is how passion manifests itself in Tehran. We were forced to have a double life. In private: alcohol, sex, dance, and speed. In public: hidden eroticism, lies, and eventually rebellion. To find your passion there, you have to first flirt with it in public, in the games of eyes, and then enter the dark river in private. Once there, you can swim in it without hesitation, as it’s pure danger and pleasure. You can find passion in Tehran everywhere. Love: every corner. Knife: on the borders. Death on the strings of life.
What is the title of one of your works about Tehran and what inspired it exactly?
Tehran exists in many of my poems. But I am not a poet of Tehran as Nezval was the poet of Prague. In 1988, Khomeini signed the death sentence for prisoners to be buried in Khavaran, the dwelling of the damned, a cemetery located in southeast Tehran, and at the same time he signed the famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie and ordered the execution of nearly five thousand political prisoners. It was his strategy of distracting the Western media. They were so busy with Rushdie, they overlooked the real issue, innocent people being killed inside Iran. In 2009, the government announced its plan to demolish the cemetery and build a highway. I had a lot of friends whose parents were buried in the cemetery. I wrote “The Poem” about the demolishing of the cemetery and exile seven months before I left Iran. I never imagined it would become so symbolic of my life—now in exile, lost, un-findable.
Inspired by Levi, outside Tehran does an outside exist?
Herbert wrote that he “will carry the City within himself / on the roads of exile / he will be the City.” I carry Tehran and many other cities within me. Calvino’s Marco Polo wrote: “Traveling you realize the differences are lost, each city takes to resembling all the cities.”