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John Lundberg

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Poetry Of The Revolution

Posted: 06/28/09 12:00 PM ET

One of the most powerful videos to come out of the turmoil in Iran is of a woman reciting a poem from the rooftops of Tehran at night. Recorded on the eve of the first wave of violent crackdowns against protesters, the poem gives voice to the inner turmoil of a people coping with a sudden and potentially violent revolution and struggling with a new conception of their homeland. Behind the poet's shaking speech--which seems more full of heartbreak than fear--you can hear cries of "Allah-o Akhbar" and feel the tension in the air. If you haven't watched it, you absolutely should.

Poetry is a far more important part of Iran's culture than our own. In the Arab world, political and social movements have long adopted the art as a means of galvanizing support and bringing unity and focus to a cause. Thus, it's no surprise that when the head of Iran's Security Council threatened opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi with death, his wife Zahra, who herself has become a powerful symbol for change in Iran, responded with a poem that she twittered out to millions:

Let the wolves know that in our tribe
If the father dies, his gun will remain
Even if all the men of the tribe are killed
A baby son will remain in the wooden cradle.

She wasn't alone. Scores of Iranians have turned to poetry for expression and in an effort to make some sense of the revolution's violence and chaos. Sholeh Wolpe, an Iranian-American poet, wrote "I am Neda," one of many powerful poems inspired by the death of Neda, the now iconic figure shot during a protest by Basij:

Leave the Basiji bullet in my heart,
fall to prayer in my blood,
and hush, father
--I am not dead.

More light than mass,
I rise through you,
breathe with your eyes,
stand in your shoes, on the rooftops,
in the streets, march with you
in the cities and villages of our country
shouting through you, with
you.
I am Neda--thunder on your tongue.

Poetry is also present on the streets of Tehran. In a first-hand account published on the news website Haaretz.com, a writer recounts how some protestors had written poems on placards, like this biting verse from Iran's national poet, Ahmad Shamlu:

To slaughter us
Why did you need to invite us
To such an elegant party

Robert Fisk, reporting for the British Newspaper The Independent, provided this account:

Moin, a student of chemical engineering at Tehran University - the same campus where blood had been shed just a few hours before - was walking beside me and singing in Persian as the rain pelted down. I asked him to translate.

"It's a poem by Sohrab Sepehri, one of our modern poets," he said. Could this be real, I asked myself? Do they really sing poems in Tehran when they are trying to change history? Here is what he was singing:

We should go under the rain.
We should wash our eyes,
And we should see the world in a different way.

He grinned at me and at his two student friends. "The next line is about making love to a woman in the rain, but that doesn't seem very suitable here."

Reading the Sepehri poem reminded me of one by Rumi, the great 13th Century Persian (and Islamic) poet, entitled "Not Here."

There's courage involved if you want
to become truth. There is a broken-

open place in a lover. Where are
those qualities of bravery and sharp

compassion in this group? What's the
use of old and frozen thought? I want

a howling hurt. This is not a treasury
where gold is stored; this is for copper.

We alchemists look for talent that
can heat up and change. Lukewarm

won't do. Halfhearted holding back,
well-enough getting by? Not here.

Not here. Clearly, in Iran now, there is no holding back.