The Perils of Writing | An Autobiographical Voice | Recollections and Afterthoughts |The Authenticity of Forugh Farrokhzad



The following lecture delivered in Austin, Texas is reprinted by the kind permission of Mr. Karim Emami.

Please allow me to start the painful process of recalling the past with a series of small vignettes. Some of these go back twenty-five or twenty-six years, some even go back twenty-seven years. That is, to some time in the summer of 1959 when I first joined the Golestan Film Unit, which was how Mr. Ebrahim Golestan's film studios were officially referred to in English at the time. The Oil Consortium, or the so-called Operating Companies that managed the affairs of Iran's then recently-nationalized oil industry had decided to dissolve their own film unit and have instead documentaries made to measure by a contractor. At that time, it was very fashionable for major oil companies in the world to sponsor costly documentaries as an exercise in public relations: you know, the sort of thing which shows a barren land with a few local inhabitants eking out a miserable living, then oil is discovered and there is a flurry of activity to get the oil out of its subterranean lair and down to the market, and life in the barren land is miraculously transformed.
Well, at that time not many qualified film-making outfits were, available in Iran to undertake the production of classy documentaries, and so the Oil Company allowed Mr. Golestan, who was on their staff in the public relations department at that time to resign, so that he could establish his own film company, with more than a little financial support from the Consortium, and with some technical help from an outfit in London called the Film Centre.
Golestan Film Unit was already one year old when I was recruited, fresh from a year's teaching of English in Shiraz and relatively fresh from my two years of study in the United States. It was on the premises of the Golestan Film Unit, then located on Arak Street in central Tehran, when I first met Forugh. Naturally I was familiar with her early poetry which had created a sensation of sorts in the early fifties, but I had met her never before. It was not much of a meeting as a matter of fact. She simply accepted me as one of the boys, hardly casting a second glance my way. I was yet another assistant among the ten or twelve Iranians who had been employed to help the handful of British technicians who manned the film crews: a film director who had himself served as assistant to the famous Dutch documentarist Bert Hanstra, a cameraman, a sound recordist, etc. I doubled as assistant director when the crew flew down south to Khuzestan or Kharg Island, and as administrative assistant when we came back to Tehran. Mr. Golestan had discovered that I could be helpful in composing letters in English. Among the Iranian staff, there were besides Forugh, some others who were well-known intellectuals and had a body of published work to their credit, such as the poet Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales, Najaf Daryabandari who was fresh out of prison and had completed his translation of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms ; there was also Fereydoun Rahnema, a French-educated film maker and poet. The actual contribution of these artistic and art-minded assistants to the day-to-day affairs of the Golestan Film Unit was not perhaps all that significant, but their presence created a very intellectual ambiance, and there were many lively discussions going on, sometimes at the same time; there were also visits from a number of well-known people such as Sadeq Chubak, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, and Farrokh Ghaffari (who spells his name Gaffary for the convenience of his European friends). So it appears now that a person's admission card to the inner ranks of Golestan Film Studios was his or her list of publications. I was encouraged by Mr. Golestan to undertake a translation myself, and it was at his behest that I translated John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, which was published after I had left Golestan Film Unit, in 1961.
Well, during the first few months I saw very little of Forugh. Most of the time she closeted herself in the editing room, where she was acquiring experience in the techniques of film editing. What occupied most of her time at this juncture was the editing of Yek Atash [A Fire] which was the account of an oil well fire near Ahwaz and how it was brought under control. The footage had been shot on location by Shahrokh Golestan, Ebrahim's younger brother, and Forugh was putting the film together under the supervision of Ebrahim, or Aqa Shahi as he was familiarly known. When the door of the cutting room was left open I would sometimes get a glimpse of our poetess turned film editor. If she had nothing to do, she would be usually seated by the window and she would be pensively staring at the sky or the distant buildings, a cigarette between her fingers. If she was at the editing table she would have her head down, and all that I could see of her was a mass of black hair that covered half her face.

Forugh was relatively short, with two large dark eyes that were the most prominent feature of her face. "At school they used to call me cheshm-gavi [with eyes similar to those of a cow]," she told me much later, when we were friends and she would sometimes confide in me. She was very moody. Sometimes she would be very gay, and her peals of laughter could be heard in between the hee-haws of the two Golestan brothers who both laugh very loudly. At other times she would be very silent and preoccupied. When she was writing a poem, you could notice it in her mood. She would be very serious for a number of days until she had unburdened herself and the poem was committed to paper. Then she would be light-hearted for a few days, until the nucleus of another poem would start building up in her.

Before joining Golestan Films she had been on a trip to Italy, and then to Germany, where at least one of her brothers resided. In Munich she had acquired a working knowledge of German, and I remember her speaking German on the telephone, but how much Italian she had picked up in Rome I never learned. Later on she began to take a serious interest in improving her English, and it was my knowledge of English that broke the ice between us. Sometimes she would ask me to help her with a text. She was very keen on improving her reading skills in English so that she could read T.S. Eliot and other modernist English or American poets in the original. She also made one or more trips to London for visits to film studios, and so she realized that she would be much better off in England if she had a sounder knowledge of English.

Perhaps I should now concentrate on her film-making career before speaking in more detail about her life as a poet. At Golestan Films, after acquiring all the skills of a creative film editor, she turned to script-writing, and then handling a movie camera. I remember the very first rolls of film that she had shot with a super-8 hand-held camera in Agha-Jari, an industrial town in the midst of the oil fields of Khuzestan. She had run her camera as she was seated in a touring car, and there were shots of the streets of the town and the oil wells and the petroleum pumps, all filmed from the interior of the car. One of her script-writing efforts was an episode for the rites of betrothal in four countries of the world that the National Film Board of Canada was producing. She wrote the script for the Iranian episode, and assisted Ebrahim Golestan in directing it. She herself also acted in it. No, she was not the bride or the fiancee. But her best effort came in 1962 when she spent twelve days with a crew of three in a leper colony near Tabriz to shoot a real masterpiece: The House Is Black. Her poetic vision and the strong content of the film have been fused together to create a documentary of lyric quality from a subject that appears so macabre from a distance. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison, but I believe that this film has had a much stronger impact than any other documentary or feature film made in the Golestan Film Studios at Darrous, including such major efforts as the documentary Rock, Wave and Coral and Ebrahim Golestan's two feature films, Khesht-o Ayeneh [The Mirror and the Mudbrick] and Asrar-e Ganj-e Darreh-ye Jenni [The Mysteries of the Haunted Valley]. As you may all know, The House Is Black won the grand-prize of West Germany's Oberhausen Film Festival in the following year, and there is no doubt in my mind that the film now ranks among the very best documentaries ever made.

The remainder of Forugh's activities in the domain of cinema are eclipsed by the brilliance of her masterpiece, and they do not amount to a great deal: One or two scripts that were never filmed, a short commercial for the classified ads page of Kayhan newspaper, two films which were made about her which I have not seen, and her participation in the Festival of Cinema d'auteur at Pesaro, in Italy.

Another fruit of her visit to the leper colony in Azarbaijan was of course Hosein, a young boy she brought back with her to Tehran and later adopted. He has grown up to become a fine student, continuing his education abroad with the help of royalties from Forugh's books in the course of their frequent reprintings. Forugh's own son, Kamiar Shapur who is 33 now, lives in Iran ; he both paints and writes poetry, but so far he has failed to impress.

Much has been said and written about Forugh's personal relationship with Ebrahim Golestan, the so-called affair. Well, I am not going to add any details that would feed the gossip mills. First of all, I did not learn of this matter until much later, naive and provincial that I was. I only believed the rumours, when Tavallodi Digar was published in book form early in the Iranian year 1343. I had left Golestan Films by then, and I was working for Kayhan International, the English-language Tehran daily. My review of Tavallodi Digar appeared in the issue of July 21, 1964. Some of the poems that make up this collection had already appeared in one of the Tehran periodicals such as Arash that Sirus Tahbaz edited. But none of the love poems -- fifteen by my count -- had been published before. The dedication of the book, to the not so mysterious E.G. (or perhaps I should say Alef Gaf) let the cat out of the bag for me. Love poems of such intensity coming from a woman -- all her 'frank', 'uninhibited', 'liberated', what you will -- had not been encountered by Persian readers before.

This intimate relationship was evidently very important in Forugh's life. It opened her eyes to the world, it opened her horizons to a higher level of understanding and appreciation in arts and literature. And it also gave her professional skills that enabled her to create something so magnificent as The House is Black. And it generated in her the passions of an all-consuming love.

This love did not make her happy. They did not live happily ever after. If you go through the love poems in Tavallodi Digar carefully --and they are not arranged chronologically in the book -- you will see for yourselves that the affair has its ups and downs. In one poem she is gay, ecstatic, even orgasmic. In another she is sad, morose, impatient, petulant. She does not bemoan her love with the hackneyed cliches of yesteryear but with vibrant words of everyday speech that we all can grasp. When she soars in these love poems, she really soars high, and let me once again predict -- stick my neck out as you might say here ----- that she is going to be read and remembered best and longest as the universal woman in love, and not so much as the voice of an intellectual Iranian woman in the 1950s and 1960s. Her satirical piece "Ay Marz-e Porgohar" is an excellent mirror of the way things were in Tehran in the 1960's, depicting the socio-economic conditions that perhaps led to the Revolution of 1979. This is all very fine, but when she cries out "Ay, ay ba jan-e man amikhteh / ay mara az gur-e man angikhteh," she is totally another person; she is passion incarnate, and she communicates directly not to our mind but to our heart, exacting an immediate response from the very nerve centre of our emotion. And poetry in my humble opinion sounds strongest when it is an expression of a person's feelings.

Well, among Forugh's love poems, two of them have a place of honour, "'Asheqaneh" and "Mordab ", [Swamp] both of which have been composed in the rhyming couplets of the masnavi verse form. So there is a lilting music to them that evokes a response in the chords embedded in the common unconscious of the Iranian people. Translating such a poem into English, or any other language for that matter, means in effect that it will be immediately robbed of its special musicality. And recreating that music in another language will naturally produce a different effect on the ear.

When I accepted Michael Hillmann's invitation to participate in this memorable gathering, I dared myself to attempt the nearly impossible task of rendering "'Asheqaneh" into English. And what I will read to you now is the result. I already know that it is inadequate, and does not match the sterling qualities of the Persian original, but it is my humble offering, a true green leaf, to the memory of Forugh, who is being remembered here after twenty years. When I was at Oxford, on my way here, I saw for myself that Amin Banani and Jascha Kessler have already made a rendition of this poem into English, but no matter. So many people have translated Forugh, that multiple renderings are becoming the rule, rather than the exception. She will be translated again and again until she finds her FitzGerald and her rightful place among the best poets of the world.

Love Song

My nights are painted bright with your dream, sweet love
And heavy with your fragrance is my breast.
You fill my eyes with your presence, sweet love.
Giving me more happiness than grief.
Like rain washing through the soil
You have washed my life clean.
You are the heartbeat of my burning body;
A fire blazing in the shade of my eyelashes.
You are more bountiful than the wheat fields,
More fruit-laden than the golden boughs. 
Against the onslaught of darkening doubts
You are a door thrown open to the suns.
When I am with you, I fear no pain
For my only pain is a pain of happiness. 
This sad heart of mine and so much light?
Sounds of life from the bottom of a grave? 

Your eyes are my pastures, sweet love
The stamp of your gaze burning deep into my eyes.
If I had you within me before, sweet love
I would not take anybody else for you.
Oh it's a dark pain, this urge of wanting;
Setting out, belittling oneself fruitlessly;
Laying one's head on chests hiding a black heart;
Soiling one's breast with ancient hatred;
Finding a snake in a caressing hand;
Discovering venom behind friendly smiles; 
Putting coins into deceitful hands;
Getting lost in the midst of bazaars.

You are my breath of life, sweet love,
You have brought me back to life from the grave.
You have come down from the distant sky,
Like a star on two golden wings
Silencing my loneliness, sweet love, 
Imbuing my body with odours of your embrace. 
You are water to the dry streams of my breasts, 
You are a torrent to the dry bed of my veins. 
In a world so cold and as bleak,
In step with your steps, I proceed.

You are hidden under my skin
Flowing through my every cell,
Singeing my hair with your caressing hand,
Leaving my cheeks sunburned with desire.
You are, sweet love, a stranger to my dress
But so familiar with the fields of my nakedness.
O bright and eternal sunrise,
The strong sunshine of southern climes, 
You are fresher than early dawn,
Fresher and better-watered than spring-tide.
This is no longer love, it is dazzlement,
A chandelier blazing amidst silence and darkness.
Ever since love was awakened in my heart,
I have become total devotion with desire.
This is no longer me, no longer me,
Oh wasted are the years I lived with "me."
My lips are the altar of your kisses, sweet love
My eyes watching out for the arrival of your kiss.

You are the convulsions of ecstasy in my body,
Like a garment, the lines of your figure covering me.
Oh I am going to burst open like a bud,
My joy becoming tarnished for a moment with sorrow.
Oh I wish to jump to my feet
And pour down tears like a cloud

This sad heart of mine and burning incense?
Music of harp and lyre in a prayer-hall?
This empty space and such flights?
This silent night and so much song?
Your gaze is like a magic lullaby, sweet love, 
A cradle for restless babies.
Your breathing is a breeze half-asleep
Washing down all my tremours of anguish;
It is hidden in the smiles of my tomorrows,
It has sunken deep into the depths of my worlds.

You have touched me with the frenzy of poetry; 
Pouring fire into my songs, 
kindling my heart with the fever of love, 
Thus setting all my poems ablaze, sweet love.

Well, so much for the aria. Let us get on with our narrative. In the course of the years that followed, when I was a journalist with Kayhan, I did not see and meet with Forugh as regularly, but we kept in touch, and I followed her activities with great interest. Her new home, the one-story red-brick house off Hedayat Street within a stone's throw of the film studios where she worked was a gathering place for her friends on Friday evenings. Such people as Mahmud Azad Tehrani the poet, Sirus Tahbaz the editor, Sohrab Sepehri the poet and painter, and even the great Shamlu would assemble there, but somehow, I never got around to attending these gatherings, even though I had a standing invitation. I had maintained my interest in films, and I would regularly attend the Tuesday film showings of Kanun-e Film, the Iranian version of the cinematheque that Farrokh Ghaffari so valiantly organized at Farabi Hall. Forugh would also show up whenever a really important film was being shown and we would chat a bit.

Another source of my contacts with Forugh was the translations that I made of a few of her poems into English. I made these with her knowledge and prior permission. First I translated "Dar Khiyaban-ha-ye Sard-e Shab" [In the Cold Streets of the Night] and "Ayeh'ha-ye Zamini" [Earthly Gospels]. These were published together with some other translated poems in Kayhan International as representative specimens of modern Persian poetry. Later I translated and published "Man az To Mimordam" [I Was Dying of You] which she herself thought had come over well. Her English had improved, and she would read the translation and try to form an opinion on its values. And that is how my translation of "Tavallodi Digar" came about. I have already written of this episode, so I will be brief here. She had received an English version of the poem that a team -- an Iranian collaborating with an American poet -- had drafted in the States. She was not happy with the translation, and she asked me to render the poem into English so that it may serve as a basis for a further effort by the above-mentioned team. I agreed only after she accepted the idea of helping me with the textual difficulties. So one Thursday morning she came over to our house. I sat at my desk behind my typewriter. She sat on the opposite side of the desk facing me. We worked together and by noon we had finished. I gave her a copy of the translation, and the next day I wrote up an account of what she had said, which appeared in Kayhan International a day later, on Saturday January 27, 1966.

During the next year, I saw very little of Forugh. She went to Italy, to attend the Pesaro film festival, and on the way she stopped over in London, where she noticed a da Vinci painting at the National Gallery in which "everything is bathed in a light blue hue." It is so beautiful that "I felt like stooping and saying my prayers," she wrote Golestan. "It is only during the moments of love and adoration that I feel religious." In her letter to Golestan -- some excerpts have been published -- she says many things that are worth quoting. I will only quote two passages:

I am glad my hair is turning grey and there are lines on my forehead and there are two deep furrows between my eyebrows. I am glad that I am no longer a dreamer now that I am nearly thirty two, even though being thirty two years old means having used up and having left behind thirty two years of one's allocation of life. But instead I have found myself.


I love our own Tehran, whatever it may be. I love it, and it is only there that my life finds a goal worth living for. I love that numbing sunshine and those heavy sunsets and those dusty alleyways and those miserable, wretched, vicious, and corrupt people.

She returned to Tehran and busied herself with considering the offers she had received in Europe: to direct a film, to put together a collection of her translated poems for publication abroad. Then the Hour Struck Four...

I heard of her accident as I arrived at the offices of Kayhan late that Monday afternoon. As I was about to climb the stairs that led to the newsroom, a colleague stopped me. "Have you heard? Your friend, what was her name..." I heard the details and I composed a news item for the front page, and still I could not believe it. Until the next day, when we bade her body farewell in the small Zahir-od-Dowleh cemetery, just north of Tajrish under grey skies that occasionally sent down a few snow-flakes. Then I returned to the office and wrote her obituary. Such is life. The show must go on, and you find yourself obliged to come up with hasty evaluations, when you prefer to say nothing and just grieve. Please allow me to quote a few lines:

Forugh had earlier had several close brushes with death, two car crashes and one attempted suicide. I think she had a somewhat fatalistic view of death, and I think she believed in a perhaps life after death of sorts, not in any religious way... no perhaps a belief that an artist will live on in his or her created works.

Well, Forugh of course lives on. During the past two decades she has been read in Iran by ever larger numbers. The last printing of Tavallodi Digar, the 14th impression, was two years ago with a print run of twenty thousand copies. And the book is now out of print in Iran. And abroad she has been translated more than any other contemporary Iranian poet. And this is just the beginning. Whence this staying power?

There will be different answers to this question, but in my humble view one quality that gives her poems a lot of power is that they derive so much from life, from Forugh's life, from her direct experiences and feelings that are conveyed to us by strong words handpicked, no, not from classical Persian poetry, but from everyday speech. Words brimming with meaning, overflowing with connotations, words that hit you smack in the face and the impact reminds you of certain experiences. 

Forugh chose her words carefully and she was very conscious of this effort. In several of the quotations that we have of her, either in letters she wrote or from interviews, she discusses how she goes about selecting key words. In one she says: "For me words are very important; each word creates its own characteristic atmosphere, just as objects do. "And in another: "I realized that I needed words, fresh words that related to the particular world...words that are full of life, and I don't care if they are not yet considered poetic." Some of the words I have picked from a few of her poems that occur more than once are the following: "hajm" [volume, mass], "tashannoj" [convulsion, tremour], "rekhvatnak" [languid], "mafluj" [Paralyzed], "moztareb" [anguished]. As you can see for yourselves most of these words appertain to the senses and the nervous system. An analysis of Forugh's vocabulary in Tavallodi Digar and Iman Biyavarim... to determine the frequency of the key words may well prove to be a worthwhile exercise, and may give us a better insight into the way she composed poetry. I remember that one day we were discussing the differences of usage and nuance that existed between the Persian word "sir" and the English word "full." Then I passed on to "sated" and then to "insatiable." She was very interested in this last word, and wrote it down in her notebook.

Forugh's poetry ranks with the very best of Iran's top modernists. She benefits from the liberated verse forms of Nima Yushij and in some of the poems of Tavallodi Digar which I deem to be the earlier ones, there are here and there traces of Nima's characteristic phraseology, but that is all. She herself has said: "Nima was my guide, but I was my own creator. I have always depended on my own experiences." As for Shamlu, well, his breadth of expression and his mastery of the poetic idiom are tops, but when it comes to the intensity of feeling Forugh would be very hard to surpass. Forugh calls Shamlu a kindred spirit "who is closest to me in poetic taste and feeling." Akhavan's elegant language and rich music of words were admired by Forugh but she had no desire to engage in similar poetic acrobatics. She was not so immersed in classical Persian literature as Akhavan was; it is only during the last decade of her life that we see her reading Rumi, Hafez and Sa'di seriously. Like Sohrab Sepehri, Forugh was never a political poet of the left, in the way that Shamlu and Akhavan, and a host of others, professed to be, at least during the earlier decades of their poetic life. Sohrab and Forugh were great friends, and both of them introspective souls, who have influenced one another in ever so subtle ways that may be worth exploring.

Have we seen the totality of Forugh's output in the five volumes that now make up the body of her work, or are there still a few unpublished poems here and there? One day in 1969, I was told by Forugh's father, Colonel Mohammad Farrokhzad, in my office at Franklin Books in Tehran, that Forugh's private papers disappeared from her home the same night that she was killed. He did not tell me who had taken these papers, and I am not going to offer you any conjectures. I only hope that whoever has them will release them in toto when he or she deems it appropriate. I may be wrong, but I feel that there will be no unpublished poems in this lot but there is bound to be a lot of material that will shed new light on her artistic creativity. Let us hope that we will see these papers in our lifetime.

Well, before I end, let me offer you a capsule summation of what I think will be Forugh's place in Iranian literature, not just the contemporary scene but during the whole span of the history that is associated with the emergence and usage of the neo-Persian Language, i.e. from the times of Rudaki onwards. We have not lived through obscure times; momentous events have shaped and shaken our country during the past half a century. Persian, as a language, has been rejuvenated and is at the height of its expressive powers now. Our times are going to be remembered and some of Forugh's best poems are going to be remembered and read in Persian, and in many languages, in the course of the future centuries. If I am the last speaker in this gathering, then this means that I have been allowed to have the last word on Forugh. Then let me say that she was great, no doubt about that. 

And I am here echoing the first line of Sohrab Sepehri's elegy for Forugh, which I have rendered into English as a homage to the memory of the two departed friends.

by Sohrab Sepehri
"I should be glad of another death," T.S.Eliot

She was great
she came from nowadays
she was related to all the open vistas
and how well she appreciated the tone of the water and earth.

Her voice
sounded like the scattered sorrow of reality 
and her eyelids
pointed out to us
the path taken by the pulse of the elements
and her hands
leafed through
the clear air of generosity 
pushing toward us 

She was shaped to the form of her solitude
and she interpreted for her mirror 
the most amorous curvatures of her time.
like rain she was full of the freshness of repetition
and tree fashion
she spread out into the healthiness of light. 
she always called out to the infancy of the wind
and she always tied the conversation 
to the hasp in water.
one night she performed for us 
love's green prostration so candidly 
that we felt under our fingers the affection 
in the surface of the earth. 
and became refreshed like the accent of water in a pail.

And we often saw
with how large a basket
she would set forth to pick grapes of tidings. 

But it couldn't be 
for her to sit facing the clarity of the doves 
and she went to the brink of naught 
and lay down beyond the patience of lights 
and she did not think at all
that in the midst of the discordant enunciation of the doors 
how lonely we would be
to eat apples.


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