The annual poetry congress in Tehran, held at the beginning of July, included what state-owned or controlled media have described as an "historic literary event," which, according to one establishment literary commentator, Muhammad-Ali Mujahedi, electrified those present.
The "event" was the public reading of a new ghazal (sonnet) by "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose poetical ambitions date back to his early youth more than 60 years ago. He has often said that he wished he had spent more time and energy on his poetry rather than on politics, and in anecdotal accounts of his life has cast himself as a disciple of such great contemporary classicist Persian poets as Amiri Firuzkuhi and Muhammad Qahreman, not to mention the great Mohammad-Hussein Shahriar and Rahi Mo'ayyeri.
However, still unsure of how his poetry might be received, Khamenei -- who uses "Amin" as his literary sobriquet (takhallos in Arabic) -- has always shied away from publishing a diwan or even reciting his poems in public. But because few poets could resist the temptation of reading their work to others, the "Supreme Guide" holds occasional private recitals of his poetry for a handful of confidants who have sworn never to reveal to others what they have heard or try to put it into print.
Thus, the event was a rare occasion, when Khamenei overcame his fear of not pleasing an audience and agreed to have his latest work recited to a group of fellow poets and aspiring poets.
To be sure, Khamenei is not the first political leader to harbor poetical ambitions. Both Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong wrote poetry. And Iran's own Naser al-Din Shah Qajar spent more time committing poetry than running the country. More recently, we had Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a closet poet, keeping his poetical production, full of libertine sentiments and Bacchanalian images, quiet until his death. The founder of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea, Kim Il-sung, one of Khamenei's heroes, also committed some imitations of the Japanese haiku.
But how good is Khamenei's new ghazal?
To start with, by classical standards of ghazal, it is one line (beyt) too short. The standard classical ghazal consists of a minimum of seven lines (abyat) and a maximum of 13. Khamenei has stopped at six lines. If we set aside two lines that experts might see as "superficial adornment" (hashw al-qabih in Arabic), Khamenei's poem could be best categorized as an "incidental confession" (muwashshah in Arabic), a form rare in Persian poetry, but highly cherished by Arab poets, especially in the pre-Islamic era.
Next, Khamenei's work also moves away from the classical ghazal's thematic unity in diversity, in which each line seems to have an independent content while being indirectly linked to the content of other lines. Here, Khamenei goes for a very modern introspective narrative style, in which all the lines (abyat) come together to depict the poet's mood at a certain moment in time.
But what is this mood? As you would see in the translation of the poem that follows, the ghazal depicts the poet as a disturbed person, divided against himself and struggling with the pull of events.
Khamenei has chosen one of the favorite meters (owzan in Arabic) of the great Persian Sufi poet Mawlawi (known in the West as Rumi), originally developed by Arab poets of the pre-Islamic era, including Labid, Zuhair Ibn Abi-Salma and the black slave warrior Antar Ibn Shaddad. This meter is extremely rhythmic, and the pre-Islamic (jaheliyah) poets regarded it as suitable for war poetry being recited with the beating of drums.
In contrast, Mawlawi and other Persian poets, for example Athireddin Akhsikati and Khwaju Kermani, used it to accompany Sufi-style dance, which includes gyration to the beat of a small drum (tablah). Another poet, Monjik Termezi, of Jewish origin, also used the meter in his narrative odes (qasidah), presumably because of its musical quality that adds spice to public recitations.
The meter (wazn) consists of the double alternation of one long and one short syllable: mufta'alan mufta'al, mufta'alan mufta'al, perfect for inciting warriors to combat or inspiring Sufis to gyrate in the "remembering Allah" (zikr in Arabic) and "hearing the divine voice" (Se'maa in Arabic) ceremonies perfected by the "whirling dervishes."
In his ghazal, Khamenei has gone for an interesting rhyming scheme usually used by Persian poets to evoke sorrow. This is a bold choice, as the mournful rhyme scheme is opposed by the joyful beat of the meter.
The rhyme in question uses words that contain the Arabic letter M (mim) twice, like two wings of a wounded bird, inspiring a sense of forlornness. At the same time, because the letter "mim" isn't a loud one, it helps create an atmosphere of intimacy, as if the poet were whispering his sufferings in your ear. Whispering, of course, is also the art perfected by Satan (al-wasswas al-khannas in Arabic) in pursuit of evil aims. Here, Khamenei uses whispering in a quest for a human understanding of his pains, if not actual tenderness.
The problem is that the poet cannot keep up the chosen rhyme scheme all through his six lines as, for example, Amiri- Firuzkuhi or Hushang Ebtehaj would have done. Thus, three of the six lines (abyat) fully stick to the scheme, while three others offer words that contain only one "mim." In two of the lines, the Arabic letter L (lam) replaces the letter "mim." This may have been meant as a side glance at the Koranic surah starting with ALM (aleph, lam, mim in Arabic). Despite more than 60 years of interest in poetry, the "Supreme Guide" is still unable to master the full technique of classical Persian poetry.
Such imperfections, however, do not damage the ghazal as a whole, which is well-crafted in terms of prosody. The poem also evokes some of the classical concerns of the Sufis as to how to liberate oneself from one's earthly reality in the hope of reaching for a greater transcendental truth.
Khamenei uses many clichés of classical Persian poetry, including being "drunk, utterly gone," "pure wine," and "the skirt of love." Nevertheless, there are enough fresh, modern concepts in his ghazal to save it from becoming another insipid imitation of the great classics.
Reading too much politics in this short ghazal may be out of order. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the man currently ruling Iran appears unsure of his impact on life, feels he is the victim of some unspecified injustice and sees a schizophrenic "id" (in the Freudian sense) that is "sometimes pure wine, sometimes deadly poison." He craves purity but sees himself as a "synthetic mix," which makes him cry. At times, this divided "id" plants his claws into his own "bleeding heart," a masochistic image. At other times it attacks his "own flock like a wolf," an image that evokes Sadism.
All in all, I liked the ghazal, maybe because I am a sucker for classical Persian-style poetry.
Here is the translation of the ghazal, for you to judge for yourself:
I am disturbed by the cacophony in me
I wish I could get out of self-absorption that
Pulls me this way and that like a straw
Obsession with this and that, capriciousness of the self
I have plunged my claws into my bleeding heart
Like a wolf I have attacked my own flock
At times I am pure wine, at others deadly poison
I cry out of the synthetic mix that I am
I am a child, resting my head on the skirt of love
Hoping that lullaby will release me from my ego.
I am drunk, utterly gone, Amin, heedless of was and is
From whom can I seek redress for the injustice done to me?
Iran's Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Image source: khameni.ir/Wikimedia Commons)
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This review was originally published in shortened form in Asharq al-Awsat. It is being published here by the kind permission of the author.