Does a seminar on reforming the meter and rhyme schemes of Persian poetry violate "Islamic values" and threaten the foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran?
That is the view of the Islamic Court in Tehran, which last month sentenced two poets, Fateme Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mussavi, to nine and 11.5 years in prison respectively, plus 99 lashes of the cane for each in public.
One of the two, Mrs. Fateme Ekhtesari, was sentenced to 11.5 years for "undermining the security of the Islamic state" by composing and reciting in public a number of "poems full of ambiguity and capable of being read in deviant and dangerous ways."
Ekhtesari is a surrealist poet whose verse could, and indeed is intended to, be read in many different ways. One of her diwans (collections of verse), for example, is called "Crying on the Shoulder of An Egg". Another comes under the title "A Feminist Discourse Before Baking Potatoes."
Feminism is a strong theme with Ekhtesari, who insists that, as God created both men and women from the same "red mud" mentioned in the Koran, there is no reason to prevent the latter from enjoying any freedoms available to the former.
The Tehran Islamic Prosecutor, however, insisted that Ekhtesari's "ambiguous poems" were meant to pass "dangerous political messages that could encourage people to distance themselves from the True Faith."
"She writes something but means something else," the prosecutor claimed. "Her trick is to avoid saying anything in a straightforward way, creating space for all manner of dangerous thinking."
The prosecutor based part of his case on the claim that what matters in Islam is "zikr," that is to say, a constant remembrance of God by repeating, if necessary in silence and to oneself, the formula "There is no God but Allah". Those who abandon "zikr" for its opposite -- which is "fikr", that is to say, thinking -- move away from the Path of Faith.
The irony in all this is that Ekhtesari is not a political poet. In fact, she has written that those who try to use poetry to advance political ideals betray both.
As editor of the monthly literary magazine Only One Tomorrow, Ekhtesari offered space to writers and poets across the ideological spectrum, including some Khomeinists. Her magazine was shut down soon after Hassan Rouhani became president.
However, as a poet, Ekhtesari cannot but be affected by the ambient social and political order in her homeland. She cannot turn her face the other way when she sees ugliness, oppression and terror -- themes that force their way into some of her poems.
Ekhtesari is also an original theoretician of poetic modes. Her collection of essays entitled "Linguistic Tricks in Postmodern Sonnet" is both intriguing and instructive.
Ekhtesari's fellow convict-cum-poet is Mehdi Mussavi, who received a six-year sentence. Mussavi is the founder and principal animator of a poetry workshop in Tehran where Ekhtesari has often spoken and recited her poems. The workshop is supposedly dedicated to developing a new form that Mussavi calls "postmodern ghazal." The classic form of Persian sonnet, ghazal, has been the subject of numerous attempts at modernization, notably by Simin Behbahani, one of Iran's greatest contemporary poetesses.
Like Behbahani, Mussavi argues that, having experimented with modern forms, including European-style prose-poetry, for almost a century, Persian poets need to return to traditional forms, albeit with changes to reflect modern realities.
Mussavi rejects the argument of the older generation poets such as Ahmad Shamlou, who claimed that the traditional ghazal is so beholden to the musicality of its meter and rhyme schemes that it cannot relay any meaning in a powerful way.
According to Mussavi, once the Persian poet has learned to play by the traditional rules, he could invent virtually countless meters and rhymes capable of expressing any sentiment.
Literary opponents of Mussavi's theories, especially on the left, argue that he, like Behbahani and other reformers of the ghazal before them, suffers from a sense of insecurity in a changing world where the Iran they knew is being remolded into something repulsive in the name of Islam.
The Islamic Court, however, charged Mussavi with propagating "immoral images" in his poetry and thus "insulting sacred values of the Islamic ummah."
Equally painful is the Islamic Court's decision to impose a blanket ban on the publication and recital of any poems by Ekhtesari and Mussavi. Under an edict issued by the Islamic Guidance Ministry in 2003, people like Ekhtesari and Mussavi, who are found guilty of "insulting Islam" and thus put on the official index, become "non-persons" -- even their names and pictures are banned.
Both Ekhtesari and Mussavi had spent several months in prison two years ago, but were released after the Islamic Prosecutor Ayatollah Ra'isi failed to prove any political crime.
That is why this time, the prosecutor focused on a claim that the poets had attacked "the sacred tenets of the faith".
The sentencing was made easier thanks to a recent lecture by "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei laying down the rules of what he believes "good Islamic poets" should observe when writing poetry.
However, as exiled poet Yadallah Roya'i notes, one could write an advertising text or a police report on demand, but not poetry. "Even the poet cannot order himself to write poetry," Roya'i noted." The poet is like a tree, shedding its leaves and flowers so that there is room for future leaves and flowers."
Iran is one of the few countries in the world where poetry has always been regarded as the highest form of literary creation. In Iranian cities, streets and parks were more often named after poets than conquerors or empire-builders or, until the mullahs seized power, Islamic saints and/or theologians. If an Iranian home has at least one book, it is likely to be a collection of poems.
And yet, with the seizure of power by mullahs in 1979, Iran has experienced one of the most dangerous phases in its long history, as far as poets -- and intellectuals in general -- are concerned.
Another irony is that both the founder of the regime, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor as "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, cast themselves as amateur poets. Khomeini banned publication of his own divans while he was alive, believing that appearing as a poet might soften the dour persona he was building as leader of a revolution that could execute 4000 people on a weekend.
Since his death, however, hundreds of his poems, most of them traditional-style sonnets (ghazals) have been published by the foundation bearing his name. Ali Khamenei does not publish his poems, but organizes private readings with a few dozen "appreciators" once or twice a year and is reportedly "in seventh heaven" when his entourage quote one of his verses.
Ekhtesari and Mussavi have been sent to jail, not killed. Other poets have not been so lucky.
Hashem Shaabani was hanged on the eve of President Rouhani's visit to Ahvaz in 2014. Shaabani was not the first Iranian poet to be murdered by the mullahs. The left-wing poet Sa'id Sultanpour was abducted on the day of his wedding on Khomeini's orders, and shot dead in a Tehran prison. Rahman Hatefi-Monfared, writing under the pen-name of Heydar Mehregan, had his veins cut and was left to bleed to death in the notorious Evin Prison. Under President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a plan to kill a busload of Iranian poets on their way to a festival in Armenia failed at the last minute. Nevertheless, Rafsanjani succeeded in eliminating more than a dozen writers and poets. The worst spate of killings happened under President Khatami, when more than 80 intellectuals, including the poets Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad-Ja'far Pouyandeh, were murdered by the Islamic regime's security agents.
Let's give the final word to Mussavi: " I hope to see the day when no one is sent to jail in this land for writing poems." Inshallah!