The article below appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times yesterday. I am quoting it here because of how relevant it is to the very useful discussion that has been taking place between Masha Zavialova and Tom Bell and a few others, that came about partly as a result of my posting a letter from the poet Herberto Yepez, poet and philosophy professor living in Tijuana, Mexico on the Buffalo poetics list. If you haven't checked out the list lately I want to encourage you to read it regularly now. It is a center for alternative discussion on this useless, terribly destructive, and heartbreaking Iraq invasion. In spite of the occasional silly nit-picking, squabbling and bickering (this often happens anyway among poets who are constantly and jealously clamoring for the attention and affections of a highly fickle, though occasionally very generous Muse, and except for this have every reason to have mostly only affection and respect for one another) the list is a fine place to discuss real issues in a media environment of intensely vicious progagandizing and disinformation.
March 27, 2003
Words of War
By AZAR NAFISI
ASHINGTON — These days I am often asked what I did in Tehran as bombs fell during the Iran-Iraq war. My interlocutors are invariably surprised, if not shocked, when I tell them that I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez. Yet it is precisely during such times, when our lives are transformed by violence, that we need works of imagination to confirm our faith in humanity, to find hope amid the rubble of a hopeless world. Memoirs from concentration camps and the gulag attest to this. I keep returning to the words of Leon Staff, a Polish poet who lived in the Warsaw ghetto: "Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all."
I think back to the eight-year war with Iraq, a time when days and nights seemed indistinguishable, and were reduced to the sound of the siren, warning us of the next air attack. I often reminded my students at Allameh Tabatabai University that while guns roared and the Winter Palace was stormed, Nabokov sat at his desk writing poetry.
My Tehran classroom at times overflowed with students who ignored the warnings about Iraq's chemical bombs so they could reckon with Tolstoy's ability to defamiliarize (a term coined by the Russian Formalist critics) everyday reality and offer it to us through new eyes. The excitement that came from discovering a hidden truth about "Anna Karenina" told me that Iraqi missiles had not succeeded in their mission. Indeed, the more Saddam Hussein wanted us to be defined by terror, the more we craved beauty.
If I felt compelled to keep rereading the classics, it was in order to see the light in the eyes of my students. I remember two young women, clad from head to toe in black chadors, looking as if nothing in the world mattered more than the idea that "Pride and Prejudice" was subversive because it taught us about our right to make our own choices.
Among my scribbled notes from those days, I found a quote from Saul Bellow about writers in the Soviet work camps. To my friends in the United States who are skeptical about the importance of imagination in times of war, let me share his words: "Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place — the foreground."
And so a new war has begun, though this time it is my adopted country and not the country of my birth that is fighting Iraq. Nothing will replace the lives lost. Still, I will take some comfort now as I did then by opening a book.
Azar Nafisi, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran."