Hashem Shaabani, a relatively unknown poet, was permanently silenced in a macabre Iranian cell last week. The execution of the heretic wordsmith falls at ostensibly a time of national pride. The gowned and bearded, lugubrious mullahs champion a sober celebration marking the Ayatollah Khomeini’s founding of the stale Islamic Republic. While the two events may not seem that intertwined, they symbolize a quasi-civil war in Iran. Not so much a civil war between rivaling factions, but a war between the theocratic republic and its ancient predecessor; the mystic Persia. Shaabani’s ceremony with the rope was the death of a back-to-the-future footsoldier in a war of past v. present.
Those familiar with Kafka will know the story of metamorphosis; a boy awakes to find himself, rather regrettably, transformed into a beetle. This is one, perhaps slightly cynical, way to describe the events of 1979. Now, the deposed Shah was no innocent prepubescent, but almost overnight the most sacrosanct aspects of Iranian history were vilified and replaced by those deemed divine. The cultural hub mutated from Persepolis to Qom; the national icon from Cyrus to Khomeini; the book from the epic Shahnameh to the Koran.
As with any dictatorship, the Ayatollahs are insecure about that hold on power. Unlike most, however, they are also afraid of nationalism – normally the beloved tool of the despot. The clerics survive off trying to hold a monopoly on morality, and the teachings of poets, such as Ferdowsi and Hafez, are a threat to the regime’s legitimacy. This literary repression is as absurd and erratic as it would be for Obama to denounce Hemingway or Fitzgerald, and as a result has been largely unsuccessful.
One monopoly the pious do hold is that on violence. The streets of Tehran ran red the day the people demanded a fair vote to decide which puppet Ali Khamenei would use. But, as the cliché goes, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ or perhaps, ‘the tweet is mightier than the knock-off AK47.’ Either way, modern day poetry and the rekindling of Persian pathos does represent a real threat to the mullahs in charge. In the 90’s, the historian Jahangir Tafazoli was eliminated on the streets, seen a threat to the Islamification of the country. The charge against him: being the most renowned expert on ancient Iran.
As with all wars, the historical war of Iran is one of ideology. A war between liberty, poetry, art, music, architecture (and I suppose to some degree, carpets) and a bland, totalitarian, austere devotion and violent protection of Shia’ Islam. Shaabani was a proponent of the former, a capital offense. The love of the word, though, is a part of the Iranian backbone and will not end at the gallows, not this time at least. The Ayatollah Khomeini, patron of the ruling fanaticism, once waxed lyrical with this piece:
I am a supplicant for a goblet of wine,
from the hand of a sweetheart.
In whom can I confide this secret of mine?
Where can I take this sorrow?
This sweet stanza shows Khomeini’s longing for romance, and as well for wine (like with beer, a Persian invention). The point, though, is that even the most pious of them all struggled with the self-inflicted repression of the sensual indulgences; luxuries at the root of his native culture. With conflict, both political and psychological, it is the internal, the war-within, that is the most devastating. The cleric-in-chief was perhaps the first significant battleground in the Iranian civil war between mystic pleasures and religious abstinence. Since then, the blood of many, mainly the young, has been spilled to hold the dominance of terror and maintain a cultural poverty.
So as the Iranians take to the streets to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Khomeini’s plane touching down in Tehran from France – and at the same time as Shaabani’s body taken to, presumably, an unmarked, uncelebrated grave – Iranians might do well to remember this one dark irony at the heart of this civil war.
By Ed Ellison