Prophet of light
Remembering Ahmad Shamlou
By Esmail Nooriala
July 24, 2000
He died today. It had been expected for quiet a some time. And thus
his death does not bring any unexpected change in anything about him. In
fact, it was a death guaranteed NOT to bring any harm to the legacy of
a man who had already been able to immortalize himself during his lifetime.
The coming to end of his bodily life can only be considered an inescapable
natural occurrence with no direct impact on the literary history of modern
Persian poetry. But it was the inevitable force of his words and deeds
that has crept into and completely conquered modern Persian literature
and culture, rendering modern Iranian writers and thinkers a challenging
standard of excellence in humanist thought and literary achievement that
will live long after he has left his dusty shell.
Every literary critic in Iran agrees that Ahmad Shamlou was the finest
and most-celebrated Iranian modern poet with a literary caliber no less
than any prominent contemporary poet anywhere in the world. Born in 1925,
his literary life spanned 60 year -- a life that both coincided with and
influenced the renovation and recasting of Persian poetry that began with
the Constitutional Revolution at the advent of the 20th century.
Nima Yushij (d.1959) is considered, quite rightly, the father of modern
Persian poetry, introducing a whole bundle of techniques and forms to differentiate
the modern from the old. Nevertheless, the merit of popularizing this new
literary from within a country and culture which is solidly based on a
thousand years of classical poetry, goes to his few disciples. Ahmad Shamlou
stood tall amongst that new generation who adopted Nima's methods and restlessly
tried new undiscovered domains of modernism in poetry.
Shamlou was prominent both as a great historical literary figure and
a poet. His historical contribution to the renovation of Persian poetry
has been the subject matter of many books. But it is his prominence as
a national poet that meets no dispute and renders him as a great literary
figure this country has generated for world literature. Although his poetry
has been translated into several languages, Shalmou's poetry is still an
His poetry and poetic thinking fell within notions attached to Western
modernism. He was a humanist, an atheist, and a social-minded intellectual
who skillfully wove his personal love and affections with his social stands.
He was a lover and a fighter. And in the center of his existence stood
the bare-footed human being who had nothing but hope for a better future
and an insatiable appetite for justice.
Shamlou represented the finest breed of Iranian intellectuals in the
second half of the 20th century. He had been a journalist, playwright,
translator and broadcaster. And in each of these domains he had been an
influential innovator and leader for at least three generations of intellectuals.
For the last five years he was an ailing, one-legged old man living in
the seclusion of a house far from the center of Tehran. But everybody knew
that the vein of Iranian intellectualism and liberal thinking was pulsating
in that very house.
You can find recording of his poetry, in his own voice, in almost every
Iranian home. He had turned into a myth years ago. His words have had the
charisma and magic of a prophet. He did not lead by decree. He just lived
and his life and words scattered through the minds and hearts of several
generations of Iranian humanists and liberals, giving them hope, faith
It now seems no accident that he chose the pen name "Baamdaad",
or "Morning", at a very early stage of his literary life.
Here are translations of two famous Shamlou poems which I did for
a documentary on his life:
In this dead-end (1980)
They smell your mouth
To see if you have been saying: I love you.
They smell your heart
This is the strangest of times, my dear!
Whoever knocks at the door in the middle of the night
Has come to kill the light
We have to hide it in a closet.
Now the butchers are
Stationed on each cross-road
With a tree trunk and a cleaver
To engrave a smile on our lips
And a song on our mouths
We have to hide our pleasures in a closet.
Canaries are being roasted on fire
Made of lilies and lilacs
This is the strangest of times, my dear!
The victorious drunkard Devil
Is celebrating our mourning
We have to hide God in a closet.
From death... (1962)
I have never dreaded death
Though its hands has always been
More fragile than banality;
But I dread to die in a land
Where the wages of a grave digger
Is more than the price of human freedom.
Searching, finding and then
Choosing with freedom:
Turning the essence of oneself
Into a castle.
If it had any more value than all this
I would never had dreaded death.