Bread, pen, power
Noon, va-alghalam va ma yastaroon
March 1, 2005
Most of the books of the Koran start with a letter
from the alphabet , followed by a short vow. The sixty seventh
book starts with: "Noon, va-alghalam va ma yastaroon"!
Which means: "Noon; swear to the pen and what they write". "Noon" is
a letter from the Arabic or Persian alphabet that corresponds to "N" in
the Roman alphabets. But in everyday Persian, "Noon" also
"Ghalam" means "pen", "ma" means "what" and "yastaroon" means "they
write". However, there is also another "yastaroon" with
another "T" which means "they cover" or "they
hide". The difference between these two "yastaroons" in
written Arabic or Persian is very precise with two different emphases
on the "T". There is also clear differences between these
two "T"s in Arabic pronunciation, but when an Iranian
pronounces these two "yastaroon's" with-two-different "T's",
the difference is not audible; "what they write" or "what
The irony is when you read the whole sentence in Persian, it
has two simultaneous meanings: "Bread, swear to the pen and
what they write / hide / cover"!
In the stranglehold of dictatorship, when a writer had no permission
to express her/his ideas and feelings directly, we used to get
help from allegory, symbolism and mysticism. In order to give expression
to an autocratic environment, for example, we used to use symbols
such as "night", "darkness" or "silence",
and so forth. In another words we were actually only "writers" of
part of the language and not the whole breadth of it.
During one of the times I was in prison under the Shah, one of
my co-prisoners was unexpectedly given amnesty because of our New
Year celebrations. Usually one needed to sign a special form saying
among other things that "I regret about my past misdemeanours
and I won't ever do it again".
We all know that repenting is sort of confession.
However, our friend wrote "Happy New Year" instead
of his signature!
Our new year is the 21st. of March, the beginning of the Spring.
There is a tradition that as the old year and the winter are ending,
we should also sweep old enmities, hostilities and hatred out of
our minds and hearts, in order to be rejuvenated -- become a new
person. In another words "Happy New Year" is kind of
celebrating the revolutionary change.
No need to mention here that our friend wasn't set free at all,
but instead received 4-5 months added on to his sentence and was
placed under even worse conditions in the jail.
"Noon, va-alghalam va ma yastaroon"!
One day, there came an official order from the Ministry of Information
to all libraries, book shops, publishers, newspapers and magazine
offices saying that from now on it was forbidden to use such words "night", "cold", "darkness", "silence", "winter", "storm", "shadow", "chain", "autumn", "corral" etc.
The corrals - the enclosures behind which we were hiding then
collapsed and we were standing there naked in front of the nation.
Our dear words were transformed into the Sword of Damocles hanging
with a string of hair above our heads. From now on there was a
policeman behind every word.
It has been told that when Galileo Galilei was forced to say "yes" in
front of holy church, he in some way said "no" by moving
his big toe in a contrary motion. We also, without having any explicit
consensus among us, soon found new concepts to express our opinions.
From then on we used "day" instead of "night", "heat" instead
of "cold", "lightness" instead of "darkness" and "spring" instead
of "winter". We were of course again even more limited
in our language use but more clever and interesting for our readers!
The whole problem of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" was
actually summarised by one character in the story who deviates
for a while and speaking in a delirium says bad things to the prophet
and his companions.You can see how even a mad man is not permitted
to be a bit negative- even in his hallucinations!
Words are like the as yet undiscovered numbers on the balls inside
lottery's bag; an unidentified collection. As soon as you pull
a ball out of the bag and show it up in your hand, one number becomes
identified. An identified ball makes one group of people happy
and the other group unhappy. Sometimes a ball makes only one man
extremely happy and the rest become really frustrated. And like
the balls in lottery bag, the power of the words is also +/- unlimited!
In the world of dictators, words are covered by mysticism and
holiness. The simple word "cloud" beside the simple word
of "home" all of a sudden is translated as a serious
challenge to the power of a dictator, and can transpose the poet
who has composed a single sentence -"my home is cloudy"-
to the edges of death during torture and captivity. But honestly,
what the hell does "my home is cloudy" mean in free democratic
Scandinavia? Here allegory and symbolism have quite other discursive
" Noon, va-alghalam va ma yastaroon"!
When I came to the free world, I was happy that there were no
forbidden words here. There was also democracy in the world of
words. "Winter" was no more powerful than "spring" and "speech" had
the same value as "silence".
New and kind friends encouraged me to speak and write, invited
me here and there, listened to me enthusiastically and printed
my essays in their newspapers and magazines. My hand and pen became
free in a square of the width of free world.
Very soon I got a job, became member of the union, received the
insurance card, joined a pension trust. After a couple of years
I bought a flat of my own, found a girlfriend, bought a car and
nice furniture for our flat when my girlfriend, Janette moved in.
We were eating out a couple of times a month, in various exotic
restaurants of the city, celebrating "our love". We were
planning the whole year for our annual five weeks summer vocation.
I was really very happy, laughing at dictators from the balcony
of the free world.
Every where they wanted me to write / talk about my past, the
world of dictatorship and tyranny and my experiences now - the
cultural and social problems of living in exile and so on.
However, after a couple of years I felt my words and manuscripts
were becoming repetitive. I should start to write about some thing
The thought made me really excited and the following day I set
to work to write about the new world around me, my new neighbours,
the society, the people, their attitudes, culture, policy, etc.
I felt suddenly so alive and joyful.
But it wasn't long before I strangely realised that nobody was
inviting me to meetings anymore. No editor was asking me to contribute
an essay or a short story for his publication.
One evening Janette, my sweet girlfriend told me;
- Honey, don't you think your essays are getting a bit biter
- Well, I said wondering, what I write originates from my experiences!
What do you expect of me, otherwise?
- "Yes, but", one can write about bitterness in a sweet
way. Try to be a little bit "positive"
- Yes, she answered kindly. People in industrial societies are
tired and frustrated enough when they get home. They need literature
to refresh their souls, to restore their mood.
- I'm sorry darling, but literature is not "Tuborg" you
-Listen! Books and magazines have to be sold. They need to attract
readers--customers, otherwise people will just prefer to watch
- Well, they do the right thing. Literature is not Tivoli gardens,
- But books and magazine are in competition with TV and movies.
They need costumers to stay in the market. There is hardly any
customer for literature that is not "positive" and "optimistic".
- Did you say "optimistic"? I was a bit confused.
- Yes darling! your "productions" are very "pessimistic"
- Jesus Christ! You call my stories and essays as "production"?
Do you consider me as a factory?
Janette stared at me like I was just landed from a ship from
the middle ages. She asked me calm but dubiously;
- Don't you "produce" these things?
- But honey, "these things" are not washing powder.
They are literature, I believe. On the other hand, isn't it supposed
that everybody has the right to write, or as you call it "produce" what
ever she/he wants?
Janette began to get bored and impatient.
- Listen! If you have two million, you can write what ever you
want, then print it with your own money and read it to yourself.
But if you want be a writer, and get your thing printed, read by
people, get famous and make money (god I hate this "making" money),
then I think you should come down from your idealistic ivory tower,
open your eyes to what is going on in this world and live on the
real earth, capice?
"Productions", "positive", "optimistic".
She is right. I knew these concepts before but it seemed that they
had different meanings in Janette's terminology. Years will go
before I ever learn this new terminology.
"Noon, va-alghalam va ma yastaroon"!
This first stroke of Janette's, woke me up from a fool's dream.
I was just about to become fond of the gifts of the free world.
And I didn't want to be unemployed, losing the joy of my summer
holidays at Greek or Spanish islands, or be deprived of my pension.
My future was really in danger.
Still, it was not a very big problem to forget 10-15 percent
of the words, but keep my job instead. Very soon I put aside 10-15
percent more of my vocabulary to keep my new flat and lovely furniture,
my car and so on. Those words were nothing comparing to what I
I asked Janette to read through all my "productions" before
giving them to any editor or publisher. I was listened carefully
to her critique and advice about "pessimism" and "negativism".
Little by little I learned things about the consequences of these
concepts. I loved Janette, and also all my friends, my life, my
flat, car and my promising future. Loneliness is really painful.
When Khomeini issued the "Fatwa" on Salman Rushdie,
I "produced" an essay, saying; "For decades democratic
world has paid millions and millions under the table to assassinate
Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Dag. Hammersjöld, Le Mumba, Che Guevara,
etc. etc. The stupidity of Khomeini makes him brave to put the
money openly on the table.
On reading my text Janette became very angry and screamed at
- Are you out of mind? Do you want people think you support Khomeini?
I just laughed;
- Every body knows that I've escaped from Khomeini.
- That's not good enough, she said. I was furious.
- Not good enough?! I left my family, my friends, life, country
and every thing behind, living in exile as a refugee. That is not
good enough to prove that I'm against Khomeini?
- Calm down, she said. They'll simply think you've changed your
mind and that now you support terrorism.
I looked at her speechless for a while.
- Do you think people don't have historical memory? Do they think
I'm a politician changing my mind every second? Exactly this morning,
my name was in the manifesto for "Free Pen" and against
the "Fatwa" in all the newspapers, together with 120
European and American writers.
- But in your essay, you're defending Khomeini against "West"
Damn it! Janette knew very well that I'm allergic against concepts
such as "West", "East", "North", "South", "Third
World" and so on. She knew that I wouldn't go on with the
discussion any more now.
While I was dragging my toothpaste over my toothbrush, I said
allegorically; - I wanted to look at Khomeini in a "positive" way,
That night I dreamed I was standing in front of a court of civilised
world again, where it's jury were Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Reagan, Mr.Köhl,
Mr. Jacques Chirac...And I had to prove that I was Iranian but
not Khomeini. I once more had to defend myself for the sin I didn't
commit. I came out of the court, went to the kitchen and was awake
whole night. Outside It was raining like anything. Janette was
sleeping like a baby. I wished I had a clean conscience. Why on
the earth must I concern myself with justice and injustice? What
is this stupid feeling making me feel responsible for every thing
in this world? Let the whole world go to hell. Let them die from
injustice, let them burn in unfairness, what's this to do with
me? If I don't have Janette, my job, a ceiling over my head....!
God, it's terrible to be alone. Then people will think there is
some thing wrong with me, then they will distance themselves even
more from me and I become more and more isolated every day.
From that day on, I started to behave "politically correct".
I wrote down all possible "safe statements" and tried
to learn them off by heart. I tried to stay in a safety zone behind
these words and sentences. To be "politically correct" is
a very safe trench protecting you and all your properties as a
civilised and trustworthy citizen of the modern world. God, how
beautiful is life when your mouth doesn't get open out of place
and your pen doesn't move out of season.
"Noon, va-alghalam va ma yastaroon"!
In a very cold late winter evening, I was walking home from a
friend's visit. There was hardly anyone in the streets. Before
passing across a street, I saw two people waiting in front of the
There was neither cars nor any police in sight for kilometre
on either side. But those two were standing, gazing at little red
man in the traffic light. I wanted to cross the street several
times but these two and their polite gaze at the little red man
stopped me. I felt the little red man, stern and strict, looking
at me - so satisfied.
I was standing there for ages when the little red man jumped
20-30 centimetres down, turned green and stands on top of the green
light with open legs. The two crossed the street. The little green
man with a light smile on his lips, almost appeared to waive benevolently
to me that it was OK to walk. But before I come back to myself
and move, he jumped up again, turned back to red and stood there
stern and strict as before.
The two were almost lost in the darkness of the footpath on the
other side. I tried to ignore the little red man and cross the
street, but my feet were petrified to the ground. I was angry at
myself but before I completely lost my patience the little man
jumped down on the green light again and with open legs stood and
smiled at me. I hated both myself and him. I felt like Faust, looking
around terrified. The offending Copenhagen winter night made the
terror ten times bigger. I walked back some 50 meters and without
looking back at the red man, crossed the street.
When my mother was really tired of us disturbing her at home,
she used to tell us the Islamic story of two angels who are sitting
on our shoulders. The one on the right shoulder use to write down
our good deeds and the one on the left, notes our bad deeds. My
mother said that in the other world after death, they will put
these two notebooks in a scale. If good deeds exceeds to bad deeds,
one goes to paradise, otherwise direct to the hell. I, in my childhood
fantasy world was quite relaxed about this - really one needed
just a couple of more good deeds in her/his life to be lucky enough
to go to the Paradise. So I nearly always forgot the angels on
I looked at my shoulders. They were both deeply asleep. I nearly
shouted at them; wake up for God's sake, I just crossed the red
light. They jumped up and looked at me confused. The one on my
left shoulder looked around and after a while told me sleepily:
- God damn it. This is the first ever vacation of our lives.
You, trouble maker, let us rest a bit. You don't need us any more,
idiot! There is a cop inside your head now. You're doing just fine.
It was true! Tomorrow they will write under my register number
that I crossed the red light. That's it. I'm a number now; a number
which is the date of my birthday. And they write under the number
everything I do, be it day or night. And I myself take the initiative
to fill out special forms every now and then and send them voluntarily.
I've been programed now to know what is good for me and what is
not. There are no police, no angels in this free world any more.
People are doing very well by themselves.
I found myself in Geneva, 16. century, saw Jean Calvin in front
of me. A Calvin that looked like "The big brother" of
Orwell. Then I found myself in "London Hatchery and Conditioning
I reached the middle of a tall bridge a few minutes away from
our place. Without any hesitation I jumped down in the water.
The day after I saw my picture on the front page of "ExtraBladet",
saying with a big title; "An Iranian writer who came as a
refugee in Denmark and found it impossible to integrate into democratic
society, committed suicide last night. His Danish ex-girlfriend
said she left him 6 months ago because he had become alcoholic
The next evening, when we finished our delicious dinner in another
exotic restaurant and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, I
- You know what honey! I'm really tired of being "positive" and "optimistic".
I had to choose words carefully in my past life, too. But if I
did something wrong, there was an executer to arrest me, jail me
and torture me. I was a victim then but still a writer who could
disgrace his executer with words. Here I'm a victim and my own
executer at the same time. I carry my chain and jail with me. I'm
afraid to die here without any identity.
Janette looked at me kindly and said:
- You know what, honey! you've mixed up freedom and anarchy together.
She was right. The wild part of me always opposed the prepared
ordered and regulated situation. I was really suffering from the
police force that was mustering strength in my head. I asked Janette
to let me be on my own one hour a day, before we go to bed every
evening. She was scared and asked me what for?
I just wanted to send the cop away for a one hour break, and
for one hour a day say whatever I wish and write what ever I want, "produce" without
taking care of day's currency markets and so forth.
Janette looked at me suspiciously:
- You're a free man, "Darling". Every body has right
I begged her to stop repeating this expression.
Finally she accepted my demand with reluctance but actually she
broke her promise, again and again. She entered to my "one
hour solitude" every evening with some excuse. When I protested
one evening, she said:
- This atmosphere belongs to both of us, darling! When I in some
stage feel saying some thing, you have no right to stop me talking.
- But honey, can't you write down your thoughts some where and
talk about it later on? Janette looked reproaching to the man coming
from Middle Ages.
- I'm a talking kind of person, she said. If I wanted to write "things" on
papers, I could be a writer.
How I can describe the situation? There in my previous land,
my body was in chains but my soul was free. Here, my body is free
but my soul ...
Sa'adi our poet of 8 centuries ago has a verse saying:
"My father sold the garden of paradise for an apple
I would not be a son worthy of his father if I don't sell it
for a plum".
Janette left me a few months later. It's been a while since I
became unemployed, living in a rented room in a compatriot's house,
trying hard to not pass over any bridge at late evening. I'm a
perfectly multicultural man, living in democratic world, writing
in dictators' language.
Now I'm also becoming convinced that my brain is not formed and
my body has not matured enough for "Free World".
One day, my counsellor in the "Arbejdsformidling" who's
a very kind and honest man advised me compassionately that I'd
really better drop writing and try to get a day job -- "learn
something more practical" ..".
When the words came to this point, twilight appeared, the king
fell sleep and Sheherzade kept silent for another evening. When
you don' t know how far away death really is, you have to make
up stories and delightful moments. You have to choreograph a merry
dance for the prince of death to draw him far away far from his
What a feeling to greet the sunshine tired and lonely, once the
king and the death have once more fallen into sleep. But as the
day drew to a close and towards evening time again, a terrifying
anxiety grew up in Sheherzade. She struggles to think up another
story as a pathway through one more dark valley of death.
Until the night ends again, the dawn appears and the fear gives
way to one more morning, Sheherzade is paler and older. This is
the price that she pays for guarding the lives of the women of
the city. The soul of the whole world is bound to her lips for
one more night.
The whole world is creating stories to keep Sheherzade's mission
alive. When pens stop writing and tongues stop telling tales, death
is awake at nights and hungry.
"Noon, va-alghalam va ma yastaroon"!
Ali Ohadi is a blogger in Denmark. Visit his many blogs: