Bread, pen, power


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 means “bread”.

“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 they hide/cover”.

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. 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 dynamics.

” 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 else.

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 these days?

– 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”

– 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 know?

-Listen! Books and magazines have to be sold. They need to attract readers–customers, otherwise people will just prefer to watch TV.

– Well, they do the right thing. Literature is not Tivoli gardens, my dear.

– 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 had.

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 me;

– 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, my dear!

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 traffic light.

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 my shoulders.

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 Centre”.

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 and junkie.

The next evening, when we finished our delicious dinner in another exotic restaurant and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves, I told Janette:

– 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 to ….

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 evil intent.

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”!

April 1998

Ali Ohadi is a blogger in Denmark. Visit his many blogs:

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