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Prophet of light
Remembering Ahmad Shamlou

By Esmail Nooriala
July 24, 2000
The Iranian

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 undiscovered treasure.

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 and aspiration.

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Esmail Nooriala

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