Guest post: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh on Iran, Michael Jackson, and his father

By far the most compelling moment
for me during the Michael Jackson memorial service, of which I watched every minute, was when Reverend Al Sharpton, addressing Michael’s three little children directly, declared for all the world to hear, “Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy.” This, of course, despite all evidence to the contrary. The sustained ovation that followed, however, suggested he was not alone in his judgment.

Frankly, I was appalled. Had I been at the Staples Center I can assure you I would have remained seated. Such an egregious statement by Sharpton, so willfully dismissive of reality, is no doubt a measure of how easy it is for people to succumb to blindness. In the case of the thousands applauding it is collective blindness. I could well argue that this is the necessary first step towards the wholesale rewriting of history. Or perhaps it’s the first step after. Either way, it’s a cause for concern.

But sitting on my couch in New York City, I was also desirous of Sharpton’s pronouncement, and his avuncular concern for those three children in the front row. I could have certainly benefited from similar words when I was a child. (I probably could still benefit.) My father was someone who, like Michael Jackson, was always on the precipice of being considered strange. He was a communist for one thing. He was also Iranian. Moreover, he left my mother and me when I was a baby. So in some ways he managed to be the complete embodiment of the concept of strange: unusual, unfamiliar, foreign.

Since he was my father, though, I chose to believe that he was normal. Or actually beyond normal, i.e., extraordinary. This was not easy for me to do. Especially growing up in Pittsburgh where everything tends toward homogeneity. For obvious reasons I fell into the habit as a child of equating my father with Iran. In fact, the two were interchangeable. This might have proven beneficial for me if my father had been from some other country like, say, Peru or Iceland, or for that matter any other country in the world—with the possible exception of Russia. But since there has been almost nothing but abhorrence towards Iran for the last three decades, with much of that abhorrence informed by xenophobia (see the Iran hostage crisis), I have lived a somewhat antagonized existence where any criticism of Iran has always been perceived as criticism of my father.

This is far from rational, of course. After all, even comments about Ayatollah Khomeini, who imprisoned my father in 1982, have made me bristle. As do comments about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, more often than not, appears to be saying something wincingly absurd, like there are no homosexuals living in Iran. Despite disagreeing, I feel an obligation to defend him. Which brings me to the recent protests in Iran over the disputed election and how most friends of mine, understandably, thought that I would be enthusiastic. I was enthusiastic for the first day or two. But then American condemnation began to overwhelm all else. And so did the cartoons of Iranian officials with bulbous noses and bushy eyebrows behaving either like sadists or idiots. All of it so simplistic and sanctimonious, and all of it coming to a head for me when Obama issued his delayed but celebrated statement in which he quoted Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I spent days fuming about how it was an uninformed analogy at best, considering that Dr. King was fighting for civil rights around the same time the United States was overthrowing the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. In short, I’ve wanted to run through the streets for the last month screaming, “Don’t say anything bad about the clerics! Don’t say anything bad about Iran!” (Herewith an example of my own wish for blindness.)

Just a few days ago, with news of both the election and Michael Jackson thankfully beginning to fade away, I happened to be sitting with a group friends at a restaurant in the West Village. Midway through our meal “Billie Jean” came on the stereo and all of us immediately took up the subject of Michael Jackson once again, reminiscing fondly about Off the Wall and Thriller and how we had all tried and failed at moonwalking… There were six of us at the table on that Saturday afternoon, one of whom was black, and at some point in the conversation I remarked on how Jackson’s life should ultimately be regarded as an obvious and unmitigated tragedy. “Look at his face,” I said, “that tells the story.” Yes, yes, yes, everyone agreed, look at his face!

Everyone, that is, except for the lone black woman sitting with us.

“Michael,” she spoke up, “was a man who knew who he was.”

Knew who he was?” someone said in disbelief. “He had no idea who he was.”

I could see my black friend’s mouth tense, her posture go rigid. Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy! How could she ever begin to explain to us what was unexplainable?

So I did for her what I’ve always wanted done for me: I changed the subject.

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is the author, most recently, of the critically acclaimed memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free, which Dwight Garner in The New York Times called “exacting and finely made… [written] with extraordinary power and restraint.” Other stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Open City, and elsewhere. Being Saïd, an excerpt from his play Autobiography of a Terrorist, appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.


Maziar Bahari and the situation in Iran; plus, Tariq Ramadan news

Earlier this month, PEN American Center and PEN Canada sent an open letter signed by over 100 of the world’s most prominent writers -- among them Wole Soyinka, Margaret Atwood, Orhan Pamuk, Don DeLillo, Ma Jian, Umberto Eco, and Nadine Gordimer -- calling for the release of Canadian-Iranian journalist and playwright Maziar Bahari, who has been held incommunicado in Tehran since June 21, 2009.

The letter expresses concern that Bahari’s detention reflects a wider crackdown on freedom of expression in Iran. “His continued detention casts serious doubt on Iran’s commitment to a free exchange of information and ideas and to international guarantees of freedom of the press,” the letter reads. “We urge you to release Mr. Bahari, and all others detained in connection with their post-election reporting in Iran, immediately and without condition.”

PEN has now compiled a resource page devoted to the goings-on in Iran; it includes, among many other things, the video below of the July 18 conversation featuring Shaul Bakhash, Roger Cohen, Haleh Esfandiari, and Karim Sadjadpour:

You should also check out, if you haven’t already, the online translation slam devoted to a political slogan which has been taken up by protesters in response to an insult levied at them by president Ahmadinejad -- a slogan that is based in part on a poem by Rumi.

In happier news, a United States appeals court reversed an earlier decision excluding the Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan from the United States. PEN is hopeful that the Obama administration will now act quickly to issue Ramadan a visa and permit him to visit the United States. In 2004, government officials cited a provision of the Patriot Act that bars entry to those who “endorse or espouse terrorism” as the reason for the cancelling Ramadan's visa. PEN and the ACLU went to court to challenge the cancellation, believing that Ramadan, an outspoken critic of U.S. policies in the Middle East, was being denied entry to the United States under post-9/11 policies that amounted to ideological exclusion.


Our contributors elsewhere + other links

Words Without Borders has a new anthology coming soon: The Wall in My Head features “fiction, essays, images, and original documents” that aim “to pick up where most popular accounts of the Cold War end, and trace the path of the revolutionary spirit of 1989 from its origins to the present day.”

Among the many intriguing pieces in the book is an essay by Judith Sollosy that began as a guest post for this very blog: “Regardless of the Cost,” on Péter Esterházy’s Revised Edition. (You can see the table of contents at Three Percent, the blog for Open Letter, which is publishing the book.)

You can read Judith’s piece here, and read all our guest posts—including Wayne Koestenbaum on Elizabeth Hardwick, Amy Bloom on Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen, and more—here.

James Yeh, whose story “Some Kind of Change” appears in PEN America 10, has just had a one-line short story illustrated by Arthur Jones for his Post-It Notes Stories Project. James also recently published a very funny interview with Gary Shteyngart on the subject of meat, and another interview, in the new online publication The Faster Times, with John Wray, on the topic of writing on the subway.

Scott Esposito finds something Barack Obama and Roberto Bolaño have in common: each has had his books banned from an American prison.

PEN’s latest online translation slam features a political slogan that has been taken up by Iranian protesters in response to an insult levied at them by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The “structure of the slogan recalls a ghazal included in the collection Divaan-eh Shams by Rumi, the classic 13th century Persian poet” which suggests “the extent to which poetry plays a role in the Iranian upbringing and consciousness.” Ahmadinejad referred to them as khas-o-khaashaak, meaning dirt and dust, scraps and bits. Here’s Niloufar Talebi’s version of the reply:
Youre just riffraff, lower than dirt,
I'm the aching lover, blazing and lit.
You’re the black halo, oppressive and blind,
Im the brave hero and this land is mine!
Lastly, a reminder: tonight at 7 pm Shaul Bakhash, Roger Cohen, Haleh Esfandiari, and Karim Sadjadpour will discuss Iran at the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center.


Guest post: Tomasz Rozycki on “Scorched Maps”

Tomasz Rozycki’s poem “Scorched Maps,” reprinted below, appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself. Both the poem and this guest post were translated by Mira Rosenthal, who received a grant from the PEN Translation Fund to translate Rozycki’s Colonies, a book of seventy-seven sonnets.

Scorched Maps

I took a trip to Ukraine. It was June.
I waded in the fields, all full of dust
and pollen in the air. I searched, but those
I loved had disappeared below the ground,

deeper than decades of ants. I asked
about them everywhere, but grass and leaves
have been growing, bees swarming. So I lay down,
face to the ground, and said this incantation—

you can come out, it’s over. And the ground,
and moles and earthworms in it, shifted, shook,
kingdoms of ants came crawling, bees began
to fly from everywhere. I said come out,

I spoke directly to the ground and felt
the field grow vast and wild around my head.

The poem “Scorched Maps” came out of a trip I took to Ukraine in 2004, when I was invited to a literary festival in Lwów. I took the opportunity to visit the places associated with the history of my family, who were resettled from that area after the Second World War because of the agreement between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, who won the war. At that time the borders of Poland were shifted west, and the Poles who lived in the area that was lost to the Soviet Union were transported by freight train west to Pomerania and Silesia, where I live today. These changes affected several million people, who had to abandon their homes, neighbors, traditions, memories, and God knows what else—everything that had happened on that ground for centuries. The Second World War in particular afflicted those living in this area, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Armenians—everyone who had helped form the unusual mosaic of cultures and languages there over the centuries. They experienced the terror of Soviet occupation—mass executions and the transportation of millions of victims to the Gulag and forced labor camps deep within Russia—which met with the terror of the Nazis as the Germans, in a systematic way during the extermination of the area’s population, prepared their future “living space.” Inconceivably, at the same time a brutal domestic war continued between Ukrainian nationals, who cooperated with Hitler during the period, and the Polish resistance—a war in which neighbors murdered neighbors and the number of victims and the atrocity of what happened calls to mind ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. My family was one of those that experienced all of the terror and mourned each of the victims.

It is impossible for me to write about this poem without such a lengthy introduction, which is probably unnecessary in the end and obscures more than it illuminates. I went to Ukraine with all of this on my mind in an attempt to free myself from this terrible history. I went to the spot where my grandmother’s house stood before the war. My ninety-year-old grandmother—when she found out I would be going there for the first time so many years after the nightmare of the war—wanted me to tell her if there was any sign of her house left, even though she didn’t have much illusion that there would be. Yet she couldn’t help but hope that there would still be a brick shrine with the figure of Our Lady standing in front of the house, some kind of specific recognizable sign of the house and her entire life there, Our Lady who—as my grandmother believed—saved her and her children’s lives many times.

Despite the fact that I had a small map drawn according to my grandmother’s memory, I wasn’t able to find the house or the shrine. Out of everyone living there, I couldn’t find anyone who remembered her or anyone whatsoever from the neighbors she had mentioned, regardless of whether I used a Polish, Ukrainian, or Jewish surname. So I wandered around the forest, around the meadows and fields. It was already getting dark, and I felt more and more desperate and awful. I even thought that I must have gotten the spot mixed up, that it was all a big misunderstanding. And just when I had to leave for my return train to Lwów, I found someone who helped me, who showed me the way. There wasn’t a house, or a shrine, not even a tree remained in the garden—someone had rubbed out all the signs. But I found one of my grandmother’s neighbors, an old woman who remembered how they used to play together when they were young. She showed me the one thing that remained of the house—a brick cellar, half-buried, next to a dirt road that runs today over the spot where the house once stood. It was the only reminder of all the people whose tracks I was searching for.

When I returned, I found out that my friend, Jacques Burko, the translator of my poetry into French, carried out a similar journey a month later in search of traces of his Jewish family. I then wrote this poem and dedicated it to him.

Tomasz Rozycki has published six books of poetry, including Colonies, The Forgotten Keys, and the book-length poem Twelve Stations, winner of the Koscielski Prize. He has been nominated twice for the Nike Prize, Poland’s most important literary award. He lives in his hometown, Opole, with his wife and two children.

Mira Rosenthal has received NEA and Fulbright grants and held fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and elsewhere. Her poetry has appeared in
Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, Slate, Notre Dame Review, and other journals. She is also the translator of Tomasz Rozycki's The Forgotten Keys.


Iran reading this Saturday + links

This Saturday, July 11, from 2 to 5 pm, the Bowery Poetry Club will host a free event entitled “Literatures of Resistance: An Afternoon in Solidarity with the Iranian People.” Among the readers are PEN Award-winner Dalia Sofer and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, whose writing appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.

The following Wednesday, as previously mentioned, PEN is co-sponsoring a forum on Iran with The New York Review of Books and the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center.

The translators’ roundtable over at The Observer Translation Project has been fairly widely noted; also worth reading there is the “Letter from Chişinău,” by Moldovan journalist Leo Butnaru, about the relationship between literature and politics -- and, more specifically, the current political situation in Moldova.

And speaking of writers and politics: Liu Xiaobo was formally arrested on June 23 and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” PEN considers this arrest “transparently abusive” and “a deeply disappointing and anachronistic denial of Liu’s right to freedom of expression under Chinese and international law.” Liu Xiaobo is one of the authors of Charter 08, calling for democratic reform in China; you can sign a petition to free him here.

And lastly, a plea for the theremin, the musical instrument that inspired Petr Zelenka’s play, which itself is about -- among other things -- the arts under communism. Part of the play appeared in PEN America 8: Making Histories, and was read, on one occasion, by Edward Albee and Sarah Ruhl.