Thursday, September 30, 2004

You think it can't happen here?

A vital addendum to my last post, via roman candles and carefully selected garbage: there is a proposed piece of legislation, HR10, that will legalize what is being phrased (in a typically insulting euphemism) as "extraordinary rendition." What this means is that "suspects" can be deported to countries that use torture as a means of interrogation. Check out the links above for more information about the bill and what you can do.

Better to be burned by tyranny, than to live with tyranny

While working on a book about poets and artists working under the pressures of censorship in totalitarian regimes, risking imprisonment and torture for their art, I came across a few articles of, I hope, interest. Mainly concerning Sirjani and the Declaration of 134 Iranian Writers:

If he were alive: Interview with Ali Akbar Saeedi Sirjani's daughter:

"When I think that he spent the last days and months of his life in captivity and under torture and that they changed his words and his writings, it makes me sick to my stomach. I tremble at the thought of it. But I remember his famous verse, beh yek baareh jaan dar setam soukhtan maraa behtar az baa setam saakhtan. (Better to be burned by tyranny, than to live with tyranny.)"

Emblematic, I believe, of what it is to live as a true poet in these times. But when the tyrants are concealed, where do you stand? I ask this not to take anything away from the horror and oppression experienced by Sirjani; rather to simply remark that tyranny has many faces.


"It is our firm belief, nay, a conviction which constitutes one of the basic values of a free society to which we are wedded under our Constitution, that there must be freedom not only for the thought that we cherish, but also for the thought that we hate."

I love that adverb "nay," how it hammers down the strident conviction in that beautiful sentence.

Exiled Iranian poet finds sanctuary in Ithaca: Reza Baraheni:

"Sometimes they raped the men. Sometimes they actually tortured them to death. The torture chambers were one of the most horrible places you could possibly see," he said.

But he credits these imprisonments with focusing his writing. “There isn’t a single significant writer in Iran who has not gone to prison and has not been tortured and has not interrogated himself or herself,” he said. Baraheni added that that self-interrogation helped him to write honestly and openly."

Baraheni was a founding member of a group formed to promote freedom of literary expression and the establishment of a writers' union in Iran. He played and was vital in the “Declaration of 134 Iranian Writers,” written in 1994, which called for the end of literary censorship in Iran.

Baraheni translated it into English and smuggled it out to the West.

According to a 1999 Toronto Star article, the response from the Iranian government was swift. Ali-Akbar Saidi Sirjani, a classics scholar and critic of the clerics, was found dead. So was Ahmad Miralaie, translator of Octavio Paz.

I try to imagine what it must be like to live under a government where, first, such a Declaration must be written and, second, smuggled out of the country.

Declaration of 134 Iranian Writers:

Our unity with the aim of creating a professional writers’ association in Iran is the precondition for our independence as individuals. All writers must enjoy the freedom of conscience to create their own work, criticise and analyse the work of other authors, and to express their experience and beliefs. Since people are responsible for their own political beliefs and social actions, the writers’ general agreement in dealing with the common problems of all men and women of letters does not mean that individual members shall be held responsible for other members’ individual deeds and actions.


The declaration was issued in reaction to massive attacks from the Islamic Republic's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i and conservatives-controlled mass media, which repeated Khomeini's sinister declaration of "We shall break the pens".

The assassination of the imprisoned author and historian Sa’idi Sirjani in the same year proved this to be no an idle threat. Mr. Sa’idi Sirjani allegedly died from a heart attack while in a "safe house". The same diagnosis was made for Ahmad Mir Ala’i, a distinguished translator, whose body was found in the streets of Esfahan in 1995.

The authors Gholam Hossein Sa’edi and Ghaffar Hosseini died under comparable mysterious circumstances in 1996.

Publishers were neither spared: Ebrahim Zaalzaadeh, journalist and Editor of Ebtekar publishing, was the next victim on that year.

"We shall break the pens." Goddamn, how that raises the rage within.

A storyteller and his times: `Ali-Akbar Sa`idi-Sirjani of Iran:

"As for my banned books, I really fail to see where in them there is an assault on Islam, or on the basis for an Islamic government. I am by nature averse to hypocrisy, falsehood, discrimination, and injustice, and this aversion shows through my writing. If, God forbid, such vices have penetrated into the organs of the government, they could be remedied when they get an siring. The main problem is that in the present government, criticism of any office-holder is viewed as "questioning the regime" and undermining the foundation of Islam. This then becomes a pretext for suppression, strangulation, and the outcome that we are all witnessing. I deeply believe in all that I have put in my books, now banned, and the paper turned to pulp. And I would be willing to answer for them in any court of law. If my writings are against Islam or a truly Islamic government, why do the authorities behave in such an unethical manner in my case? Doesn' t the country have laws and courts?"

There is a parable in the opening pages of "In the Tattered Sleeve" which tells of a man dispossessed of his wealth and belongings by a powerful local dignitary, once again in the author's hometown of Sirjan. The destitute man appears at the local bazaar every day to recount the injustices he has been made to suffer. Thanks to the influence of his oppressor, he is soon arrested and publicly flogged for falsely discrediting a local luminary. Gholam-'Ali, determined to tell the story of the injustice done to him at the marketplace, next incorporates his story in a song-and-dance performance much like those of village madmen. When the police attempt to silence him again, local shopkeepers and peddlers intercede, stating that the man may be insane and that, after all, he is only performing a comical act.

The Death of a photojournalist: A Spark for the Democratic Movement

When in April 1995, Saiid Emami, the deputy of the Ministry of Information of the Islamic Republic sat in the meeting of the executives in Hamedan Province and with an air of pride and vanity described how he killed Saiidi Sirjani the dissident writer in prison, he was so sure of their power in hushing the opposition that he did not really care that his speech had been recorded. In the same meeting he proudly confessed to his close ties with the secret services of the European countries and assured the audience that the opposition outside the country will be killed too. At that time the cause of the death of Saiidi Sirjani was announced as heart attack, the same cause announced for the death of many other political activists and intellectuals killed in prisons and nobody inside the country could dare to doubt the verity of these announcements. The Islamic Republic did not allow the inspectors of UN and of other organizations to visit Iran and called them US servants and their annual reports received only a few cold lines from the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic.

Four months after Saiid Emami's speech, the Ministry of Information moved to enact the plot of murdering 21 Iranian intellectual writers intending to travel to Armenia; it only failed because the tyre of the bus got stuck to a large stone! I was in that bus and we all were taken to a prison in Aastaara - a border city in the north of Iran- where one of the deputies of Saiid Emami threatened us that if any news of this story got around, they would do to us what they did to Saiidi Sirjani.

Borges wrote: "Censorship is the mother of metaphor."

So, finally, from the Borges story, The Man on the Threshold:

"It is well known that there is no generation that does not include in it four upright men who are the secret pillars of the world and who justify it before the Lord: one of these men would have made the perfect judge. But where are they to be found if they themselves wander the world lost and nameless, and do not know each other when they meet, and are unaware of the high destiny that is theirs? Someone then reasoned that if fate forbade us wise men we should seek out the witless. This opinion prevailed. Students of the Koran, doctors of law, Sikhs who bear the name of lions and who worship one God, Hindus who worship a multitude of gods, Mahavira monks who teach that the shape of the universe is that of a man with his legs spread apart, worshippers of fire, and black Jews made up the court, but the final ruling was entrusted to a madman."

Here he was interrupted by people who were leaving the ceremony.

"To a madman," he repeated, "so that God's wisdom might speak through his mouth and shame human pride. His name has been forgotten, or was never known, but he went naked through the streets, or was clothed in rags, counting his fingers with a thumb and mocking at the trees."

One final comment: There is nothing in-print in English, that I could find, by Sirjani. I plan to check the University libraries and will post anything that I might find. If only to offer slight counter to the sorrow in Sirjani's statement: I deeply believe in all that I have put in my books, now banned, and the paper turned to pulp.

Friday, September 03, 2004

James Wolcott

The only reason to buy Vanity Fair is for the James Wolcott articles. Now he has a blog: I love Wolcott's style. Check out this beautiful bit on Zell Miller:

"The blue eyes of wrath. The gnarled hands gripping the air as if clutching a liberal in a lethal chokehold.

Zell Miller did not disappoint millions of disenfranchised Americans with Confederate flags decorating their basements when he delivered his rousing speech to the Republican National Convention last night.

His inner Bunsen burner was still ablaze when he hit the cable news shows afterwards to unlease additional Zellfire. There he met resistance. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer, in an apparent research mixup, asked actual reportorial questions regarding Miller's contradictory statements over the years regarding Kerry etc, and the old boy began babbling like Lionel Barrymore. Worse was to come on Hardball, where Miller had a complete cheddar cheese meltdown."