Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Poet’s (Very) Public Passion

A Review of The Poet’s Daughter, by Parvaneh Bahar with Joan Aghevli (Larson Publications, 2011,

This thought-provoking book, subtitled, “Malek O’Shoara of Iran and the Immortal Song of Freedom,” tells the story of Iran’s great political activist and foremost poet of the twentieth century, Malek O’Shoara Bahar, through the eyes and experiences of his daughter. In a time when all the world is focused on the future of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran and the Arab Spring continues to change the course of history in the Middle East, Bahar’s tribute to her father (which doubles as a personal memoir) recalls to the reader not only the circumstances that created the current situation in Iran; it also demonstrates the great power of poetry to help foment change in political activism.

Not unlike Pablo Neruda who said to the Chilean forces sent for him by Pinochet: “Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry” or Federico Garcia Lorca in Spain, Malek O’Shoara Bahar was not only a gifted poet, but a passionate activist and scholar who spent time in prison and exile for his beliefs about democracy and self-government. Parts of his poems, which are now used as songs for the Arab Spring, are strategically placed throughout the book, and although their translations into English render them somewhat less rich than they might be in their native language, one still feels the depth of belief, the commitment to social justice, and the artistic philosophy they contain.

From the time he was 18, when he sent his first poem to a ruler of Iran (which garnered him the title “Prince of Poets” and a small stipend from the shah) to the time of his death in 1951 from tuberculosis, Bahar was not afraid to speak out against tyranny and actively compose a vision for the Iran he wished to see. He was a co-founder of Iran’s Democratic Party and publisher of several subversive newspapers—all at a time (the early twentieth century) when Britain and Russia were exploiting Iran’s wealth and its rulers were selling the soul of their country to the highest bidders. Bahar’s experiences at this time, in and out of favor depending on the diplomatic breeze, can only be likened to a candle in the wind. His resolve—his constancy—during this time of “The Great Game” (as coined by Kipling) shows a courage most often attributed to men like Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

His periods in prison over the course of decades ultimately cost him his life due to the poor conditions ruining his health, and there were times where he was nearly killed outright. (In one instance the assassin killed the wrong man.) It is sometimes hard to understand how a father and husband could put his family in such peril—subjected to the authorities busting down the door in the middle of the night and dragging him off—but the great names come to mind again—Gandhi, King, Mandela—and it becomes clear their was nothing else he could do. It was his destiny, and a path his family willingly walked along with him.

The early chapters of the book recount, amid so much turmoil, a house and home-life idyllic in their simplicity and deification of such pillars as nature and family. Although they had very little money, the Bahars had an exquisite garden and one of the most extensive libraries in all of Iran (both of which were lost when the family was once again exiled). The author writes of a close-knit family where both father and mother were respected by their children and one another. Her descriptions of the foods they grew and ate speak to a life lived close to Nature and Spirit and based in a deep and abiding love.

That love, both long-lasting and not, is a central theme of the book, which recounts in detail not only the courtship of her parents, but Bahar’s two failed marriages. She says on page 56, “I always hoped that I would find a man who combined the qualities of my father and Mehrdad [her brother], but I never found one who came close.”

Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to compete with the deep well of passion and love Malek exhibited to all those he met. In one instance, like the Bishop of Hugo’s Les Miserables, he gives money [instead of candlesticks] to a thief who had stolen rugs and other valuables from their home just days before.

Within a few years of her father’s death, her second husband’s work with the IMF and World Bank brought the author to America, where, due to her husband’s position in Washington, Bahar navigated high-class social and political circles and met more than one president and/or first lady. It is at this point that the book shifts its focus to the domestic and social struggles the author faced as she sought an education and, ultimately, an escape from her controlling and philandering husband and her heartbreak at learning that America’s treatment of minorities—and women—was in many ways worse than the oppression she had witnessed in Iran. This last third of the book details her triumph in learning English, assimilating into American society while remaining true to her cultural roots, and her obtainment of both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Through it all, her father’s words and wisdom give her strength as she participates in the civil rights and women’s movements.

The Epilogue brings the journey full circle, as Bahar recalls the events of the 1979 Iranian revolution (well-known to Americans because of the simultaneous hostage crisis) and her subsequent trips to her home country.

For reasons she makes clear, she has not gone back since Ahmadinejad was elected president.

The book has a carefully selected section of black and white photographs that are helpful in getting to know even better this courageous and important family, both to the history of Iran and to social justice activism around the world.

The Poet’s Daughter helps to bring to light a man whose name should be uttered in America in the same breath with those three pillars of the human struggle for equality mentioned twice in this review.

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