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My Woman’s Dreams are Punctured - A review of Fatemeh Ekhtesari's latest poetry collection "Vi overlever ikke"

The Danish poet and translator Shadi Angelina Bazeghi has reviewed the Iranian poet and activist Fatemeh Ekhtesari's latest bilingual collection of poems "Vi overlever icke" (We do not survive), translated into Norwegian by Nina Zandjani. Ekhtesari is a poet, writer and filmmaker. She is a trained midwife and is currently an art student.

Ekhtesari has published nine books, including several collections of poems. In 2015, Fatemeh Ekhtesari was sentenced to 99 lashes and 11.5 years in prison for violating the Islamic regime, immorality and blasphemy for her poems. In 2016, she managed to escape out of the country. In 2017, she came to Norway as an ICORN writer and has continued to live in the country.

Through the internet and social media, she continues to be an important voice for the people of Iran.

Credits Review: Shadi Angelina Bazeghi Translation to English: Christina Cullhed Photograph: Hanne-Kjersti S. Iversen May 12 2021

One early frostbitten morning I am flying with the birds, trying to evade the thought of eleven years in prison. The winter sun is as cold as my alter ego, Mother of the cold deep water who naively took on the task to write a review of Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s selected poems in a Norwegian translation. But now, on second thoughts, I am forced to ask myself: who am I to review Ekhtesari’s poems? She has written more books than I have, and she has 124 000 followers on social media. I haven’t even taken part in the yearly Gothenburg Poetry Festival, where Ekhtesari collaborated in 2013.

To be honest, while writing, it pleases me that I didn’t take part. I don’t know what happened during the festival but a few months later, in Iran, Ekhtesari was arrested and sentenced to 99 lashes and eleven years of imprisonment. What could possibly have happened? What was talked about? It is silly to ask these questions when I don’t want to know the answers. And it is not in the way of being after-wise, better-knowing, or to enhance myself in issues I know nothing of, when I underscore the obvious: the organizer ought clearly to have taken security precautions while engaging young poets from other countries, whose laws, mores, and rules the poets are submitted to even when abroad. It is self-evident that one needs to create a room that is poetically rather than ideologically informed. The ideological revolt must be one’s own, exclusively one’s own.

Misunderstand me correctly—I want to focus on Ekhtesari’s poetry. I do not want the poems to be overshadowed, but I cannot ignore or deny facts: the poems are now available in Norwegian in Nina Zandjani’s translation, since Ekhtesari due to circumstances has been forced to leave Iran and is now in Lillehammer as an ICORN writer.

I am thinking. I am thinking. I am thinking about my home country and about exile. A home country that I love. Love. Love to the point of madness. About a poetry tradition that we both belong to and both are severed from—albeit for different reasons. I am thinking. I am thinking. I am thinking about the lines that run from Forough to Fatemeh to Shadi. What kinds of connections have suddenly arisen that I can discern on the horizon? What do they look like in their clear colours and forms? How exactly do they tie us together and how do they tear us apart? As usual I have twenty questions too many. I am also tired like a year of pandemics and, on the banal side, I am tired of being so damned tired. The cold is exhausting; it seems to be the coldest winter to memory and the heavy beats of its wings keep me just hanging, wandering in the air. So, let me once more underline the obvious: this is not a traditional review.

- Oh, Tiger-Seizer! What has made thee decrepit like an old fox?[1]

It must have been life honey. Life in exile. Life in my home country. In the war. In my memories. In the margins. In a longing for the sun. In poverty. Anyway, Fatemeh Ekhtesari was born in 1986 in Iran. She is a trained midwife and has published three collections of poetry, three short story collections, and a novel. Her debut was the poetry collection Yek bahse feministi ghabl az pokkhtane sibzaminiha, 2010 (A feminist discussion while the potatoes boil). The Norwegian collection, Vi overlever icke (We will not survive), consists of thirty selected and numbered poems from different times. The poems are about oppression and torture, about living in exile, about abandoning and being abandoned. About a woman’s revolt and battle for the right to be herself. A woman who moves through a violent world and tries to find an exit, a road that leads her away from everything that restricts her life, her existence; this road though—in her own words in poem number 17 - is “shut like her mouth.” In another poem she abandons the “airport directed towards nothing.” Since history is blind” and “the night is more tired than the sleep in her eyes.”

It is hard to not be deeply moved by this woman’s gaze: her critical and sad gaze on the world and on life, by the way she moves, from night to night, grief to grief, prison cell to isolation cell: from “the cell’s metal door” to “the cold wall” to “the sleepless blanket,” and from torture to pregnancy and a loss of everything: “I did not take the alley with me / left the house standing at the end of the road / an empty rucksack / was all I carried to the end of the road.”

To not be able to read one poetry collection after another has not happened often in my life. This time the reason may be that the poems are the heaviest I have ever read by such a young poet. Here is grief and pain that can hardly be withstood or encompassed but that is born elegantly by the poems and at times with such elevated calm as if it were nothing. This is still somewhat of a feat for a poet, and it demands its woman. However, it is as if this woman emerges more distinct in Zandjani’s translation, where she has disregarded the rhyme scheme and metre of the poem. The poems can be read in tandem in Persian and Norwegian, and according to the “Afterword” all the poems are written in a postmodern ghazal form.

The ghazal is sprung from Arabic poetry and can be dated to 700 A.D. It seriously and permanently made its entrance app 500 years later. A ghazal can be likened to a sonnet and consists usually of five to fifteen couplets with the same rhyme scheme and metre. The rhyme scheme is aa, ba, ca, da, etc, which is precisely the pattern used by Ekhtesari in poems 11 and 12. She also makes use of another classic pattern to live up to the rules of the scheme: the repetition of a verb in every second stanza throughout the poem. In Persian it is usually possible to place the verb last in the sentence, even though it may demand some wrenched word order now and again. It is possible to make the lines rhyme by using different verbs since they often contain internal rhymes, for example: miravad (they leave), midavad (they run), milarzad (they shiver), miresad (they reach/arrive), mikeshad (they draw). Classic poets such as Rumi (1207-1276), Saadi (1210-1291), and Hafez (1315-1390) have developed and established the ghazal form in Persian poetry. The postmodern ghazal though diverges in form by being less stringent, and often consists of combinations of various patterns and rhyme schemes. And while the heavy, classic, male poets wrote about spiritual matters, Sufism, platonic love, and the imagined beloved, the new form instead embraces life and the physical world. In the 1950s several poets, among them Forough Farrokhzad, started experimenting with these forms, paving the road for what today is called the postmodern ghazal.

In her poems Ekhtesari sometimes alludes to Forough’s poetry. And notably, she refers to poems from Forough’s latest collections, which unlike the four first collections are not written according to classic rules and where Forough insists on breaching the conventions and all forms of traditionally formed poetry. Along with Forough, I am forced to insist that in order to convey free and independent thought, poetry should be free. Misconstrue me correctly; I cannot imagine a life without Hafez or Rumi, and Hafez’ 638-page ghazal collection is literally the only poetry collection that I always have on my desk. Recently I asked Hafez for advice concerning a crush in silent-mode, and he answered me in ghazal 311: “Naaleye aasheghan khosh ast, benaal!”[2] _ a line that in post-post-modern Danish might be translated into English as: “All this love sorrow is so touching, sob!” Thank you but no thank you, I thought. As if I were his regular bitch. But on the other hand: I’m a believer and I believe in the autonomy of poetry. The postmodern ghazal is neither an esoteric bird nor a worldly fish. It has been part of Persian poetry for over seventy years—without really lifting, without even leading to much world-class poetry. During this same period, for example, the art of film has developed in massive diverse directions, while generation after generation of poets continue, and continue, to repeat the same rhyme schemes. It is circular, and I and my alter ego are not on this train. Because it means the past is set before the present and it reeks of literary history’s meta-aesthetics in place of the individual poets own aesthetic and own thought patterns.

Having said this, I am still no idiot. I can of course see that Ekhtesari has her own style. That the poems work to implement new stylistic devices, and that each poem is consciously formed, which is more than can be said about parts of contemporary poetry in the Nordic countries, where there is no emphasis on form or where form is often copied from other writers (unknown in the Nordic context). Nevertheless, Ekhtesari’s poems and their characteristics appear at their strongest when they are free from poetic conventions, that is, when meaning is not generated in any traditional way in the use of conventional images, such as night, darkness, (wet) eyes, embraces, and crying—but instead generate new images and connections by for example switching between an individual plane and a more commonplace or structural one:

“Someone created oppression and options for you, prison bars out of your ribs / And deleted the end line from this page … The loser continued in circles around themselves!”[3]

Or, as in the last poem in the collection where the subject becomes a “factory” that “produces nightmares / with sleeping pills and anaesthetics”:

I am a living production device

With a hole in my shirt pocket all through life

And a drip from the roof when it rains at night

At night I am a hole in the woman’s dreams

We are hoping it will be morning

There are holes in the small sun of my homeland

Several of the poems renegotiate conditions of work and, on the whole, there is something fable-like about the political poems, since they are so poetically well-wrought. Then there are also some misanthropic love poems, poems of the city, and poems that have glimpses of punk that in style remind one of Michael Strunge:

News is demolition that infects the city’s blood veins

News is shaving knives that cut, and sharp metal

As mentioned, Zandjani has chosen to disregard rhyme schemes and has instead found many fine solutions to constructions that really are hard to reflect. One guiding principle in the art of translating poetry is about choosing what can be left out and what needs and should remain, because it is often impossible to keep everything. The question is therefore whether I would choose and value the poems differently. Yes, without doubt, for better or worse. That is why it is called ‘the translator’s choice.’

And now, to paraphrase Ekhtesari and to quote Forough: now there is nothing more to say, other than to advise you to read the poems, and that we survive because of one another and poetry. We are here to push each other forward—in one way or another and in spite of all. Let us be believers! “Let us believe in the beginning of a cold season.” And in poetic justice

[1] The Bustan or Orchard of Sa’di, translated by Hart Edwards, 1911.

[2] Hafez Shiraz, translated by Ahmad Shamlu from Classic Persian to Persian, Morvarid Publishers, 1994.

[3] Quotes from the poems are here translated into English from the Swedish translation from the Norwegian by Helena Boberg.

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