by Niloo Sharifi
Esmail Khoi, the celebrated Iranian poet, lives in an apartment in an old Tudor house near London, the kind that creaks its history as you step onto the floorboards of a high-ceilinged hallway. I remember him sitting in a chair opposite a television, in a room with a reddish glow, that homely decadence that you only find when there’s a ‘Persian’ carpet covering every surface (we Iranians, of course, just call them carpets). The room was populated with mementos of people past – photographs and gifts; a portrait of him alongside his friend and mentor, fellow Iranian poet Mehdi Akhavan Sāless, painted by Amir Mohamad Ghasemizade. He spoke with the wisdom and compassion of those seasoned in loss. He had that listening presence which reassures wordlessly.
My father and I were brought there and introduced to him by our friend, Vahid Davar, who knows Khoi well. Davar grew up reading Khoi’s poetry in Shiraz, and was just a child when Khoi was forced to flee Iran nearly thirty years ago. The two are generations apart: Davar is a rising diaspora poet who left Iran just a few years ago, while Khoi has a well-documented, illustrious career with more than 70 published collections. Yet, their lives belong to the same story: they are both poets joined by the same string of events that developed today’s Iran, and have both been uprooted and planted in the same foreign land.
And is it because we are not supposed to speak English, Let alone write it? Shit! I mean, Sorry. (‘Trespassing’, Voice of Exile)
Khoi’s life has been shaped by his refusal to be silenced. He was an active part of a community of poets and artists who organised the famous Dah Shab-e Shehr, (Ten Days of Poetry) a festival in 1977 of poetry readings and speeches in protest against the despotic rule of the Shah. This is now seen as a key moment of a movement that culminated in the overthrowing of the Shah, and his exile from Iran. But the resistance movement itself was fraught with conflict – the Marxists, the liberals, and the Shi’ite Islamic clerics, such as Ayatollah Khomeini, had a common cause before the Shah was deposed. It was the latter group which succeeded in galvanising a large portion of the rural, devout population, and subsequently took control of the movement after the Shah was gone, eclipsing the complexities of a diverse revolution to project an international mirage of a unified Iran under the Islamic Republic. Khoi opposed the abuse of power that came with the marriage of religion and state with his characteristic vigour, and suffered censorship for it. For his safety, he was forced into hiding for three years before fleeing the country in 1983. He’s never been back home again.
Months after first meeting him, I now sit nervously in my room, listening to the dial tone blare out on speakerphone as I wait for him to answer. I’m calling to interview him about Voice of Exile. It is one of the few of Khoi’s volumes originally written in English, and although published in 2002, it retains its sharp relevance in our post-9/11 world. He lent me his own copy of the book when I met him, and it inspired me to write my undergraduate dissertation on it. I’ve been rereading his poems for weeks now, preparing myself for this moment, but when he picks up the phone, I’m all apologies – I hope he will forgive me for bothering him, and for my incomplete Farsi. I resist his reassurances, warning him that I’m liable to slip into English if the discussion gets too specific. For an Iranian like me, whose Farsi-speaking is largely confined between the walls of a Liverpool semi-detached, theoretical terms aren’t in day-to-day use. ‘No problem, we’ll shift gears into English if we need to’, he tells me, and so we begin.
I ask him first for his opinions on the political turmoil of 2016. He begins to speak about Iran’s internal affairs. I clarify, telling him I was referring to more recent political developments, for example the victory of Trump in America and Brexit in the UK. Nevertheless, the focal point of his assessment is always Iran: ‘Well, in Iran, we are still in the trap of the Islamic Republic, and it gets worse by the day. Our country is in the hands of murderers and thieves, who are ruining our country.’ He is no less forgiving on Western politics. ‘As to worldwide events – with Theresa May and Donald Trump in charge, everything is deteriorating further. With Brexit, and the victory of Trump, and his so-called government – they are building a dark future for us all.’ As someone whose life has moved between homes and cultures, he speaks with the knowledge of one who sees all sides: ‘Iran is tickling the US, like a mouse playing with the tail of a lion, and on the other hand Trump is planning a massive growth of the defence budget, and developing the country’s military capacities.’ His words contain despair. ‘I fear the lives of many of our youths will be lost over emptiness and nothingness.’
Khoi speaks as though he still lives in Iran, as though his years in London are akin to a short holiday rather than permanent transition. I point out that his work is far more politically engaged and Iran-centred than, say, Mimi Khalvati’s, another Iranian poet living in London. ‘I really like her work, actually, but we are totally different,’ he tells me. He explains that she grew up in Switzerland and London, and left Iran as a child. ‘Niloofar-jan, you must understand something – a poet cannot write without first living. Seeing is everything.’ I suggest that Khalvati’s work is far more preoccupied with the abstract ideas that the Romantic poets were caught up in, while Khoi is more concerned with reality. His answer was revealing: ‘You’re right... and its the same way I differ from all English poets. Her experiences have been of English poetry; most of the poetry in my memory is Iranian. As for the realism of my work – how can I, for example, write about Khomeini and converse with Shakespeare? I can’t write pure poetry. I write political poetry.’
Khoi’s poetics are stepping with political imagery by necessity. His poems worry about their own longevity, and the self-effacing paradox of political poetry – total victory in any cause deadens political text, consigning it to a closed corner of time. The first poem in Voice of Exile is titled ‘Politico-poetics’, and is a kind of statement of intent for his whole text, an ars poetica. In it, he compares political poetry to that which is, or should be, obsolete, carrying out its function in the wrong time: a ‘“Modern Dinosaur”, / Or a “Holy War”, / Or a “Childless Mother”’.
‘Look,’ he goes on, ‘there’s a connection between freedom and the purity of poetry. The less free a society is, the more political their poetry will be. And the opposite is true. In an ideal society, political poetry would mean nothing, because we’d only know love and beauty. Take this example – If you, an Iranian girl, walk around bare-headed here, that’s not a political act. But in Iran, they’ll jail you for an undone button or a short skirt, or for baring your head.’ Catching his gist, I say in English ‘oppression radicalises expression’. ‘Exactly!’ he replies, ‘Doroste (that’s right). Yep, yep, yep.’
Khoi formulates a poetics and a terminology for describing the complex relations that immigrants have with their homelands. For instance, my experience of being Iranian is comprised of being foreign in England, but also foreign in Iran. I was born in Liverpool, and aside from a year in infancy, grew up there until I was six. We moved to Shiraz for a year, then Tehran for another, then back to England at eight. My dominant notion of cultural identity revolved around a series of painful adjustments and careful negotiations of social identity in playgrounds. These negotiations were inherently political, but at that age, unlike Khoi, I lacked awareness of the politics that encircle me. Thinking about the differences between our relationship with Iran, it struck me how the word ‘immigrant’ projects the illusion of a monolithic group. We’re often thought of in terms of the effect we have on our country of arrival, making it easier to conceive of an ‘immigrant identity’. But the complexities and concerns carried forward from home make comparisons between individuals at best analogous. Some arrive as adults, filled up with old truths and habits that will only ever be shorn away by degrees, slowly. Many leave unwillingly. Younger immigrants like myself are of softer matter to start with, and we try to mould ourselves around the hard-set totems of habit and ideology that confront us all at once as the New Truth. Khoi’s essay at the end of Voice of Exile develops a vocabulary to describe this difference: ‘In relation to the original homeland the immigrant mentality is one of despair, whereas the refugee mentality is one of hope... In relation to the host society, the immigrant mentality is one of engagement, whereas the refugee mentality is one of detachment.’
I fall under the category of ‘immigrant’ – I spend more time taken up with the problems of assimilating to an alien culture, and the social exclusion, micro-aggressions and institutional barriers we face. These issues often pale in comparison to concerns about the homeland for refugees like Khoi. In his poems, existence in exile is not life itself but a time for reflection upon it.
Now I start living at the sunny horizon of the life of the early-risers among a people whose dream-eyes are windows, opening every morning at the sight, and the height, and the might, of the sleeping volcano of Damavand (‘Afterlife’, Voice of Exile)
In the poem ‘Home’, he describes feeling like ‘a goldfish / in a crystal jar / of hygiened water’. Iran in turn transfigures into a ‘swamp’, full of ‘snakes / and alligators / and filth’. The Farsi words for ‘snake’ and alligator’ are ‘maar’ and ‘soosmaar’, and the words lose their rhyme in English; despite being safer, his dream-eyes gaze on through to a home where at least he can find cohesion in his own country’s monsters.
Khoi’s isolation, his feeling of floating in a crystal jar, is perhaps compounded by the fractured nature of the Iranian diaspora. He tells me a story that illuminates the huge variety in faith, ideology and lifestyle found even within immigrants from the same nation. He recounts how his and Manouchehr Mahjoubi’s concerted efforts to establish an Iranian community centre in London were hijacked by a war for control between competing ideological factions. The scattered Iranian diaspora community microcosmically reproduces the fractures and splits in Iran itself. Orthodox Muslims, liberal Muslims, pro-monarchists, secularists, communists, and more fought for dominance. Peace came only after full authority was given over to the London City Council, and it effectively became an extension of the Iranian embassy, solely for bureaucracy. Khoi goes on: ‘Any other nationality you can think of has a community centre in London, but we don’t... It is as if, we are more predisposed to assimilation [...] and at the same time are a state of disintegration.’
He switches to English for the words ‘assimilation’ and ‘disintegration’, a casual bit of poetry enabled by uniquely European linguistic patterns; there’s no equivalent quite as neat in Iranian. You might see our flitting between languages, what we call ‘Fenglish’ or ‘Fargilisi’ in the diaspora, as a pinup for literary opportunism, the rewards of cultural exchange. You could also see it as a bastardisation of both languages – I’ve met British Iranians who can speak neither language fluently. This is testament to the shattering impact of immigration. Living in a new country is like taking your world and shoving a whole other world into it. Suddenly, its so much bigger and full of things; sometimes it splinters beneath the weight.
Khoi is undecided on whether this widening, or rather cluttering of perception is a positive thing. ‘I spent the first half of my life in Iran. I wrote 8 books of poetry in that time. But in exile, I’ve released more than 50 books. So I suppose I’ve had more to say, but my heart has been split in two, my life has been lived in two places.’ Writing from a double life to a double market of Iranians and unaffiliated outsiders, any time Khoi raises his voice he faces double consequences. Khoi recounts to me the part he played in the international movement of solidarity in response to the Iranian Supreme Leader’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and his novel The Satanic Verses. Khoi was an active organiser, working to gather signatures from esteemed literary figures across the globe, a largely symbolic gesture on the part of the majority of participants. But for Khoi, the punishment was real – the Islamic Republic issued a total ban on his poetry, and ordered every copy held by school or library destroyed, consigning his readership to furtive purchases from unlicensed street-sellers bold enough to stock his work. His poem ‘Criterion’ evokes in its title T.S. Eliot’s literary journal and his ebullient flaunting of a self-imposed ‘exile’ as a literary trope:
O, yes, now I know, that this is a circus in which, the stranger you look, the more foreign you sound, you are bound more to rise and more to shine on the pedestals of the International Show. (‘Criterion’, Voice of Exile)
Thousands of Americans wore ‘I am Salman Rushdie’ badges, a scramble to flatly point out evidence of Iran’s primitive extremism. Nestling up to the hearth of the exotic, the rest of us were able to warm ourselves by a fire Khoi burned in. The ‘International Show’s’ rules state that the shining radiance Khoi emits from poetic pedestals is forbidden from entering his own home of Iran.
Since leaving Iran for Britain, Khoi has experienced more and yet lived less; exile is life forever refracted through a single moment of loss, and so life is situated in the past. This is the reality of millions of refugees, increasing in number, who are been forced to survive by leaving life behind. Unsurprisingly, then, Khoi’s worldview rests somewhere between hope and despair. There is something optimistic in the figuring of political poetry as a ‘Modern Dinosaur’. Within this is contained a projection of a future where his work becomes defunct, a relic of the Jurassic past.
As our phone conversation winds to an end, I tell him that the writing of political poetry is itself an act of optimism. His voice gives me a sense that I’ve missed the mark, but he simply notes, ‘Well, with that – that’s for you to know; that’s part of your own interpretation.’ Amongst many things, Khoi has been a teacher in his lifetime, and he must have been a good one. Unlike some poets and artists, he rarely wields his intelligence like a crowbar. When I visited him all those months ago, Khoi asked me to read him one of my original short stories. He listened patiently, nodding and chuckling in the right parts, and when it was over, he said in English, ‘My dear, whether you like it or not, you are a writer’. This made me beam at the time, but it later it occurred to me that I couldn’t actually imagine him discouraging me. I’m sure he meant it, though – I believe he has a natural instinct for nurturing passion. It shows in the reverence and affection in Vahid Davar’s voice when he speaks of his friend and mentor, who he now looks to as Khoi looked to Sāless. Khoi avidly reads and responds to his poetry, and he treated my dissertation on his work with the same dignifying attention, reading the entire 8,000 words and giving me feedback. All day, his telephone rings as friends call him, no doubt seeking the same warmth he extended to a teenager he just met. To me, this generosity and investment in others, especially the young, is proof of Khoi’s quiet optimism. Although we British-Iranians are too often bereft of community centres and the attached familial sense of security that can be a surrogate for home, we may find ourselves momentary, minuscule communities – communities of 2, 3 and 4.
I tell him that despite the vast gulf between our lived experiences, many of his lines rang within me like familiar chords. He replies, ‘Poetry is experienced alone, but is not lonely’ switching to English in order to convey the subtle valences of ‘alone’ and ‘loneliness’. He believes poetry has the potential to traverse the loneliness that separates us, and that there is an ultimate goal in doing so. Though Khoi, at times, seems to number himself amongst the dead of our country, his living words embody that living, vital spirit of inquiry and bravery that offers us hope for freedom.
Hey! Come! Let’s bury our dead and do what we may. (‘All Right!’, Voices of Exile)
NILOO SHARIFI is an aggressively sincere English Literature graduate from Oxford who has never vaped and never will.