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writing a political movement

Poetry v. the Body Politic

January 09, 2020
Here are excerpts from a dialogue on the relationship between poetry and politics in Iran today, between Poetry International Archives Iran editor Abol Froushan and Ali Abdolrezaei, a major Iranian poet and leader of a grassroots political movement that has been spreading in Iran since the uprising of January 2018, when the multimedia Colleges of Persian Poetry and of Fiction became a political movement. What incubated as a literary movement calling for democracy of the text and literary styles transformed into a movement for democracy and freedom from the Islamic Republic and its political and economic stranglehold on Iranians. As the new literary movement became an organised force on the political scene, it soon turned into a political party named Iranarchism. The party framework brought together more than 100,000 young people, intellectuals and partisans on its Telegram channel and other social networks. The new party and its leadership apply postmodern critical theory and practice, from Bakhtin’s polyphonic text to notions of the rhizome proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, and Derrida’s notions of différance, the play of signifiers and deconstruction.(1) The conversation was conducted in Persian and translated by Froushan.

Open Text, Open Society

AF: Let us start by considering the comparison between political leadership and poetic authorship. What is their correspondence in your eyes?

AA: This is an important question for our revolution since the uprising of January 2018 across Iran. The way I have approached leading our movement since the national uprising of 2018 is very similar to writing a long poem, as opposed to short poems, which are similar to impromptu street reactions. That is, unlike a long poem, a short poem can get away with a fluid structure. Just as one pursues a strategy in structuring the text in a long poem, I have approached the conduct of the movement in terms of a political strategy to subvert the system. At each stage we deploy tactics like the way we move from one segment of a long poem to the next to advance the narrative of our political maneuvers. Poetry is about association of words in the text, whilst in politics, people and associations are represented through words, text and context.

AF: In politics we have systems like parliamentary democracy and the direct democracy of referenda versus theocracy and autocracy. In a corresponding vein, in literature, we can speak of the democracy of the text in polyphonic poetry (Bakhtin) or the death of the author (Barthes) in order to democratise readership versus the omniscient narrator who promotes a single point of view. In this way we see correspondences between political and poetic strategies. How has the literary-turned-political movement in Iran embraced literary notions to gain political advantage?

AA: Your analogy of political regimes and poetic movements is very apt here – the way you juxtapose the death of the author with direct democracy, or theocracy and the all-knowing narrator. Similarly, our movement drives towards an open society where there is freedom to form a multi-party system. In the same vein, we have in literature an open text where the reader has freedom to interpret the text in many different ways. Each voice brings its own point of view in a polyphony.

In the language of poetry an important role is played by metaphor, which follows the rules of substitution. So, a poet keenly chooses a metaphor from a range of possible alternatives. Whereas a dictator wields the machinery of propaganda through the power of the media at their disposal, the role of the opposition movement is to substitute the dictator’s propaganda with their own counter-propaganda.

Metaphor as Counter-Propaganda

AF: Well, I would have thought that propaganda actually brings together a set of meaningful terms, such as the slogan “Take Back Control”, the slogan of the pro-Brexit Leave campaign. This slogan implied that British citizens had lost control somehow and could only get it back by leaving the EU. This is not metaphoric but metonymic in the sense that it associates being in the EU with loss of control.

AA: That’s true, but when the ruler has the treasury, the army and the broadcast media at their disposal, the opposition has nothing but language, the Internet (to some extent) and their own bodies. Here we need to weaponise language to counteract the dominant sound bites substituting our counter-propaganda for their propaganda.

AF: So how do you challenge the theocratic power of a Grand Ayatollah using metaphoric techniques?
AA: People under a theocracy fear the Supreme Leader the way they fear god. The power of language is in its ability to counter that fear through de-sacralising the leader. With the Internet as the medium, we use satire to diminish the stature of the leader. Satire turns fear to laughter and replaces the heavenly aura surrounding the theocratic leader with the weaknesses of an earthbound creature. I will share two examples with you.

We replaced the name of the supreme leader with a homonym that satirises his name, evoking a sexual body part, and this went viral in the protest movement. It led to the use of demeaning slogans on the streets against the Supreme Leader.

In the official opposition, we have a reformist faction which, although critical of aspects of the power structure, still believes in the Islamic revolution that replaced a secular dictatorship with a religious one. We have substituted the term Eslaah-taliban or reformists with Estemrar-taliban (2) or preservationists (note the suffix alluding to the Taliban), as they don’t question the foundations of Islamic politics. It also puts them in line with the hardliners promoting the regime. Or, in analogy with the dictatorship of the Shah, we call this the regime of the Mullah-Shah.

This changes the terms of the debate from continuity and reform to regime change as it alters the political language of the protest movement.

Poetic Ethos in Politics

AF: Movements are fundamentally future-oriented, something we call the ethos or attitude towards the future. This is an important characteristic of all avant-garde movements. Let’s look at the Iranarchist ethos, and how it is inspired by the poetic spirit.

AA: Literary theory has inspired new forms of organising action for us. Inspired by poetry we are introducing a new ethos. I say forget about martyrdom, forget about fighting in tears: we are fighting for life, for the pleasure of living every moment. We laugh, we don’t cry, because we revel in life. We say dance, don’t cry like Hezbollah. There are new forms of action as opposed to protesting in the streets, getting arrested and surviving torture. The martyr as hero is outmoded for us. We don’t consider them heroes, we call them absent heroes, and shun the whole ethos of martyr as hero. Look at how the suicide bombing techniques of ISIS originated in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s when young Islamic militia, in their fascination for martyrdom, wrapped themselves with dynamite to blow themselves up under Iraqi tanks.

I often cite a quote from Albert Camus (which may even be a misquote) that says “heroes of the modern era are débauchés”. They are not the passive type fascinated by suicide. They are active nihilists, ones who make their own meaning of life.

Last year or so I started a campaign we called Libertaranegy (a merging of libertarian and taraneh – music), where protesters, men or women, would publicly display their nudity and dance with slogans written on their body. This is unprecedented in an Islamic society. They mocked us, calling us lewd playboys and prostitutes. This form of action actually spread as far as Lebanon where women activists protest against Hezbollah with slogans on their naked bodies. Now we are getting many tweets from Lebanon applauding us.

Another visual metaphor we used is taking city dust bins as targets, writing Leadership HQ on them and setting them on fire in the middle of public roads. Yes indeed, words provide inspiration; we are inspired by literary techniques. Without my knowledge and practice of literary tools and techniques, I would not have been able to introduce so many new tactics in political struggle.

Rhizome and Différance

AF: You are embedding literary concepts like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome into political practice. Could you elaborate?

AA: We took the idea of the rhizome and turned it into an organisational construct. A rhizome plant has horizontal roots as well as vertical roots, like the orchid. In the rhizome structure, there are many roots or nodes, each of which can have their own leader. We don’t have a leader at the top, cascading messages down the hierarchy. That is, each individual is a leader. In this way even if you cut off some roots, others can carry on their work.  

Iran’s Green movement – protesting stolen votes in the 2009 election – had a vertical organisation; when the top leaders Mousavi and Kahrubi were arrested the movement was defeated. We, on the other hand, have nodes in each town and city which started as a poetry college. Each partisan cell is a revolution in itself. They will be able to carry on, even if I’m not around. The rhizome system is a grass-roots organisation that can spread in society and is not dependent on a hierarchical leadership.

AF: And what about Derrida’s notion of différance – those sliding signifiers?

AA: We have been using différance in our counter-propaganda tactics.  For example, we substituted similar sounding names with pejorative connotations for the names of certain groups or personalities, such as JAESH – Jomhuri -e Eslami e Eraq o Shaam, instead of DAESH, a word associated with the Supreme Leader and also the word for a trafficker – jakesh. And Maadar Seyyed – a sliding signifier from “maadar sag” – son of a bitch. Seyyed is a title privileging someone as being from the lineage of the prophet and also a play on the lineage of women raped by a conquering Arab. Literary consciousness can bring life to a protest movement, leadership and innovations by creating neologisms, to revive a sense of identity that has been lost to Iranians under the veil of religion.



AF: Here we step into the realm of timespace, those focus points and future orientations of those involved in political action.

The idea, introduced by Theodore Schatzki, says that timespaces emerge around particular future-oriented practices, very often described in the vernacular as epochs, such as a Time of War or Conflict, a Time of Uncertainty, or, for example, the Time of Brexit. In such periods we engage in particular kinds of behaviour in anticipation of the future. The practices we engage in such times have a teleo-affective structure, such as a sense of urgency when we act in a way that pulls the future into the present.

Iranarchism is a subversive movement, focused on events that galvanise protest against the prevailing regime, but the regime uses the media to displace or deflect popular attention away from it. In the same way, the New Wave poets (3) focused on a certain aesthetic quality of vision and a commitment to artistic values, which was replaced by the revolutionary upheaval of the late 1970s. In order for a revolution to succeed it needs to shift the resigned attitude of the down trodden to a sense that freedom is possible, that power is within reach. You need to create a break in timespace.

AA: I’ll give you a recent example of the way I use the idea of timespace.  About six months ago when the workers of a major sugar factory, Haft Tappeh in the town of Shush, went on strike, the Iranian media kept giving major coverage to the case of a pedophile arrested in the town of Shushtar. This is something I got curious about and found out through researching the situation of the strike. We whipped up a twitter storm in support of the workers on strike, substituting the time-space of Shushtar with Haft Tappeh. This is typical of the timespace the regime takes up when they want to hide what they are up to. When they were negotiating with China to sell certain rights to the Oman Sea, the newspapers kept giving prominence to the case of a figure called the “night vampire” who raped and killed women in Karaj. A similar deflection may be associated with the whipping up of protests in January 2018 in Mashhad against the government, which got out of hand and led to widespread unrest. This obscured the agreement with Russia and other neighbouring states giving up Iran’s rights to the Caspian Sea. In the latest twist of events, the assassination of General Soleimani by a US drone attack, offers the regime a great ploy to distract people’s hearts and minds away from the loss of thousands of lives in the latest phase of nationwide protests in November 2019, which were confronted with firearms, snipers and brute force. There is a lot more to be said and done on this topic which we shall leave for another occasion. 

AF: Poetry and politics are both sets of practices where actions are bundled around certain sites . A ‘site’, being the centre or the focal point for a type of practice, could be a political party or an election, which carry forms of emotional engagement such as: we are going to change the future of this country, or we are going to get justice. Similarly, in poetry: a journal publication or an international festival create sites with their own future orientations, such as promoting future generations of poets, or introducing one culture to another through translation. 

When the Islamic regime established itself as a result of the referendum on whether voters wanted an Islamic Republic, yes, or no, we didn’t know that we were voting for eight years of war and revolution, 40 years of sanctions and global pariah status. We just didn’t want the old regime back. The Students of the Imam’s Line took 444 hostage days, in order to forestall another CIA coup to bring back the Shah, who was lying in a hospital in New York at the time.(4) No one knew that this was what they’re voting for, but I knew that these guys were not going to be a temporary phenomenon; they were what in Persian we call doraan-saaz – epoch-making. This was the beginning of my thinking into the idea of timespace, whose time had not come yet.

Put like this, one can’t be sure how to ascribe the timespace concept to poetic activity as such. How does poetic practice pull the future towards itself? Unless, like me, you subscribe to the premonitional function of poetry, then there is no pull of the future. A lot of poems are about memory alone. The question is where does the future orientation in poetry come about?

AA: That happens with an Avant Garde. When there is a movement that pulls towards a different future for poetry, perhaps to measure up to changing needs in politics, arts, technology, or romance.

AF: You are right, only in the context of revolutionary movements can we speak of a future orientation, by the practitioners of the new form. Of course, to start a movement or to join one, one needs to have a sense of the present as intolerable – the boredom of it all, the anger, the procrastination of the politicians to get on with it… As it was in Britain with Brexit in the recent General Election. Or, in another context, the boredom of the poet with the prevailing orthodoxy of form in mainstream publications may be necessary to instigate the writing of a Waste Land. This inclination to challenge the status quo echoes Baudelaire’s view that a poet cannot fully be a poet without being critical of the present.

AA: Poetry of the 1990s in Iran was setting out a new direction, to make it resonate with the lived experience of the generation that grew up in the time of the Islamic Revolution, and had no recent memory of Iran’s former glory, except perhaps in deprecated images of the previous era.

In politics, we are not dealing with aesthetics of a piece, but with commitment to truths such as Human Rights, or what it means to be free. Here the movement needs recruits among those who thirst for freedom and opportunities that are denied them, because they feel down trodden – not the weak and the meek who have settled with their lot.

In a political timespace there is urgency. Militants in a movement, our partisans, can’t wait too long, nor can the people. Poetry in its timespace is a matter of playful leisure, you can drag it out, mull it over and move things around on the page. But in the political arena, pause is not allowed.

AF: Here we are up against the collective identities created by a movement: for example, the Other Poets, or the poets of the New Wave in modern Persian, or the Iranarchists or the reformists of this or that political group all recreate their own identifications. If we imported the perspective of identity politics into our analysis then we can look for generative movements of true poets or true militants of that generation – identities with a sense of commitment to certain artistic or political truths.

Let’s have a look at the body politic of Ummah (5) in the timespace of the Islamic Republic since 1979.  This form of collective identification has been a point of reference in the regime’s regional strategy as it extends beyond Iran’s borders to all Shi’ite lands, be they Lebanon, Syria or Iraq. It precipitates a sense of uncertainty in the geopolitical landscape under the US sanctions and belligerence now, and for the people in Iran. Doesn’t it trigger a feeling of becoming irrelevant in the geopolitical equation, perhaps?

AA: By focusing on the body politic of Ummah that extends beyond Iran’s borders, the regime is deprecating our Iranian identity, creating fake truths that supplant Zoroastrian heroic tales reaching back 3,000 years with equivalent Shiite narratives in order to instill a Moslem identity into the Iranian body politic.

We are saying that Iranian identity needs a radical break from the tradition dominated by Shiism and a shah, even when the shah is a religious figurehead. Iranians have lost their real identity since the Arab invasion of 650 AD, i.e. less than 1,400 years ago, and in the last 300 years, under the spell of a Shiite clergy that aspired to power according to the doctrine of Sheik Karaki, who originated in the Levant. Karaki’s thesis of the guardianship of the clergy was part of a Safavid policy to create an ideological bulwark against the rising Ottoman influence in Asia Minor in the 17th century.


The Poetics of Movements

AF: Our quest has been to look for expressions of a poetic commitment in artistic as well as political movements. In a way we have been looking at moments of poetic expression in movements, be it in arts or politics. Now, when we look for the meaning of any form of expression, we can distinguish its sense from its reference. The referential meaning of an expression is what it denotes or designates. The sense of an expression, on the other hand, is how this reference is presented in its context, including the people engaging in it. What I’d like us to discuss is, how do movements contribute to the practice or performance of poetry and politics? How do you see the shift in the landscape of poetic movements versus the shift in political expressions?

AA: When it comes to distinguishing a poetic commitment from politics, truthfulness in poetry has to do with being true to the sense of the poem in performance, and in the conveyance of an original sense. This is the origin of a poem; essentially through sense and not much through reference. In poetic events sense is the primary source of pleasure. A life of senses presents an experience that is akin to the sense of the poem as opposed to its referential meaning.

The aesthetics of poetry is always about rearranging poetic elements. The Avant Garde poetic movement merely repositions between centre stage and periphery, the key devices of poetry: the image, the language, the message, the metaphor, in order to alter the aesthetics of poetry. This determines the poetics of each literary movement.

The history of Persian literature shows that, in the Indian and Isphahani classical movements, language plays an eventful role in their poetry. In the works of Bidel, Saeb or Kareem Kashani, language keeps tripping you up. While in Ferdowsi’s epic style the narrative is centre stage. You are in the midst of the heroic chain of events, and their juxtapositions.  This is the case with the Iraqi and Khorasani styles of Persian literature. In symbolic poetry the symbol and image are centre stage and language remains in the margins.

In modern Persian poetry, Nima places the image centre stage. We have the works of Shamlu whose language may be rich but is there to convey a message. In the works of Royaii, Bijan Elahi and others, and then in the 1990’s movement, language is the element that constructs the possibilities of the poem. It is the language that is atmospheric and creates new imaginative possibilities.

AF: It may be argued that when imagistic poetics is replaced by language poetry, this shift is analogous to constitutional change or even a regime change. And we can see that each movement spawns its own identity as it grows. We had the protest movement that toppled the Shah back in 1979. Under the sway of Ayatollah Khomeini, it took on an Islamic identity with its ethos of martyrdom in the revolutionary war with Iraq, and the subsequent reclamation of the Ummah across the Middle East. The post-election protest movement of 2009, led by a former Khomeini-era prime minister, projected the Islamic colour of green. It called on a liberal middle class that didn’t seek to topple the Islamic regime but to reform it. They shouted Allah o Akbar from the rooftops, showing continuity with the Islamic regime. They congregated in the main city squares, a million strong, chanting simple slogans, mainly: “Where is my vote?” very much in the coherent and centrist semantic style of some modern poetry. Social media played an important role as the medium for the expression of slogans.

By the same token, as we look at the elements that make up the identity of a protest movement we can think of its demographics, the locus of its manifestation, its language and media of expression. How would you say these elements have changed in the current protest movement in Iran?  

AA: Different protest movements have their own language and semiotics. We see a history of resistance against the current regime in Iran, manifesting itself in spontaneous uprisings every decade in the 40 years of the Islamic Republic. The language of protest has evolved as have the demographics and the sites of demonstration. We had protests in the student residence halls of around the turn of the century, brutally suppressed in 1999. Then we had the Green Movement of urban middle classes advocating free elections in 2009.

In 2018 the protesters (6) were what I labelled Froodastan [the lowly, the low-handed] – the unemployed, the under-privileged, the powerless, including women protesting against the enforcement of Islamic dress codes.The language of the protest morphed into radicalism, though nuanced with metaphor and connotation that turned away from Islam and its symbols of sanctity. The protests spread to dozens of cities and towns. Avoiding major centres and city squares, they gathered in local areas. The demonstrations were decentralised. There was no figurehead. The rhizome structure of the Colleges of Poetry and Fiction with their postmodern literary poetic sensibilities shaped slogans against the authority of the regime in all respects. I refer to the shift from reformist to preservationist in political language; or introducing defamatory slogans against the leader and novel forms of protest, like dancing in the street naked overwritten with slogans.

In November 2019, faced with the loss of oil revenue caused by US sanctions, the government, backed by the Supreme Leader, overruled parliamentary debates and issued a dictate to triple petrol prices overnight. This triggered a strong surge of protests, which lanced the boil of the growing discontent with the succession of politico-economic crises by which the regime continues to rule. The revolution of the lowly that was brutally suppressed in 2018, was never extinguished, it just went underground and continued to manifest itself in the form of protests, e.g. around environmental disasters in the Gulf region of Khouzestan, major strikes by the sugar factory workers in Haft Tappeh, the growing popularity of the Iranarchist movement, etc. 

Decentralisation tactics have been a key feature of this latest nationwide uprising which has extended now to the squeezed lower to middle classes, who are most impacted by the rising cost of living. With protest hotspots spreading across neighbouring boroughs and towns, security forces are often prevented from calling in support from nearby forces, who are in turn engaged in dealing with local protests. As armed forces are brought in from other regions to put down an uprising, people seek to coordinate protest in those other regions. Protesters coming out at night also wear down the armed forces who must serve long shifts. Nevertheless, they have escalated violence against the protesters to unprecedented levels, using helicopters and snipers to shoot at unarmed civilians, and lately going from house to house arresting and shooting at residents in places like Shiraz. The regime, having learned its lesson from recent uprisings, spent the first two days of the unrest shutting down the Internet and mobile networks to isolate the protesters, prevent coordination and to ensure that news and footage of the atrocities don’t get out. Loss of the Internet was debilitating in more ways than one. What people need in these circumstances is not so much leadership as coordination. The popular demands are instinctively coherent. The new language of protest has gone increasingly viral. It is clear to protesters that this is a regime that will go to war with its own people. The regime, for all its Islamic veneer, must go. Human rights should be observed. There should be freedom of expression, and of assembly.

The long poem of the revolutionary movements is coming to a head. The crescendos which used to be a decade apart are getting closer and closer. 1979,1999, 2009, 2018, 2019…

AF: We will have to see to what extent the latest escalation of geopolitical violence in the region and the assassination of General Soleimani will be used to counter-act this tide…

1 For an informative article on the Poetry of Protest in the contemporary context in Iran, see Nassrine Azimi 2018, Five Pillars of Iran: Poetry of Protest
2 Eslaah means reform or correction, while estemraar means continuity
3 New Wave poetry in modern Persian literature emerged in the 1960s and 70s with the publication of Ahmadreza Ahmadi’s book Tarh (Design), and in the journal Tarfeh, which published Bijan Elahi’s poems.
4 In 1952 a democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Mossadeq moved to nationalise the Iranian oil industry to repossess the riches of oil production. This went against the interests in the region of Britain and the United States. The situation was reversed by a coup instigated by the CIA in 1953 that overthrew Mossadeq and restored power to the Shah. The coup has had a lasting effect on Iranian historical memory. 
5 An Arabic term meaning "Islamic community", which has been a reference point for the Islamic Republic.
6 The protests of 2018, which were triggered by a sudden rise in the price of eggs and other basic foods, started in the holy city of Mashhad and soon spread to over 70 towns and cities across the country. There they  were subject to brutal crackdowns. See Iran Student Protests

© Abol Froushan
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