Commitment in Contemporary Persian Literature

The controversial notion of commitment in literary discourse implies a state of dialectical engagement of the writers and poets with socio-political causes and ideological approaches. The history of contemporary Persian literature is filled with literati who have committed themselves to various ideological statements and revolutionary ends. Our panel investigates intellectual preoccupations with commitment among contemporary Persian poets and novelists of Iran and Afghanistan. We limit our discussion to twentieth and twenty-first century Iranian and Afghan poetry and novels in order to investigate a number of literary works that fall in the category of committed literature (‘Adabiyāt-e- Mote’ahhed’) and literature of resistance (‘Adabiyāt-e-Pāydāri’), either as defined by the authors themselves or by the critics who make meaning from the texts. The panel aims to explore these fields with specific reference to the works of Iranian and Afghan literati in order to see if a coherent tendency toward the committed literature is traceable throughout the history of contemporary Persian literature or, on the other hand, if notions of commitment change in different socio-historical contexts.

The panel will ask how one begins to differentiate between commitment as an inherent feature of texts and commitment as a process of critical reading and interpretation. The panelists will attempt to address some of the following questions: How do various reading methods and hierarchies of senses have an impact on the formation and definition of commitment in literature? How might the socio-political context of a given society influence its literati and their works and to what extent are contextual elements fundamental in literary analysis of a given work? How do commitment and resistance as socially constructed concepts manifested in the literary works in question transform over time? And what is the relationship between notions of socially engaged or committed poetry and aesthetics?

We hope that the presentations and discussions of this panel will offer insight and applicable results to theoretical debates concerning commitment in contemporary Persian literature through addressing some of the issues inherent to any work identified as committed literature. Finally, we hope the panel contributes to the ongoing debates on committed literature by offering new insights on how to approach, interpret and analyze socially engaged literary works without underestimating their aesthetic aspects.


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This presentation is about the relationship of poetry and the powers-that –be in post-revolution Iran. It focuses on a particular genre of poetry that has been defined in English for the first time by the author of this presentation as “The Islamic Republican Poetry of Iran,” whereby poetry is considered especially important and is heavily subsidized by the state. The paper elaborates on how political poetry of this genre has played a significant role in shaping the ideological apparatus of the state.

In the course of the analysis, this paper tries to answer two questions: First, why, over the past few decades, poetry as a literary genre has been subject to state sponsorship, institutionalization, and most importantly—annual broadcasting; and secondly—how does it promote the current ideological system.

In order to answer these questions, the paper scrutinizes the position of poetry both in the ideological doctrine of the Islamic Republic, and in the personal vision of the two revolutionary leaders--Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei—who have played a pivotal role in the utilization of poetry for ideological purposes since the revolution of 1979.

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The poetry of Mohammad Reza Shafi‘i Kadkani (b. 1939) has received increasingly laudatory praise in recent years, with some critics even suggesting that the poet and scholar deserves a place among the towering figures of Nima Yushij, Ahmad Shamlu, Forugh Farrokhzad, Sohrab Sepehri, and Mehdi Akhavan Sales in the pantheon of modern Persian verse. Such critics tend to read Shafi‘i’s poetry as an expression of a timeless and universal human experience, emphasizing the poet’s sustained engagements with classical Persian poetry and Islamic mystical discourse. However, in the decades surrounding the Islamic Revolution, several prominent critics celebrated the same poems for Shafi‘i’s symbolic interventions in the armed struggle that eventually overturned the Iranian monarchy. But whether with the fervor of the revolutionary years or with today’s presumably more dispassionate scholarly approaches, these critical readings have resembled one another in the way that they treat the neo-classical, spiritual, and politically committed aspects as discrete and fundamentally separable components of Shafi‘i’s poetics. This paper presents a new reading of Shafi‘i’s poetics vis-á-vis the existing critical debates by arguing that the poet’s notion of socially-engaged or committed poetry cannot be separated from that poetry’s aesthetic and contemplative work. In Shafi‘i’s poetics, the paper will argue, poetry serves as a locus for imagining various realities, a mission that not only allows for poetry to simultaneously voice ideological stances on contemporary issues, regenerate the classical poetic canon, and reformulate mystical discourses, but indeed a mission in which these various elements naturally and necessarily coexist. Thus the paper sheds new light on theoretical questions on literature’s social function and the historical particularities of canon formation in the Persian context by arguing that Shafi‘i ultimately commits to a vision of poetry as a both critical and imaginative act.

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In 1989, after a decade of fighting, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, but left wide-open scars that penetrated through layers of the Afghan imagination. The historical magnitude of the invasion inspired a multitude of responses, namely a poetic discourse of resistance against the Soviet occupation, a movement broadly known as Sh‘ir-i Muqâvimat. With the displacement of one third of Afghanistan’s pre-war population, these responses were particularly vociferous in Pakistan and Iran. This paper
seeks to problematize the genre of resistance poetry and unpack the ideological dispositions of literary historiographical accounts that attempt to measure its aesthetic force and impact on social and national memory. Narrowly and imprecisely defined as poetry composed against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the question of resistance has not yet been thoroughly examined in its multi-faceted discourse of politics and poetics, namely expression of dissent from the safety of “exile,” critiques toward Mujahideen’s leadership during the occupation as well as resistance poetry composed by Afghans after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. Last but not least, this paper wishes to situate Sh‘ir-i Muqâvimat, often examined in isolation, in the larger context of committed literature in contemporary Persian letters. By exploring the constitutive elements of resistance poetry in the case of Afghanistan, its varying interpretations and contestations, I hope to map out the plasticity of what is termed Sh‘ir-i Muqâvimat, pointing to the constellation of voices comprising the vibrant discourse of Afghan poetry of resistance attempting to understand an event of national magnitude in all its complexity.

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No doubt the literature of commitment and committed literature have succeeded in occupying a significant role on the trajectory of modern Persian fiction. It is, however, extremely important to differentiate committed writing from constructed committed readings. Such readings seek, stereotype, and emphasize tropes which aim to identify sites of struggles (even if they are artificially construed) on which, they argue, one can detect “calls to action”. It stands to reason that such readings have to ignore many aspects of a given work to justify reductionist readings; aspects which in regard to Persian modernist fiction represent, I believe, its most important characteristics. Among a multitude of approaches which could reveal these ignored components, this presentation will focus on the revitalized notion of the hierarchy of the senses—especially in the field of New Historicism—and argue that to architect the potential literary environments of these works, one must begin by dismissing the Aristotelian supremacy of sight (content) and rely on all senses to experience the work. The data generated through the different sensory directions, then, could contribute to the formation of literary realities which demonstrate the non-discursive and non-committed aspects of modernist Persian fiction. As an exploratory effort, this presentation will demonstrate and examine this hypothesis through a musically-inspired reading—listening to sounds and silences—of a few significant yet underexplored works by writers such as Shamim Bahar and Reza Julai and will, hopefully, identify sites of resistance which are not necessarily defined through their commitment or discursivity.

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In this paper, I am concerned with the pre-revolutionary committed poetry as autonomous metaphorical constructions. Leftist, Marxist, and revolutionary literary theorists have never been shy in expressing the need to employ aesthetics and literary devises to promote a revolutionary cause. Furthermore, there is no doubt that they were right in assessing the power of metaphor and their coded language; committed authors were highly successful in exciting a vast readership and in promoting their revolutionary ideas through the use of highly influential metaphorical constructs. Reemphasizing that the strength and success of the revolutionary messages were related to the broader socio political exigencies, this paper also argues that committed literary works were not successful in their creation of aesthetics or in their use of literary devices in support of their message. Their metaphorical constructs, a very common device, often based on natural phenomena (mountain, forest, bird, rain) or abstract concepts (suffering, pain, hope) were for example in many cases highly improbable and uncanny. By analyzing a number of poems by S. Sultanpur, A. Shamlu, M. Garmarudi, and S. Kadkani, the paper shows that these poets' metaphorical constructions could only be communicated to a readership that was ready for deciphering their codes and understanding their message regardless of the aesthetic quality of the work. Both their mutiny and metaphorical constructions, however, offered strange notions that stood in contrast with the more universal modern notion of literature. In contemplating these points through close reading and textual analysis, the paper also draws attention to the debates over the nature of modern poetry in general, and will benefit from the works of such western critics as Sisson, Pratt, and William.