At the halfway point of the Poetic Voices of the Muslim World series, I’m amazed by the conversations and encounters it has made possible. A South African mother and son speaking with a Bosnian couple at a lecture on Bosnian poet Mak Dizdar; a large group of diverse St. Louisans talking philosophy and spirituality outside the opening event with Rumi translator Jawid Mojaddedi and musician Amir Vahab (while eating delicious snacks); a lively lexical debate between library patrons and noted Qur’an scholar Bruce Lawrence in the auditorium at Carpenter Branch.
As for the patron who was seen licking one of the exhibit panels at Central Library, I don’t know what to say about that … except visit the exhibit (seriously! we cleaned it!) which will be up through June in the Locust Atrium.
I certainly won’t forget the wonderful recitations by Sumaya and Sabiri Ibrahim from Masjid Qooba in south St. Louis. Pictured here with Dr. Bruce Lawrence, they wowed the audience with their first-ever recitations of suwar (chapters from the Qur’an) in public. Patrons have told me repeatedly how grateful they are to be part of a different kind of conversation — to encounter a side of Islamic cultures that is usually left out of the shrill media debates. These events have been a reminder that the library is a place where cultures meet and where singular conversations can take place.
This week brings our third renowned speaker to St. Louis Public Library. Dr. Farzaneh Milani, Professor of Persian Literature and Women’s Studies at the University of Virginia, will present her talk “Veils and Words: Iranian Women Poets of the 20th Century” at Schlafly Branch on Thursday night, May 14, 7:00 pm. The program demonstrates how Iranian women poets have been a moderating and modernizing force in their homeland.
Among the poets she will discuss is my personal favorite, Forugh Farrokhzad. After marrying young and losing custody of her child in divorce, Farrokhzad went on to write remarkably frank, confessional poetry that confronted the hypocrisies of mid-twentieth century Iran. Early poems such as “Sin” defiantly express erotic desire:
I have sinned a rapturous sin
in a warm enflamed embrace,
sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,
arms violent and ablaze.
While in her later poem “Another Birth” she reflects beautifully on the poetic process:
I plant my hands in the garden soil–
I will sprout,
I know, I know, I know.
And in the hollow of my ink-stained palms
swallows will make their nest. (tr. Sholeh Wolpe)
Farrokhzad was also an accomplished filmmaker whose short film The House is Black, set in an Iranian leper colony, won several awards. After dying tragically in a car accident in Tehran at the age of 32, she attained rock-star status in Iran, and her works were banned after the Cultural Revolution in 1979. Her publisher was ordered to stop printing her books, and he refused; he was jailed and his warehouse was burned to the ground. (Sholeh Wolpe, “Forugh Farrokhzad: A Brief Biography”)
Dr. Milani will also discuss another fascinating poet, Simin Behbahani, aka “the Lioness of Iran.” Behbahani can be seen in this Youtube clip reading from her elegiac and spirited poem “For the Dream to Ride.” It may be the translation, but I detect some great MC-style braggadocio in this, e.g.:
I speak as long as I’m alive; fury, roar, and revolt
Your stones and rocks I fear not; I’m flood, my flow you can’t halt
Anyway, it’s well worth the three minutes to check out Behbahani reading her poem in the original Persian. And we hope it will inspire you to join us for Dr. Milani’s event at Schlafly Branch, to be part of the great conversation that the Poetic Voices series has brought about.