In this dead-end

Today, I discovered a poem (and a poet) for the first time.

Only some thirty years too late.

And wouldn’t you know it, he’s dead now. He died over a decade ago.

Better late than never, I suppose.

I don’t read poetry much. Don’t have time, for one thing. Am not really very attuned to it, for another. But I tripped across Ahmad Shamlou’s poem, “In this dead-end” by accident. And it hit me so hard. Because unfortunately, I know too much about what he is talking about:

In this dead-end

They smell your breath

You had better not have said, ‘I love you.’

They smell your heart.

These are strange times, darling…

And they flog love at the checkpoint

We must hide love in the closet.

In this crooked dead end and twisting chill

they feed the fire with the kindling of song and poetry

Do not risk a thought

These are strange times, darling

He who knocks on the door at midnight

has come to kill the light

We must hide light in the closet.

There are the butchers stationed at the crossroads

with bloody clubs and cleavers

These are strange times, darling

They cut smiles from lips and songs from mouths

We must hide joy in the closet.

Canaries barbequed on a fire of lilies and jasmine

These are strange times, darling

Satan is drunk with victory, sitting at our funeral feast

We must hide God in the closet.

Shamlou wrote that poem in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution. But he could just as well have written it about almost all of the Muslim political movements that ended up taking power in the last several decades and establishing totalitarian regimes.

Yeah, those movements and regimes that conservative community leaders and activists used make du’a for at Friday prayers and used to support… and used to tell us that we ought to support. As well as certain established regimes—depending on the particular leader/activist’s politics. Of course, any reports by the likes of Amnesty International were wildly exaggerated and most of what they claimed was going on couldn’t be true.

Or, it was true, but it was justifiable, because God mandates floggings and executions for certain crimes, and that can’t be denied without falling into kufr. And anyway, a certain amount of violence is going to be necessary in order to purify society and eliminate the bad elements left over from the former anti-Islamic regime… as well as those who are not really loyal, who are not really authentic, who have sold out to “the West” and lost their faith and culture. But in the end, a much better society will result… much more righteous, much more clean and god-fearing.

What fools we were. What privileged, self-righteous and self-deluded fools.

What if I had encountered this poem thirty, twenty or even fifteen years ago? Would it have meant anything? Would it have challenged me to rethink the idealistic, utopian package of half-baked political notions that were basically totalitarianism dressed up in religious garb?

While I would like to believe that it would have, to be honest, I don’t think so. Because the signs were already all around us, but we didn’t see them. Actively refused to see them. Felt a bit (or even sometimes a lot) uneasy about some things, but didn’t dare ask ourselves why.

Because that might bring our world tumbling down. That might mean that “the seculars” were right after all, and that Islam wasn’t “the solution” to everything. Because we were right and “the seculars” were wrong, and it was for their own good. Punishments for drinking alcohol or fornication, enforcement of public dress codes, gender segregation, strict regulation of the arts, literature and music, of ideas, banning unIslamic groups or political parties… were for the good of society, as well as for the salvation of individuals, who would be rescued from committing sins.

What does this poem talk about that we weren’t willing to justify—or at least, to remain silent while some speaker/khatib/activist raising money for some dodgy group or other defended or rationalized it?

What did we become? What did we turn a blind eye to? What did we turn God into?

I remember all too well.

Why have so many innocent people died, while I am still alive?

It is such an undeserved privilege to have lived, and to have been able to rethink these ideas that so many people died for, without having had the opportunity to rethink them. This privilege is too painful to be borne.

It surely comes with a heavy responsibility. At least, I must not waste it. But what to do? Repent? Recite fatihas for the dead? Bear witness to what happened? Whatever one does, it would never be enough.

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  1. #1 by nmr on September 23, 2014 - 3:19 am

    Bearing witness is a pretty big responsibility in my book. I think you do that here, in your blog. Thinking is often a lonely business. You are good at that, too. Chin up.

    Beautiful poem, truly timeless (unfortunately,…sigh). Thank you for sharing.

    • #2 by xcwn on September 23, 2014 - 11:39 am

      You are welcome.
      Thank you for your blog, btw. I really enjoy reading it.

      • #3 by nmr on September 24, 2014 - 12:05 am


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