Poetry Saved Me in Iran — Could It Save Us From War?

Iran United States Activism
by Ari Honarvar Mar 16, 2017

It’s not an exaggeration to say that my life was likely saved by a poem.

During the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran was an unofficial “banned nation,” an unspoken agreement among countries of the world slammed the door in the face of Iranian refugees. My mother, along with her visa request to India, wrote a poem about India’s Independence Day. The Indian ambassador took a liking to the poem and granted us a visa to India, where we could secure a meeting with the American embassy.

This is how America became my home.

It was not the first time poetry played a role of deep significance in my life. I come from a culture in which Persian poetry is as much a part of a person as her very heartbeat. In Iran, we use poetry not just at weddings, but in conversations and in welcoming sorrow and despair. Children begin studying poetry in first grade and continue until the end of high school. You hear poetry in conversations in remote villages, as well as at bustling modern offices. In the popular competition moshaereh, one uses the last letter of the selected rhymed verse to begin the next verse.


During the terror-filled cacophonous moments of the Iran-Iraq war, we saw poetry as a window to a world filled with beauty and justice.

In the wartime blackouts, when the threat of scud missiles filled the air, we would descend to our basement. We’d take with us a shovel, in case our house was struck by the lottery of destruction and we needed to dig ourselves out of the rubble, and a transistor radio, to alert us when the air raids were over. And we lit candles — not only so I could do homework, but in order to set the proper mood for the poetry contest that glued us to the radio. While trying to come up with the second verse for a poem line announced by the radio host, our fear of death gave way to excitement and our world became not only sane, but fun.

Poems run in my blood and have been with me in the most crucial moments of my life. And now, as the U.S. ramps up its aggression against Iran, I have no choice but to examine my love for both countries through the multi-faceted kaleidoscope of Persian poetry.

Our current administration has made war with Iran seem like a real possibility. In addition to putting Iran on its Muslim ban list, Trump controversially proposed naming Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp a terrorist organization, and it’s been said that new Defense Secretary James Mattis has a “fixation on Iran.” Meanwhile, democratic Senator Alcee Hastings just introduced a bill helping Trump wage war against the country.

This hunger for battle is rooted in the idea that Iranians are, collectively, our enemy — a belief espoused, ironically, by many commenters on a recent piece I wrote about the dehumanizing Muslim ban.

Iranian director Asghar Fardhadi, who won an Oscar for his film The Salesman, emphasized the dangers of this line of thinking in his acceptance speech read by Iranian-American astronaut Anousheh Ansari on Sunday. Declaring that he did not attend the ceremony because of the Muslim ban, he pointed out that:

dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression.

As hatred, fear, the threat of war escalate, I turn — as I did those days in the basement, missiles overhead — to Persian poetry.

Do not fixate on a fault, less your eyes of wisdom become closed to goodness — Saadi

Certainly, Iran has its problems. I long for a day where the people of Iran can openly criticize their government and women are free to dress as they wish. But Iran is also full of surprises, and Iranians have many gifts to share with the rest of the world.

More than 60% of Iranians are under 30, and largely as a result of this creative and youthful energy, the arts are flourishing and entrepreneurs are emerging. Imagine being a filmmaker and not being allowed to show romance, politics, and anything that the government sees as too controversial. And yet, year after year, Iranian movies end up at prestigious international film festivals and lauded at award ceremonies (the Oscar just won by Farhadi was his second).

We must also challenge the myth of the bridled, uneducated Iranian woman. Despite oppressive laws, women recently outnumbered men two to one in universities, prompting the government to install a quota so men could catch up. Even so, women’s numbers are still higher than men at universities. Iran even produced a female Nobel peace laureate, the human rights lawyer and activist, Shirin Ebadi.


As for Iran being a ISIS-allied hostile force?

Actually, ISIS hates Iranians. The majority of Iranians are Shiite, and ISIS has been killing the Shiites as part of their holy war. The Iranian government has also been actively fighting ISIS.


“If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, break yourself, not the mirror” — Nezami

I’m reminded of this poem verse when I think of those who beat war drums by painting a nation of 80 million people simply as an extended terrorist organization. First let me remind you that there have been zero attacks committed by Iranians in the U.S. Secondly, if we peer into the same mirror we hold up for Iran, we can easily see how our own policies and acts of violence in the U.S. have resulted in death and terror around the world. The freshest example of this is the botched Yemeni raid that killed up to 30 civilians, including an 8-year-old U.S. citizen.

The drone attacks, which by international law are illegal, have been used for the past 15 years, claiming thousands of lives, many of which were civilian. In fact, one report shows that during one five-month period, 90% of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. To bring this closer to home, imagine if rather than working with local authorities, drones targeted the residential area where the Boston Bombers hid.


I oppose the use of drones as the loss of civilian lives hurts our efforts to curb terrorism. When innocent people are killed, the aims of terrorism are furthered, no matter the perpetrator.

Make no mistake, this is not just a list of faults, as I know America is much more than some of its more unfortunate policies. This is about using the mirror to look at ourselves accurately. It’s about believing that staying well-informed is, in fact, our democratic responsibility to this wonderful country. It’s about having the agency to challenge our leaders’ policies when they don’t reflect our deepest values.

Forgive the wars among seventy two nations. Unwilling to see the truth, they were led by fantasies — Hafez

Believing alternative facts has long provided the foundation for war. The Iraq war was based on several lies, resulting in over 200,000 Iraqi and over 4,000 American deaths. And while we continue to hold bake sales at our schools due to funding cuts in education, this war has cost us way over $2 trillion and helped create ISIS. Another heartbreaking and unintended consequence of this war shows up in the 22 servicemen committing suicide every day.

In the coming days, you might see plenty of alternative facts pointing to an imminent threat to American security and an urgent reason for a preemptive attack against Iran. This will certainly benefit certain sectors as well as an administration desperate to find enemies to distract from its dysfunctions. But as people of America, all we have to do is look at the real cost of war in Iraq and say no.

If you have an opinion about Iran, I encourage you to please learn about its people. If you don’t agree with the Iranian government, consider how their policies are not in keeping with the will of its 80 million inhabitants, real people just like you, except that they don’t have the freedom to question their government.


In America, we can fight back against a fascist government — and as part of our patriotic duty, we must. Please consider how America’s interventionist policies will impact both Iranians and Americans, and how we can behoove our leaders to make the right choices.

Instead of viewing Iranians as others to be feared, go meet actual Iranians — and then pressure your representatives to curtail presidential powers to go to war. Because, my dear fellow American, most Iranians will invite you to their home, recite a poem, and treat you to a delightful meal. And if you compliment their handmade Persian rug, they will say, “It’s yours.”

This story originally appeared on The Establishment and is republished here with permission.

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