Dictator Lit: The Poetry of Ayatollah Khomeini

Perhaps the most famous literary critic of the 20th century, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) was renowned for his vehement loathing of the work of Salman Rushdie. Indeed, the Ayatollah (or Imam, as he liked to be known) loathed the Satanic Verses so much that he called for Rushdie’s execution. Now Rushdie may be a bit smug, but I think we can all agree that that was going a bit far. And as a British subject and lapsed Sunni Muslim, Rushdie was not under the Iranian Shiite “Supreme Leader’s” jurisdiction by any stretch of the imagination. Nor had the Ayatollah actually read the Satanic Verses. No surprise there of course- ignorance of the offending material is a sine qua non for those who would burn books and kill their authors.

But I digress. Today I am focusing not on the Ayatollah’s critical output, but rather his work as a creative author, which is woefully unknown in the Western world even though he was stupendously prolific (200 of his works are available online). The topics he covered include commentaries on the Qu’ran and the Hadith, works on Islamic law, plus multiple tomes on philosophy, gnosticism, poetry, literature and politics. And on top of all that he masterminded one of the epochal events of the 20th century. Not bad- from a Protestant work ethic standpoint, at least.

Prolific output is no sign of quality however, as anyone who has read Khomeini’s fellow dictator Enver Hoxha will attest. But it is difficult for those of us not fluent in Persian to arrive at a judgment on Khomeini’s work as so little of it is available in translation. Indeed, it’s almost as if the authorities in the Islamic Republic don’t want us to read his books, as if they don’t care whether we are converted or not. This is an unusual, even refreshing display of contempt for the lingua franca of the modern world, as almost every other tyrant from Qadaffi to Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has revealed his cultural insecurity by having his words rendered into the language of the Great (and little) Satan.

Back to the Ayatollah however, and what is available in English.

  1. In 1980 Bantam Books published an unauthorized paperback entitled The Little Green Book: Sayings of the Ayatollah Khomeini, which had been hastily compiled in the aftermath of the Revolution by some Frenchmen. This slim volume lifted freely from three separate works by Khomeini: Kingdom of the Learned, Key to Mysteriesand The Explanation of Problems. Problems with the text are manifold. The English version was translated from Iranian into French into English, and greatly truncated in the process: 125 pages instead of 1000+, with a suspicious emphasis on aphorisms about semen, sweat and the anus. To compound matters, it does not attribute specific quotes. And yet in spite of these serious flaws the immensely vengeful, tedious, depressing, obsessive, paranoid, superstitious, reactionary, authoritarian, misogynistic and anti-Semitic flavour of the Ayatollah’s thought shines through. No wonder many in Iran, forced to submit to one man’s withering interpretation of their cultural and religious inheritance (and that is to say nothing of non-Muslims and unbelievers) are rioting in the streets.
  2. On the other hand, Islam and Revolution(Mazar 1981) was compiled by an editor favourably inclined to Khomeini (Hamid Algar, author of the classic Occidentosis: The Plague from the West). I stumbled upon it in Austin public library and was just about to read the thing when alas, somebody put in a call for it and I had to return it. Optimistically listed as volume 1, volume 2- as far as I can tell- was never published.
  3. Finally, my desperate quest for more Khomeini led me to this singular, solitary poem, originally published in the New Republicin 1989, just as the Ayatollah was demanding death for Salman Rushdie and poised to take the great leap into eternity himself. This was what I was really interested in- something that would reveal a side of Khomeini unknown to those of us in the West; a more tender aspect of the bearded, reactionary theocrat.

And what a poem! If the first two lines are startling:

I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!

I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.

Then what follows a few lines down is absolutely amazing:

Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,

For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.

The whole thing ends with a repudiation of Islam in favour of the ‘tavern’s idol’.

Even allowing for the fact that the Ayatollah is utilizing a poetic persona the poem is remarkable: free thinking, even heretical. And yet… according to Khomeini’s Arabic translator, Professor Muhammad Ala al- Din Mansur of CairoUniversity, the apparently secular tone is misleading:

‘Imam Khomeini’s poetry was exclusively a means for the manifestation of his mystical and numinous thoughts while praying to God and reflecting on the mysteries of the creation.’

And sure enough, I soon found an essay online in which the critic revealed that everything in the poem is something else, and nothing is what it appears to be. Bummer. But is Khomeini’s stuff any good? According to a pro-regime site:

‘Imam Khomeini was an outstanding poet and literary figure of Persian language. His prose was elegant and his poetry delicate. He was popular in this respect from the very beginning of his student days in Qum and was known for the soundness of his speech and writings.’

But they would say that, wouldn’t they? As for those of us who don’t speak Persian, well, like I said before- how are we to judge? Which leads me to a final thought: considering that so little of Khomeini’s thought is available in English (even though he established the ideology of a major hegemon in today’s Middle East) well- what exactly are all our analysts, specialists and decision makers consulting when they make pronouncements about the place? I don’t believe for one second that the hacks writing op-eds and the politicians appearing on political talk shows speak Persian.

My guess is that they are very often reading interpretations of interpretations, pieces a little like this, albeit longer and written with a note of certainty. And that- frankly- should have us all concerned.

First published in The Guardian 29 January 2010 

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