In the mirrors of exile

“Poetry is crying with words,” Partaw Naderi thoughtfully told me in a quiet, empty room in the IMU. He clasped his hands and paused, searching for the perfect English words. “When you cry, you become empty from your sadness. You empty your soul.”

Naderi, who is in residency this fall with the UI International Writing Program, said poetry and, likewise, crying are vital means of expression. A rich tradition in Naderi’s native Afghan culture, poetry is often referred to and recited daily. Because most of Afghanistan remains illiterate, poetry is often memorized for its rhyme and rhythm and passed through generations orally as expressive wisdom.

In one form or another, poetry has been a part of Naderi’s life since his childhood in Jarishababa, a northern village near Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan. He described his first poetic experiences, which stemmed from his early youth. “I was 8 or 9. Sometimes I was very gloomy, and I would look on the bank of this brook and cry.”

However, Naderi didn’t start writing his poetry down until his senior year of college. At that time, he said, “my feelings were in literature.” As a biology and chemistry major, Naderi wrote most of his poetry at night in his dorm. When he received his first literature award in 1975, he said most of his friends didn’t even know he wrote poetry at all.

But Naderi’s writing didn’t stay unknown for long. Just as his poetry began to gain prestige, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Naderi said that during the 1980s, there were two types of writers in Afghanistan: first, the government writers who glorified the Soviet occupation and endorsed the military and second, everyone else. “I was not a member of their party.” Unfortunately for Naderi, who was arrested in 1984, and more than 20,000 other intellectuals, that meant incarceration in the infamous Pul-e-Charki prison outside of Kabul.

“Prison was a place of opposition,” Naderi recalled. “We studied at the prison, even though we didn’t have the privilege of pen and paper.” Despite the constant threat of police searches and injurious, even lethal punishment for possession of any forbidden items, particularly pens, Naderi and other prisoners found secret alternatives to conventional writing. Late at night, Naderi composed poetry on cigarette papers and secretly give it to his wife at visitations. In this way, he said, “a new branch of poetry – prison poetry,” was created “as part of our resistance literature.”

After several years, Naderi was released after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, in 1989. Much of his poetry, which he writes exclusively in Persian, continues to speak about government corruption. “The Afghanistan situation is very complicated and, day by day, is more complicated,” he said, rattling off statistics about opium trafficking and other government scandals. “I don’t write for [the government]; I write against it to tell people.”

Naderi said that the division between pro-government and independent writers continues today. The problem with the government writers, past and present, he said, is a lack of personal sincerity. “I write of society, because I am a member of society,” he said. “I write about my experience, but this could be a social experience.” Ardently gesticulating, Naderi described the importance of honesty in his poetry: “It is the responsibility of everyone to write of himself, his feelings.” In this way, “the individual expands to the social,” and propaganda can be eliminated.

And while Naderi is sometimes considered a political writer, he remains passionate about including the beauty of nature in his lyrical verse. “Poetry comes from life, from nature,” he said confidently, describing the “river symphony” in the backyard of his youth that still influences much of his work today. Rivers and stars are important recurring themes, but perhaps the most important symbol in his work is the mirror, which, he said, contains two metaphors. On the surface, a mirror is a reflection of self, but it is also “God, mysticism, sophism – where you can see the power of God in nature.” In his poem “Relative,” Naderi writes,

“I know the language of the mirror

its perplexities and mine

spring from one race.

Our roots can be traced to the ancient tribe of truth.”

Although his work sounds impeccably polished, Naderi said all of his pieces are first drafts. “I write, write, write – I must complete it.” He insists that his “poetry comes [by] itself.” Moreover, his writing process is instinctive: “When I write, I never have to think about words. Naturally they come.”

Since coming to the UI, Naderi hasn’t written any poetry. Instead, he writes primarily nonfiction about political poetry, modern poetry metaphors, and free media background in Afghanistan. However, he said, “the beauty of Iowa, the feeling of Iowa, may be in my poetry in the future.” In his first trip to America, he described his satisfaction in experiencing his first fall season in a city unlike his own: “I like such a city – green, calm, not too crowded. At home, there is a lack of trees, lack of garden.”

While many Iowa City residents will probably never see Afghanistan nor completely understand the history and culture behind it, Naderi gives a careful, pensive look into one of the most controversial nations of our generation. On Friday, reading from his translated work, a collection of smooth, fluid, and poignant poetry, he will give listeners a taste of sincere reality. And as stereotypes continue to fly across the nation, Naderi will provide his gentle truth. As he proclaims in his poem

The Mirror

I have spent a lifetime in the mirrors of exile,

busy absorbing my reflection.

Listen –

I come from the unending conflicts of wisdom

I have grasped the meaning of nothingness

Partaw Naderi About the author
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