contributing editors

The Subaltern Voice
Anthony A. Lee, Ph. D.

leeAnthony A. Lee teaches African American history at UCLA and at West Los Angeles College. He was awarded the 2003 Nat Turner Poetry Prize (Cross Keys Press) and the 2005 Naomi Long Madgett Award for poetry (Lotus Press).

 



Remembering What Has Been Forgotten | Tahirih: Iranian Feminist Poet | Point by Point
Start Shouting! | Proclamation | Just Let the Wind... | Running After You


Remembering What Has Been Forgotten

As I often warn my students in introductory courses, “history” is not what has happened in the past. History is what we choose to remember about the past, and simultaneously what we choose to forget. This act of forgetting has been accomplished with devastating consequences for women, racial minorities, the poor, the disabled, and other marked and subordinated groups that, up until recently, were simply left out of the human story we call history.

However, in recent decades, historians have begun to turn their attention to those who had previously been ignored and stigmatized as rootless subalterns, with no history worth remembering. The history of blacks, Latinos, children, labor movements, and the history of ordinary people, has to be discovered. That means going back and discovering voices that were always there, but were ignored.

This column is an attempt to introduce some of those voices from history to a new audience of American students. It will find those voices in world literature and bring them out of the shadows of history. These are the hidden voices, the silenced voices, the voices that were never supposed to be heard, or even to exist. We will all be astonished by what we find them saying.

This column is devoted to one such lost voice, the poetry of Tahirih, Qurratu’l-‘Ayn.

 


Tahirih: Iranian Feminist Poet

Tahirih (1817-1852, pronounced, taa-heh-reh; Arabic for Pure) was a nineteenth-century Iranian woman, scholar, and mystic-poet. Though celebrated in Iran, India, and Pakistan, her work has seldom been translated into English. Also known as Qurratu’l-‘Ayn (Solace of my Eyes), she was the first Iranian woman in modern times to achieve a public presence through her poetry. Writing in traditional, rhyming forms—often ghazals—she wrote mystic, love poems with deep religious significance. Becoming a prominent follower of the Babi (later, Baha’i) movement in 1844, she advocated the equality of men and women, and the complete reformulation of Muslim law to meets the needs of a New Age. She is best known for causing consternation by deliberately entering a gathering of religious Muslim men in Iran (1848) without a veil, as a symbolic act of defiance. She was imprisoned and eventually executed as a heretic in 1852.

The following sampling of poems, translated by Amin Banani and Anthony A. Lee, are reprinted from from the book Tahirih: A Portrait in Poetry: Selected Poems of Qurratu’l-‘Ayn (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2004).

 


Point by Point

If I meet you face to face, I
will retell—erase!—my heartbreak,
pain by pain,
word by word,
point by point.

In search of you—just your face!—I
roam through the streets lost in disgrace,
house to house,
place to place,
door to door.

My heart hopeless—broken, crushed!—I
heard it pound, till blood gushed from me,
fountain by fountain,
river by river,
sea by sea.

The garden of your lips—your cheeks!—
your perfumed hair, I wander there,
bloom to bloom,
rose to rose,
scent to scent.

Your eyebrow—your eye!—and the mole
on your face, somehow they tie me,
trait to trait,
passion to passion,
love to love.

While I grieve, with love—your love!—I
will reweave the fabric of my soul,
thread by thread,
warp by warp,
woof by woof.

Last, I searched my heart—page by page!—I
looked line by line. What did I find?
You and you,
you and you,
you and you.

Editor’s Note: This poem is the best known of Tahirih’s poems. It is addressed to the spirit, her mystic Lover. Many of her poems are written to the Divine Beloved. It was common for male poets within the Sufi tradition to address God as a beloved woman (Rumi, Hafez, Omar Qayyam). For a woman to address God in similar terms was shocking for the time.

 


Start Shouting!

Angels! Saints! All you holy ones above!
My true lover just walked in. Start shouting!

Night turned to day, dark into light. He’s here
without a veil to hide his face. Start singing!

The Sun is up, it’s rising in the West.
You armies of God’s ecstasy! Start moving!

Iran set aflame, and Tehran burning.,
pure spirit rises from his place. Start dancing!

At daybreak nightingales don’t sing. The cock
struts out and birds of Glory start praising.

When my lover asks, Am I not your Lord?
even the gods reply in awe, Thou art.

His mighty river overflows, and floods
a thousand desert Karbalas —to start.

The arches of his eyes will make the feuds
of warring faiths and creeds to disappear.

Moses and Jesus in heaven are stunned,
and all the holy ones are lost down here.

Two thousand Muhammads hear thunderbolts,
they wrap themselves in cloaks, tremble in fear.

The sea storms—it casts up its shining pearls.
To give way to the sun, the dawn makes haste.

Men melt, mountains quake before his beauty.
His majesty lays whole kingdoms to waste.

And me, destroyed by two strands of his hair.
The moon of his face drives me to despair.

Beloved, when will I see you up there,
see the light of your face, the shine of your hair?

The moon now has me mad with restless love
in the agony of my separation.

Editor’s Note: This poem also celebrates Tahirih’s “Lover” and her mystic ecstasy in the presence of the Spirit.

 


Proclamation

Now hear me!

Since I proclaim what’s manifest and true.
I speak the word of victory to you.

Strip off your rags of law and pious fashion.
Leap naked into the sea of compassion!

And how long in this wicked world of war
will you stray from your homeland, and how far?

Say: Be! My Cause, it is both clear and plain:
What comes from God returns to God again.

Editor’s Note: Her willingness to discard law, custom, and religious convention in favor of mystical reunion is conveyed in this poem, which represents a remarkable act of defiance for a woman in nineteenth-century Iran. She urges her followers to “strip naked” and jump into the life of the spirit.

 


Just Let the Wind . . .

Just let the wind untie my perfumed hair,
my net would capture every wild gazelle.

Just let me paint my flashing eyes with black,
and I would turn the day as dark as hell.

Yearning, each dawn, to see my dazzling face,
the heaven lifts its golden looking-glass.

If I should pass a church by chance today,
Christ’s own virgins would rush to my gospel.

Editor's Note: This poem also reflects Tahirih’s bold willingness to have her voice heard. She insists on her own power and her place in history. Rather than seeing her gender as a weakness, she asserts her femininity as a power that can subdue the world. The message is clear: Don’t mess with me!

 


Running After You

So many will die of grief in their chains,
trembling with desire, running after you.

Although my true love comes to ravish me,
I’ll stand before his sword, and gladly too.

My cruel lover invades my bed at dawn,
and I see beauty—the sunrise breaks through.

No pagan in China has such roguish eyes.
No musk compares to his hair wet with dew.

You ride past God and common folk careless—
just women, horse and saddle in your view.

You scorn this wine, you curse who pours it, to
follow hollow penance. What can I do?

I’ll walk the beggar's path—though bad—it’s mine.
It’s Alexander’s road that you pursue.

Ride past my camp, on your road to nowhere.
May you have all you wish, for it’s your due.

Editor’s Note: While under house arrest in Tehran in 1852, some time before her execution, she was summoned to the presence of the Shah of Iran, who was curious to see this now-famous woman. Apparently, he liked her looks and proposed—most likely in a poem—to make her one of his wives, if she would abandon her new religion. The following is supposed to have been her reply. Her contempt for the king and her love for the “true Beloved” are almost perfectly balanced here.