It's no surprise that Majid Naficy begins his biography with the reading of a poem, but the poem's horrifying significance becomes clear only has his life story unfolds in the Voice of America Portrait, now available with English subtitles.
Eight paces from the gate,
Sixteen paces toward the wall.
Which scroll speaks of this treasure?
If only I could feel your pulse
Or make a jug out of your body.
Alas! I'm not a physician.
I'm not a potter.
I am only an heir, deprived,
wandering in search of a marked treasure.
Oh, hand that will bury me,
This is the mark of my tomb:
Eight paces from the gate,
Sixteen paces toward the wall.
In the Cemetery of the Infidels.
Majid started writing poems at 10 while living in Isfahan, Iran, and gave his first book of poems to his older brother Hamid on his 21st birthday. It contained “Elegy of Myself” inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” His brother showed the poems to Iranian poets, who brought the young boy into workshops, and soon he began publishing in Iranian journals, with the blessings of iconic Iranian poets F. Farrokhzad and A. Shamlou.
Majid became known as one of The New Wave poets in Iran and critics called him Iran’s Arthur Rimbaud.
He published poetry, criticism, and a children’s book The Secret of Words on the origins of language, which won The Royal Book Prize in 1971.
He joined the Iranian Students Confederation and became a devoted Marxist, and wrote poetry and essays under aliases bent to reform Iran, which at the time was ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi.
Majid met his wife Ezzat Tabaiyan in a coffee shop near Teheran University, where they both were students. They were married in 1979.
They were both involved in the Revolution that brought the new regime to power with the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, invading the headquarters of the SAVAK (secret police of the Shah) and conquering Evin Prison, where political prisoners were held.
However, they soon ran afoul of the new regime, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. They were both members of an organization called “Struggle for The Liberations of the Working Class,” which took two very critical stands against Khomeini: they objected to the taking of American diplomats as hostages after the revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy Teheran in 1979 and they voiced opposition to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980. Ezzat was executed by firing squad on January 7, 1982 with 50 men and one other woman, all buried in unmarked graves in Khavaran Cemetery, known as the Cemetery of the Infidels. Families were obliged to determine the burial locations by measuring paces.
The poem above recounts those graveyard searches, and is entitled:
in memory of my late wife Ezzat Tabaiyan
“She gave her life for freedom,” Majid says, “and freedom is always a precious pledge for me, which I will try to live up to, for myself, for people in the United States, and for people of Iran, my birthplace.”
The revolutionary tribunals also condemned his brother Sa’id and brother-in-law Hossein to the firing squads.
A year after his wife’s execution, he met Esmat, his second wife, and together they escaped to Turkey in 1983, just steps ahead of his own arrest, and eventually, after a brief stay in France, made their way to Los Angeles.
The grief and stress of those horrifying years caused an emotional crisis during which “poetry invaded me like a waterfall.” During this time, he wrote 111 poems in 4 months, producing a collection of poetry, After the Silence and many anthologized poems in both Persian and English. He realized he had become the voice for “my fallen comrades in that stolen revolution.”
A stanza of his poem “Ah, Los Angeles” is engraved on a wall along the pathways in Venice, California, along with 15 other poets who’ve written poems about the city.
Ah, Los Angeles!
Let me bend down and put my ear
To your warm skin.
Perhaps in you
I will find my own Sanjan.
He says that the stanza—from a much longer poem, posted in full in the blog item just below this one—represents a question: Can Iranians create a as strong a community in Los Angeles as the one created by Persians in Sanjan, India, after Persia was invaded during the Muslims Conquests of the 7th Century.
In the profile, Majid opens only a small window to his writing process. “For me, writing poetry comes from the subconscious. Most of the time, I first write my poems in Persian, and then I translate them to English. Only after that do I start to edit them.
“I have run 12 consecutive LA marathons, and always reached the finish line for all of them. Always, during the running, poems come to me. Parallel to by body perspiration, I have a mental cleansing as well. Many of my new poems come to me…when I’m pedaling my stationary bike on my balcony.”
Who are his favorite poets?
”I still read Walt Whitman now and then. He inspired me to write poetry when I was 10 years old. I also like to read classical Persian poets such as Ferdowsi, Rumi, Sa’di, Hafez Nezami, and Khayyam as well as contemporary Persian poets such as Nima Yushij, Ahmad Shamlu, Forough Farokhzad and Sohrab Sepehri.”
“Majid’s poetry is becoming an exception in Persian literature,” says Poet and critic Parto Nooriala. “He creates modern poetry relying on deep emotion and deep knowledge about classical Persian literature.”
“I consider myself part of that global movement in which people seek freedom and social justice,” he says. “This movement is not defined by any ideology or religion.”
His son Azad was born in Santa Monica. [Azadi is the Persian word for freedom.] Majid cultivated roots in this second homeland. His son Azad writes hip-hop lyrics and there’s a fine example of one of his raps in the video.
The profile closes with a view from Majid and Azad of the father’s slowly degenerating vision, which became evident when he was very young, diagnosed as degenerative spots on his retinas by U.S. physicians. It had been controllable, until he climbed Mt. Whitney in 2001, and altitude sickness caused the condition to worsen. Majid is nearly blind, though can get around on foot and via public transportation.
“My eyesight impairment is an obstacle,” he says, “but its challenges polish my spirit and lead me to new possibilities. Blindness has made me humble, and brought me to understand the injustice to others, religious persecution, women under double oppression, or the homeless and poor.”
To a Snail
Were you not afraid of my big foot
Last night, in the rain
You crept into my sneaker
To find shelter.
You return to your green birthplace
And I am jealous.
Majid Naficy, the Arthur Rimbaud of Persian poetry, fled Iran in 1983, a year and a half after the execution of his wife Ezzat Tabaian, his brother Sa’id, and brother-in-law Hossein in Tehran. Since 1984 Majid has been living in West Los Angeles. He has published two collections of poetry in English Muddy Shoes (Beyond Baroque, Books, 1999) and Father and Son (Red Hen Press, 2003) as well as his doctoral dissertation at UCLA Modernism and Ideology in Persian Literature (University Press of America, 1997). Majid has also published more than twenty books of poetry and essays in Persian.
Majid Naficy's poetry has been anthologized in many books including Poetry in the Windows edited by Suzanne Lummis, Poets Against War edited by Sam Hamill, Strange Times My Dear: The Pen Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature edited by Nahid Mozaffari and Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Lounge Lit: An Anthology of Poetry and Fiction by the Writers of Literati Cocktail and Rhapsodomancy, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians around the World edited by Niloufar Talebi, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events edited by Tom Lombardo, Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing edited by Ilan Stavans, Revolutionary Poets Brigade Anthology edited by Jack Hirschman and Mark Lipman, and Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here edited by Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi.
Majid is one of the six poets featured in the film Poetry of Resilience directed by the Oscar-nominated documentary film-maker Katja Esson. He was the first writer in residence in Annenberg Community Beach House, Santa Monica in 2009-10, and the judge for Interboard Poetry Community contests in 2009. Majid has received awards in two poetry contests, Poetry in the Windows sponsored by the Arroyo Arts Collective as well as Poetry and Recipe organized by Writers at Work in Los Angeles. His poetry has been engraved by the City in public spaces in Venice Beach and Studio City. His life and work was featured in LA Weekly, February 9-15, 2001 written by Louise Steinman, entitled "Poet of Revolution: Majid Naficy's Tragic Journey Home".