Sholeh Wolpé is a poet, visual artist and playwright. She is the author of Sin—Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press), The Scar Saloon (Red Hen Press), Rooftops of Tehran (Red Hen Press, Jan. 2008), Shame (a play in three acts) and has a Poetry CD featuring poems read by the author to traditional Persian music (Refuge Studios). She is the associate editor of The Norton Anthology of Modern Literature from the Muslim World (Norton, 2010), the editor of The Atlanta Review-- Iran Issue (2010), and her poems, translations, essays and reviews have appeared in scores of literary journals, periodicals and anthologies worldwide, and have been translated into several languages. Sholeh was born in Iran but spent most of her teen years in the Caribbean and Europe, ending up in the U.S. where she pursued Masters degrees in Radio-TV-Film (Northwestern University ) and Public Health (Johns Hopkins University ). She lives in Los Angeles.
I Am Neda
Leave the Basiji bullet in my heart,
fall to prayer in my blood,
and hush, father
--I am not dead.
More light than mass,
I flood through you,
breathe with your eyes,
stand in your shoes, on the rooftops,
in the streets, march with you
in the cities and villages of our country
shouting through you, with you.
I am Neda—thunder on your tongue.
On June 20th, 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26 year old Iranian woman and a student of philosophy who was attending a demonstration in Tehran protesting the vote-count fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was aimed at and shot in the heart by a Basiji hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. In the jittery cell phone video of a bystander who captured her murder, we hear her father wailing her name, begging her to stay, not to leave, as blood gushes from her chest and streams out of her mouth. The name Neda in Persian means “The call.”
Azza – The ceremony of grief
Women in black rock
their bodies, beat their chests,
girl-children serve in glass
tumblers steaming auburn tea,
baklava on plastic trays.
Here, tears flow like streams,
wet the ornate Persian rugs
and in the courtyard
where she poured kerosene on her head, struck a match,
silver fish roam the small pond, oblivious.
On the other side of the yard, men sit
with hookah pipes, crack salted pistachios.
The butcher who was to take the girl as bride
sits on an embroidered cushion, strokes his twisting gray mustache.
Jerusalem, August 10, 2001
Rabbis rush out into blood-
splashed streets in white gloves
picking up pieces
from the sidewalks
dusty hoods of dented cars.
A hand, a toe, a nose.
For to rest in peace
one must be buried whole.
A child, her tears thinning
the blood on her cheeks,
stumbles over bodies, calling out
to her mother and when she finds her
she cannot fathom why her mother will not rise,
take her hand and lead her away.
A man bleeds from a gap
between his legs as he begs
for help from a soldier
who’s really just a boy in uniform.
The boy throws down his gun
vomits not just the breakfast
his mother made him that morning.
Will the rabbis see this and rush over,
pick up with their white gloves
the tenderness of this boy splashed
on the sidewalk and put it back
inside him so he can be whole again?
It's a Man's World To the End of the End
I am a woman. Simply.
To look at me is a sin —
I must be veiled.
To hear my voice is a temptation
that must be hushed.
For me to think is a crime
so I must not be schooled.
I am to bear it all
and die quietly, without complaint.
Only then can I be admitted to the court of God
where I must repose naked on a marble cloud
feed virtuous men succulent grapes
pour them wine from golden vats
and murmur songs of love…
I Belong Nowhere
I belong nowhere. Every language I speak, I speak with an accent. I eat Persian food in the British style – with a knife and a fork instead of a spoon and a fork. I kiss Americans Persian style – a kiss on each cheek. I entertain Persians American style – I cook one main course rather than the customary Persian three or four courses when entertaining guests. I know the body language of the Trinidadians, what it means to roll one’s eyes a particular way, or the meaning of sucking air between the teeth and the tongue. But these are mere gestures. Cultural habits. The foreignness I speak of manifests itself in what the eye can see and what the ears can hear and what the senses can feel --- still, it goes deeper. It exists at the level of the heart.
Being a foreigner everywhere, not belonging anywhere, can be disquieting but once you’re over that, it is liberating. Suddenly you find yourself part of something greater, something indefinable and exhilaratingly new. You are granted access to places the existence of which is not on most people’s radars. Places that clear a path to a strange kind of knowledge, something that is learned instinctively and without instruction. Once there, empathy comes easily. You melt into other people’s skins, look through their eyes at the world, without judgment or even agreement – your only desire being: to understand.
I do not write to create art. To me, life itself is art and it is creating me. Word by word, gesture by gesture, sight by sight, note by note. It is hard to feel hatred in such a world. Pity, yes, empathy, yes, but never hatred. Hatred is a fire that consumes and leaves behind ashes good for nothing but to rub on one's face and mourn the loss of beauty. Perhaps I write to express only this.