The title of this anthology of Iranian women's poetry, collected and translated into English by Iranian-born American-based poet and woman of letters Sheema Kalbasi, refers to the narrative of the medieval Persian allegory Mantegh ot-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) written by Farid od-Din Attar.
Attar, one of the seminal figures of early Persian literature, was also one of the most committed advocates of the doctrines of the incipient Islamic mystical movement, Sufism. Attar's literary concepts, such as the motif of 'the Seven Valleys of Love', had a profound effect on not only future Persian-speaking poets (most notably Rumi and Hafez); but also introduced, or at least for the first time articulated unambiguously, a number of tenets of one of the medieval world's most significant and enduring theosophical schools.
Among these notions was Eshgh (literally 'Love'), which, in a Greco-Western episteme, seems closer to agape than either philia or eros. This ideal was most vividly illustrated in Attar's abovementioned narrative verse, in which a group of thirty birds embarks on a journey to meet the majestic Si-morgh a mythological giant bird symbolizing wisdom. Instead of finding the Si-morgh as such, however, the birds experience something ostensibly more poignant: they undergo the Sufi concept of Fana (Annihilation). At the end of the tale, as a consequence of enduring the arduous journey and traversing the Seven Valleys of Love, the birds have somewhat unwittingly effaced their selves (or egos); and have, as a result, unified to constitute an assembly of thirty birds, that is in Persian si (thirty) morgh (bird/s). The ordinary birds have, in other words, become the legendary Si-morgh in and of themselves.
It is of great interest and pertinence that Ms Kalbasi has named her anthology after the above mystical idiom. Many of the poets presented in this volume have experienced journeys similar to those of the parabolic birds; and it can be said that these authors, by the virtue of being women in an intransigently and institutionally patriarchal society such as Iran, have too had their egos threatened (although by no means 'annihilated'), and that they too have succeeded in not only surviving the travails and brutalities of sexism but have also found a Sufi-esque kind of love, solidarity and inspiration that has resulted in passionate and provocative poetry.
This is not to say, however, that this collection presents a 'journey of self-discovery' in a positivist, New Ageist sense; and neither can all the authors collected in The Seven Valleys of Love be classified as classic survivors. The mid 19th century poet Tahereh Ghoratolein, for example, was brutally murdered by the then Shah of Iran because she repudiated the hejab veil in public and proselytized for the banned Baha'i faith. The poem of hers included in this book, a close-formed ode or ghazal, can be seen as a poem of intense, almost agonistic, yearning for an unattainable beloved. It is by no means a generic 'feel good' love poem; but a profoundly devotional and theological exploration of melancholy or, as Keats may have it, 'the wakeful anguish of the soul.'
The lyrics of the above martyred feminist sit alongside those of other articulate and committed Iranian women poets in Ms Kalbasi's unique anthology. One of the other great strengths of Ms Kalbasi's work is her decision to present lesser-known poets in place of such well-known figures as Forugh Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani and Parvin Etesami. This editorial decision is visionary and courageous. By bringing new and/or marginalized poets to an international readership, Ms Kalbasi has broken one of the most stifling taboos of poetry anthologies that of presenting only the famous/classic 'public' poets and has, as a result, opened a new front in giving voice to female artists usually denied exposure by unapologetically sexist and/or elitist culture industries in Iran as well as the Anglophone world.
Another important and immensely valuable dimension of this anthology can be found not only in the shared identity of the authors presented their being Iranian and/or Persian-speaking women but in the poems themselves, and in the range and diversity of periods, voices, discourses and poetic genres included in the book. The Seven Valleys of Love comprises poems from medieval Arabic/Turkish ruled Persia; as well as poems from the independent unitary Iranian kingdoms of the Safavid and Ghajar monarchs; as well as works by modernists and post-modernists of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the Islamic Republic. Included are also poems written in Persian by members of the considerable Iranian diaspora communities. Therefore Ms Kalbasi's selection cuts across not only chronological divides but also aesthetical and ideological chasms. Some of the poems here are versified, others are free-formed/prosaic; some are romantic/erotic in a broad sense, others speak to the specific socio-political contexts in which they were articulated.
My final evaluation of this exciting new anthology concerns what at least for today's mainstream Western readers may constitute the book's most noticeable characteristic: its representation of work by poets from Iran, that terminally demonized/dehumanized 'axis of Evil' nation that has seemingly been at war with the West since the Battle of Marathon between ancient Greeks and Persians in 490 BCE. It is my belief that by exposing the journey of Iran's women poets through 'the Seven Valleys of Love' Ms Kalbasi has depicted and emphasized the humanity and dignity of one of world's most misunderstood peoples, and has made a significant contribution to facilitating a cross-cultural dialogue in place of a nefarious 'Clash of Civilizations.'
– Dr. Ali Alizadeh
Seven Valleys of Love, compiled and translated by Sheema Kalbasi, is written with a piercing clarity and a profound intensity of emotion. Her ability to preserve the integrity and poetical sensibility of the work is evident in her mastery of language, editing, and translation.
Seven Valleys of Love is a vibrant celebration of extraordinary women’s voices. The colorful and lively verses in this dazzling collection emerge as small, quiet explosions out of the shadows of hopelessness and seek to inspire and restore peace, hope, and harmony in its people. Seven Valleys of Love calls us to appreciate that though adversity and pity pertain to every human heart, the presence of loveliness and forgiveness also exists in the invincible human spirit. A superb book that demands to be held or cupped gently in the hand so not to spill the sumptuous beauty, light wit, and sharp-eyed acuity it is teeming with.
Sheema Kalbasi elegantly captures the relationship between the troubled voices lamenting to the inner self and the enlightened voices delivering touching bursts of insight and joy. This stunning anthology of love and loss bears witness to a passionate and sorrowful longing, a deep plaintiveness for the ageless plight of expression. A pining that lurks like the wind, at times turbulent and smothering and in other moments soothingly obliging, as unexpected and stealthy as the warm breath or whisper of a lover or assailant on the neck, “panting at the night”, capable of really anything.
– Desi Di Nardo
For several years now, Iranian friends have invited me to attend Norooz (Norouz, in the other, French-based transliteration), the Persian New Year’s spring equinox festival, here in Southern California. And every year, the sight of this vibrant, ever-growing immigrant community makes me think again of how one could better present their magnificent, but mosty misunderstood culture to the public at large. Indeed the din of antagonism in the West” has raged practically unabated from the Persian wars with Greece (culminating in the battle of Marathon of 490 BCE), to recent hostile talk about the “axis of evil.” Centuries, if not millenia of sloganeering by agenda-driven politicians on both sides have all but drowned out the words of normal enlightened people and led Westerners to forget the many life-enhancing features we have borrowed from Persian culture and society, whether directly or indirectly, via Muslim Spain. But above all, this cant has tragically prevented the voices of the poets from reaching us. In the other direction, Western influences did flow East, but due only to an equally inauspicious presumption of Western colonialist superiority.
Persians and today’s Iranians have always been a people with a strong poetic tradition. In
English, several classic poets are available, beginning with the influential Omar Khayyam translation by Edward FitzGerald in 1859. There are some anthologies of contemporary poets available, notably the one edited by Iranian poet Mahmud Kianush (Rockingham Press, UK), which includes a few 20th century women. But in general, poetry by Persian and Iranian women of the past and the present is almost unknown in the West, except perhaps for that of Forugh Farrokhzad (1935- 1967), who died so young, and Simin Behbahani (1927-), nominated for the Nobel Prize of literature in 1997. Farrokhzad’s words “Out of the deep of dimness/ Out of the deep of darkness/ And out of the deep of night I speak[,]” placed by the editor as the epigraph of the second part titled “Contemporary,” seem to me to be emblematic of the entire female poetic output of this anthology. Yet instead of being true only of the darkness from which ushers the poet’s voice, they are axiomatic also of the darkness of ignorance that surrounds us.
But there is light: Sheema Kalbasi, the Iranian-born and U.S.-based poet and scholar, has edited this book and translated all of the poets. “Seven Valleys of Love,” the title Kalbasi has chosen for this beautiful volume, is highly appropriate for her undertaking. It comes from a signal Medieval Persian allegory inspired by Sufism, “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid od-Din Attar, whose themes are love and a search for divine unity, and which in Persian literature represents the equivalent of Dante or Milton in Europe. Chaucer was the first to render it freely into English.
Kalbasi has judiciously opted for the broadest chronological setting, bringing us an anthology of native Iranian and/or Persian-writing by women from Medieval Persia to present-day Iran. Brief vitas of each poet in alphabetical order are appended. As a poet in her own right, Sheema Kalbasi has rendered the texts in a language that is convincing in and of itself. No prose translations here, as in the famous Penguin country-by-country series of poetry of old, but something that is much more challenging: translations that are not only lively, compelling and expressive, but faithful renditions, with meter and rhyme corresponding to the original. In a language that is alternately succinct and pungent, lyrical and lilting, but always daring and persuasive, the voices of these women poets, thanks to this expert translator, dispel the intervening centuries like a fog. Poets exhort other women or celebrate the brown curls of their paramours. The classic poet Padeshah Khatoon exhorts her lover:
I am the woman who dwells in grace,
Covered and veiled but audacious.
But Khatoon is hardly the only one speaking out. Zaifie, of the 15th century, admonishes her man in a poem that reads, deftly and almost comically, in its entirety:
O you who are a man of despair,
Fragile, feeble and not an heir.
You command me about, and howl without care,
But devoid of my aid you cannot
appear or even inhale air.
In a poem where every stanza ends in “I am,” Tahereh Ghoratolein seems to invoke the cosmic imagery dear to Sufi and other mysticism:
You who are the sun and the light. I, a speck, a spot, I am.
Ghoratolein, Parvin Shamsolhajieh and many other women write in the ghazal, a diversely formed genre of love poetry in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, with textual repetitions that seem to stem from far earlier traditions of oral poetry. Decrying the vagaries of fashion, Fakhr Ozma Arghoon begins apodictically: “Neither the beauty nor the face/ makes a woman,” and at the end enjoins us sisters:
O woman, try and arise for that is the best of fashion. Knowledge is precious in Fakhr’s vision, try and earn it like an artisan.
Typical of the modern era is the self-assessment of Leila Kasra in „Know Me,“ interspersed as it is with convincing snippets of casual reality:
In me there is a woman
Drinking hot coffee
Inside a mountain cabin...
About her lover’s absence, Mina Dastgheib sounds as vivid and contemporary as any Western woman, from Alfonsina Storni (Argentina) or Sibilla Aleramo (Italy) of the first half of the twentieth century, to Sarah Kirsch (Germany) and Louise Glück (United States) of the second half:
You are absent
And I look at the wind
At the earth, the leaves and the wall
At the face
As I look longingly at the beautiful Farsi script trailing the right margins, wishing I could read it, I notice that many of the poems seem to go on longer than their English versions. And I cannot help but wonder if the appearance of the English verses ought not to correspond more closely to the original.
This is a wonderful book to leaf around in. It invites us on a magical journey of reading and rereading these distant yet ultimately familiar women poets, of perceiving through their glass, whether darkly or brightly, the life of a society we yearn to get to know better. Some poets, like the marvelous Rosa Jamali who perceives parts of the body, such as a hand, as a landscape, seem like women I would like to meet and talk with over a cup of tea. Having wisely decided to pubish her anthology in a bilingual format, Sheema Kalbasi no only enlightens Westerners who wish to understand Persian culture, Persian poetry, and Persian women, but she allows Iranians at any Norooz celebrated in the diaspora to hold fast to their inspiring heritage, language, and poetry. Maybe the way to end hostilities once and for all and enjoy each other’s culture will ultimately be via the vast communities of Iranians living in the diaspora.
– Ute Margaret Saine
Born in Tehran, Iran, and now living in the Washington, D.C. area, Sheema Kalbasi is a poet, human rights activist and the editor/translator of Seven Valleys of Love, which features over one thousand years of Persian women's poetry. What makes this collection remarkable is that these voices are gathered in one book, making them all finally accessible to an English-speaking audience. In the introduction by Dr. Ali Alizadeh, we learn that the titular "Seven Valleys of Love" refers to a medieval Persian fable, called Mantegh ot-Tayr, or Conference of the Birds, written by Farid od-Din Attar. In the story, thirty birds journey to find the Si-morgh, a mythical bird symbolizing wisdom. They never find the Si-morgh after crossing the Seven Valleys of Love; instead, their individual identities are erased and reformed into the Si-morgh. Like the birds finding greater strength through unity, the women represented in Seven Valleys combine their individual talents into a formidable assembly.
The poems in this collection are no more than forty-two lines long, yet they all make their message palatably clear to the reader in a short amount of space. These are poems of longing and loss, yet they all honor the esteemed place poetry holds in Persian culture. In addition, these female poets are reveling in their right to freely speak their minds and transfer their hearts onto the page—certainly not a small feat in the eleventh or even the twenty-first century (in the last thirty years Iranian women writers have struggled to be heard in their own country due to the Cultural Revolution of 1979 as well as the current leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). With so many Iranians living abroad as a result of the Cultural Revolution, a poetry collection such as this one is made all the more important, strengthening national pride, and also applauding Iranian women writers across genres and across the ages.
One remarkable classic poet, Tahereh Ghoratolein, born in 1817, was one of the founders of the Baha'i religion, which teaches unity and one-worldism. She unveiled herself in public in 1848 and as a result of this crime and her Baha'i faith, the Shah of Iran sentenced her to death in 1853. Her poem is in the form of a modified ghazal, a 5-couplet rhyming form popular among Persian and other Arabic poets. In the ghazal, the poet speaks of unrequited love:
You who are the Mecca
And the seeker dressed in white,
You who are the mosque
And the shrine, you who are
The pleasure and the right.
I, the deflated lover, I am.
"Come to me," the Beloved said,
"Free from the blindness and pride."
I, manifestation of the One, I am.
When you love Tahereh, she becomes
A woman and shines, drunk by your
wine, awaiting you, the sublime divine.
I, Eve offering the apple, I am.
In this case, Ghoratolein writes about how she is not worthy of the love of her beloved and that she is like Eve who wickedly tempts her lover. She is human, unlike her lover, who is god-like. Ghoratolein and other poets in this collection reference Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden to represent lost innocence and the failings of mankind (Adam and Eve are not only found in Genesis, but also in the Quran, the Talmud, and in various gnostic texts).
Padeshah Khatoon, a thirteenth century artist and poet who was later assassinated, also alludes to Eve as she voices her strong views about perception and reality. In just a few lines we feel her pride and anger:
I am the woman, who dwells in grace,
Covered and veiled but audacious.
O, you who behest me to abide by his rules
Do not veil me! Enthrone me! Thus
Live Eve and the Empress.
To zephyrs travel, those who are pretentious
Fairness and goodness are my resting place.
Not every able one is a seaman or has a face,
Not everyone disguised is as pure or chaste.
In "Adam!" by contemporary poet Farzaneh Seyed Saeedi, the subject of Adam and Eve drive the poem's theme of longing:
I am lost among so many Eves
And you among so many choices
Giving life to Cain
Captivated by the earth without an
How will you indeed find me?
In many of the contemporary poems Kalbasi selects, we see imagistic elements that reference ordinary details from the real world to describe love and longing. In "Matrimony," by poet and translator Farideh Hassanzadeh, we hear a woman who loves her husband, yet both are unable to deeply connect with each other.
We pass one another
I walk to the kitchen
You depart for the office
I walk to the mountain of plates and clothes
And you are off to the forest of desks or files.
We pass one another
Now and again
Without a glance
At night our bodies
Find time to socialize
Despite the silence
Despite the exhaustion
A few more editorial details contained within the pages of this collection would have enhanced my reading. Each woman's story is fascinating; reading the poem, the poem's date of publication, and the poet’s background together on the same page would have given me a clearer sense of the woman and her work. Instead, I had to settle for reading each poet's story in the biography section and learn that many of these women were leaders and innovators and put to death because of their views. Also, in either an appendix or in the front matter, a joint Western and Persian timeline would have given me and other Western readers a better historical perspective, contextualizing the various literary periods represented in this collection.
All of these poems honor Persian women's courage and their need to express themselves, especially during times when they were violently suppressed. Seven Valleys of Love is a one-of-a-kind collection that celebrates Persian culture, life and the universality of love.
– Alice Osborn, The Pedestal Magazine