VAHID DAVAR is a poet from Qalat, a town near Shiraz, who fled from Iran and came to Liverpool as a refugee. In Liverpool, he wrote Nassim’s Testament, an epic telling the story of his journey through the eyes of himself and an imagined version of his departed friend. The following extracts are taken from his dissertation, which explains how and why he composed the poem, and translated it into English. He considers how migration demands a sacrifice; a translation of the self – and whether a new language can be a resurrection.
My friend, Alireza Nassimi was a swan, a black swan. He lived a hermitic life and died a death of absolute loneliness. Alireza and I were in an unrequited love for Shiraz, that behemoth Narcissus. Shiraz did not like its admirers, its poets. It was a Jerusalem who stoned its messengers. So, we pined away until all that remained of us were our voices, our poems. Alireza went west, and I went to the West. He went to Qalat, a village near Shiraz, and in a sleety night overdosed, after he gave his manuscripts to fire.
For seven years after my friend’s death in a ravine in Qalat, a village near Shiraz, my throat was occluded with a morsel of grief, but all my efforts to make him a garland with my words were doomed to failure. My overpowering grief was intermingled with a fear that what I would produce might well be prone to become, in Tennyson’s words, a “sad mechanic exercise in measured language” (In Memoriam).
My migration to England took place some six years after Alireza’s translation into the netherworld. Maybe I was like H. D.’s Helen, who “need[ed] peace and time to reconstruct the legend” (Helen in Egypt). I finally found the peace, time, and breath I needed, in Liverpool, where my prenatal silence of travelling in the dark of a shipping container ended, and I opened my eyes to a different world.
In September 2018, a wooden wall which separates a construction site from a pavement at Great George Street in Liverpool was covered with a long list of 34,361 documented deaths of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants who had lost their lives within or on the borders of Europe since 1993 “due to the restrictive policies of ‘Fortress Europe’” I found myself several times standing in front of that list of many fates, gawping at the names, ages, regions of origin and causes of deaths. The list was a frame containing a myriad of stories; stories of us, stowaways and steerage passengers of the world. It was a memorial to poverty, as opposed to “a memorial to money” which is what Robert Hampson calls St George’s Hall in Seaport.
It did not take someone more than a week to come and daub ‘INVADERS NOT REFUGEES!’ on the list. I could not thank the unknown hatemonger enough, for they made me rethink a key concept in an epiphanous moment. I loosely translated the three English words in my mind and came up with a slogan in Persian: “MOHAJEM NA MOHAJER!”. I told myself, “let me see things through their eyes. They are the ghost defenders of the city. Their monolithicity is at stake. What if I, a man of colour, a writer of scripts that look like scribbles in their eyes, am an invader in effect?” that epiphany broke a seal, and I could see my work’s ethos in a new light.
The two main speakers of Nassim’s Testament, Nassim and Vahid, abandon their village and the ruined poetry they once built on its riverbank, in search of a Kingdom. That Kingdom, we soon find out, is the United Kingdom. Unlike the heroes of the traditional epic, who demonise the Others, Nassim and Vahid are able to see themselves as demons through the eyes of the Others. This is how their flesh is translated at the very outset of their entrance by their hosts.
Vahid has a Persian poem named The Letters, about the migration of Persian scripts. In that short poem, the calligraphed scripts desert a manuscript, going to the blank banks of “the rivers flowing from the left to the right”, and reside there on the margins forever. Persian is written from the right to the left. Vahid sees that poem as an autobiography of himself and Nassim. They migrated to the UK clandestinely, in fear for their lives. They spent days and nights in shipping containers to get to somewhere safe. Once in the UK, they were sent to Liverpool, the city wherein they had to wait for their turn on the day of judgment, to be interviewed by UKBA (UK Border Agency).
It was in an evening when Nassim and Vahid arrived at Liverpool. There was nothing sinister in the air. Year 2013 was before the time when one needed to answer a sphinx’s riddle correctly in order to be let into a city. They were unaware, nonetheless, that modern cities also have their own sphinxes, planted not necessarily at their entrances, but in every corner of them – on the thresholds of every micro-territory. They realised that only after they encountered the frowning Liver birds. What did that emblem mean? It was a scowling heron-like bird holding three leaves with its beak.
A ritual was needed to appease the bird’s wrath: a sacrifice, or an offering was obliged to the Liver bird. Vahid and Nassim were Iranian poets; before then, they had composed poetry only from the right to the left, and not the other way around; they were disarmed now, and empty-handed. They knew that only through writing a tribute to the city, could they cajole the bird into having them in its nest. A poem written and read aloud only in Persian would probably infuriate the bird. Therefore, Vahid and Nassim’s poem had to be forced out of its natal language in order to be accepted as an offering.
On Alireza Nassimi’s burial day, ISNA, The Iranian Students News Agency, published a lie that is the established account of his death to the day. As long as I was in Shiraz after that – that is, for six years – I conformed with the misleading narrative with my smothering silence. But, eventually, there came a time to write a palinode, a rebuttal.
The lie to I was going to respond to even quoted another one of Nassimi’s friends to prove its own forged authenticity: “I will say very clearly what the cause of Alireza Nassimi’s death was. Nassimi, who spent his nights with the homeless to write a little of their reality, was sad because of the coldness we had caused him. He had gone to take refuge in nature’s arms. He went to Qalat to visit his poet friend, Vahid Davar. It was on his way to Davar’s house that he slipped on the snow, [fainted] and froze”. That account, with its melodramatic transparency, banalised the untranslatable opacity of my friend’s death. He had phoned me from a pay phone a few hours before he went to a ravine in close vicinity of where I used to live, unbeknownst to me. He had told his siblings he was going to my place. And it was a sleety night.
Mehdi Hamidi’s allegorical ghazal, the Beautiful Swan, in its depiction of the death of the swan, shows how the bird seeks seclusion, sits on a wave and goes to a distant corner to sing until she dies among her own songs. My ghazal-writer friend sang his swan song when he was in the 33rd year of his life. They say when a scorpion is encircled within a ring of fire, it stings itself. Beckoned by the eidolon of his mother, I suppose, who was stabbed in her youth by Alireza’s father, consumed by addiction and poverty, that “lost angel of a ruined Paradise” stung himself, when self-murder seemed to be his last resort.
I was a frail cygnet when I stepped out of the dark with six other heterogeneous litters of the same womb, the same shipping container. I was too frail to stand in dole queues; I was too frail to endure the Liver bird’s frowning stare; I was not strong enough to see ‘NO REFUGEES’ daubed by the night host on Jamaica Street’s walls. I was in dire need of Nassim, because “one swan and one cygnet / were stronger than all the host / assembled upon the slopes”.
Nassim and Vahid could have been two more names on the list of the documented deaths. There were names on the list as unspecified as “N.N.” and regions of origin as unsure as “Somalia, Iran”. The descriptions were as sharp as “stowaway, found frozen in landing gear of airplane in Brussels” and “drowned after boat capsized, found on beach near Kenitra”. The list was an artwork by Banu Cennetoğlu, presented as part of Liverpool Biennial 2018. I do not know if Cennetoğlu has ever faced ethical questions concerning her cenotaph, since in her craftless work, art is reduced to naked concept.
It is not only modern elegists who question elegising ethically. Jahan Ramazani highlights Hardy’s berating “himself for fashioning numerous poems out of his wife’s death”, Owen’s uneasiness “about profiting artistically from carnage on the battlefield”, and Hill’s worry “that his elegiac poetry, like other artistic, commercial, and historical memorials, helps to make their [the victims of Nazi genocide’s] long death documented and safe” – “the transfiguration of the dead into consolatory art”. Masud Sa’d Salman, the medieval Persian prisoner poet, after his friend’s death briefly wrote: “On Mohammad Alavi’s death / I wanted to breathe a couple of poems out || Methinks, however, that in the world / It is vulgar of one to write a poem henceforth” (my verbatim translation).
Neither Masud Sa’d’s anti-elegy nor its Western counterparts can make me feel ashamed for having composed an elegiac epic. Had I not written Nassim’s Testament, all that would remain about Alireza’s demise would probably be a number of watery posts in the blogosphere, a lie on ISNA, and even worse, a manipulative report on an anti-regime website which attributes his mysterious death to agents of the regime. News headlines mask bodies with scraps. They read: “Two cars badly damaged as skip truck overturns near Walsall Academy” or “Russian warplane shot down by rebels in Syria”. It is as if the press laments the destruction of vehicles. Maybe this provides adequate grounds for elegising.
Nassim’s Testament (extract)
I feared the bird’s gaze
for it resembled UKBA’s
(on the Day of Judgment)
And I told Nassim
that looking for love in its eyes
was nail-scratching a desert mountain
in hope of water
(In the Liver-Eater Bird’s Nest, NT)
Nassim and Vahid found that they were in the bird’s nest. The bird was a sphinx asking riddles, and they would fall prey to its chicks if they failed to answer.
We had just come
and did not know the bird’s name
On the bank of Mersey
a sunny day
it cast shadow on our heads
“Behold! The sphinx of Liverpool!”
Its scream to us sounded like a bomber was
warning two tankers in the Persian Gulf
“it’s time for riddles!
Fortify your heart because my mother’s spirit
will chew the answers and put them in my mouth.”
The bird whirled down from the high above
and alighted on a ferry’s deck
“Adam killed Eve, why?”
“Everyman kills to cry.”
If Christ were to go to Jerusalem today on what would he go?
“Doubtlessly, on a lorry.”
Say my name:
“The Liver-Eater bird.”
(In the Liver-Eater Bird’s Nest, NT)