Literature, art and the remembrance of state violence

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Image: Ava Raha. Used with permission of Trace Press.

Shahrzad Mojab is an activist and an academic at the University of Toronto. She was recently involved in the publication of a book called Lives Lost: In Search of a New Tomorrow, a translation of a powerful poem by Iranian poet Saeed Yousef that remembers the massacre of political prisoners in Iran in the 1980s. Scott Neigh interviews Mojab about the book, the history it remembers, and the importance of such efforts at grassroots rememberance of state violence, particularly through literature, art, and poetry.

Here are the bare bones of the history: In 1953, a democratic government in Iran was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the U.S. and the U.K. The dictatorial regime that followed, led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was in turn overthrown by a popular revolution in 1979. The 1979 revolution was conducted by a range of different forces -- a number of different formations that defined their politics via Islam and a number that understood themselves as secular, including liberal nationalist, socialist and communist. In the aftermath of the revolution, a subset of the Islamist forces seized control of the state. According to Mojab's analysis of events, this served as the "defeat of this revolution." As part of seizing power, and consolidating the regime that continues to rule the country to this day, some participants in both secular and other Islamist forces that participated in the revolution were imprisoned. At various points in the 1980s, particularly in 1981 and 1988, large numbers of these political prisoners were executed.

Mojab is a professor in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, which is part of the University of Toronto. She is also involved in U of T's Women and Gender Studies Institute, of which she is a former director, and she is the current director of equity studies at U of T's New College. Her wide ranging scholarly and activist work over the years has focused on the Middle East and the Arab world, particularly the experiences of women, the struggles of the Kurdish people, and the institutions of the prison and the university, and she has written a number of works on Marxism and feminism.

Saeed Yousef's poem was translated by Ahad Bahadori and is accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Ava Raha. The book was published by trace press, a new not-for-profit publisher based in Toronto.

Mojab described herself as "stunned" and "haunted" by the poem when she first read it. It is a remarkable distillation of a complex story of state violence and resistance into a powerful esthetic representation that serves as a form of grassroots, popular remembering. Though it is well known in Persian, she knew she wanted to do what she could to broaden its reach, and this volume that includes both the original and an English translation is one result.

She characterizes the importance of doing this grassroots remembering in Canada in 2020, of state violence that happened in Iran in the 1980s, in a number of ways. In part, it is out of a sense that past popular struggles and repression deserve to be remembered for their own sake, given their profound impact on so many communities and lives. In part, it is to build awareness of the many political prisoners in Iran today -- she argues that Western imperialism and military intervention have made a number of states in the region more authoritarian and repressive in recent years. But to a great extent, it is about building shared awareness and solidarity across movements around the world-- recognizing that colonialism, capitalism, imperialism and state violence take many different forms in different places, and seeing the potential to build solidarity among those seeking justice and collective liberation in the Middle East and, say, the Black freedom struggle, Indigenous movements and other movements in North America.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out their website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Ava Raha. Used with permission of trace press.

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