Editor: Aakrith Harikumar
I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love…
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
When one thinks of Ayatollah Khomeini, the late Iranian cleric and prominent figure of the 1979 Islamic revolution, one commonly envisions a devout, bearded man dressed in a long black robe. However, his poetry reveals a lesser-known aspect of the cleric, one that remained concealed from the general public until his passing. The poem above, along with 300 others, appeared in the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, shortly after his death in 1989.
“Both a Censor and Creator”
As the foremost Islamic authority in Iran at the time, Khomeini had the power to issue fatwas, or religious edicts, against what he considered blasphemous. Thirty-four years ago, this manifested as Khomeini’s controversial condemnation of British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, where he publicly called for the assassination of Rushdie. Khomeini’s fatwa triggered widespread outrage and solidified his reputation as a foe of free expression in the Western world, leading BBC writer Benjamin Ramm to describe Khomeini as “both a censor and creator”. Along with threatening Rushdie’s life, Khomeini and his government arrested and executed several Iranian writers, poets, journalists, directors, and artists whose work was deemed treacherous by the regime.
Khomeini’s writing, however, carries delicacy with it. His words conjure a sense of romanticism, as demonstrated by the following passages:
I am a supplicant for a goblet of wine
from the hand of a sweetheart.
In whom can I confide this secret of mine?
Where can I take this sorrow?
While Khomeini’s close associates assert that his words are purely devout, they seem to possess a fluid significance.
Khomeini’s 1988 Campaign of Violence
Much of the violence that unfolded during the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war can be directly attributed to Khomeini himself. This included the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners and suspected opposition figures, including many who had initially supported Khomeini in his fight against the Shah. Conservative estimates suggest that the death toll reached approximately 5,000 individuals. The massacres in 1988 have been described as “Iran’s most significant act of inhumanity,” an event unparalleled in modern Iranian history in terms of both scale and concealment.
Once again, however, Khomeini’s actions provide a stark contrast to his prose. In an unfinished poem titled “Fresh Rose Petal”, the young cleric’s words and ideas concerning the human experience seem oddly relatable:
O Angel-faced! Your body is as soft as a fresh rose petal.
Why is your heart harder than the rock?
The fruit of beauty is a sweet kiss.
The Cypress does bear fruit after all.
By delving into Khomeini’s poetry, one can begin to understand the dichotomy between mystical Islam and political Islam. Above all, Khomeini’s lost poetry allows us to humanize one of the most infamous figures of the 20th century, adding depth to our otherwise one-dimensional perception of him.