As a long-cherished art form and means of raising social awareness across the Middle East, poetry, like music, has played a vital role for millennia in mobilising peoples fighting for freedom and an end to oppression, colonisation and other injustices. Poetry also plays a central part in shaping the revolutionary and civilisational awareness of the masses, with epic poems passed down through generations. When colonised nations and peoples are sunk in despair, lost and unable to identify the means of attaining their freedom or simply surviving, they cling particularly to the men and women of letters and to poets. Poets stand at the forefront of the national psyche in terms of communicating the feelings of grief, alienation and suffering, as well as commemorating the great moments in history, bringing solace, strength and inspiration. All this means that poets’ words have always outraged tyrants and totalitarian regimes who have mercilessly persecuted them, targeting them for torture, imprisonment and execution on the flimsiest of pretexts in the effort to extinguish this flame of even their graveyards are deemed too dangerous to mark by dictators who know their power, who bury them in unmarked graves, terrified of their power with the people even beyond death.
This history explains why even in the modern age, for almost a century to date, poetry has been synonymous for Ahwazis with recording the laments of injustice, torture, oppression, imprisonment and a dark, terrible time of social, cultural and artistic repression. Ahwazi poets have been visionaries in the struggle for freedom, expressing the yearnings and heartbreak of the masses persecuted and silenced for their heroic resistance and refusal to accept subjugation as much as for their Arab ethnicity. Successive Iranian regimes have understood that the oppressed need art as well as bread for hope and sustenance, and have tried to avoid allowing them either as a means to break them. They have not succeeded.
Ahwazi poets have paid a terrible price for their courage in being the peoples’ voices, speaking for the freedom and dignity that are every human’s birthright. Persecution, jail, torture and execution on blatantly fabricated charges are all too common as ‘punishment’ for those whose only crime is to bring hope to the people, to speak for the silenced. Poets’ families are also targeted, with the rulers using every means possible to try to silence their voices completely.
Poets universally are artists in words, carefully weighing and selecting each word and metaphor in their work. More especially in dictatorships and under totalitarian regimes, the poet must always speak in metaphor, symbol and allegory; names cannot be named. Locations and situations vary according to the environment and the nature of the oppressive rulers; in Ahwaz’ case, therefore, much of the poetry focuses on the once-vast Karoon River and how this has been drained and rerouted with its remaining waters left polluted and unusable, by rulers in Tehran. Other central features in Ahwazi poetry are Ahwazi bridges, the historical, millennia-old city and surrounding area of Muhammarah, once known as the ‘Star of The Gulf’, which was the first Arab emirate and the cosmopolitan and beautiful capital of Ahwaz.
The Ahwazi poets also refer to the region’s palm trees, the pride these arouse in the people, and to the trees’ deep roots, a clear reference to the Arab identity of Ahwaz and its people. Stark images of oil and poverty are also common subjects, referring to the vast mineral wealth in Ahwaz which holds over 90 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, to the terrible environmental catastrophe this has wreaked in the region, and to the contrast between this vast wealth and the medieval poverty which is the norm for most Ahwazis, denied anything but pollution from the resources stolen from their lands. References to the terrible dark sky over Ahwaz refer not only to the choking pollution but the cruel, racist persecution and repression of Iranian occupation, which brought evil, tragedies, degradation and regressive ignorance to the people. This stifling despotism is routinely described in terms befitting a nightmare which it is for those living under it, with images invoking evil succubi paralysing and feeding on the helpless sleeping victim, and the relentless state of terror this brings.
These are only some of the metaphors and images typically utilised by Ahwazi poets to describe the nightmarish situation created by almost a century of still ongoing occupation. Here, it could also be noted that traditional tales and poetry passed down from generation to generation have also been central cultural features in Ahwaz and across the Middle East, further cementing the central place of poetry. Maybe the most significant form and expression of this is in popular poetry, read in the local Ahwazi Arab dialect, lovingly crafted to fit all its cadences and rhythms. Ahwazi Arab citizens have excelled in this type of popular poetry, improvising it with great skill.
Sadly, this innate and treasured skill has placed these indigenous poets squarely in the Iranian regime’s cross-hairs. First, they are maintaining a native tradition the regime seeks to erase from history. And second, theirs are the voices of both memory and protest – recalling the Ahwazi people to their ancient roots and in the same stanza calling for continued resistance to the brutal oppression they are now suffering.
The poet Hashem Shabani, also known as Abu Alaa al-Ofoqi, was born in Khalifya city in northeast Ahwaz. He attended elementary, middle and high school in Ahwaz. He then studied at Ahwaz University in the department of Arab literature. He worked as an Arabic language teacher at Khalifya city’s schools. After that, he obtained a Master’s Degree in politics, and becoming a political and social activist. Hashemi wrote political poetry, using his powerful words to attack the Islamic regime.
Writers and writing played a remarkable role in the life of Hashem. He had enjoyed reading books since childhood. Hashem began seizing every opportunity to express in his poetry the woes of his own Ahwazi people. His words and poems were steeped in the aura of Ahwaz and his love for it. He chanted his poems to his friends in the alleyways of Khalifa in summer, winter, chilling cold and roasting heat. Hashem embraced this form of poetry in which he depicted the persecution endured by the Ahwazi people, and the occupation of their lands, and in which he blends the melancholy of ‘The Evening of black Wednesday massacre of Ahwazis in early days of the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, and the Friday of April of the 2005 Ahwaz uprising.
One day, I was walking with Hashem Shabani, who was my teacher and who was executed by the Iranian regime because of his cultural activities and his influential and powerful poems depicting the suffering of the Ahwazi people. I asked him why he spoke his poems on cultural occasions, and I contended that it was better for him to clearly speak of the suffering of the Ahwazi people instead of expressing his ideas in metaphors and poems. He smiled, telling me that patriotic poetry is the closest thing to the hearts of the oppressed. It lives long in the memory of the generations.
Hashem explained to me that poetry is the best form of speech in terms of eloquence, metaphors and rhythms. It preserved its position in history, since warriors were unable to achieve victories in their battle when they didn’t have poets infusing them with enthusiasm while they were fighting.
Through poetry, Hashem said, he could convey nostalgia and memory of our homeland to the next generation. Hasn’t the occupation relied from the very beginning on the (quickly fading) memories of generations, and bet that no generation would remember Ahwaz and its history? Who else is responsible for infusing an entire country into the minds of those generations forced to abandon their homelands other than the poet and the artist? Hashem pointed out that memory is the essential store that we should never lose, since the occupation changes the regions, their names and their demography. They deform places. But no invading force throughout history has managed to overpower the people’s memory.
Hashem concluded: “We need the genuine awareness—deeply rooted in our conscience—about our human cause. It’s the real weapon that can withstand in the vortex of resisting occupation. Poetry per se isn’t a gun. But it’s one of the weapons of awareness. A gun needs a beating heart behind the trigger, pointing its barrel at the enemy’s chest and filling it with anger. This heart is nothing but poetry and poems. The poet’s anger can make the heart of the fighter beat, injecting will and certainty into his patriotic struggle”.
Hashem was arrested in January 2011. He was sentenced to death along with a number of his colleagues—teachers and poets who live on in the memory of their homeland – and was executed along with his fellow Hadi Rashedi in 2014. They sacrificed their own lives to support the Ahwazi people to enjoy revolution and freedom.
While I was a refugee in Turkey, where I was waiting for my resettlement in the USA, Hashem wrote hundreds of poems from the prison expressing his deep love for his people, his homeland, and I translated parts of them.
Just give me one more moment
O my loyal friends, my fellow martyrs
Give me one moment, to paint death in a bright shape
That matching it is hard and deep
To light a torch for my brothers down their road (to freedom)
To make the fetters erode
Turns man to diligence, to rise and to resilience
Plants the land with exciting suns and moons
Removes the impossible from the past days
How beautiful can death be at dawn!
O my loyal friends
Give me another chance to smoke a cigarette
As I weep over the tears that ripped through eyes of bereaved mothers
And over a son whose soul ascended to God
With a garment adorned with all kinds of flowers
Who was flourishing in red
Before the days of Ramadan
Give me a moment
To give my soul with passion to Ahwaz
I will listen to the anthem of water in Karun in seconds
And long for my mother, my brothers, my move, my father
Smelling the scent of glory from the palm trees
One moment before departure
Trees of hope
We are alive and well
We are still resisting
They executed four of my dearest fellows; they want more, how disgusting
As much as the occupiers become more repressive
As yearning to my homeland, comrades and rebels gets more intensive
They may kill me
But they couldn’t kill my thoughts, flowing like a torrent over the years, nay
They have been, are still and will be losers!
They have searched through history—line by line—to obliterate my identity
They have traced my footprints from age to age, in infinity
They had bent over backwards to wipe off my name
They had, but their intentions have surely lost the game
Whatever their willingness is
Whatever their insistence is
They will never be able to cut down trees of hope
Seven Reasons Why I Should Die
Monday, remember you are Iranian!
Tuesday, you mock the sacred Revolution!
Wednesday, didn’t you raise your voice for others?
Thursday, you’re a poet and a bard!
Friday: You’re a man, isn’t that reason enough to die?
Before his execution, Hashem sent a letter from the prison to human rights organisations. He said, “I have endeavoured to defend the legitimate right that every people in this world should have, which is the right to live freely with full civil rights. With all these miseries and tragedies that my Ahwazi people are going through, I have never used a weapon to fight these atrocious crimes except the pen.“
In 2019 another 29-year-old Ahwazi prominent poet Hassan Haidari died suspiciously soon after his release from an Iranian prison. In his poems, which are widely shared and memorised by many young Ahwazis, Haidari spoke out against many of the issues causing widespread anger amongst the people of the impoverished region. Hassan’s poetry was unflinching in condemning Iran’s regime for its theft of Ahwazis natural resources, including its damming and diversion of rivers once plied by oceangoing vessels, whose waters made the region an agricultural heartland, but which are now rerouted to other, Persian regions of Iran, leaving Ahwaz increasingly desertified. Following his death, doctors confirmed that he had died as a result of poisoning due to a high dose of thus-far unidentified toxic substances.
— الشاعر حسن الحيدري (@ASy72ybFh5XNHd8) March 26, 2017
Have you heard O people?
Not yesterday – but before yesterday
Police forces were circling a tree
They found a nightingale sitting on the branch of the tree The nightingale was tweeting and singing a poem
Only God understood what the nightingale was reciting God was telling the nightingale to repeat the verse once again
The poem was about martyrdom
The angry police caught the poor nightingale and cut its tongue…
Hassan ironically used nightingale to refer to Ahwazi poets, who recite poems about the many Ahwazi Arab prisoners who were executed. And by these poems, the poets were trying to glorify these vanished prisoners and to keep their memories alive, but the poets still get suppressed. Even when using deep metaphors to avoid arrest, the regime still investigates them and their poems, and arrests and punishes them all the same.
Younes al-Sorkhi, an Ahwazi poet now in his early 30s, was born on 11 February 1992. When he was only 15 years old, he began publicly reciting his poetry, quickly gaining widespread popularity for his talent. His widely admired poems talk about the widespread poverty and brutal marginalization of his Ahwazi people. He seizes every chance to share his poetry, and is massively popular at social events where poetry recital is a beloved tradition like weddings or funerals. He also films videos of himself reading his work, posting these on his popular Instagram account.
Below w’ve translated parts of some of his most moving poems, which are written and recited in a colloquial Ahwazi Arabic accent. In the first, ’40 Days and 40 Years in Poverty’, Younis focuses on an innocent child asking his father when the family’s poverty will end and their family will have a nice life. Of course, Younis is not talking about a specific child or family, but using this as a metaphor for the injustice and grinding poverty inflicted on the Ahwazi people, painting a heartbreaking picture in words of people struggling to survive crushing deprivation despite being in one of the most resource-wealthy regions on earth while their resources are stolen by their oppressors.
40 Days and 40 Years in Poverty
“How long will it take for this poverty to end, O my father?
40 days, son
This means in 40 days from now, will we become rich, O my father?
No son. No, we will just have grown accustomed to that.”
In another poem entitled ‘A mother with hunger; A child with no answer’, Younes imagines the thousands of Ahwazi women broken by poverty despairing over how to feed their children.
Against poverty, an Ahwazi woman of my homeland draws a sword
She sleeps in tears, says no word
She is in deep grief
Her guilt is unknown
She knows not what to do to her child
An empty table kills her pride
With his empty stomach, will sleep the child
She repeats: Sleep, O child!”
In another poem titled ‘Poverty’s Ghost, People Lost’, Younes describe poverty as a ghost that haunts the Ahwazi people. The ghost invoked in Ahwazi prose and poetry is a metaphor for the brutal Iranian occupation that subjected the Ahwazi people to almost a century of racist oppression since Iran annexed and seized control of their homeland. To represent this brutal rule, particularly that of the theocratic ‘Islamic Republic’ regime, Younes in this point ironically, uses a king who claims himself to be the representative of God on Earth, a withering reference to the Iranian clerical rule and its Supreme Leader who is depicted by the regime as being divinely appointed as ruler on God’s behalf, oppressing Ahwazis and others in the name of God.
‘Poverty’s Ghost, People Lost’
“In my ghost-haunted homeland, everywhere poverty rages
On the streets, at homes and under bridges
Pain doesn’t come when I see the poor of my homeland
It comes when the king sees it and slams the door
He says I am God’s representative on earth
But he imposes poverty on my people from birth to death”
The striking imagery and metaphors invoked by Younes’ poetry has led to him being widely celebrated as an “orator and messenger of the poor in Ahwaz”
In a recent interview conducted with another prominent contemporary Ahwazi poet, Mostafa Helichi – who is also in prison for his poetry – on a popular poetry program entitled ‘The Platform of Homeland’, where Ahwazi poets read their works and discuss the situation in Ahwaz and the role of poetry, as well as their own work, Younes said, “I am a modest worker in a foodstuff company. Here in Ahwaz, every poet and writer should be committed to reforming his Ahwazi society and exposing the discrimination, repression and persecution to which the people are subjected, despite his or her destiny [for doing so] being nothing but threats, torture and banishment.”
Younes continued, “Like other Ahwazi poets involved in civic and cultural activities serving our deprived people, I know well that after every event where we perform that the Iranian security apparatus will embark on a variety of threats and warnings, viewing us as a ‘soft’ adversary. Then we, who are introduced as oppositionists, are locked up, and then we maybe get detained, tortured or even killed.”
Despite this persecution hanging over him, Younes said that he is indebted to poetry: “Poetry did me a favour and thrust me into the limelight of my Arab people. I should return this favour by making it a means for reforming what should be reformed within our society and making [poetry] a weapon by which I defend my nation. Poetry is my golden end, not means.”
Younes’ talent is clear in every type of poetry, including love poems, with his rousing verses and expressions of affection. The poetry that has made him most popular and beloved among Ahwazis, however, is his work focusing on social issues and the terrible injustice and poverty that blight ordinary Ahwazis’ lives. Younes writes with passion and fire about the devastation wreaked on the young in Ahwaz who surrender to hopelessness in the face of such immense suffering, with heartbreakingly large numbers escaping through suicide or into the slower suicide of drug addiction, which has devastated Ahwaz, fracturing many families and leaving countless children orphaned or bereft. His most famous early poem, known in nearly every Ahwazi home, concerns an Ahwazi child who’s left an orphan by his family’s inability to afford medical treatment. The destitute child turns on the adult in Ahwazi society, blaming them and saying that if there had been any sort of solidarity with his father and family, he wouldn’t have been orphaned due to poverty. Younes also was keen to write about addiction, societal rivalries and numerous other issues familiar to the Ahwazi people.
Iran’s regime has done its utmost to silence Younes’ passionate voice, imprisoning him again on 17 July 2021, in the infamous Shaiban Prison, best known for its torture of inmates, on blatantly false charges of ‘endangering national security’ and ‘conspiring against the Iranian government’. As with all dictatorships, the fact that the government finds a poet’s words so dangerously threatening is revealing in itself. Before starting his sentence, Younes asked, rhetorically, since when did addressing societal ills, calling for equality, and a peaceful life becomes a crime requiring multiple arrests, and long years in prison? Of course, to a tyrant, truth is the greatest threat.
Younes was 15 when he wrote his first well-known poem, ‘The Tribe’, in which he observed, with wisdom far beyond his years, that Ahwazis are not divided tribes but are a nation, condemning the government that promotes tribalism in order to cause tribal conflicts in Ahwaz. Even then, it seems, he wanted to free his people from the clutches of tribal thinking and its divisions to unite in their common humanity, affinity and love of freedom. Before he reached 20, he had been arrested twice, in 2013 and 2014. This has been repeated, with Younes being transferred between the black prisons and solitary cells of the Iranian regime’s notoriously brutal intelligence service in an effort to silence him and stop his voice and his activism; on one occasion, he was arrested while gathering donations to help Ahwazis whose homes had been washed away in devastating floods. This horrendous persecution and injustice and his heroic refusal to remain silent in the face of relentless torture and tyranny have gained him an iconic status, with Ahwazis reciting his poetry at weddings, wakes, feasts and all types of public events. In his own words, poetry “is the greatest art and the closest one to the hearts of my people.”
As a voice of the Ahwazi people, Younes has also spoken out to promote his fellow Ahwazi poets, voicing his admiration of “great poets like late Mullah Fadel al-Sakrani, Mahbas al-Helichi, Aboud al-Hay Sultan, and Abu Amjad al-Haidari”, who he said, “were like the professors who taught the new generation of Ahwaz poets.”
Like all great poets, Younes gives credit to those who inspired him, from whom he learnt and honed his craft, saying, “I learned from them about writing poetry, and how to make poetry a tool for serving integrity, and human principles.”
While the regime has imprisoned Younes al-Sorkhi physically, it’s unable to stifle his words, which are spoken every day by Ahwazis, who cherish his celebration of Ahwaz’ rich history of poetry and yearn to see his predictions of its promising future realised. Younes knows and has talked often of the awesome artistic, literary and cultural treasures in Ahwaz, which deserve to be known and appreciated not only by Ahwazis but by the world; needing only media capable of appreciating, nurturing and disseminating this repository and wellspring of talent. Whatever happens to Younes, his poetry will continue to be a river running through Ahwaz, loved by ordinary people as much as by fellow poets, writers and artists.
Before his most recent imprisonment, Younes recited several poems at the July 2021 protests in Ahwaz condemning the Iranian regime’s policy of damming and diverting Ahwazi rivers, transferring the water to ethnically Persian areas while deliberately denying it to the Arab Ahwazi people, who are left without drinking or water for irrigation and livestock. The effects on the local wildlife and environment have also been catastrophic, with hundreds of the buffalo native to the region who rely on the rivers’ waters dying in agony of thirst, often trapped in toxic heavily polluted mud which the regime’s policies have reduced the rivers.
In his last poem, he recalled one of the Ahwazi women who took to the streets to protest, calling on the Iranian regime police security forces not to shoot at the young Ahwazis demonstrating, screaming at the regime forces to stop their shooting, telling them, “The protests are peaceful – we didn’t steal your water or your land – why you are shooting at us?”
Land, Water, Honour
Heart of land bites
And the thirst it fights
From its heart, blood gushes
My children are running
Chanting, ‘the land is our mother!’
‘We will remain resilient’
With a quivering voice, they shout,
What Semitic Ibrahimic religions told us; Martyrdom has been ordained upon us
All of a sudden
We heard a freedom fighter, Ahwazi woman, shouting thunderously
O police, O police
Our sons’ protests are peaceful, Why do you open fire?
They didn’t take your land or water
We want our land and water
She removed her blood
Seeing hope waning,
She yelled O my children, go, come forth, come forth,
Never praise symbols of injustice
Crush the oppressors in triumph
With deeper diligence and persistence
One of them shouted, we are a sound invincible nation
We will slap the faces of enemies with our hearts
Tell the protectors of injustice and their puppets
We have inherited the covenant of our homeland Ahwaz,
We proceed down the path of guidance
Our Ahwaz is calling upon us; Injustice has destroyed me
Occupation made my mother face wrinkled
Since our oppressors have danced over our sorrows
O Ahwaz, don’t panic, and hold on
Your air is made up of well-established mountains
Be sure that this darkness will be sweetened by the following light.
The words of these young poets are stirring and poignant, even as the light seems to dim further with each one thrown into one hellish prison after another, left to face torture and death. And yet, it is easy to see the Iranian regime fears them so. The poisoned Hassan’s rage at his poisoned land burns like a coarse desert wind even as Hashem’s trees of hope feel like a cool breeze offering comfort, with Younes mountain air breathing its promise of a dawn to come. They offer rage and hope. They embody both the sorrow and the resilience of their people. They are bards of ancient tradition, fighting against a form of tyranny that belongs in the distant past. They are the poets of the Ahwaz, and they cannot be silenced.
Coauthored by Rahim Hamid and Aaron Eitan Meyer
Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.
Aaron Eitan Meyer, an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. Meyer tweets under @aaronemeyer.