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Shâmlu, Ahmad 1925-2000

SHÂMLU, Ahmad 1925-2000

(Alef Bamdad, Alef Sobh)

PERSONAL: Born December 12, 1925, in Tehran, Iran; died June 24, 2000, in Tehran, Iran; son of Haydar (an army officer) and Kowkab Shâmlu; married first wife, 1947 (marriage ended); married second wife (divorced 1961); married Aida Sarkisian, 1964; children: (first marriage) Siavash, Cyrus, Sâmân, Sâqi.

CAREER: Poet, journalist, critic, translator, and scriptwriter. Sokhan-e Nov (magazine), founder, 1948; Rowzaneh (magazine), publisher, 1948; Khândanihâ, editor, 1951-53; Tashbâr (newspaper), editor, 1951-53; Bâmshâd (magazine), editor-in-chief, 1956; Ketâb-e Hafteh, editor, 1961-63; Iranshâhr (weekly newspaper), London, England, editor, 1978; Ketâb-e Jom'eh (weekly newspaper), founder, 1979-80; Khusheh (magazine), editor of literary and cultural section. Technical University, Iran, instructor in Persian, beginning 1972; Bu'Ali University, director of research center, beginning 1976.

MEMBER: Iranian Writers' Center.

AWARDS, HONORS: Freedom of Expression prize, Human Rights Watch, 1991.

WRITINGS:

POETRY COLLECTIONS

Ahangha-ye Faramush Shodeh (title means "Forgotten Songs"), 1947.

Bist-o Seh (title means "Twenty-three"), 1951.

Qat'nâmeh (title means "The Resolution" or "Manifesto"), 1951.

Havâ-ye Tâzeh (title means "Fresh Air"), 1957.

Bâgh-e yeneh (title means "Garden of Mirrors"), 1960.

Idâ dar yeneh (title means "Aida in the Mirror"), 1964.

Lahze-hâ vo Hamisheh (title means "Moments and Ever"), 1964.

Idâ, Derakht o Khanjar o Khâtereh (title means "Aida: The Tree, The Dagger and a Memory"), 1966.

Qoqnus dar bârân (title means "Phoenix in the Rain"), 1966.

Az Havâ vo yenehâ (title means "Of Air and Mirrors"), 1969.

Marsiehâ-ye Khâk (title means "Elegies of Earth"), 1969.

Shekoftan dar Meh (title means "Blossoming in the Mist"), 1970.

Ebrâhim dar tash (title means "Abraham in the Fire"), 1973.

Deshneh dar Dis (title means "Dagger in the Dish"), 1977.

Kâshefân-e Forutan-e Shukaran (title means "The Humble Discoverers of Hemlock"), c. 1979.

Madâyeh-e Bi seleh (title means "The Unrewarded Eulogies"), 1992.

Dar stâneh (title means "On the Threshold"), 1997.

Dar Jedâl bâ Khâmooshi (selected poems; title means "Defying Silence"), 1998.

Bonbasthâ va Babrhây-e sheq (selected poems; title means "Dead-Ends and Loving Tigers"), 1998.

FOR CHILDREN

Khorus Zari, Pirhan Pari (title means "Golden Rooster, Feather Clad"), 1959.

Chi Shod ke Dustam Dâshtan? (title means "What Happened That They Loved Me?"), 1969.

Maleke-ye Sâye-hâ (title means "The Queen of Shadows"), 1970.

Qesse-ye Haft Kalâghun (title means "The Tale of Seven Crows"), 1971.

Quesse-ye Dokhtarâ-ye Naneh Daryâ (title means "Tale of Mother-Sea's Daughters"), 1978.

Bâroon (title means "The Rain"), 1978.

Yal-o Ezhdehâ (title means "The Knight and the Dragon"), 1981.

OTHER

Halva Barâ-ye Zende-hâ (screenplay, title means "Halwa for the Living"), 1972.

Darhâ vo Divâr-e Bozorg-e Chin (title means "The Doors and the Great Wall of China"), 1973.

Takht-e Abu-Nasr (screenplay; title means "Abu-Nasr's Seat"), 1973.

Az Mahtâbi be Kucheh (essays; title means "From Verandah to Street"), c. 1979.

Ketâb-e Kucheh (folklore encyclopedia; title means "Book of the Street"), Volume 1, c. 1979.

Mirâs (screenplay, title means "The Legacy"), c. 1986.

Some works published under pseudonyms Alef Bamdad and Alef Sobh.

Also contributor to World Literature Today, Nassau Literary Review, and Iranian Studies, and to Tehran, Iran, dailies yandegân and Kayhân. Has also translated European publications into Persian.

SIDELIGHTS: Ahmad Shâmlu is remembered as one of the greatest twentieth-century Iranian poets and an eloquent political dissenter who was censored for decades. A London Times obituary writer called him "an unsung national hero," adding that "he reflected the individual's longing for dignity, which was impossible without liberation from political tyranny or oppressive religious dogma." In a country where poetry has been a dominant literary form, he was a popular writer, a literary innovator, and an important intellectual figure. Shâmlu wrote poetry in Persian, which he considered untranslatable because of its exceptional musical qualities. The style of his poetry is thoroughly modern, and shows the influence of the Iranian poet Nima Yushij and Western poets, including Federico Garcia Lorca. His early poems are the most overtly political of his works, and in later years he concentrated on writing love poems with political undertones.

Shâmlu made his living as an editor and translator, and he also wrote screenplays and stories for children. For decades he worked to create a vast encyclopedia of Iranian folklore titled Ketâb-e Kucheh. When he died in 2000, Shâmlu had published nearly twenty collections of poetry and was known throughout the world, having a large following among those who fled political oppression in Iran.

Born in Tehran, Shâmlu lived in many different places as a child, following his father's postings as an army officer. As a young boy he was passionate about classical music and would later describe his poetry as coming from a desire to make music. His love of reading was not satisfied in school, which prompted him to quit before he finished high school. Shâmlu became politically active near the end of World War II, when he was arrested for distributing anti-occupation pamphlets and imprisoned for a year. He was later arrested, along with his father, by the separatist local government of Azerbaijan. The two stood for hours in front of a firing squad before being released. He would be arrested or jailed many more times during his life.

As Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak noted in World Literature Today, Shâmlu's career is "inseparably linked with the social and political conditions in modern Iran. His life has paralleled the life of his country, inspiring its future direction, reflecting its ups and downs." He joined the communist Tudeh party after the war and voiced his hopes for socialism in his early poetry. These hopes were crushed when Mohammed Mussadeq's liberal government was overthrown in 1953 by the U.S.-backed shah. Shâmlu was put in prison, and he subsequently quit the Tudeh party, bitter that other members had fled the country. Two works from this period established Shâmlu as an important poet and reflect his active support of a revolution: the poem "The Fairies" and the collection Havâ-ye Tâzeh. "The Fairies" is remarkable for its use of common language and allegorical prediction of revolution. In a few years, however, Shâmlu's poetry reflected his discouragement and even despair. With the publication of Idâ dar yeneh and Idâ, Derakht o Khanjar o Khâtereh, which refer to his wife, idâ, the poet shifts his focus to the power of love.

These works made Shâmlu popular with Iranian readers but led to repeated harassment and jailings by the shah's regime. In 1977 Shâmlu left Iran for the United States and then Great Britain. During this self-imposed exile he commented that only the common people truly understood the nature of his work, pointing out that censors did not confiscate one of his books until its eighth printing. While in London, he edited Iranshahr, a popular, anti-shah, Persian-language newspaper. The 1979 revolution and succeeding Islamic Republic did not, however, improve Shâmlu's position in Iran. He returned to Iran and, after the publication of a few collections, the new government also banned his books. He was able, however, to publish abroad in countries such as Sweden.

Literary critics from the 1970s commended the vivid imagery and poignant messages in Shâmlu's poetry. Writing for Books Abroad, Massud Farzan remarked that in the collection Ebrâhim dar tash the poems "reflect a consistently distilled quality which at times verges on obscurity. Yet almost always the imagery is breath-taking—fresh, bare and yet potent." Critic Esmaeel Ranjbaran commented in Books Abroad that Shâmlu not only wrote "the most graceful and delicate lyrics in Persian since Hafiz (1324-88)," but that he had also mastered a "muscular free verse that suits his strong attraction to prophecy as the poet's major role."

In his extensive review of Shâmlu's work for World Literature Today, Karimi-Hakkak considered the evolution of the poet's style. He revealed that Shâmlu hoped to be remembered for works such as Idâ dar yeneh rather than for the more notorious poem "The Fairies." Karimi-Hakkak charted the poet's transformation in the years spanning the creation of the socially committed "Fairies" and his mature work, and praised the "superb experiment" of "The Fairies," describing it as "a landmark in modern Persian poetry. In it dance, song, music and poetry merge, while a deceptively simple and childish story becomes the vessel containing a far-reaching allegory." But Karimi-Hakkak cautioned that the importance of the early poem does not mean that Shâmlu had not since become a greater artist. "In a world of shrinking possibilities of expression, Shamlu has perforce been separated from his audience and made to turn inward. He has moved from action to reflection, from certainty to doubt and from quest to solitude," he explained. "By telling his reader about his weariness and despair, [Shâmlu] … hopes to prompt us to inquire about the reasons behind them. Thus the mere expression of this despondency becomes a gesture of protest in itself."

It would be many years before the Islamic Republic partially lifted the ban on Shâmlu's books. It was not until 1997 that he was able to publish Dar stâneh in Iran. Near the end of his life, Shâmlu was in poor health, which presumably added to his increased isolation. Despite Islamic prohibitions, he was a heavy drinker, as well as a heavy smoker. He suffered from heart disease and diabetes, and developed gangrene in one leg, which had to be amputated at the knee. At the time of the poet's death in 2000, a writer for the London Times explained that Shâmlu's work "reflected a longing for pre-Islamic Iran. This was why wherever possible, he used Persian words instead of borrowed Arabic ones." The writer also advised that Shâmlu's death marked the end of poetry's dominance in Iran, now that films and television are becoming more popular.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Books Abroad, autumn, 1974, Massud Farzan, review of Ebrâhim dar tash; winter, 1975.

World Literature Today, spring, 1977, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, "A Well amid the Waste: An Introduction to the Poetry of Ahmad Shamlu," pp. 201-206.

OBITUARIES:

PERIODICALS

Guardian (London, England), July 28, 2000, "Ahmad Shamlu: Towering Figure of Iranian Poetry and an Intellectual Symbol of the Fight against Oppression in His Country," p. 22.

Independent (London, England), July 27, 2000, p. 6.

New York Times, July 29, 2000, p. A11.

Times (London, England), August 3, 2000, "Iranian Poet Who Challenged Repressive Dogma in His Native Country."*

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