A masterpiece reconstructing from the archive a moment of trauma in the Black British lived experience.
The making of Tomb at Bushehr
By Shara Atashi
Large Glass is the short title of a work by Marcel Duchamp. The long title is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: two tall glass panels hold between them some abstract figures and symbols. Divided horizontally in the middle, you see two frames: below are the Bachelors and above is the Bride. If you try to apply the long title to the abstractions, you will begin to see an enigma which inevitably asks to be solved. At a defining moment in my life in Berlin, back in 2004, I saw a picture of this work, original size, over two metres tall and seventy centimetres wide. Its mystery caught me unawares as I noticed how the glass was cracked. Duchamp had worked on it for eight years, had let dust and dirt do their job, too, and decided to leave it ‘definitely unfinished’. Then the glass cracked in transport from an exhibition, and the lines of the crack, which Duchamp himself ‘repaired’, finished the installation in such a way that no one would ever be able to create an exact copy. It was as if I were looking into a mirror. I carried the echoes and evocations in my mind for a while, just as you do with riddles. Then my entire reality shattered. It was about time.
I had not been meaning to write about my father, Manuchehr Atashi. I had always wanted to translate his poetry from Persian into English and German and make it available to a larger audience. But poetry wasn’t as popular as it is now, and I could not succeed with the little strength I possessed back then. One rejection was enough, and I dropped the project. My father was still alive. He used to send me his works whenever they were published in literary journals in Iran. From those poems it became more and more apparent that he was welcoming his end. But I did not want to believe it.
I suppose we humans can carry only a certain number of untold stories in our subconscious before it bursts. Displaced people carry a larger and heavier burden than most. By 2004, I had lived oblivious to my pre-revolutionary past for twenty-five years. My mother and I, and my younger brother who was ill with encephalitis, left Iran in 1979. We left my father behind.
My father did not want to leave the soil that had made him a poet. We left to lose ourselves in exile and he retired to his beloved city and province of Bushehr to lose himself in poetry. I learned to conceal stories at the age of thirteen, or eleven, or ten. Was it when my brother fell ill and we expected his passing any moment, or was it during the turmoil of the revolution, or did it begin in Germany? The disappointment of a failed revolution, the unimagined rise of the mullahs, the lost splendour of Iran, all these added weight to my personal losses. My education had been disrupted, yet I had filled that gap with political views. In Frankfurt, where we first arrived, I had to learn German, then attended a liberal school, where I was ridiculed by the kids but praised by my teachers for my German and English and my essays on Angela Davis, Che Guevara and Lenin. My young mother and I lived as if nothing had happened. At the peak of the Cold War and its state surveillance, we both joined the student movement, protested for peace and attended festivals; yet our grief over my brother, her child, was hidden behind a flowered makeshift curtain. This is an ability in the young: we move on as if nothing had happened.
Other displaced Iranians may have shared a similar fate. In my case, on top of everything, I had a famous father. Our life had looked glorious to others, and we had to protect our simple privacy from the public back in Iran. In Germany, I had to conceal the glory, too. It seemed easier to remain unnoticed. I even changed the official transliteration of my name, Shaghayegh, the red field poppy, to Shara, so that my classmates could pronounce it instead of mocking me. This is how I forgot that my name was given to me by a poet and by a mother who was so much more of a poet in her nature: Poppy of Fire (Atashi, my surname, refers to ancient keepers of a fire temple). My date of birth was converted into the Gregorian calendar, and it felt like being made suddenly older. The Iranian embassy, by then staffed with bearded men, threatened to arrest me because I had drawn little heads of Che and Lenin in my Persian schoolbooks. My mother had arranged for me to sit an exam at the embassy to acquire a certificate for year eight and so close the gap in my schooling. Because of those little drawings, the embassy denied me the certificate. Among the Germans, I could neither shield myself against humiliations, nor boast that I had met Merce Cunningham and Maurice Béjart in person at the art festival of Persepolis because my father sat with them as a journalist. They didn’t even know what avant-garde art was. Later on, in my twenties, I maintained the oblivion as I went on to read law, though my parents desperately advised me to read literature and journalism. Frankfurt was dominated by the spirit of the Frankfurt School of social theory and critical philosophy. The student movement in the sixties had produced rebellious lawyers. In the eighties they were prominent representatives of left-wing clients and the papers wrote about them. I worked for them and they called me their Souhaila Andrawes. Who is Souhaila Andrawes? The pretty woman who highjacked the Lufthansa ‘Landshut’ aircraft back in 1977. I had never heard of her before.
Things got better for me, eventually, or so it seemed. My brother was finally released in 1989. My mother sent his coffin to Bushehr, and we kept our grief to ourselves. The sight of him being drip-fed through the nose, the smell of the hospital where he was kept in a coma under twenty-four–hour care, each fragment gathered by the senses and hoarded in memory, all that had seemed dormant had been living a life of its own in my subconscious, like the content held between those two glass panels of Duchamp.
The Large Glass is all about misconception. The Bride above has a halo of thoughts in which she is grinding a milky way. The Bachelors below, merely silhouettes of clothing, are mistaking her for an object of desire: they see a chocolate grinder. Calling me Souhaila Andrawes was probably just such a misconception. The lawyers could only see the young rebel in me. My young mother was a misconception wherever she appeared. A biographer of my father Manuchehr Atashi had called her a ‘poet-deceiving beauty’. The Large Glass caused a short circuit in me and set free a mass of concealed images in a single moment. My glass, too, cracked in transport, during movement and displacement.
By the time my glass shattered, in 2004, I had moved to Berlin to witness the end of the Cold War and had finished university and government service in a state of total distress. My mind was cluttered, and all my strength seemed lost.
In the spring of 2004, after seeing the Large Glass in an exhibition, I arrived outside my apartment block, lost in questions about this cryptic thing I’d seen. A friend was with me. I think I was mumbling to myself. Then the sky cracked open, and a voice came which was my father’s, and a thudding of hooves. And the shattering of glass. My friend did not hear this. He left and I could hardly reach the door to my home on the second floor. A look into the mirror and I fainted. Someone was dying, either my father, or my mother, or myself.
Nobody died, but for me it was a message from another world. I called my father and told him what had happened, that I had heard his voice and the hooves of his horse from ‘Daggers, Kisses, Promises’, one of the poems he is best known for. He said certain phenomena do exist and it was just an experience with the metaphysical world – it was just poetry. I had never before consciously believed that there was a beyond, or known what mystery looked like. Seeing Marcel Duchamp’s installation was the last knock that broke the glass.
When I now look at the material for my memoir, Tomb at Bushehr, it is very much like Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box, in which he carefully reproduced handwritten notes from the complex process of making the Large Glass. My box is purple, the colour for me of transformation. There are the first and last letters my father sent to me in exile, urging me to get in touch and let him know how I was doing. Single words bring the entire story of our past to the surface.
These letters are a mirror, showing what I had paid in order to forget in those first years: I had stopped speaking Persian, fallen mute from the shock of displacement. And it was my saintly mother who collected and kept all this evidence for me, for a time such as now. I can see for myself that I broke hearts when I turned away from my homeland and my people to find a balance in displacement. No one ever reproached me for it. My mother saved what was real and valuable in life. She never stopped telling me that I would one day regret having given up on my father, that he deserved my attention, my appreciation. She had stayed with him for fourteen years, to save a poet and a father for her children, a Persian poet. As women, we had to leave Iran, that’s certain, and he certainly did not possess the strength to leave like that. But I bitterly wish I had been kinder to the man who produced fruits which have always nourished me.
In my purple box, there are his poems I translated in 2003, before the shattering. One of them is called ‘Last Will’:
set my soul by the poppy
and open the hands of my heart
so I can praise the light
in the distance
a river is rushing away …
My father passed away in 2005, one year after these events in Berlin. Before that, he sent me eleven volumes of his poetry, some of them reprints of older collections. To encourage me, he wrote that ‘only people with character are able to crush the contamination of society’. He wrote that in Iran the age of suicides had sunk to twelve, that eighty percent of the population were suffering from mental illness. He wrote that he was working day and night and had the energy of a thirty-year old man, like Siavosh, the hero from the Persian epic poem Shahnameh. He also furnished me with his portraits of five poets of his generation who were momentous in lran’s literary history: Nima Yushij, Ahmad Shamlou, Forough Farrokhzad, Sohrab Sepehri and Mehdi Akhavan–Sales. In one of his dedications to me he writes, ‘for my incomparable Poppy to always remain a flame’.
The glass had shattered also because I had lived in poetry all my life, had communicated through poetry, without being aware what poems do to people. After all, the Large Glass is poetry too. It speaks the secret language particularly well, and it can be as far away as Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, where the original is kept – its mystery will choose its objects like a magnet. Since the day my father left this world, I am sure his spirit is with me, because I’d heard his voice in his absence.
In 2019, I moved to Snowdonia for a lonely retreat in the wilderness. The poems in my imagination mingled with the mountains and the sea. Everything was there, including my father. It was by chance that I met someone in Aberystwyth who became a friend and wanted to see my translations and encouraged me to produce more. The memoir that accompanies the poems in Tomb at Bushehr was initially planned as a short introduction. But I could not produce a short one. There is so much in my purple box. I relived in imagination my shattering as I came to this:
Begin your words from that moment
from the moment your body
is seized by tremors
and what’s in your cup spills all over the ground.
[You have seized your eyes from the spill and gaze at what is in front of you.
The curtain is still moving — the window blurred
(is it the one who is gone whom you hadn’t found
or the one who arrived whom you don’t see now
in the spill?)]
Begin your words from that moment
from the moment your body is seized by tremors and what’s in your cup …
Is poetry the book of sighs by “one who hasn’t arrived”
or the elegy for “one who is gone”?
Summer of 1992, Jam (Bushehr). From How bitter is this apple (Tehran 1999). Manuchehr Atashi translated by Shara Atashi