Project Description

Ziba Karbassi


Ziba Karbassi was born in Tabriz, north-western Iran. She had to leave her country with her mother in the late 1980s when she was a young teenager; for most of the time since then she has lived in London. She has published ten books of poetry in Persian and two books in English and Italian and is widely regarded as the most accomplished Persian poet of her generation. Her dense and revolutionary lyrical poetry achieves an intensity and balance that is rare in contemporary poetry. She has read widely across Europe and America. She was chairperson of the Iranian Writers Association (in exile) from 2002 to 2004, editor of Asar-nameh and on the editorial committee of Exiled Ink literature magazine in London. In 2010 she won the Golden Apple Poetry Prize for Azerbaijan. Her poems have appeared in many languages throughout Europe, the UK and US. Her poetry has been translated into more than ten languages.Translations by Stephen Watts have appeared in such journals as Poetry Review and Modern Poetry in Translation. She was chair of Exiled Writers Ink in the UK between 2012 and 2014. In 2012, she was chosen by the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre (CPRC) at Birkbeck, University of London, as a revolutionary world poet. Lemon Sun, a collection of her poetry translated into English, will be published by Ark in spring 2019.

Death by Stoning (extract)
translated by Stephen Watts and Ziba Karbassi

little morning star
are you here with
your star-gaze gone?
little wren
are you staying in the bushes
when you go to the skies?
little silver coin
are you coming up heads
when you fall down tails?
my always-greening pine
is it winter when it’s spring,
will you tell me?
your sisters are here
and your brother too
and I am here but
where are you?
are you?
why don’t you?
why don’t you
come and see
the red little shoe I am knitting
for the
apple of my closing eye?

and from the petals
of my heart
the red little shift
I am making
and from his deepest bones
the cradle that your brother’s
baby roe deer, just
for you,
and from their hair
pillows that your
weaving sisters
everyone today is looking at me kindly
they are looking at me with coloured eyes
and their shy withheld charities
are killing me and are
making me
little baby roe
everyone is here excepting you
who the flower meadows of my broken
mind are craving
and I want to make of my holding
arms a hunter’s pit
for you
so you would never
ever leave
your mother
what I am saying
little baby roe deer:
I don’t want anything, anything
at all
I want you to always be free and to go
wherever you will
to sit by with whoever you choose
my free-flying bird,

How I Saw Ziba

I heard about the Ziba Karbassi poetry evening by chance.

The latest recession has forced me to “reconsider my options” (to use the business terminology) so I’ve already spent all my time, and money, on professional development. Essentially I’ve always been an artist, I’ve specialised in the art of making ends meet. My life has been very creative, I’ve become a master of stretching the budget go further.
So, who’s got the time for poetry? And who is Ziba Karbassi?

Also I have to admit, I didn’t consider myself sufficiently qualified to follow this kind of poetry. Persian – Polish is not my language pair of expertise. How am I going to understand this particular poetry? I knew the translations were provided, but I still remained doubtful. Besides I didn’t feel that I culturally belonged to the part of the world where Persian languages are spoken.

What can I possibly have in common with anyone from Iran, or any other country in the area? How can a young and good-looking woman with a flower in her hair from the poster advertising the event, possibly appeal to me? What do we have in common? My life’s journey hasn’t been covered in any kind of flowers, let alone roses. It’s been thorns and thistles all the way, with an occasional collision with a cactus.

Also, when was the last time I read poetry? My life has mostly been a prose, sometimes lyrical, sometimes ironic and cynical, sometimes comical, but most of the time it was a hard and harsh realism.

At times I was a Julia waiting for her Romeo to turn up under the balcony, then I was Pushkin’s Tatiana, wooed and rejected by Onegin, but most of the time I was a Don Quixote fighting against the wind mills, but sadly I didn’t have a Sancho Panza in tow, so I had to fight my battles all on my own (occasionally, I did have a donkey though).

Life hasn’t always been kind to me – not only do I come from a broken and no longer existent country but also from a broken up language. What language do I speak? The first part of its hyphenated name has remained in the east, while the other one has gone west. That is why I am in a constant search of identity. Who am I, why am I here, where do I belong, where am I going? These are the questions I have to ask myself very often.

I had to redraw my maps and re-establish borders countless of times. So, how does Persian poetry fit into my map?

And after the poetry evening on 13 February this year, I can confirm that it fits very well. Poetry has a language of its own and doesn’t need much translation. You don’t need an interpreter to understand sadness or joy, you already know it yourself. Unless you’ve lived your life under a bell jar, which is very unlikely.

This isn’t only a Persian poetry, this is a poetry of an individual, a human being. A young woman, Ziba Karbassi. Her poetry is a poetry of loss and sadness but also of love and joy. There is nostalgia in reminiscing of the past. And every poem tells a story. I am slightly taken aback by the intensity of the emotion and its raw nakedness. The story erupts then reaches a quick climax. Ziba reveals it all. She bares her soul for all to see. She doesn’t hold anything back. The pace varies, it is slow at times and then speeds up again. Even though I am sitting back, I feel like I am on the edge of my seat.

There are three people on stage but I see a lot more. A whole new landscape opens up right in front of me. I see a faraway city somewhere unknown. A city with houses and gardens, trees and blossoms. With spices and bazaars. I can hear people talk and I can hear laughter. I can smell oranges and pomegranate. I can taste coffee and Turkish delight. I can hear water gurgling from a fountain. I can see the sky as the sun sets down on the horizon. I smell happiness.

But then a storm gathers and rips the fragile fabric apart. A lightning strikes and hits at the very heart of the family tree. Cuts the branches off. And the storm blows them away. But it’s only just the beginning. I can hear steps.

A sinister dance begins and gathers speed. There’s a thud of heavy boots approaching. The pounding begins. The pace quickens then slows down.

My mind floats. I am exiled into a different world. In exile from reality. Reality is a far away galaxy. Time has stopped. I travel and on my journey I don’t need either a ticket or passport. My thoughts wander to my own family tree. Scattered around the world like plant seeds prevented from taking root. Exile is implanted in my genes. I think of two aunts of my father’s who only lived in the memories of our family and reminiscences of my grandfather. We never knew where they were or what happened to them after a certain revolution, now long forgotten.

Another beautiful voice, this time different, angelic and heavenly, starts singing and alleviates the pain. This time the instruments, santur and tambourine weave a melody, to transport us to yet another world. An invisible dancer swirls and unravels the many layers of her dress.

“Aman, aman”, the singer in a red satin dress implores.

The dancer on the podium suddenly turns and winks at me. “Come on, go on. Stop saving yourself, go and live a little,” she whispers as she removes yet another layer.

Ziba, Ziba, Ziba. Ziba the Beautiful. That is what Ziba means. Beautiful. Ziba is beautiful and so is her poetry. Her poetry is beautiful even when it tells a story of cruelty. And the reason it does so is to help eradicate it.

Ziba, the princess of Persian poetry. The Persian Sheherzade who keeps telling her story not to save her life but to save her soul. Her poetry is a kingdom. A kingdom where her country lives. A country no longer needs a territory. A country can live in ideas. In our mind. We no longer need to be physically present in a country in order to live in it. But what we do need is people. People who are the citizens of our own personal kingdoms. And they don’t need a permit to reside there. Ziba’s poetry transcends all continents and time zones. And all states of mind. And Ziba’s poetry is about all of us.

At the beginning of the evening, I didn’t know much about Ziba.

By the end of the evening I knew everything about Ziba. I know how she breathes, articulates the sounds, how she pulsates. I know how she loves. I know the sound of her voice. Ziba has a distinct poetic voice.

What has this poetry evening taught me? It taught me how blind we can become with ignorance. How prejudiced we can be about some countries and cultures of the world we don’t know much about nor do we make an effort to learn. And what we find out from the media doesn’t tell us much. On the contrary, it only perpetuates our ignorance.

We shouldn’t fear the unknown places of the world. We should embrace them. And the most unknown places are deeply buried inside us. Ziba has chosen to share the wealth of her inner self with us.

Just as Khaled Hosseini gave an excellent insight into the life of ordinary Afghans in his book “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, Ziba has done the same for Iran with her poetry. I do hope that the day will come when Ziba will be able to read her poetry in her own country. And when that day comes she will have a well deserved place on the throne of Persian poetry.

Despite having doubts on the translatability of Ziba’s poetry, Stephen Watts has brilliantly transposed Ziba’s work into English, and Fenrych has done the same in Polish. They both poured their soul and breathed life into Ziba’s verses.

There was another question that initially troubled me: how can the two men translators possibly understand Ziba, a woman? There is more to poetry than translation of words. There is a matter of images and emotion, sensibility and rhythm, also culture. On this occasion it was also a gender issue. But my doubts were dispelled as both translators have done an excellent job of capturing the very essence of Ziba. They made Ziba accessible to readers in both languages.

I had an advantage (or disadvantage) to flit between English and Polish, so I could choose both to create images in my mind. Even though Polish sounds familiar to me, I do not speak it. I know that the familiarity can be deceptive.
Whilst I perfectly understood the term “roe deer” in English, the Polish term “gazelka” gave me a more familiar concept. To me it suggested vulnerability and being hunted. That worked for me.

Read Ziba’s poetry, but better still go and see her. Hear her read her poetry.

And if you are Polish let Fenrych guide you into these morsels of delight, into the sweet centre of this rahatlukum of poetry. Let Fenrych whisper to your ears those sweet sounding words, spelt with so many cszs, szks, rszs and other szs, it will mean something to you. To us non-Polish speakers Polish language sounds like a permanent chuchotage, a whisper of words, like “rustling of leaves” as a Serbian poet once said.

Tania Young
Interpreter and Translator

Published in Nowy Czas, 1-14 March, 2010