Mirror of Dew
Mirror of Dew
In the twentieth century several female Persian poets achieved
considerable renown, notably Forough Farrokhzad and Parvin E'tesami.
Ālam-Tāj Qā'em-Maqāmi certainly didn't seek fame -- or even publication:
in his Introduction to this collected edition (containing all 917 known
lines of her poetry) Asghar Seyed-Gohrab writes that she apparently
denied being the author when a few were published in 1933, and that
almost her poetry went unpublished until after her death; "She might be
called the Emily Dickinson of Persian poetry", Seyed-Gohrab suggests.
One imagines pen-names hardly count for much if the poet isn't
published, but apparently Ālam-Tāj Qā'em-Maqāmi is widely know as
'Zhāle' ('dew' -- hence also the title for this collection), a pen-name
of her choosing.
[Transliteration further complicates and confuses matters: the (US) Library of Congress apparently goes for: ʻĀlamtāj Qāʼimʹmaqāmī (and Zhālah), while alternative Westernized spellings include Alamtaj Ghaemmaghami .....
Unable to deal with all the diacritical marks, Flipkart beautifully (but near-uselessly) lists the book as: Mirror of Dew: The Poetry of Lam-T J Zh Le Q 'Em-Maq Mi.]
The name/reference appears several times in the poetry, as do
reflections on mirror-reflections: the title selected for the collection
is certainly appropriate.
Asghar Seyed-Gohrab's thorough Introduction perhaps considers the
poetry itself too closely -- the analysis and extensive quotation are
considerably more than just a preview, and mean the reader reaches the
poetry itself having already been guided to a very specific way of
seeing it -- but does provide useful background information about an
author most are likely entirely unfamiliar with.
The essential point and fact is one that almost doesn't need to be made,
as soon becomes clear from the poetry itself, but the biographical
background and detail Seyed-Gohrab provides is useful: Zhāle was married
off, at fifteen, to a man she loathed.
The cultured and well-educated young woman was completely mismatched
with the much older military man, who already had other wives.
The death of her parents during the first year of her marriage, and the
birth of a son, presumably compounded the trauma -- and Zhāle did then
soon divorce the man.
Zhāle's personal unhappiness and more generally the limitations
imposed upon women in the Iranian society of that time -- the cause of
much of her misery, she repeatedly makes clear -- are central to much of
Her verse is a devastating critique of the status quo and a convincing,
rousing call for the equality of women in society, making her a
standard-bearer of feminism.
What is, however, perhaps most shocking about her work -- suggesting
just how bad the situation of women was (and is), and how hopeless she
saw it as being -- is that she apparently had no intention of making it
public, or arguably couldn't even imagine her poems being shared or read
publicly; Seyed-Gohrab reports that her son found most of them after
her death, on sheets of paper slipped between the pages of books in her
Zhāle was so discouraged by and in the society she lived that she made
no effort to circulate any of it.
Despite that, she still felt compelled to write poetry that is not just
personal and introspective, but rather also emphatically denounces many
social norms and calls for fundamental change -- a long-silent cry that
now roars very loudly indeed: these poems are almost deafening.
Yes, Zhāle's poetry is stunning: brutally honest and forthright,
full of raw emotion.
Much she expresses is hardly novel in this day and age, but considering
the time and circumstances when she was writing it resounds all the more
powerfully -- with far too much that still echoes familiarly today.
There's a seething anger here, behind the veil, that has rarely been
seen in Islamic poetry, and it is quite shocking just how directly and
clearly Zhāle expresses it.
Poems like 'Reproach to my Husband' are devastating portraits of
the hated man as well as broader critiques of imposed marriage
(elsewhere she writes: "Is this Sharia marriage, or Sharia-colored
adultery ? / No, I misspoke, it's marriage mixed with punishment") and
the limitations placed on women, concluding:
People say that one called "husband"
is God to the wife.
He is a man, the God of my existence.
No ! No ! he's a preordained affliction
Who am I ? Oh ! a weak creature
whose name and being are mockery and scorn.
Alas ! Alack ! In this country where oppression rules
a woman has no refuge, nor any arbiter.
If people use the names of existence and non-existence
for men and women, these names suit them.
Woman is the disgrace of the world
because she's wrapped in a tar-black veil.
She is admirably defiant:
I do not approve of a husband, I do not accept an oppressor.
You'll hear no other answer, till the Day of Resurrection.
Even in going along with what society demands she remains true to her position:
I grant him my trousseau and the bride price,
but I do have one demand of him: his death.
The sheer hatred in these poems repeatedly shocks -- but much of
that is very personal.
Elsewhere, she does admit to a longing for love (so also the title for
one of the touching poems) -- but one that is, of course, frustrated by
Even as a widow, society doesn't permit her to even try to follow her
heart -- and you can practically hear her sigh in frustration:
It's not men I am sick of, but people's gossip,
which is a lamp that gives neither profit nor light.
Only occasionally does she compare the situation in Iran with that in Europe -- but she does note:
People say that women in Europe are influential
but in Iran she's no more than unleavened dough.
Imagine, the candle of her destiny is glowing in Europe,
but the candle gives no light in Fati's house, or in mine.
Zhāle also directly addresses some of the most reprehensible
local mores, as in verses that they sadly could still be singing in too
many places nowadays:
Although in our religion, the age of marriage is nine,
there is a difference between intellectual and bodily maturity.
Although girls in other countries come of age at nine,
dear sister, that sad fact has no place in our country.
Does a nine-year-old girl know what a husband is ?
How can a wedding dress suit someone still playing with dolls ?
Even the nature of an animal rejects such a tradition,
while my husband, who looks like a man, declines to accept this fact.
This is a collection that is almost relentlessly dark -- down to
the poem 'Message to the Unborn', which basically argues:
O you who have not come to our world !
It's better if you do not come.
O, you who have not come to the world !
Our existence is worse than death.
It's the sheer, raw power of the verse, an anger and hatred and
frustration that is so fundamental and entirely honest -- tragically
heart-felt -- that makes the collection endurable.
Remarkably, it's not an angry jeremiad -- it is poetry, and an
Literature rarely shocks any longer, but Mirror of Dew
comes as close as any book can to still being shocking.
Part of that is context -- but part of that is also the context that,
even though Zhāle's writing is from a different era, far too much of it
still resonates in these supposedly modern times.
Mirror of Dew deserves a larger readership, and Zhāle
deserves her place among the important poets of the twentieth century;
few have written as convincingly about the wrongs of society relating to
women as she did.