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JA ZZ PO E TRY 2 0 0 9

OCT | 09

MO N IRO RAVA N IPO U R

S A M P S O N I A WAY

IRAN ONE WOMAN’S WAR


MONIRO RAVANIPOUR


IRAN

IN IRAN, NOVELIST MONIRO RAVANIPOUR IS THE ENEMY WITHIN

ONE WOMAN’S WAR

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hen Moniro Ravanipour speaks of home, her husky voice softens. Home for her is the ancient seaport of Bushehr in southern Iran on the Persian Gulf. There, she said, the people have a love for the land and its lore. “My mother always told me, ‘There are two angels that sit on children’s shoulders and take care them during their lives,’” said Ravanipour, who was one of ten children. “We believed that there was a god who protected the fishermen, like Poseidon of the Greeks. We believed in mermaids. It was a special place.” But when soldiers of the Islamic Republic barged into their home and arrested and killed her 19-year-old brother, the enchantment of her youth was gone forever. OCTOBER 2009

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“Why did they kill him?” Ravanipour scoffed. “For nothing, believe me. That day he might have had on red shoes, or a black shirt. During that time, they randomly arrested people. It was a way to destroy political groups.” Ravanipour is now a novelist and writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This is now my second country,” she said from her office at the university. “The earth here is like my homeland. I miss only one thing, the sea.” A long-distance revolutionary Living in exile has been especially difficult since this summer. Following the June 12 elections in Iran, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared a landslide victory with only 20 percent of the votes counted. Supporters of the opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, mounted a series of silent, peaceful protests that soon turned bloody as the government retaliated. Ravanipour had been using email and maintaining a website to keep up with her students back in Iran. But when the violence broke out, she swept aside her fiction writing and began a intense monitoring of the messages she was receiving from her family, friends and students still in Iran. Knowing that they did not have access to all the information she was gathering, she reposted their messages on her website in order to funnel information back to innocent protestors in Iran. But over the months, as their communications have fizzled, she fears that something has happened to them. Perhaps they’ve been arrested or killed. The experience has made the mythology of her homeland more poignant. “We have a fable about King Zahhak-e-Maar-Doosh, who had two snakes on his shoulders,” she said. “Every day, the snakes were fed the brains of young people. The government today is like that. They kill and imprison young people. The government lives because it is eating more than two brains a day.” The creation of a novelist Ravanipour knows firsthand the terror of being a young person fed to the “snakes.” Soon after her brother was killed, she was also arrested. “That day I had on glasses and a white scarf,” said Ravanipour, who was about 30 at the time. “It was my turn.”

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In jail, she began to panic. “I was thinking how easily they could kill me without anyone knowing,” she said. “But if I made a name for myself as a writer, they couldn’t kill me as easily. As soon as they released me, I started writing seriously.” Her fiction, which is characterized by magical realism, was seen as a threat by the government. “For my first story collection, I waited for six or seven years to get permission to be published,” she said. “For my first novel, I waited 10 years.” During the 1990s, she was only able to publish two books, Koli e Kenar e Atash (Gypsy by Fire) and Siriah Siriah. Gypsy by Fire was about a young gypsy girl. A man from Tehran sees her dancing and they fall in love. When he leaves her the next day, she goes to Tehran to look for him. In the process, she finds herself. “Always in our culture, it’s the men who go on journeys to find their girlfriends,” said Ravanipour. “The government doesn’t let a woman find herself. But I didn’t change one word.” VIEW RAVANIPOUR TALKING ABOUT CENSORSHIP Free to tell her stories As a young writer, Ravanipour had hoped that her work would keep her alive. But more often than not, it has been the source of conflict with the Islamic Republic. About a decade ago, she received permission from the government to go to Paris to read her work. When she returned, there was a subpoena waiting, ordering her to report to court the following morning. At the time, her son was only three. She and her husband debated whether Ravanipour should wake the child and say good-bye in case she never returned from the hearing. Thankfully, she was questioned for an entire day and released. She came to the United States about three years ago, after the government started ordering that copies of her books be pulled off the shelves. She hopes that in the United States, she can once again write stories that reveal the inner lives of ordinary Iranians. “When they killed my brother, they did not let us bury him,” she said. “In my memory, I still see my mother trying to find a place to remember him. There are mothers everywhere who will understand that story.” She adds: “As a writer in Iran, I am a foreigner in my own country. They are looking for the enemy and I am the enemy.” OCTOBER 2009

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On July 23, 2009, Ravanipour gave a reading co-presented by American Shorts and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Following the reading, she answered questions from the audience about how this summer’s pro-democracy protests in Iran have affected her and her art. Q: What do you think about the current situation in Iran? A: Now Iran is completely awake. Through the news, you are seeing a new and accurate picture of my country, not the old picture that Ahmadinejad wants you to see. The Green Movement has not been able to stop the arresting, killing and torturing. The Revolutionary Guard is putting the bodies of dead students into meat lockers. And now, there is no longer space there for new victims. Many families are asking about their children’s whereabouts and nobody is answering. When the bodies of dead children are returned, they hide all signs of torture. Sometimes they return the bodies of women who have been burned from the waist down to remove the signs of rape. This way, human rights groups will be unable to investigate the conditions of torture. The Iranian government always speaks out about the situation in

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Palestine, raging against the Israeli soldiers attacking in Gaza or elsewhere. This raises the question: Show me one case where Israeli soldiers have raped a woman or young boy as the Basij have done so often in Iran. As a writer, I want to know why the Iranian and Palestinian writers have not responded to the recent events in Iran? Why do they not condemn Ahmadinejad? If human rights are necessary and good for Palestinians, it is necessary for Iranians, too. I see a clear future for Iran. The people will continue their protests and they won’t give up, I’m sure. They aren’t following anybody. This movement is not like the movement thirty years ago. There is no leader. Q: That is unusual for a movement not to have leaders… A: The Iranian people are looking for basic human rights. During the past thirty years, the government has killed, arrested and tortured many,


many political men and women. …The young people can’t trust anybody because they have a memory of the revolution. They were following someone and got into trouble. So after that, they began to understand that it is better not to follow anybody. It’s better to stand on your own two feet. If I want to write my story and publish it in my country, I don’t need any leader. Q: I wonder how the rebellion that began on June 12 will affect you as a writer down the road? And how will it affect Iranian writers who are still in the country? A: Nothing has changed for me. Fifty years ago, they killed my brother. We were looking to find a grave for him. Now the people in Iran are looking to find a grave for their children. I was in my country for a long time. Two years ago, I came here. Nothing has changed for me. When I started writing, I started writing about that situation, and what was happening to my country and the people. But this Green Movement should have an effect on the writing of a new generation, because the government pushed them not to write about Iranian real life. We call that “kitchen literature.” They used to get prizes

for a story about a woman and a husband in the kitchen or in the salon. Really? Are all of our problems are in the kitchen or the bedroom? What about on the streets? If we have a lot of problems inside the house, it’s because of the problems outside, you see? Now the new generation gets it.

READ AN EXCERPT FROM RAVANIPOUR’S UPCOMING BOOK THE SMELL OF FLOWERS AND SALT VIEW MONIRO RAVANIPOUR’S WEBSITE VIEW CITY OF ASYLUM/LAS VEGAS, AS THE BLACK MOUNTAIN INSTITUTE, UNLV READ LAS VEGAS CITY LIFE: “IRANIAN AUTHOR MONIRO RAVANIPOUR SEEKS SAFE HAVEN— AND THE FREEDOM TO WRITE—IN LAS VEGAS,” BY ANDREW KIRALY READ LAS VEGAS SUN: “TRAMPLING DISSENT: IRANIAN GOVERNMENT TURNING TO SOVIET-ERA WAYS IN ITS CRACKDOWN ON PROTESTS.”

OCTOBER 2009

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CARVING OUT A VOICE SCULPTOR THADDEUS MOSLEY CHISELS AN ODE TO

FREE EXPRESSION From the outside, Pittsburgh sculptor Thaddeus Mosley’s home is an ordinary, red-brick row house on one of Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets — an historic area on the North side. The streets bear the names of Mexican War battles like Buena Vista and Monterey, or of its military leaders like Jackson, and Mosley’s street, Sherman. On the inside, his house is a magical lair where every wall, every mantle and every ledge are covered with art: Oil paintings, charcoal renderings, textiles, photographs, African art and of course, Mosley’s sculptures. VIEW THE TOP FLOOR OF MOSLEY’S HOUSE Now 83, Mosley has called Sherman Street home for nearly 25 years, and has raised three of his six children there. He continues to work regularly, coaxing his sculptures out of raw logs and rough-cut stone. “I’m in my studio everyday at 9 a.m.,” he said, his compact, muscular build hinting at the brawn it takes to shape logs and stone into art. He culls his materials from tree surgeons or the rubble of demolished buildings. “Talent is one of the most plentiful things in the world,” he said. “It’s passion that is lacking. The first thing that I want to do when I get up is go to my studio and create.”

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“An untenable situation” So Mosley can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a world where creative expression is oppressed; where to write a poem or sing a song or paint a picture is a life-risking act of courage. “At this point in history,” he said, “it’s hard to believe that someone would want to kill an author for something he would write.” When Mosley realized that international exiled writers lived nearby on another Mexican War Street, he was intrigued. The writers reside at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh in a row of rehabilitated houses lining Sampsonia Way. The organization offers two-year residencies to writers who have been persecuted in their homelands for their poetry and fiction. “I had met Horacio Castellanos Moya from El Salvador and Huang Xiang from China,” said Mosley of the residents of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. “It’s hard to for us to visualize their circumstances. Most governments are at best, indifferent to the arts. But when a government feels that arts are dangerous, you have an untenable situation.” He was moved by their stories and understood their compulsion to create. When City of Asylum/Pittsburgh founders Henry Reese and his sculptor wife, Diane Samuels, commissioned Mosley to create a sculpture to be mounted on one of the houses, he agreed. Mosley’s work takes wings But what kind of sculpture does one create for the house of a writer in exile? Mosley searched his own life experience for an answer. One of five children born in New Castle, Pennsylvania, Mosley was exposed to music by his seamstress mother and coal miner father. His four sisters played the piano — two seriously — and his father played the trumpet. For years, he sang a cappella, until his limited vocal range made him realize that he could not pursue voice professionally. After serving in the segregated Navy in World War II, he decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh to become a journalist.

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“Talent is one of the most plentiful things in the world. It’s passion that is lacking. The first thing that I want to do when I get up is go to my studio and create.”

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Mosley became interested in sculpting while he was still in school and living in a Pittsburgh housing project with his wife and three children. “I saw Scandinavian furniture and fell in love with the design,” he said. “In the furniture brochures, there were sculptures and paintings. I was in my 20s and didn’t have money to buy sculptures. That was the first time I thought that I could make them on my own.” He was soon influenced by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi and African art. It was Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The term “black sculptor” was an oxymoron. Racism was ever-present, but Mosley was undaunted. He worked two jobs to raise his family. Eventually, he opted to stay with the post office for 40 years so that he could save his creativity for his art. “The problem with discrimination is that people begin to hate themselves,” said Mosley. “It becomes a rationalization not to try.” Having experienced government-sanctioned discrimination in America, he easily related to the exiled writers at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. In fact, he keeps one of his black walnut sculptures in his dining room called “Fanfare for Fanny.” It is dedicated to Fanny Lou Hamer, the black civil rights organizer who was jailed and severely beaten for her attempts to end segregation in the South. “Oppression is oppression,” he said. “Whether it’s the Inquisition, or fascism or you’re an African American at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s demeaning and kills your spirit.” His response as a sculptor was to create art to uplift the artists. “I wanted to do something to give the house wings, something with an air of spirituality,” he said. “When you read the work of these writers, you can see the joy, spirit and idea of personal freedom. I wanted to reflect that.” In September 2006, the community celebrated as City of Asylum dedicated the home on Sampsonia Way featuring Mosley’s sculpture, “Spiritual Wings.” The door of the house is inscribed with a passage from Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soylinka.

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Spiritual Wings

“I tried to create the feeling that the building could almost magically lift itself up,” said Mosley of the home for exiled writers. “You can feel the vitality and beauty happening in that small space.” His art is not only a monument to free expression, it’s helping to rejuvenate his own neighborhood as tourists visit Sampsonia Way. “When you look at the row of homes that City of Asylum has rehabilitated for persecuted writers,” he said, “it’s like you stuck a diamond in the most unexpected place.”

READ “TALKING WITH SCULPTOR THAD MOSLEY” BY DAVID LEWIS READ “MATTRESS FACTORY DISPLAYS THE FLUID SHAPES OF SCULPTOR THADDEUS MOSLEY,” BY MARY THOMAS, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE VIEW INSIDE MOSLEY’S STUDIO

OCTOBER 2009

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JAZZ 2009

POETRY

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SAMPSONIA WAY

City of Asylum/ Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry boosts neighborhood pride By Desiree Cooper


Music Makes its Mark on Sampsonia Way

On a seasonable mid-September afternoon, Corneal Hopson kept the door to his row house open. The long-time resident of Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way wanted to keep an eye on his granddaughter Almond, 7, and two great nieces, Naya, 9, and Jonique, 4. The girls were playing on the stoop, working out a terrible case of the wiggles. “We’re going to the concert tonight!” declared Jonique. “And it’s right outside our door!” Jonique only had an inkling about the world that was about to come to her doorstep. Each year, Sampsonia Way is home to Jazz Poetry, a dynamic convergence of cultures and art sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P). COA/P is a residency program for international writers suffering from persecution. But, unlike most artist residencies, the Pittsburgh program is urban-based and integrated deeply into the community. OCTOBER 2009

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The annual, free concert features top-flight jazz artists and international poets who have experienced persecution. Soon hundreds of people would be flocking to the narrow alley for the 5th Annual Jazz Poetry concert. Jonique had never heard of the jazz greats who would be performing—Geri Allen and Trio 3’s Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman. And she had no idea that she would hear poetry from writers from places like Burma and Croatia. But she, Naya and Almond had been infected by the buzz in their tiny alley. “Jazz Poetry attracts people from all over to come to our neighborhood,” said Hopson, who has lived on Sampsonia Way for 17 years. “I’m taking the girls there because they’ve never been exposed to anything like this.” The world takes on an alley COA/P is nestled in Pittsburgh’s historic area called the Mexican War Streets. The district is diverse, with low-income housing interspersed with elegantly-rehabbed row houses and flourishing community gardens. The area, which is has been plagued by crime and poverty, is home to a growing creative class. In addition to Jazz Poetry, COA/P hosts regular events and readings, including some from the translators and international writers who come to stay at COA/P for shorter residencies. COA/P’s row houses are yards away from the Mattress Factory Art Museum, an avant-garde contemporary art museum in a redeveloped warehouse. Both organizations attract art lovers to the Mexican War Streets district and are helping to improve the image of the area. But the slow transition from troubled neighborhood to art enclave has not always been smooth. “There can be a love–hate relationship in the neighborhood regarding all of the cultural activities,” said Heather Pinson, who, despite her Tennessee roots, sees herself living permanently in the Mexican War Streets district. “It’s not so much a black and white divide, as an economic one.”

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Pinson noted that there has been tension between the neighborhood association, which supports beautification and clean-up projects, and some residents who are more concerned about attracting a youth center to the area and securing more low-income housing. Between the two interests, said Pinson, lies COA/P. “Jazz Poetry has become neutral ground where everyone can enjoy themselves,” she said.

“We’re going to the concert tonight!” declared Jonique. “And it’s right outside our door!”

Redeveloping a state of mind Beneath a dreary sky, volunteers hurried to set up hundreds of folding chairs for the concert. The event has grown over the years, attracting upwards of 700 fans. In the nearby Widows Home housing project, three boys played basketball. When asked, they said that they knew about the concert that night, but they had no idea that it was connected to City of Asylum/Pittsburgh—or what COA/P was, for that matter. But its impact is still being felt. “All I know about is that a Chinese man down the street covered his house with Chinese writing,” said 12-year-old Ray. He was referring to one of the COA/P residences covered with Chinese calligraphy. The house is called “House Poem,” and the calligraphy was painted by poet Huang Xiang. VIEW VIDEO OF HUANG XIANG’S “HOUSE POEM” PERFORMANCE Tortured and imprisoned by the Chinese government because of his writing, Huang Xiang sought refuge at COA/P in 2004. Despite the signs of Asia in their midst, the boys had a hard time connecting the “House Poem” to their own lives near Sampsonia Way. In fact, when asked what country he’d like to visit one day, Ray thought a long time and finally answered “Canada.” “It’s the only foreign country I can think of,” he laughed. But Jazz Poetry has had a more direct affect on his life. “I like to sit at my window and listen to the music,” he said before going off to with his friends to play more basketball. OCTOBER 2009

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JAZZ 2009

rapt, prone to improvisational movements as the music washed over the alley. Almond shook the beads in her braided hair to the rhythms. They listened with surprising attention to poetry from the reaches of the world: Croatia, India, Iraq, Georgia and Burma. Kira Hoover, 24, (above) was also in the crowd. The newlywed moved into the neighborhood in April. “We see the North Side on the news everyday for drugs, prostitution and violence,” she said. “But I love it here. There’s a strong sense of community, and people here care about each other. Jazz Poetry makes me confident of my choice to live here. Together we are changing the perception about the area.” Chris Cox snapped his fingers in the air as saxophonist Oliver Lake played a solo. “This is the coolest thing that happens in Pittsburgh every year,” he said. “It’s religious.”

POETRY

Barbara Talerico is an IT manager for The Bank of New York Mellon and a volunteer for COA/P. She moved to the Mexican War Streets from the suburbs more than a decade ago. “I used to live out so far,” she said, “cows were over the next ridge.” She loves her urban neighborhood for its diversity and keen sense of community. “Jazz Poetry has become a signature event,” she said as she took a break from setting up. “When my friends and family visit, they think this place is so cool. It’s wonderful to be able to look around and say, ‘Who are all these people streaming into the neighborhood?’” By the time the musicians and poets took the stage, Hopson had herded Almond, Naya and Jonique into their seats. The girls were

READ “INTENSE FEELINGS MARK JAZZ/POETRY EVENING,” BY BOB HOOVER PITTSBURGH POSTGAZETTE


“We see the North Side on the news everyday for drugs, prostitution and violence,” said Kira Hoover. “But I love it here.There’s a strong sense of community, and people here care about each other.”

The future of Sampsonia Way It is hard to measure the long-term effect that the event— and the presence of international writers—will ultimately have on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Some changes are manifest, like the crowd coming to appreciate creative voices from all over the world. Or like COA/P founder Henry Reese’s plans to build a neighborhood café and bookstore. Some of the effects may be more subtle. Like the neighborhood pride that buoys each year during Jazz Poetry. Or the possibility that wafted over the Widows Home apartments just beyond the stage, where a little boy sat in an open window, listening.

READ “POP FILTER EVENT OF THE WEEK: CITY OF ASYLUM JAZZ POETRY,” BY JENNIFER BARON OCTOBER 2009

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Iran One Woman's War