Ten Revolutionary Nights in Tehran: On the Significance of the Poetry at the dah shab for the ‘1979 Moment’ in Iran

By Olmo Gölz

Pinpricks: On Small Moments with Seminal Impact

“Nineteenth-century European revolutions often started in opera houses; the Iranian Revolution can be said to have begun in poetry-reading sessions.”[1] This is how Ervand Abrahamian summarizes the significance of the events in Tehran in October 1977 which became known as the dah shab, or ten nights of literature reading sessions. In these nights, the German-Iranian Cultural Association in Tehran hosted a series of literature reading sessions, co-organized by the Iranian Writers Association (Kanun-e Nevisandegan-e Iran, KNI) and the German Goethe-Institut. During these reading sessions, 57 of the country’s most prominent poets and writers read their works to thousands of listeners and, most certainly, this series of literature readings is to be regarded as an early manifestation of a public expression of social discontent and political protest against the Pahlavi regime.[2] However, the question remains on how significant the dah shab have been for the ‘1979 moment’ in Iran, for this peaceful moment in 1977 seemingly had little to do with the mass demonstrations and the violent responses by the regime in the following two years. Here, I argue that the occasion of the dah shab was the pinprick that triggered the explosion of public demands for freedom of expression and thus can be seen as a milestone on the path to the Iranian Revolution.

Revolutions may appear both to contemporaries and in retrospect as sudden and unexpected uprisings, as eruptions of a pent-up anger and as a collective will that breaks out in a manner that makes it impossible for those in power to react appropriately to them. It seems to be the secret of a successful revolution that it took the regime by surprise. If the rulers had been prepared, the overthrow could have been avoided. However, revolutions do not just happen. Revolutionary movements do not suddenly appear in a societal vacuum. Rather, precisely in retrospect, moments can be identified which contributed to the old order becoming porous, losing legitimacy or collapsing completely. The Iranian revolution of 1979 is no exception in this respect. However, in the Iranian case, attention is largely focused on the ‘big topics’ such as the formation of Islamist networks and their connection to the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, the grueling struggle of the regime with leftist Islamic guerilla groups in the 1970s, and the rapid disintegration of the state order between September 1978 and February 1979; at the same time some important pinpricks in the legitimacy of the Pahlavi regime are largely neglected. Against this backdrop, it is my aim to shed light on such a silent but seminal moment in Iranian history which contributed – this being my argument – significantly to the erosion of the legitimacy of the Pahlavi regime and thus paved the way for the revolutionary momentum in 1979.

Prelude: The Iranian Writers Association and the Goethe-Institut

The Iranian Writers Association was founded in 1968 on the initiative of several prominent literary figures, such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Simin Daneshvar, and Gholam-Hoseyn Saedi, in order to protect themselves collectively against the regime’s attempts to gain control of the country’s cultural workers. The first phase of the writer’s association as a professional guild came to an end in 1970 because “it could not transcend the factionalism that has historically plagued the Iranian elite”, as Karimi-Hakkak puts it.[3] In other words: They failed because of the dualism of wanting to be a professional guild for the interests of writers and poets on the one hand, and a quasi-political movement on the other, to represent communist, national-secular, and moderate religious positions. In addition, reprisals against the KNI had been intensified by the regime, resulting in arrests and open violence against those attending meetings of the association.

However, the KNI could show its impact on Iranian society and thus the revolutionary process in the second phase of its existence, after Jimmy Carter moved into the White House in January 1977. The new US president linked his foreign policy to conditions such as the observance of human rights in the partner countries. These demands left their mark on the Shah. This was reflected in an opening of the political system and, above all, an end to the worst torture excesses in the prisons, and the toleration of a few manifestations of malcontent by intellectuals.[4] The country’s opposition writers used this moment to revive the KNI. According to its self-designation in 1977, the association saw itself as a professional union whose political ambitions were primarily directed towards its professional interests, namely the implementation of freedom of expression.

In these surroundings of new opportunities, the writer’s association was willing to take advantage of the possibilities that a foreign cultural institute could offer to ensure a safe meeting. In order to pursue this path, the journalist Jalal Sarferaz made contact with the German employee at the Goethe-Institut, Kurt Scharf, and it was decided that the KNI and the Goethe-Institut would work together in setting up a series of literature reading sessions, where the Institute would provide the venue and the writers association would act as organizer. In this relationship, neither of the sides acted naïvely. On the contrary, the writers as well as the Germans pursued their goals: finding a place for their fight for the freedom of expression and supporting this fight in the frame of cultural policy, respectively. Accordingly, Kurt Scharf remembers:

“After the initial talks, our institute director, Mr Becker, informed the German ambassador of our plans and asked him what he thought of it. The ambassador indicated that he looked upon our endeavour with sympathy, but on the other hand, if there was any trouble, he could do nothing to protect Mr Becker or us. […] But we also have always thought the worst thing that could happen to us would be a short-term arrest and deportation and not torture, or years of detention, like our Iranian partners. In that respect, their risk was always much greater than our own.”[5]

In effect, with a prelude of several months the dah shab had been scheduled for October 10-19, 1977. It soon became clear that due to the great interest it was not possible to hold the event in the limited rooms of the Goethe Institute, but it had to be moved into the garden of the German-Iranian Cultural Association.

Procedure: The Ten Literature Reading Sessions

Cover of the Lecture Collection from the Ten Nights at the German-Iranian Cultural Association

The reading sessions began on a Monday evening in good weather, so that from the very beginning thousands of listeners attended the meeting. One was surprised, recalls Kurt Scharf, that not only about 2,000 expected visitors had come, but that the garden was full and the adjacent sidewalks were filled with perhaps 10,000 people in total. It took place in a peaceful atmosphere, with unobtrusive security forces keeping themselves mostly invisible. The first four evenings followed the same pattern, with one or two opening lectures by leading figures of the KNI and the following recitation of poems by four or five of the most prominent poets of Iran back then.[6] Regarding the poetry readings, the most remarkable moments of these four nights might have been the presentation of the celebrated Mehdi Akhavan Sales on the first night or the recitation of the poem “asr-e shab” (“Time of the Night”) by Syrus Moshfeqi on the third night. In a gloomy mood he spoke of the time of infinite exile, the time of lonely people, the time of blood – his own time, obviously. He ended with a dark voice: “asr-e shab/ asr-e shab/ asr-e shab/ shab/ shab/ shab/ shab” Night! Night! Night!

During the first half of the dah shab it also became clear that powerful political interventions were presented in the opening lectures of every evening, while the poetry still hid behind the literary codes that had been learned in the foregone years of censorship.[7] Basically, all of the lectures by the public intellectuals Rahmatollah Moqaddam Maghaeyi, Simin Daneshvar, Manuchehr Hezakhani, Shams Al-e Ahmad, Bahram Beyzai, and Gholam-Hossein Saedi revolved around two topics: The role of censorship – especially by Shams Al-e Ahmad, who openly criticized Mr. Becker of the Goethe-Insitut for asking him to not use the word ‘censorship’ in his speech –  and the restrictions of freedom of expression to cultural production in Iran on the one hand and the question of how poets and writers should behave in this environment on the other. The speech by Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi on the fourth night (October 13) was of particular importance in this regard. He tried to define the essence of the ‘true poet’ and divided the Iranian artists of recent years into two groups: ‘true’ and ‘false’ artists. In his understanding, ‘false artists’ would seek their inspiration outside of Iran and could only produce ‘false art’ due to the lack of their cultural situatedness. They were therefore not interested in the problems and concerns of the Iranian population and hence can never be regarded as representatives for the Iranian culture. With this speech, Saedi fired a massive broadside against the regime, which in previous years had tried to take a serious role on the international stage of avant-garde cultural production.

During the first five evenings, both the courage of the writers and the size of the audience increased. The fifth evening, however, was in many ways a change from the previous meetings: First, the scenery changed as the rain set in, which was to continue in the following days. This makes it all the more impressive that the event still had to be held outdoors due to the continuing large number of listeners, but it changed the mood of the events anyhow. Second, in the evening’s opening lecture entitled “Censorship and its consequences”, Baqer Momeni concluded that censorship had severed the alliance between intellectuals and their state. The Goethe-Institut’s request that the word ‘censorship’ no longer be used was ignored completely. Third and most importantly, Saeed Soltanpour spoke in front of a huge and more radicalized audience that distinctively came to listen to him. The poet, who had just been released from prison some weeks before, greeted those present fearlessly: “Salam, you broken by the black years, you thirsty for freedom, brothers and sisters, Salam!” For minutes he received frenetic applause. In the end of his lecture, he shouts: “I am a prisoner!” Soltanpours appearance at the dah shab caused great unease, particularly among those responsible at the Goethe-Institut, whereupon attempts were made to intervene at the KNI to put an end to the provocations against the regime.

That attempt proved in parts successful – at least in regards to the opening lectures of the following evenings, which overall became more moderate. However, this shift was now compensated by the appearances of the poets, who for their part – coincidence or not – became clearer and more political, as the reading by Siyavosh Kasrai on the sixth evening in particular showcased. The active member of the communist Tudeh-Party not only recited his poem “Ah ey azadi” (“Oh, freedom!”), where he saw his beloved homeland in chains, he also tried to actively define what a poet had to do in these days in which “an umbrella of fear was laid over the city”. In “Sha’er” (“Poet”) he defined the poet as the one who seeks conflict and announces change. They shall proclaim: “Most hidden spring /ignite you! Ignite! Blossom at last!” The poet became the herald of freedom, the harbinger of revolutionary change, and the most powerful of antagonists of the regime. The message is clear: at the dah shab art was not presented for the art’s sake, instead it was a weapon of change.

The situation calmed down on the following evenings, so that the fifth and sixth evenings can be described as the highlights of these ten revolutionary nights in Tehran, both in terms of mood and emotion as well as content. Nevertheless, important intellectuals and poets were also involved in the following four meetings, and the farewell words were reserved for the famous Houshang Golshiri: Go home calmly and do nothing “until we have spread out our feathered wings, until we have become a great forest. May your days be victorious and may your night become day!” The evenings ended peacefully. The calm before the storm.

Proto-Moments: From 1977 to 1979

On these nights in October 1977, the poets had neither had an Islamic Republic nor a revolution under the umbrella of Ayatollah Khomeini in mind. There were demands for change and reform; there were complaints about censorship and imprisonment; there were claims of freedom of speech. However, there were no explicit calls for the overthrow of the system. Nonetheless, these nights at the compound of the German-Iranian Cultural Association in 1977 represent a significant event on the way to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Aside from the fact that the example of the dah shab was followed by numerous other events, which in some cases quickly escalated into bloody disputes, it is of eminent importance that the regime could no longer even claim to legitimately represent the Iranian cultural production. Especially in the context of Iran, it was true that poets and writers were perceived as legitimate representatives of culture itself. Accordingly, Hamid Dabashi aptly notes: “Triumphant or turbulent, cultures are at once symbolized by and constituted from their arts and sciences. Literature celebrates, as law canonizes, the grand ideals of a living culture.”[8] Thus, at this very moment – evening after evening for ten nights – when the most popular poets and intellectuals of a country denounce the illegitimacy of the government, any cultural legitimacy that the government claimed to have had was lost. At the very moment when the poets of a country take over the monopoly of being able to name who is a literary figure, and determine that literature can only be thought of in oppositional terms, the regime is also deprived of its strategies to counter the crisis of legitimacy. It lost the power struggle in the literary field and forfeited its privilege of cultural representation of its people. Thus, although a small ‘proto-moment’, these dah shab represent a milestone event on the path to the big revolutionary ‘1979 moment’ in Iran.

[1] Abrahamian, Ervand. “The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution.” Radical History Review, no. 105 (2009): 13–38, p. 16.

[2] For a thorough analysis of the dah shab see my own contribution in German language: Gölz, Olmo. “Dah Šab – Zehn Literaturabende in Teheran 1977: Der Kampf um das Monopol literarischer Legitimität.” Die Welt des Islams 55, no. 1 (2015): 83–111.

[3] Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad. “Protest and Perish: A History of the Writers’ Association of Iran.” Iranian Studies 18, 2/4, Sociology of the Iranian Writer (1985): 189–229, p. 189.

[4] Chehabi, H. E. Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran under the Shah and Khomeini. London: Tauris, 1990, p. 226

[5] Kurt Scharf in a personal interview with the author on May 1, 2012.

[6] For a listing of the authors and poets see: Gölz, Olmo. “Dah Šab – Zehn Literaturabende in Teheran 1977: Der Kampf um das Monopol literarischer Legitimität.” Die Welt des Islams 55, no. 1 (2015): 83–111, p. 99-106. See also http://www.asre-nou.net/1383/ordibehesht/20/m-asefi1.html

[7] Cf. Ahmad Shamlu. “Modern Persian Poetry: The National Weapon in Iran 1950-1970.” In Critical Perspectives on Modern Persian Literature. Edited by Thomas M. Ricks. 1st ed. Washington, D.C: Three Continents Press, 1984, p. 250.

[8] Dabashi, Hamid. “The Poetics of Politics: Commitment in Modern Persian Literature.” Iranian Studies 18, 2/4, Sociology of the Iranian Writer (1985): 147–88, p. 147.

Olmo Gölz is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Iranian Studies at the University of Freiburg. As a member of the interdisciplinary Collaborative Research Centre “Heroes – Heroizations – Heroisms”, he is currently working on dynamics of the heroic in the Iran-Iraq war and the topic of martyrdom in Muslim societies. 

Further articles in the series “The ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East” on TRAFO:

Amir Moosavi (2018), Looking Back at the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East

Behrooz Moazami (2018), The Making and Unmaking of the Moments: From the 1979 Revolution to the Arab Spring

Yvonne Albers (2018), Turning the Page: Reading 1979 in and through the Cultural Journal Mawaqif

Jihane Sfeir (2018), The Disenchantment of the Left: Two Memories of the Palestinian Struggle

Shervin Malekzadeh (2018), The Forlorn Arab as Foil in the Curriculum of Postrevolutionary Iran

Joseph Ben Prestel (2018), When Threads Wear Thin: The West German Radical Left and Palestinian Groups at the End of the 1970s

Jan-Markus Vömel (2019), Green was the Name of my Civilization: Turkish Islamism in the Late 1970s

Arash Davari (2019), Covering Iran: Leftist Continuities and Discontinuities, from Propaganda to PR

Alp Yenen (2019), “Turkey Is Not Iran”: Middle East Experts in the 1979 Moment

Friederike Pannewick (2020), The ‘1979 Moment’ in Syrian Theatre: From Politicization to an ‘Inward Turn’?

Citation: Olmo Gölz, Ten Revolutionary Nights in Tehran: On the Significance of the Poetry at the dah shab for the ‘1979 Moment’ in Iran, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.05.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23713.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2020, 22. Mai). Ten Revolutionary Nights in Tehran: On the Significance of the Poetry at the dah shab for the ‘1979 Moment’ in Iran. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/uswk

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