The House is Black: The life and works of Forough Farrokhzad and why we must always keep her in our heart
“Perhaps life is a choked moment where my gaze
annihilates itself inside in the pupils of your eyes —
I will mingle that sensation with my grasp
of the moon and comprehension of darkness.”[i]
I stumbled across Forough Farrokhzad’s work on an extremely rainy day, wrapped up in a blanket of melancholy that only heartbreak can induce one to crawl under. This happened, as most life-changing moments do, entirely by accident while trawling through a trove of other-language poets on the Internet (a search that started with Pablo Neruda in South America and ended with Farrokhzad in Iran is a search well worth initiating). Since then, I have been passionately obsessed with all things Forough, and hence have taken this baby step towards shedding some light on this heart-wrenching, firebrand lady, who shook all known conceptions of the role of women in early 20th century Iran.
Forough stands out as a beacon not just for the formidable quality of her work –be it as an actress, a poet, a filmmaker or a painter — but because both her life and her art were revolutionary for the time.[ii] The singular, concentrated quality that stands out in the art of Forough Farrokhzad is independence. Without needing to be the protégé of an established male litterateur[iii], she was successful in carving out a niche that has, if not paved the road, at least provided a strong foothold for women in Iran to occupy the literary and artistic space like never before. A word here on her life story: born to traditional, middle-class parents, she had the audacity to desert an early marriage in 1955 — a marriage, it is important to note, that she made out of love, despite strong objections from her parents — despite knowing that the letter of the law at the time would disadvantage her, and separate her from her only son.[iv] Despite faltering mental health, Farrokhzad nevertheless went on to pursue her writing as well as her new-found interest in cinematography, production and acting, working as an assistant at the Golestan film studio.[v] She was unconventional in her exploration of her own sexuality as well, entering a relationship with the owner of said studio which set gossip alight in literary circles, and bestowed a notorious reputation upon the young Farrokhzad.[vi]Both highly respected and slanderously vilified at the same time, it is no wonder that the sheer dichotomy was enough to send her spiraling towards an unsuccessful suicide attempt in 1960.[vii] She finally died at the age of 32 in 1967, in a car accident that sent shockwaves throughout Iran.[viii]
The poetic style of Forough Farrokhzad has been explored in innumerable scholarly pieces[ix], all of which point to three main things — her bold exploration of erotic themes through an unmistakably female lens, an entanglement of the old and the new in her writing, and a later exploration of philosophical themes as she grew and matured as a writer. What I take away from every Farrokhzad piece is absolute raw emotion, the all-too-familiar kind that lies dormant inside each and every one of us, the kind that can make us wake up gasping for air in the middle of the night, the kind that we refuse to acknowledge most of the time because it is simply too painful to think about. Forough Farrokhzad somehow finds language for emotions that are impossible to bind down using words. These tiny excerpts may serve to make my point clearer, be it the hollow fear induced by these evocative lines from “The Wind Will Take Us” –
“listen do you hear the darkness blowing?
something is passing in the night
the moon is restless and red
and over this rooftop
where crumbling is a constant fear
clouds, like a procession of mourners
seem to be waiting for the moment of rain.
and then nothing
night shudders beyond this window
and the earth winds to a halt
beyond this window
something unknown is watching you and me.”[x]
– or the madness of love and longing captured so perfectly in this excerpt from “On Loving”, retrieved from her book “Sin”:
“Tonight from your eyes’ sky
stars rain on my poem,
my fingers spark, set ablaze
the muteness of these blank pages.
My fevered, raving poem shamed by its desires,
hurls itself once again into fire, the flames’ relentless craving.
Yes, so love begins,
and though the road’s end is out of sight, I do not think of the end.
It’s the loving that I love.”[xi]
I do not need to reiterate that for a woman in Iran to be, in the 1950s, creating poetry that discusses love and lust and passion and the female gaze, so to speak, is nothing short of spectacularly pathbreaking. For finding a voice of honesty, and for baring her own soul in beautiful poetic form, for daring to do this alone, Forough Farrokhzad deserves all our respect.
A final aspect of her work I wanted to discuss before closing this post is her 1962 documentary, “Khaneh Syah Ast” (“The House is Black”)[xii]. Built on the foundations of her engagement with the issue of leprosy, this movie is less a documentary and more a poetic narrative of her thoughts and feelings on the subject. It is stark, haunting and quite impossible to stop watching once the viewer plunges into this bleak black and white world. As one critic put it, “there is the despondent idea of leprosy seen as a general metaphor for the human condition. Under this guise, we are all seen as lost and lowered to the lepers’ level of misery.”[xiii] It is this message that she captures through the lens, and perhaps this that leaves a bitter aftertaste for the viewer.
Forough, much like Sylvia Plath, was at the same time a prodigal genius, way ahead of her time, as well as a soul tortured deeply by her own demons. Perhaps no other Iranian writer has been held up, scrutinized and torn between such extremes as Forough Farrokhzad. Yet, her voice forever remains haunting, enchanting and a reminder that creativity will refuse to let itself be held down by societal shackles, and will always find a way to emerge and inspire the world for the better.
[i] Forough Farrokhzad, ‘Reborn’, (1964) available at https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2015/march/reborn-forugh-farrokhzad (Retrieved on February 16, 2017).
[ii] Darznik, J., “Forough Goes West: The Legacy of Forough Farrokhzad in Iranian Diasporic Art and Literature”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 6.1 (2010): 103–116.
[iv] ‘Farroḵzād, Forūḡ-Zamān’, Encylopaedia Iranica, (December 15, 1999) available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/farrokzad-forug-zaman (Retrieved on February 16, 2017).
[vi] Supra note iv.
[vii] Supra note iv.
[viii] Supra note ii.
[ix] See Milani, Farzaneh, “Love and sexuality in the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad: a reconsideration”, Iranian Studies, 15:1–4 (1982): 117–128.
[x] Forough Farrokhzad, “The Wind Will Take Us”, available at http://www.forughfarrokhzad.org/selectedworks/selectedworks1.php (Retrieved on February 16, 2017).
[xi] Forough Farrokhzad, “On Loving”, available at http://loveandpomegranates.meghansayres.com/on-loving-forugh/ (Retrieved on February 16, 2017).