Hope and Despair: An Iranian Poet Living in Exile

Sheema Kalbasi left her country at 14 and transformed her experience into poetry and activism.

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Hope and Despair: An Iranian Poet Living in Exile

The cover of Sheema's book The Poetry of Iranian Women. (Photo c/o Sheema Kalbasi)

It's been 25 years since Sheema Kalbasi last walked the streets of Tehran. The poet and human rights advocate was 14 years old when she left Iran and says, even at that time, she knew she would never be able to return. Now residing in Washington, D.C., Sheema has become an award-winning poet and a voice for women and minorities struggling against human rights abuses in Iran.

Recently, Sheema spoke with TakePart about her poetry, life in exile and why she is dedicated to fighting for human rights.

TakePart: Can you tell me what happened when you were younger and had to leave Iran? 

Sheema: I was five years old at the time of the revolution. Like many Iranians, the revolution changed my life and my family’s in the most fundamental way: growing up in fear that every day someone might knock on your door and take one of your loved ones away, watching the bullet-riddled bodies of the executed army officers on TV and on the front pages of newspapers and later during the Iran-Iraq war. The list goes on and on.

I left Iran at the relatively young age of 14. I was only partly following my family, it was also my own deep desire to live in freedom. Despite all the difficulties I experienced, if I had to make that exact decision again, I would choose the same. We lived in Pakistan for few years and moved to Denmark afterwards.

TakePart: Are there things you miss about Iran?

Sheema: Obviously, the place where you are born and spent your formative years makes the person you are. Memories like the arrival of Nowruz [Iranian New Year], the timeless image of a pomegranate shrub and its branches over the flavorful rose garden as my father would place the bread basket, butter, honey jar and its server on the table, pour ice cold milk in my glass and pull up a chair and sit next to me.

Nothing epitomizes the story of despair and hope that coexists within us, and in every single moment, like living a life in exile.

TakePart: You have become a voice for the people of Iran through your poetry and work as an activist. Why did you choose this path?

I did not choose any particular path. This is part of who I am: to express to the best of my ability the pain I see in others and my own life experiences as a teenage asylum seeker, an exile, an immigrant, a child of post-revolution Iran and today as a woman.

TakePart: When did you start writing poetry?

Sheema: I was eight years old, and inspired by Hāfez-e Šhīrāzī, a Persian poet (1326 – 1389), when I wrote my first poem.

TakePart: What inspired Echoes in Exile and The Poetry of Iranian Women?

Sheema: Nothing epitomizes the story of despair and hope that coexists within us, and in every single moment, like living a life in exile. That is what Echoes in Exile is about. The Poetry of Iranian Women, on the other hand, was my effort to introduce non-Persian speakers to Persian poetry, especially Iranian women poets. The Poetry of Iranian Women was more of a social and educational project for me, whereas Echoes in Exile was deeply personal.

Sheema teaching refugee children in Pakistan. (Photo: Sheema Kalbasi)

TakePart: In your poetry, you talk about the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities, and you’ve also worked with minority children. Can you tell me about your work with Baha'i refugees and what inspired you to write about their plight in poems like “Hezbollah”?

Sheema: I did voluntary teaching of Baha’i refugee children in Lahore and refugees of many ethnic backgrounds in Islamabad. Their stories of struggle and mistreatment had a great impact on my poetry, including the poem “Hezbollah,” in which I tried to put the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime on full display. They have made a mockery of Iranians by talking nonstop about the suffering of Palestinians on TV screens and even introducing that in school curricula while arresting and executing Iranian citizens.

TakePart: What does freedom of expression mean to you?

Sheema: I take the meaning of freedom of expression literary as what the decoration of Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states. Freedom of expression is so dear to someone like me who has spent some of her life living in dictatorship. Sometimes, however, I am disappointed to see freedom of expression used as an experiment in provocation and spewing hate.

TakePart: What are your views on the human rights situation in Iran. Specifically for women?

Sheema: The ongoing human rights abuses in Iran include execution, stoning, arrest and torture of ethnic and religious minorities, trade unionists, students and women’s rights activists. In a nutshell, Iranian women experience legal gender discrimination. They cannot be appointed to the highest office, they cannot become judges, they cannot leave the country without the permission of their husbands or fathers and they are subjected to cruel punishment and the most grotesque penal code such as stoning. However, I believe that in the near future, the Iranian women will play an instrumental role in bringing about change, not only to improve their own status but for Iranian society in general.

TakePart: What is your hope for the people of Iran and what can the international community do to help propel the country to become a more democratic society?

Sheema: Iran has a young population and their needs and aspirations are completely at odds with the Iranian regime. Sooner or later the regime has to give in to the winds of change that are sweeping through the region.

“Artists in Exile” is an original series featuring the stories of Iranian artists, musicians and writers living in exile because of their artistic expression. The series touches on the concept of freedom and furthers conversations raised in the film 'Circumstance,' from Participant Media and Roadside Attractions, which opened in select theaters on August 26.

Participant Media—TakePart's parent company—acquired 'Circumstance' at the Sundance Film Festival and is releasing the film theatrically with Roadside Attractions.