The political philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo first gained renown in his adoptive home of Canada after his wrongful imprisonment in Iran became a human-rights issue a decade or so ago. Jahanbegloo was arrested in 2006, while visiting family in Tehran, on trumped-up charges of conspiring to overthrow the state. The author of such books as Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (1991), and an alumnus of the Sorbonne and Harvard, he was held in solitary confinement for four months, an ordeal he detailed in his previous book, Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher Survives an Iranian Prison. Jahanbegloo is currently professor and vice dean of the law school at Jindal Global University in Delhi, and executive director of the university’s Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace. His newest book considers his experience ten years on, from another perspective. On Forgiveness & Revenge: Lessons from an Iranian Prison (University of Regina Press) is a wide-ranging reflection on forgiveness through the philosopher’s lens. It’s an apt book for an annus horribilis that has supplied no end of opportunities to exercise forgiveness, patience, and resilience.
The Kurdish-Canadian poet Jalal Barzanji has much in common with Jahanbegloo. The author of the poetry collection Trying Again to Stop Time and The Man in the Blue Pyjamas: A Prison Memoir (both University of Alberta Press), he was also unjustly imprisoned (in Iraq); he has spent a lifetime navigating questions of exile and freedom in his writing; and he, too, has had to negotiate moving past great injustice in his life. He and Jahanbegloo spoke via email about confinement, freedom, and the art of forgiving.
Barzanji: I was very excited when I read in your book that your father is Kurdish. Sanandaj is a city of art, culture, and literature [in Iranian Kurdistan], and I am not surprised to know that your roots are in that beautiful city. Unfortunately, it is the destiny of Kurdish people to be displaced, which results in the loss of language. But aren’t we lucky to have other languages to express our feelings and thoughts about peace, freedom, and beauty?
Jahanbegloo: Beautifully put. I was born in Tehran and neither my parents nor I speak a word of Kurdish, but my ancestors came from Sanandaj. They were descendants of a famous Kurdish tribe, the tribe of Jahanbegloo, which my Turkish friends continue to call by its Turkish name, Cihanbeyli. My grandfather kept all the symbols of his ancestors, notably two swords that were given to him by his own father, which I eventually inherited. I lived under two regimes: the second Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The first one put my father in prison. The second one imprisoned me.
Barzanji: This is shocking but no surprise, and we have many similarities in our lives. During the darkness of Saddam Hussein’s regime, I spent two years in prison; my father was also arrested, in Erbil. I grew up in a small village in Iraqi Kurdistan without electricity or water. A school was opened there when I was seven years old, and books soon became my obsession. My father would chastise me whenever I was lagging behind during the walk to school; he would shout, “Hurry up, Jalal! I don’t want you to walk through life blind like me.” That always stuck with me. That school—and, soon after, my entire village—was later firebombed in 1961. Two days following the bombing, he was imprisoned. It would not be the last time my hopes and dreams were taken from me by a government.
Jahanbegloo: It was a great pleasure to read your book and I found many similarities with my autobiography, Time Will Say Nothing. I was incarcerated in 2006. I spent 125 days in solitary, a difference from your ordeal. I was also psychologically tortured and interrogated for eight hours every day in order to confess to crimes that I had not committed. But I survived by reading and writing. I wrote aphorisms in the backs of tissue boxes that I tore in tiny pieces. Many of these aphorisms were confiscated by my jailers, but I published the remaining in a Persian-language book entitled A Mind in Winter.
Barzanji: I would characterize my time in prison as uncomfortable, above all. It’s a strange word to decide as defining, but it was: the space, the size, the smell, the routine, even where the prison was located. A library I enjoyed had been turned into this prison; it was a place I had a deep connection to and frequented often, and it led to a deep discomfort in me that it was now a prison. At times I would find it so incredibly difficult to focus on anything but this constant and exhausting physical and mental discomfort. My own prison life also entailed being changed by those I shared a cell with. Many of them turned to the idea of revenge, and it was difficult at times not to be swayed by this groupthink. It’s an interesting thing being in such quarters—the individual becomes less that and more a single representation of a larger unit.
It strikes me, reading your powerful book, that much of your motivation for turning away from vengefulness is to break the so-called cycle of barbarity as you describe it. You also touch on revenge being motivated by other things, at times pride. I wonder how much solitary confinement contributed to your ability to come to these conclusions? You mention Gandhi; does the path to forgiveness need a little time alone to come to terms with yourself—meditation, if you will?
Jahanbegloo: Forgiveness is not an automatic gesture. It comes with time, if it ever takes shape in one’s conscience. Some people never forgive because of the weight and the force of the evil they have gone through. I think this is the case with those who experienced the Nazi concentration camps. And then you have those who forgive but never forget. I think that we need to forgive in order to turn the page. But turning the page does not mean betraying history. We are responsible not only in regard to our consciences but also in relation to the future generations, who need to know what happened. This is the only way to put an end to the cycle of violence.
While going through your book, I found that your writing is enveloped with tenderness and compassion when you talk about your fellow prisoners, even your jailers. Even in the last pages of your book, when you talk about the execution of Saddam, who was a monster like Stalin or Hitler, I feel no sense of revenge in your pen. I find a humanistic innocence in your writings that I also find in Albert Camus, who said that we should be “neither victims, nor executioners.”
Barzanji: I’m wondering how much easier forgiveness would be if we were all to take on the Hannah Arendt way of thinking—it’s easier to forgive an empty vessel. Perhaps we are all empty vessels in a sense, our nature contributing to empty movements.
Jahanbegloo: Arendt has played an important role in my life. She is not the only Jewish thinker with whom I feel close. I was lucky to know philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas, Isaiah Berlin, and George Steiner. They influenced my thoughts and my writings and maybe because of this I was accused of being a Jew-lover by the Iranian authorities. Certainly my connection to such scholars was a focus of countless hours of blindfolded interrogations at Evin prison.
Barzanji: At one point I stopped to reflect on whether the group mentality, so prone to misleading and descending into violence, makes the process of forgiving easier for the victim. I lack any sort of ill will or animosity toward those that held me captive or put me in that state of perpetual discomfort I described earlier, but I find it exceedingly difficult to come to terms with forgiving, for example, Ali Hassan al-Majid—Chemical Ali, as he is known—as the perpetrator of the Halabja attack. In 1988, I wondered to myself, if, like Arendt with Eichmann, I saw a banal man at Ali’s trial, one that simply internalized Baath party policy, would that make the process of forgiveness easier? Perhaps this would make me a Baath party sympathizer to Kurds—just as she was a Nazi sympathizer and you are a Jewish sympathizer.
Jahanbegloo: Maybe what perplexes individuals so much about the concept of forgiveness is that forgiveness is seen and felt as a newcomer in our lives. Yet forgiveness is the common horizon of humanity, because it includes the self and the other. Unlike revenge, forgiveness is not an automatic response to injustice. It is much more reflective. All human beings can be reflective, in the sense in which thinking about what one does is part of doing it. So why do we have difficulty thinking about forgiveness? This is a weakness that we have not only in the Islamic countries and in the Middle East (as many westerners think) but all over the world. I admire the Kurdish people, because they do not have revenge in their hearts and in their minds as a response to what they have suffered. For them, every defeat is a new beginning and a new dawn of hope.
Barzanji: There are a hundred different ways to look at the Kurdish struggle for independence. My perspective is built on the belief that the right to self-determination should be given to those who seek it. I’m not ignorant enough or gullible enough to think this is likely, or even possible, with today’s political climate—but I suspect most who have seen the dangers and impact of colonization or suppression of identity would come to the same conclusion. A line from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is strangely fitting for our situation: “Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose his existence on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized…that other will remain the theme of his actions.”
While our existence isn’t entirely ignored, it is difficult to come to terms with the idea that we will be, and are, effectively in the shadow of the recognition received by the countries which we were separated into. The very nature of our separation, for the interests of Ataturk’s Republic of Turkey, reflects this second-class identity that I believe has been subconsciously stamped onto each of us. We don’t currently hold the ability to ask who we are without that question reflecting interests that are not our own, collectively or individually.
Jahanbegloo: Sometimes I think that only people who come from our region of the world can understand the strange mixture of agony and empathy in those who can sing and dance and recite poems with the same passion and fervor with which they fight for a piece of land or for their pride. We are both children of that heritage, a heritage that is mixed with the horror of violence and of wants, the triumph of self and of oil, but also with bravery and beauty as modes of life.
Barzanji: Yes, truly our experiences in the Middle East, and mainly Iraq and Iran, are unique to us. The millennia of cultures and stories of civilizations passed that are lost under the scrutiny of governments and ideologies (sometimes recovered, often lost again) hum to us from beyond the grave. As writers, I believe it is in our nature to grasp at these loose threads of history that dangle from library shelves and the dark corners of historical sites. I imagine not all your pursuits have been fruitful; I know a majority of mine have not, but it is in this pursuit that I find meaning when it escapes me in other endeavours.
Jahanbegloo: Camus said, “We live in terror because persuasion is no longer possible; because man has been wholly submerged in history.” But sometimes we need to stop the train of history and get off, maybe because we need to write poems and read poetry, in order to survive.
Barzanji: You describe Dostoevsky in the book, and the idea that we must coexist and maintain a shared level of responsibility—that we are all responsible to one another for our sins, and responsible to one another for our happiness. I have tried to bring beauty and the light to the darkness through my poems—at least in the way that I see it—but I have also tried to write in my memoir about the reality of what has happened to me. And I feel a responsibility to write about, and for, those who were with me but who cannot write.
Your words are beautiful—the train of time must stop occasionally, especially for writing poetry. Even if it does not, I shall continue to write. Responsibilities, after all. Would not want to disappoint Dostoevsky.
Jahanbegloo: Well, I must express my thanks for the stimulation I’ve received from your poems. I’ve been impressed by the spiritual force and systematic power in your work. I would say that there is no way for us to understand and practise forgiveness if we refuse to acknowledge the need of humanity for poets, for a poetic sense of life. Truly, it is in this common poetic potential that we can find the fruits of recognition and reconciliation.
Did you know that the young Stalin composed poems in Georgian? But years later, poets like Osip Mandelstam were victims of Stalin’s purges. Mandelstam wrote:
The people need poetry that will be their own secret.
To keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave
of its breathing.
Tyrants have always feared poets, maybe because they represent the voice of nonviolence and forgiveness.
Barzanji: Saddam Hussein also attempted poetry and novel writing. It seems the seed of poetry does grow in everybody’s soul. But to do it well…the process, as you know dearly, requires a deep vulnerability. You say tyrants have always feared poets, which is a great compliment to us. Perhaps this fear comes from our willingness to embrace our vulnerability. Perhaps I am giving us too much credit.
Jahanbegloo: Even today, our world tries to make poets insignificant writers, but writing poetry is the most passionate way of putting life into words. Roland Barthes says, “To see someone who does not see is the best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see.” It is our job, as writers, to try to see what the people don’t see and to turn it into visible words. In today’s world, writers are tightrope walkers, because the war against words is always waged in the language of utility and functionalism.
Barzanji: I was born and grew up in a country that didn’t consider freedom of expression important. My first collection of poetry [Dance of the Evening Snow] was rejected twice by the Iraqi censorship department before it was eventually published, in 1979. The regime looked at independent writers as criminals, and persecuted, tortured, jailed, killed, and displaced them. This is why I was thrown in prison for two years. I have a deep appreciation for Canada, a deep love not only for the salvation it has given me and my writing but for the freedom it has given my entire family to pursue what we each hold dear without fear of persecution. The downside to this stability is the risk of falling into a routine. The same freedom you are given by the nature of the land does sometimes feel constrained under the weight of responsibilities and obligations. The opportunity to share ideas with you has been a small break from that.
I believe poetry served me in a similar way, under more duress and in a bleaker period of my life, of course. I thank you for describing my poems as peaceful because, above all, that’s what I intended them to be. Perhaps not for the reader—I am a firm believer that a reader must create their own meaning—but for myself, assuredly. You spoke about our connection to the land and the soil. During my incarceration, and perhaps even more painfully my incarceration of the mind under censorship, I felt distant from my surroundings, from my home, my heritage—things I missed and dreamed about. Writing poetry was my connection back to those things. I poured that longing for freedom into my words. This was a necessity for survival.
Jahanbegloo: We share the same experience. Though I grew up in a family of artists and intellectuals in Iran, my parents, and later I myself…we all suffered from political repression in the Iranian context. This is something which an ordinary Canadian cannot understand. Freedom of expression is a reality which is unappreciated and taken for granted in Canada. Freedom is something we fight for. It is not a gift which is offered to us on a golden plate. But very often we forget that revolutions in the name of rights and freedom were never politically correct. No wonder that many people in North America take virtuous speech and political correctness over freedom. This is also the case with the concept of law, which very often turns into what Martin Luther King called “a thin paper” and not “a thick action.” But in the Middle East, freedom is about thick action. We cannot take it for granted. We need it as we need oxygen and we fight for it every second, every minute, every hour of the day.
As a Kurdish author, you have suffered racism, exclusion, imprisonment, torture, and finally exile. Exile is more than a geographical concept. It’s a mode of being. In a certain sense, being a writer or a poet is to live in exile, as an outsider. We need to have the courage to live as outsiders. But for this, we need to struggle for our exilic consciousness and to develop a grammar of outsider-hood. It takes considerable intellectual conviction and critical responsibility to stand outside the constraints of ideological and financial dependency. One needs to be guided by his or her sense of otherness and outsider-hood. The pattern that sets the course for a writer or philosopher or artist as an outsider is best exemplified by the state of never being fully adjusted.
Barzanji: As you may know, I was named PEN Canada’s writer in exile in 2007. Exile has always been a sort of second home to me—on the fringes, on the cusp. At times I long for home. I long for the Kurdistan I left behind. That Kurdistan no longer exists, however, and although I have a deep appreciation and love for Canada, losing the home of your mother tongue will always leave a hollow space in your soul. Here in Canada, with my deep accent and brown skin, it is difficult to always feel as though I belong in the same way an old Canadian man feels he belongs. This is not to say my love for this country does not extend as far as his, but I do not share the memories of running on its fertile ground as a child, hugging the tallest branches of its trees, or learning to swim in its lakes. The place I do share those memories with has changed, to the point of non-recognition at times. This has left me in my old age feeling connected to two places so far away from one another, yet stuck between both. But in speaking with you I have come to realize that this distance from both places is perhaps the reason why I am able to write without much bias.
Jahanbegloo: As writers, we are blunt critics of humanity. It’s by being responsible and responsive that we can raise moral questions. But we need to speak up against any form of injustice, even in liberal societies. Forgiveness is not a virtue of our de-civilizing world, and it is the responsibility of outsiders like us to think about it. Only a truly moral conception of citizenship, which listens to the other with empathy, which learns from the past, can reverse the meaninglessness and thoughtlessness of the de-civilizing process we are currently going through. Let us be frank: The apathy that this order generates in citizens all over the world is the real threat. So the question is: Could we live in a world without empathy?
Barzanji: A powerful question, Ramin. Paul Bloom makes the case against it in his book Against Empathy. While it is an engaging read, I found that most of Bloom’s examples of the pitfalls of empathy suggested we needed more of it. For example, Bloom cites our societal sympathy for the victims of mass murder over the victims of murders that occur day to day in crowded urban areas such as Chicago. Is there a limit on how much empathy and forgiveness we are capable of, Ramin? Does our investment of empathy in one atrocity inevitably lead to neglect in another? If this limitation posed by Bloom does exist, what are the repercussions?
Jahanbegloo: The language of exclusion has become very present in our world. It might not show itself anymore in hard ideological language, but it certainly appears in the liberal fetishization of legality. This is when justice is no longer about compassion, but only a table of abstract regulations that people use or abuse without care for the other person. The truth is that, especially in the liberal countries, we are not equipped for the truth anymore. It is said that “all men are born equal,” but that is not true. Those who suffer from poverty, violence, malnutrition, and illiteracy, are not born into equal circumstances. But we see them and read about them as temporary subjects, accidents of our glorious human civilization. The liberal language of exclusion easily lends itself to the invention of a barbarian world. Take the example of the Kurds: The geopolitical offensive of the international community against the Kurdish referendum in Iraq and Masoud Barzani resulted from the fear of destabilizing the Kurdish populations in Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Or the example of Catalonia, where the undemocratic argument of force has prevailed.
Most of the barbarities in the world are sustained in the name of a reductionist view of civilization and humanity. Here we have the total absence of the empathetic listening of the other. But we should never forget what Arendt writes on this subject, and this is central to our debate on revenge and forgiveness: “If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality.”
Barzanji: With the goings-on in Kurdistan, Ramin, there are many online articles and think pieces from the Kurdish media claiming that this may be the last nail in the coffin for the Kurdish people. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, or perhaps after having been through so much, the resiliency of a people, or an individual, seems to me something that is not simply lost. There have been other Kirkuks, other collapses, and yet we remain. I believe we shall continue to endure, and with hope continue to forgive.