Self-exiled poet covers Iran protests as a 'war correspondent in verse'

Leaving Iran in 2010 was the first time translator and poet Bänoo Zan was able to fully inhabit a self-described role as "war correspondent in verse." In this conversation with host Nahlah Ayed, the writer in residence at the University of Alberta explores the role of poetry in such moments of upheaval in her home country.

‘There is no emotional distance between me and the events I'm reporting or reflecting on,' says Bänoo Zan

The 2022 protests in Iran are a manifestation of a long simmering war over women's rights — one that has long inspired poet and translator Bänoo Zan. She says what can be said in poetry, there is no room for in stories. (Rumman Rahman)

Against terrifying odds — and away from most of the world's earshot — young Iranians have taken to the streets, week after week, calling for the downfall of the cleric-led regime.

"Women, life, liberty," has become their rallying cry. Their plea to the rest of the world: "Be our voice."

Under the pen name Bänoo Zan, a self-exiled Iranian Canadian poet has long made it her concern to report on the injustices Iranians live with daily. She describes her role as a "war correspondent in verse."

"Who we are is not what happens to us, it's how we go through these things emotionally and artistically," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's IDEAS.

In a body of work that spans more than 200 poems and poetry-related pieces, and three books, Zan is making a name by giving voice to the experience of exile, and that of Iranians at home, especially women, chafing under the strict rule of the Islamic republic. 

Even her choice of pen name is a feminist statement: Bänoo in Persian is an honourific, meaning "Lady" or "Ms." Zan simply means woman. Bänoo Zan is the only name she uses publicly.

'A call to action'

Just as the protests started in September, Zan was starting in her role as the 2022-23 writer in residence at the University of Alberta — a position that allows her to focus on her writing while also engaging with the community.

"This has been the moment that the universe calls on you," she said.

"I hope I can be true to myself and true to poetry."

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran, dated Sept. 21, 2022, shows Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets of Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died while in police custody. Protests over the young woman's death spread to 15 cities across Iran overnight. (AFP/Getty Images)

A poet, translator and teacher of English and English literature, Zan decided to leave Iran in 2010 to be able to write and live more freely. While Iran has a rich literary tradition and reverence of poets is near universal, it is also a country where poets can be viewed as dangerous.

"Because poetry still makes a difference," she said.

"Here [in Canada] you can write a poem about any political figure and nobody would even care. In Iran, especially when a prominent poet writes a protest poem, it goes viral. Everybody reads it. It's a call to action."

The power of poetry

Though Iran was her "first love," Zan chose to continue the battle in the only place where it is possible for an outspoken Iranian poet: in the diaspora.

In describing herself as a war correspondent, Zan acknowledges that she views what is happening in Iran as a war.

She focuses on the metaphorical and the emotional to tell the stories of Iranians in poems that speak powerfully of their experience — and she does so in English.

Bänoo Zan left Iran in 2010 as an act of self-exile so she could freely tell her people’s story. In her book, Songs of Exile, her poems reveal how the political becomes personal. (Nada Hashim/Guernica Editions)

"For me, literature is a window to the world," said Zan, who read several Margaret Atwood books in the lead up to her move to Canada. Now she provides glimpses of Iran through her own poems.

"It's also a willingness to communicate. So if I'm writing in a language that most people around me cannot understand, then I'm depriving myself of the chance to communicate with them."

Encouraging support

Zan also spends a considerable amount of her time reaching out to the community. She is the founder, artistic director and host of Shab-e She'r open mic poetry readings series in Toronto and Edmonton, which allows poets from all backgrounds to share their poetry.

As a poet, Zan has shared and performed her own work (see example below). She also hosts writing circles which have attracted a diverse range of writers including poets, beginners and even published authors.

Zan says she hopes other Canadian writers and creatives will follow her example and show support to the ongoing protests in Iran — what she describes as a struggle for women's rights, as well as a nation's struggle for democracy.

"It's time they stopped their silence and support us in any way they can."

This poem by Bänoo Zan was first published in Dissident Voice: A Radical Newsletter in the Struggle for Peace and Social Justice. 


I am Dawn
My name starts the day
I signal the night's retreat

I tear hijab from my head
The virtue matron bites my hand
records me on her phone
Revolutionary Guards arrest me the next day

I disappear
until they show me on TV—

my cheeks hollowed out
my face bruised
my gaze lowered—

Under a loose manteau—
bleeding—bones—and flesh—

They air my confession against the sun
when the night is ongoing

In a "secret" location in Evin1
the interrogator-interviewer
will have no deviation from the script

Defiance costs me lashes
Submission gives me nightmares—
Torture interrogates my life

My name is Dawn
The day starts with my name

Who I am
is not who I am—in pain—

I am Dawn
and I tear the hijab
of the night

This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

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