In other words, conventional means of repelling the
Iraqi invasion were hard to come by…Many nights
during the war, Iranian soldiers would wake up to
see a white-shrouded figure on a white horse
blessing them. These apparitions were professional
actors sent to boost morale. The common soldiers,
often peasant boys raised in an atmosphere of
simple piety, would then carry the tale to their
relatives and friends in the villages and small towns,
if they lived to make it home…The volunteers
fought not for nation but for faith—or perhaps it
would be better to say that they made no distinction
between the two…
The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr (p. 132)
What to make of this phantom rider? Constructed like a poem, does the quasi-religious narrative dare readers to ask if he really happened? The horse he rode ate real hay, drank real water, and took real shits near the front line of the Iran-Iraq war. At least a few real soldiers on watch must have questioned the apparition, like Hamlet after seeing Banquo’s ghost. Sufficiently inspired, tens of thousands of Iranians marched to their death on the threshold of enemy territory, inevitably wrapped in white sheets—extending the material, so to speak.
Thus, rather than words, the white space between poems haunts these pages, meaning the artifice intentionally seeks to shock and awe the reader into submission, crossing into rhetoric by faith, going home to tell others what happened on their metaphorical road to Mecca.
Dare I proclaim the Ayatollah Khomeini Iran’s greatest contemporary poet? Indeed, I doubly dare. Consider how he founded the revolution upon a version of Plato’s idealized Republic. Instead of outright banning nefarious poets from the state, he appropriated the spiritually transformative power of the lyric.
Thus, the ghost horse replaces the poem, making real things happen, often in real time, as opposed to the mere make-believe stories of dragons and birds cum midwives conducting C-sections in the Shahnameh. Hoof beats strike so loudly upon the earth of the old country, ordinary couplets in the Persian tradition pale in comparison. “Mark me,” says the horseshoe trail through the mud, the blood, and the living history. Scan the long, single line and you’ll hear the fatalistic music of a prophet.
Say the imprint fills with snow; look closer and find a Persian portrait in miniature, the idea of a country, Iran shar, “the land of the Aryans,” a single strand of the Ayatollah’s beard, a blank page upon which to transcribe memorized ghazals of Hafez, the transportability of myth, as a wounded man drags his one-legged body home from the war through the depths of winter to describe the sighting of the horse to his village.