December 30, 2013KR BlogUncategorized

Trying to Conjugate Displacement

For several years now, I’ve wanted to translate portions of Ketab-e Kuche—most literally “The Book of the Alley,” but most akin in English to “The Book of the Street.” A multi-volume part-encyclopedia, part-dictionary of Persian lexicon and folklore, it was spearheaded by one of the most significant Iranian poets of the last century, Ahmad Shamlu. I have an obsession with lexicography myself, and the idea of reading a dictionary compiled mostly by a poet, who is compiling precisely the language I cannot access into what promises to be the most impossible type of text to translate, has held my interest more than any other work of potential translation.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a venue for my first feeble attempt in the upcoming issue of B|ta’arof Magazine—a new, volunteer-run magazine on all things Iran beyond generational and geographic and language divides. They asked me to write a little intro to contextualize the translation, and attempting to write the whys and whats, I hit a snag.

I wrote translating this dictionary was the chance to hear “the streets I should have walked.” Then, “will never walk.” Then, again, “should have walked.” I sent to my dear friend Samira Yamin for edits.

“Should,” she insisted, was too moral, melodramatic. Often she uses “might have otherwise.” “Might have,” I insisted, was too flip—I might have been born two millimeters longer, but that’s no loss; “should” keeps the sense of loss.

“Often,” I said, “I’ll find myself walking in some city and I’ll think ‘I should not be here.’”

“Often,” she said, “I’ll find myself walking in Tehran and think ‘I should not be here.’”

We agreed displacement has a sense of inevitability, albeit a false inevitability, interrupted; a path that our lives might have most easily taken (closer?) were it not for political and historical forces beyond our control. And yet where we are, our repeated displacements and perpetual foreignness, is 1) so commonplace an experience that it is perhaps the norm and 2) precisely the inevitable playing out. Still, the loss is undeniable, is ubiquitous. And by “yet” after “yet” after “still” after “but,” our conversation continued.


Is displacement itself past or present or future? So much of it is spent in the past—nostalgia, from the Greek nostos meaning home and algos meaning pain, so that our longing for the past is tied to homesickness itself. So much is present—where one is, where one is not; what language one speaks and does not speak; what essential herbs one can and cannot buy from the local grocery store.  And so much is speculation on the future—will one return, will one reunite, will one be buried in San Mateo, will any family be in San Mateo in a generation?

In this case, since much of the drive behind translating Ketab-e Kuche is about past (what I lost) and present (what I can recover), and not preparation for the future, so in many cases future tense is not helpful. I think, in general, the future is not something I spend so much time speculating about anyway. I may not be the only displaced person who thinks this way.


In an attempt at systematizing our conversation, the following:

  • The certainty of “I walked,” “I walk,” “I will walk,” are incomplete and almost useless in this case.
  • I can’t say “I was walking,” because I was born in Istanbul and have only visited Iran, so the interruption is of an action imagined, not actual.
  • I can’t say “I am not walking,” because it sounds like I am out of town for the moment. There is a permanence to displacement—even when reversed, the home you return to is not the home you left or the home that raised you.
  • I can’t say “I will be walking,” because I am not so certain, though I most likely will—I can, at least. I can’t say “won’t be,” because I am not so certain, though it is possible—I can, but can means little once it’s the can and the will of your life that’s been interrupted.
  • I can’t say “I haven’t walked,” because I have. Can’t say “I have walked,” because even having walked them, I don’t know them, and it’s the not knowing that needs naming. “Had walked,”—see above.
  • “I had been walking,” stings because the loss is the loss of an existing continuous, which I absolutely cannot claim. Similarly: “used to walk,” “would walk.” and (ouch) “I would always walk.”
  • “I have been walking,” is the cruelest of all.

We need a bit more qualification.

  • Not “the streets I cannot walk” (see: “will be/will not be”).
  • Not  “the streets I couldn’t walk,” for, while there was a time I, in fact, could not walk them, I can now. It is not the period of my life dictated by the “could not walk” that is the impetus behind translating this street lexicon—it’s the false promise of the “can.” Walk though I am allowed, the “can” has been interrupted, diverting it more into a “cannot.”
  • “Might walk” and “might not walk,” is about possibility, not absence—absence which makes possibility ring false.
  • “Might have walked,” can apply to the most trivial.
  • “Ought,” and “should” and “should have” and “ought to have” raise the original concern with their whiff of morality and obligation. It’s not just inevitability, but requirement.

Samira got us to: “the streets I would have otherwise walked.”

The poet in me would like to condense that somehow. The poet in me finds so much qualification to be unworthy of a poem, and thereby a life, which, for me, should have some kind of grounding even in its inquiry, some kind of taut definiteness in its transformation.

“The streets I would have otherwise walked.”

It’s called, I’m learning, past unreal conditional continuous.  Not present unreal conditional (“would walk”) because I cannot even speculate about the imagined present in my parallel,  unreal life; it’s the origin, the turning point I speculate. It is a past, one that would be continuous, that I feel robbed of by conditions outside of my control. Past Unreal Conditional—Continuous. Surely, if there is a mood to the “otherwise” of displacement, this is it.