Amir Safi grew up with the traditions handed down from his Iranian-born parents during his Texas upbringing.
“I got picked on and bullied a lot,” he said.
Perhaps his life would have been very different if he stayed in his home state.
“I was born in Ames, Iowa,” Safi said by phone from his Houston home. “I lived there for the first six months of my life while my parents attended Iowa State University, before they moved us to College Station, Texas, to go to Texas A&M.”
He’s making his first trip back to Iowa to perform in a spoken word show with two other Muslim artists — Syed Umar Warsi and Amal Kassir — on Friday night (2/21) in Hancher’s Strauss Hall. The Iowa City program is part of Hancher’s ongoing Embracing Complexity initiative highlighting Islamic art and Muslim artists.
“My memory of Iowa is a bit fuzzy,” he said, “but I am excited about this show because it’s a bit of a homecoming for me.”
Safi will deliver poetry that combines American culture and Iranian heritage to create his narrative on the Muslim-American experience.
“We are now almost 20 years post 9/11,” he said. “During this time, I watched Muslims and Middle Easterners become demonized and associated with the very terrorists that threaten their livelihoods. This changed poetry for me. I watched the media and the politicians steal our stories and re-purpose them for their own agendas. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Iraq and Afghanistan because of their false narratives. Poetry for me is a tiny push against the propaganda, a reclamation of my own narrative.”
The written word is hallow in Iran, and Safi’s parents instilled a love of language early in his life.
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“I’ve loved poetry, imagery and language ever since I was a child,” Safi said. “In Iran, students are required to memorize poems and recite them in class. I grew up with my father reciting some of his favorite poems from Rumi and Hafiz from memory.”
Safi is optimistic about the written word, even in this age of brief tweets.
“In 2018, NPR shared an article about how readership of poetry is growing,” Safi said. “I believe that as we delve further into the digital age, learning how to communicate is even more important and writing is a big component of that — not just writing on paper, but online articles and social media, as well.”
Safir is big on odes, an expression of gratitude. His piece, “An Ode to Whataburger,” a Texas burger institution, is heartfelt. He has a soft spot for much of the Lone Star state.
“I love Texas, and it was challenging, especially not having access to many people who share your culture or speak your mother tongue. Almost all of my best friends are Texans. Texas has provided me with immense opportunities as an artist to create,” he said. He now lives in Houston.
“Ode to DJ Khaled” is a tip of the hat to the larger-than-life songwriter, DJ and personality. Did Khaled ever get in touch with Safir?
“That would be awesome to hear from him, but I haven’t,” Safir said. “It’s fine. He’s busy sharing the gospel of ‘We the best.’ ”
“An Ode to Thanksgiving” might be Safir’s finest work. The poem is an inspiring and powerful piece about what it means to be an American from an unusual perch.
“My father loves being an immigrant.” he said. “He loves being an American. It took him more than 20 years to become a citizen. He had to earn this status. My family is not a threat to America. As a Muslim/Iranian immigrant, my mom is not a threat to national security. She’s my mom and a pharmacist. In fact, numerous Americans are alive today because she’s flagged mistakes in their medications. In my opinion, immigration saves more American lives than it puts at risk We are not a threat to the American dream, but an actualization of that dream.”
• What: Spoken Word Poetry: Syed Umar Warsi, Amir Safi and Amal Kassir
• Where: Strauss Hall, Hancher, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (2/21)
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• Tickets: $25 adults, $10 college students, youths; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1- (800) HANCHER or hancher.uiowa.edu/2019-20/WarsiSafiKassir
• Related event: Workshop with Amal Kassir, 3:30 p.m. Friday (2/22), Public Space ONE, 229 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City; free admission