Free Xiyue Wang vigil held on Princeton’s campus – Oct. 3, 2019

Free Xiyue Wang vigil held on Princeton’s campus – Oct. 3, 2019


MIKEY MCGOVERN: So we have a number of wonderful
Princeton speakers gathered here to reflect on our friend and colleague Xiyue Wang who has
been unjustly imprisoned for more than three years for doing his academic work. But we could think of no better
way to begin than with Hua Qu, Xiyue’s wife and tireless advocate. Please welcome Hua. [ Applause ] HUA QU: I deeply appreciate everyone
being here today with us to show your support to my husband Xiyue Wang, and I would like
to especially thank Mikey and others from the Xiyue Wang welcome group for
their hard work to make this rally happen today. And your great advocacy which has
become an important support for us, and to keep our spirits high no
matter what happens in our life. Thank you so much. [ Applause ] This August marked the third anniversary of
his unjust detention, and I’m quite distressed by the reality that our life has
turned in to an endless struggle in the constant swirl of geopolitical tensions. Iranian authorities have deliberately
fabricated espionage allegations out of my husband’s academic research, and
used him as a tool in their foreign policy. Actually, since Foreign Minister Zarif’s
recent interview with “NPR News,” when he was specifically asked about the status
of my husband’s case Xiyue’s name had appeared in the news every single day
in the past week either in Iran’s demand for a global prisoner
swap or in our State Department’s remarks on their maximum pressure policy on Iran. It is typically confusing for me to either
stay more optimistic about the situation because my husband’s name eventually after
three years draws more media attention, or I should be more cautious about any fake
hope that could easily let me down again. Like searching light in a black hole. I feel powerless after having
bustled and hustled around for weeks, months, and now over three years. But I still cannot find any sign of any
dialogue between Iran and the United States. And that would be the only way
for a resolution of Xiyue’s case, and eventually bring him home again. By now Xiyue has been in jail almost tripling
the time the American diplomats were held hostage between 1979 and 1981. And he could be kept there until
2026 when his 10-year sentence ends. Today I still remember clearly those fateful
days at the beginning of all of this crisis. At 2:20 AM, August 7, 2016, I was
awakened by a midnight phone call from my husband in Tehran. Three weeks earlier police had
confiscated his passport and laptop, and they questioned him several
times, and eventually they told him, “You can leave the country, and we
will escort you to the airport.” He gave me a call, and told me that
he would purchase a ticket home, and he will call me back when
he arrives at the airport. Anxiously awaiting for hours, I sent
him a text message that went unanswered. After many days, I finally
learned that he was being held in Evin Prison, the notorious Evin Prison. Eight months later in April 2017
he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for alleged acts of espionage. Our son Shaofon was barely 3 years old when his father was arrested,
and now he is 6 and a half. Though Xiyue is the one sitting in Evin, our entire family bears the toll,
and our son takes the hardest. Our lives have ended as a result of decades-long
hostility between Iran and the United States. Like many families here in this land of
immigrants, mine transcends national boundaries. My husband was born in Beijing, China,
and became a U.S. citizen after he come — after coming to the United States to study
first at the University of Washington in Seattle in South Asian studies, and later
at Harvard for master’s degree in Russia and Central Asian studies. We met in Hong Kong, and
our son was born in Beijing. Our son Shaofon is a Chinese-American
dual national, and a Chinese national. Xiyue traveled in Tehran in 2016 as
a part of his dissertation research on the Central Asian nomadic groups in the
late 19th century and the early 20th centuries when modern states began to
form on top a [inaudible] set of identities, boundaries, and economies. This was a very ambitious project that grew
out of his longstanding respect for Islam, and his love for Persian culture. Although Xiyue had reservations about
traveling to Iran at the beginning, he was advised by his advisers from Princeton
University and also other academic institutions that since the United States, Iran and other
nations had signed the Iran Nuclear Deal, times were changing so he should be fine. During the months studying at
archives and libraries in Tehran, Xiyue began to uncover a remarkable story. At a time when many states were doing their
utmost to exterminate indigenous communities, Iran had developed a uniquely flexible system to
integrate its very diverse populations contrary to a conventional narrative of Iran
as eternally backward and authoritarian. Xiyue had discovered a moment of extraordinary
political creativity and a pluralism. The plight to Xiyue occurred before
his planned return to Princeton. After he was summoned for interrogations,
he emailed his professors for help. At the time, the State Department
and the university believed that nothing worse would happen to him because
he’s just a student, and did nothing wrong. Even after his sudden disappearance for a year,
throughout the closed trial to sentencing, people still believed that Xiyue
could be quietly released at any time with a conclusion of his legal case. Xiyue’s research which had been approved by
Iran’s foreign ministry required him to sift through mundane manuscripts
that are a century old. The documents had nothing to do
with any contemporary politics, and it was certainly not confidential. They were pre-scanned, and compiled in a
catalog, and uploaded to their digital system that is available for readers to review. Yet the Iranian authorities used his
research as a pretext for the case — for a case against him, ostensibly to put
pressure on the United States government. Archival research is an essential
part of Xiyue’s career as a historian. Only by immersing himself in the primary
sources of history he can read — he can write and speak with authority — Xiyue decided to focus his dissertation research
on Central Asia, which was once the nexus of the Silk Road, but its late
imperial period was less studied. Xiyue had an insatiable drive to know something in a very meaningful way
that wasn’t known before. It is devastating for him
to have left his family for four years already to pursue this dream. Xiyue is a diligent and passionate scholar. Even now when books, he can get hold of them, is one of his few moments
amid hard prison conditions. Sitting in the middle level of a three-tiered
bunk bed, cramped in a small underground cell with more than 25 cell mates, he cannot
even straighten his back, but when he’s able to have books in his hands, he’s able to
put out of his mind the noises and smells from that cramped underground cell,
and imagine that he’s coming back to his beloved Firestone Library. When we can sometimes speak, Xiyue
brings up memories of our son Shaofon, including the sounds he made as a baby,
and the beautiful afternoons when he rode on Xiyue’s shoulders on
the way back from UNOW. Shaofon, however, was too young
to remember those moments. He is quickly growing up in to a
boy who is curious about a world, but finds it confusing about his place in it. We recently moved to a new apartment at
Lakeside, the graduate student housing. In our first night there Shaofon suddenly asked
me would dad still find us since we have moved. As a single mom in a 24/7 day to day
crisis, I’m juggling many, many balls, and experiencing huge anxiety hour after
hour that I may drop any one of them, either Xiyue’s case, my job, and the
responsibilities to keep the house running. I’m saddened by my son’s
remark, and worried that all of my efforts would be meaningless
if I were to fail my son. My husband and our family
have become innocent victims in an apparently ever-intensifying
horror between world powers. He is an academic researcher,
a father, and a husband. He’s not a political figure nor a spy. It is fundamentally unjust that he
continues to be treated as a hostage and a bargaining chip in
this geopolitical dispute. We all know that anything is possible. It just requires the will. In July this past summer
after President Trump’s intervention in the superstar rapper ASASP Rocky’s
case at the time that he was involved in a street assault case,
and the review by a Swedish court, after the president’s intervention, the
rapper star got released in no time. I believe that my husband deserves
the same level of attention. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
forcefully stated that the spying charges against my husband are false, and the
conviction and the imprisonment were unjust. Xiyue was prosecuted for his scholarship, and
criminalized for his American citizenship. Will his country, the United States
of America, stand up for him? I hope the answer is a resounding yes. The voices of scholars are
united in their support of Xiyue, and the intellectual values that he embodies. However, scholars alone cannot
secure his release. They desperately need the support of
everyone who still believes that learning and cultural exchange still
have a place in our world today. They should not have to fight and
stand alone in this just fight against the prosecution of scholars. Working with others around the world, the United
States government must help defend the values that attract so many of the world’s
brightest minds to its shores. Securing the release of Xiyue would prove
a commitment to the freedom of thought, international scholarship, and the
cultural understanding that he represents. I implore Iran, the United States, and
my home country China and all the members in the international community to come together
to find a way to free this innocent man, Xiyue Wang, and bring him home
to his family without delay. He has already been unfairly kept
away from us for way too long. At the Communiversity fair in May my
friends from the working group set up a table to raise awareness about
the plight of my husband. Shaofon with his preschool friends applied
stickers bearing his father’s image on it on to water bottles, and gave away
those bottles to people passing by. And when people stopped by to hear our story, Shaofon shouting loudly, he said,
“And my dad is not a bad guy.” Like all children in this world, Shaofon needs
his father, and I plead for the gate of mercy to be opened for my husband’s liberty. I feel very grateful for the support from so
many friends, and the families in Princeton, and especially Princeton University and Xiyue’s
professors and academics across disciplines. I continue to pray that when Shaofon blows out his birthday candles next year
Xiyue will be right there with us. Thank you so much. [ Applause ] MIKEY MCGOVERN: Thank you, Hua Qu. There are many people in the back right now,
and I would encourage people who are sitting up front to maybe scoot forward so
that people can then kind of fill in. I want to make sure that
everybody is able to see. So, as Hua pointed out, it’s not always
clear to people why Xiyue would have been in such a difficult situation
to do his historical research. And a number of our speakers here this evening
have some light to shed on both the perils and significance of global engaged
free scholarship, and on the importance of protecting and supporting such scholarship. So leading us off, then, is Molly Greene. Professor Greene is a professor
of history and Hellenic studies, and the director of the Program in Hellenic
Studies who taught Xiyue in Ottoman history. So please welcome Molly Greene. [ Applause ] MOLLY GREENE: Well, we
are a profession of words. But I must say words seem rather feeble after
what we’ve just heard, but I’ll do my best. Recently my friend and colleague in
the history department, Tony Grafton, reminded me of his teacher
Arnaldo Momigliano’s rule. A great man with good handwriting
is twice a great man. In a humorous way he was getting
at a very serious issue, which is that reading historical sources is difficult. To read sources before the advent of
print is to wrestle with handwriting. Let’s add on to that reading handwriting in
a language that is not your own, which means of course that even before you get to your sources you’ve spent
years studying the language. And let’s pile on top of that
traveling to faraway places where the archives might be very difficult
to access, whether for reasons of politics, of disorganization, which can often be
explained as the result of working in a country that is not wealthy. Maintaining
good archives is not going to be at the top of their list of priorities. Or simply bureaucratic power plays. Long ago a good friend of mine had to waste
3 months out of a 12-month Fulbright sitting in the waiting room of Topkapı
Palace in Istanbul because the head librarian didn’t like her. Finally the librarian realized that my friend
wasn’t going to give up, and rather than having to look at her sitting in the waiting room
every day, she let her in to the archive. These are all the challenges that Xiyue took on. To learn Persian. To struggle with the complexities of
19th-century bureaucratic documents. And to do it far from home in a country
whose rules were very hard to understand. I too study that part of the world. I am a historian of the Ottoman Empire. And, as Mikey said, I taught Xiyue in
a graduate class on Ottoman history. And thus I think I can say that
I’m cognizant of the courage that Xiyue demonstrated by
embarking on his project. Such courageous ambitious scholars
need to be supported for many reasons, but let me just underline one today. When it comes to the Middle East,
more than one U.S official has spoken of the region as a wasteland of sand. Implicit in these indictments and these ugly
words is an assertion that these are places without history or that the
only thing worth knowing about them is what outside often
hostile powers have to say to them — have to say about them in sources written in
English easily accessible on the internet. Xiyue’s work then is not
only about 19th-century Iran. It is about excavating the voices of
people who are still far too hard to hear. You must also remember that Xiyue’s situation,
his unjust imprisonment, is at the extreme end of a problem that is a growing
threat to scholarship across the world, which is freedom of movement. You may know that this summer the president
of Harvard wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo expressing his
concern, his alarm, actually, that more and more foreign students are
being denied access to U.S universities because of increasingly lengthy visa procedures. And even outright denial of visas. As someone who knows many scholars from the
Muslim world, it seems that every time I am at a conference, whether here or
in Europe, there is someone missing because they were denied a visa
to travel to that conference. By definition, scholarship is international,
and is thus particularly vulnerable to the increasing difficulty
of crossing borders. We who are gathered here
on this lovely campus are of course not suffering as Xiyue is suffering. But his problem’s our problem,
and Princeton’s problem too. It is also Princeton’s opportunity. Rightly or wrongly, it is a fact that
when something happens to a student at an Ivy League school, the story
gets more attention than when students at other schools run in to difficulty. Witness what happened just at the
end of the summer, this summer, when a Palestinian freshman admitted to
Harvard was denied entry to the country when he landed at Logan Airport in Boston. The story was on the front cover of
The New York Times, and Harvard, with support from other organizations as
well, was able to get that decision reversed. Two weeks later the student was back in
Boston, and he matriculated with his class. It was a happy ending at a
time when there are so few. But a commentator on the story
noted that this is a situation that is happening every day to
students across the country. Similarly, when Princeton
speaks about Xiyue’s case, people will listen because it is Princeton. This makes it even more incumbent upon
Princeton and all of us who enjoy the privileges of this university here to
defend academic freedom. Thank you. [ Applause ] MIKEY MCGOVERN: Thank you, Professor Greene. So up next we have Will Whitham who’s a
Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, and a friend of Xiyue’s who
shares his doctoral adviser. WILLIAM WHITHAM: Dear friends and supporters of Xiyue Wang, dear Hua and Shaofon,
thank you for this invitation to speak. This is a special, but entirely
undeserved honor. I feel that there is little I
can say that the other people on the stage cannot say much more eloquently,
but what I can say is the following. I am a G5 in history, and over the past
nine months it’s been my privilege to speak with Xiyue over the telephone from time to time. What Xiyue has endured, as we all know, is
not only criminal, it is also incapacitating. As Xiyue has explained to us, prison
poisons the mind and dulls the imagination. In prison a curious person
may become indifferent. A passionate person may become apathetic. Prison may also amplify the
worst impulses within us. An irritable person may become a bully,
and a bully may become a tormenter. After three long years, we might expect
a lesser person to have regressed or declined, but has Xiyue done so? He has not. Xiyue Wang is not a lesser person. Xiyue Wang perseveres and
perseveres and perseveres each day. Xiyue has made each moment
a monument to his existence, and to the value of scholarly
freedom that he so prizes. The Iranian regime has not stopped him
reading and thinking about the cultures, societies, and history of Central Asia. It has not stopped him practicing his French, which I think must be the
15th language that he knows. It has not stopped him writing his
nonfiction stories, which are full of precise descriptions and dry observations. It has not stopped him questioning,
criticizing, or making jokes. The Iranian regime has not stopped him laughing. It has not stopped him being the most acute
and uncannily intelligent interlocutor that I’ve had in four years at Princeton. And, above all, the Iranian
regime has not stopped Xiyue from being encouraging, and
charitable towards others. So if imprisonment has brought Xiyue
down, I still feel that he towers over me. As much as the situation is a tragedy, and for
all the indignities and the suffering that he and his family must endure
every day, what Xiyue manages to do each day is nevertheless
an inspiration to me. It is a testament to the
strength of his commitments, and of the supreme value of freedom. This year in between some of my talks on
the telephone with Xiyue I read “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. I know it is a story that
means a great deal to Hua. It is about a kind and intelligent young man who
with his whole life in front of him is betrayed. The woman he loves is taken from him,
and he survives cruel years in prison. For a time, he almost loses his will to live. But Edmond Dantes endures. He is sustained by his faith in
justice, by his will to learn, and by a friend with whom he discusses
history, philosophy, science, and more. Doesn’t this sound familiar to you? It certainly did to me. Xiyue Wang is to me Edmond Dantes. He is Princeton’s Edmond Dantes. He is as determined and talented. He has as much to live and to fight for. His struggle for freedom is
as powerful, and as inspiring. And I know that he too will be vindicated. At the conclusion of the novel Dantes,
now at liberty, writes to a friend. “There is neither happiness nor
misery in the world,” he writes. “There is only the comparison
of one state with another. Nothing more. He who has held the deepest grief is best
able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die. We may appreciate the enjoyments of living. Never forget that until the day when God
shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed
up in these two words. Wait and hope.” Wait and hope. Wait and hope. This is the message that I try to convey to
Xiyue each time we speak on the telephone. And it’s what I try to remember
each day of his imprisonment. But there is still much more that
we can do, each of us, every day. Let us together pledge for as long as it takes
to speak with and comfort Xiyue and his family. Let us draw attention to his detention. Let us agitate for his immediate release. Above all, let us not be troubled or dispirited. Let us rather be inspired by Xiyue’s example,
by his love for his family and friends, by his kindness, by his courage, and by his
tenacious defense of the values we hold dear. Thank you. [ Applause ] MIKEY MCGOVERN: Thank you, Will. Next we are fortunate to hear from Stanley Katz,
professor of public and international affairs, and president emeritus of the
American Council of Learned Societies. STANLEY KATZ: Thanks very much. After what we’ve just heard, I don’t
think I have a great deal to add. I don’t know Xiyue, and really regret that. I have a deep feeling, however, for
him as a scholar, and as a human being, and I share with everybody in this room
a feeling of outrage that he has been put in the position that he is now in. It’s not entirely unfamiliar to me. I had a graduate student here I can’t
tell you when, but about 30 years ago who was studying actually
Soviet policy in Russia. And went to Russia with a Russian
student to work in their archives. And, as a few people here may remember,
he and the Russian were imprisoned. The Russian was convicted of espionage. My student was charged with espionage. But fortunately in that case he was
imprisoned for a couple of months, and there were negotiations between
the two countries, and he was released. Now quite happily a member
of the State Department. Some of you may also know my friend who — Haleh Esfandiari who was the
head of Middle Eastern studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. She had lived here with her
husband for some time before this. She went — She was born in Iran. She went back to visit her mother, still
living in Tehran, and she was imprisoned in exactly the same prison, and she was
kept in prison for nearly six months. Finally, as a result of negotiations
between the two countries, she was released. Now that’s what should happen in this case. Of course it hasn’t yet happened in this case. I was asked to speak about international
law, and I’ll do that very briefly because unfortunately international law
isn’t going to solve this situation. To give you an example of that, in August of
this year Foreign Minister Zarif was speaking to the Chinese foreign minister in Beijing,
and he made a statement on that point, saying that the problem between
the two countries was the rejection of international law. Not just lack of respect for international law,
but in fact contempt for international law. He said it’s on the rise, and we
must work together against it. Well, if that was a real value
rather than a meaningless statement, Xiyue wouldn’t be where he is right now. And unfortunately his situation
is not — is hardly unique. There was an article in the “International
Higher Education Newspaper” this morning about scholars who were currently
being detained in foreign countries. It listed 10 scholars being
currently imprisoned. Of the 10 scholars, 8 are imprisoned in Iran. So this is a bad actor country, and
a country which isn’t responding to international law or international pressure. And that’s really important
because Iran has, in fact, signed all of the relevant
international agreements. Iran is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. It’s a signatory to the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a signatory to the Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights. It’s a signatory to the International Convention
on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These are the backbone of the international
human rights scheme. And Iran informally is party to all of them. Unfortunately the United States has
not signed all of these documents, and I think that’s part of the problem. We have been deficient in our own sense of
responsibility to the international regime, and one of the things we
ought to work for, frankly, is to advocate that our own government
join the international community in supporting these norms. But of course that’s not the real problem here. There is no doubt legally that
Xiyue is illegally detailed. It is a violation of international
law in a number of different respects. It is a violation I think of Iranian
law as well as international law. The solutions obviously are
political, not legal in this case. But I think it’s terribly important that we
stand up and defend Xiyue’s rights as a scholar, and that we say that free and
unfettered scholarship is actually a key to the establishment and defense
of liberty around the world. Without knowing, we cannot be free. So Xiyue at the moment is
sacrificing for all of us, and what we owe him is sturdy
advocacy for his quick release. I extend my sympathy to Hua,
and to their son, to the family. That is the responsibility of this
community is to advocate for his release [ Applause ] MIKEY MCGOVERN: Thank you, Professor Katz. So we’d now like to invite up Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University
Professor of History. A historian of scholarship in early
modern Europe, and the former president of the American Historical Association. ANTHONY GRAFTON: So thank
you all for being here. I apologize that the annual fall
[inaudible] seems to have me in its thrall, but I’ll try to speak clearly. Thank you all for coming. Thanks to Mikey and the other organizers
for inviting me to speak in support of this brilliant, learned, humane scholar
who has been arrested for doing his job. History is made in archives. “No documents, no history,” says one of the
great guides to modern history written in 1898. Historians are made in archives too. That’s where if we have the normal
experience of historians, we learn the few, but intense pleasures of historical research. Being assigned a seat by
the window, for example. Or opening a ledger or a box or
unrolling a scroll or opening a manuscript and seeing the signature of the writing of
somebody who you’re passionately interested in. And then there’s the rush of joy when
you realize you found something that all of your close friends who are interested in
exactly the same things you are have missed. And of course there are the normal sorrows. Fighting your way through afternoons of jet lag. Finding that the three documents
you’re allowed in one day have nothing to tell you, and it’s 10 in the morning. And, above all, finding that
your friends have scooped you. We do all this because when it works, we
find out a past that no one has found before, and the best of us, like Xiyue, find pasts that
have a deep meaning, pasts that have something to say to the present, something
even to say about a better future. And it was these humble things that Xiyue wanted
to be engaged in when he was arrested, tried, and condemned on these false
charges of espionage. It’s been heartbreaking to witness this story
with all of the others who were concerned, though it has also been heartening to see
the extraordinary support that his cohort of students have given, the love and
the support that they’ve given to him and his family over these three years. Somehow we don’t think of graduate school
as a loving and supportive environment. At least we don’t always. But it has been in this case. So let me try to imitate Xiyue as historians
should when we see a great historian at work, and look for a slightly better past. Archival history has its ironies
that aren’t much known in public. History and archives were not
invented in the modern world. They were invented in antiquity. Chinese antiquity. Other antiquities. And notably in the ancient Achaemenid empire of
Persia founded by Cyrus in the 6th century BCE. Archives mattered to the
rulers of ancient Persia. The Book of Esther tells us that King
Ahasuerus, that’s Xerxes probably to most of you, couldn’t sleep, and he commanded to
bring the book of records of the chronicles, and they were read before the king. The biblical book of Ezra
describes the rebuilding of the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem. Local officials, Persian officials,
questioned the right of the Jews to go about building their temple again, and the Jews
insisted that Cyrus had not only allowed them to return to Israel, but had given
permission to build his temple. They appealed to the current Persian
king, Darius, asking that a search be made in the king’s treasure house
whether a decree of Cyrus the king to build the house of God in Jerusalem was made. The king inquired in the house of the rolls, and
the archivists found an official document not of public proclamation, but a memorandum
from the official government in Aramaic, the language of government
business in the ancient Near East. That’s in the Book of Ezra too. An archival document provided
by Persia to subjects who were not Persians to guarantee their rights. Building continued. And this document and others are
preserved thanks to a Persian government. So ancient Persia kept archives, and made
their contents available when justice required. More important, ancient Persian historians
seem to have used archival documents. They may have been the first historians who
did so in the wider Mediterranean world. The first Greek historians we have,
Herodotus and Thucydides, quote documents, and most of the documents they quote come
from Persia, like the one Herodotus quotes which lets him tell you about the whole
Persian postal system stage by stage, and how many days it takes
to go from one to the other. Exactly the kind of harmless,
but fascinating information that historians like Xiyue still look for. We don’t have Persia’s imperial chronicles,
but it seems pretty certain since Greeks and Jews were very far apart culturally,
and both of them were writing history with documents, and both of them were
living in little spits on the edge of the great Persian empire, the ancient
Mediterranean world’s greatest example of beneficent imperial governments,
that it was the Persians who actually invented archival history in the
part of the world that our traditions come from. The Chinese were doing it
too, but that’s another story. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Islamic
Republic of Iran looked back to the ways of the ancient Persian empire,
and saw in it, as they should, the best of all reasons why they
should let this wonderful historian go? Thank you. [ Applause ] MIKEY MCGOVERN:
Thank you, Professor Grafton. We’re now thrilled to hear some
words from the poet Tracy K. Smith, the chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, the
Roger S Berlind ’52 Professor of the Humanities, and professor of creative writing. [ Applause ] TRACY K. SMITH: Good afternoon. I am grateful for this opportunity to
stand in solidarity with Xiyue and others, and to add my voice to the call
for freedom for Xiyue, a scholar, a neighbor, and a parent in my community. I’m a poet because throughout my life the voices
and perspectives of others from other places, backgrounds and time periods have offered
me meaning, courage and certainty. Poetry has taught me that it is only by
narrowing the distance between myself and others that I can feel whole and at home in the world. That’s a choice that all of us who are
members of this scholarly community have made. And it’s one we must protect and defend. I’d like to speak to that through poetry,
but I want to tell you a little bit about a relationship that I’ve had with
another poet over the last number of years. In 2013 I met a Chinese poet
named Yi Lei in New York City. A mutual friend had put us
in touch with one another, though Yi Lei spoke little
English, and I speak no Chinese. With the help of a bilingual
intermediary, we shared a long lunch, and made the first strides toward
friendship and collaboration. From the moment I encountered her poems, even in
rudimentary translation, I felt a powerful sense of connection to Yi Lei’s use of images,
her passion, her devotion to the earth and her belief in the cosmic
dimension of our existence. In her work, Yi Lei is a defender of personal
freedom, and a critic of authoritarianism. She was one of the first contemporary
Chinese poets to openly explore questions of female sexuality and sexual agency. Over these last several years both at home
and Princeton as well as on visits to Beijing, I’ve worked with Yi Lei and our
collaborator whose name is Changtai Bi, to render these marvelous
poems in to living English. In the process, Yi Lei has
enlarged my sense of language. She’s gotten inside my own voice, and my
heart in ways that I’m deeply grateful for. Yi Lei passed away last year. Her selected poems, “My Name Will Grow Wide
Like a Tree,” will be published in the U.S. in a couple of years, and I wanted to share
a few of the English versions that emerged from that collaboration in
the spirit of free exchange. And also the struggle for justice. This poem is called “Green
Trees Greet the Rainstorm.” I belong to the nation of wild
arms flailing in the wind. And I know you are bound to have at me, but how can I resist lifting
my head to look you in the eye? How can I not greet you, though my
gown will soon be battered to shreds? Better this lashing, flesh burst open, ransacked
by air, than to live ambushed by loneliness. I belong to the nation of startled
cries, voices caged in wind, and I know you are bound to unravel me. But how can I not lift my
head, and look you in the eye? How can I not greet you, though my
living gown will soon be shredded, shed? Better to be ravaged straightaway in youth
than to live out another year’s quiet undoing. The nude. My eye laps at you in
lamplight like a white hot tongue. Longing draws back then rises, tidal. The curtain of my hair announces my breasts. Your lips a languid breeze. Like a miracle, we feast and
feast, and nothing is spent. Let flesh attend to flesh, sex to sex. Oh, dexterous gold watch of the universe
on which one minute can straddle 100 years. I’ll close with this poem
which is called “Nature Aria.” Autumn wind chases in from all directions,
and 1,000 chaste leaves give way. Scatter in me the seeds of 1,000 saplings. Let grow a grassy heaven on my brow, a sun. This bliss is yours, living world. And alone it endures. Music at midnight. Young wine. Lovers hand in hand by daylight, moonlight. Living world, hold me in your mouth. Slip on your frivolous shoes, and dance with me. My soul is the wild vine who alone has grasped
it, who alone has seen through the awful plot, who will arrive in time to vanquish
the river already heavy with blossoms, the moon spilling light on to packs of men. What is sadder than witless wolves,
wind without borders, nationless birds, small gifts laden with love’s intentions. Fistfuls of rain fall hard,
fill my heart with mud. An old wind may still come chasing in. Resurrection fire. And me here laughing like a cloud in
trousers, entreating the earth to bury me. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>MIKEY MCGOVERN: Thank you so much,
Professor Smith. So our last speaker for this evening, which
may come as a surprise, is Xiyue Wang himself. He composed a short piece about his time
in Evin Prison, which he was able to share in limited communication with Hua, friends,
and family in the U.S. This text will be read by Casey Eilbert and Hannah Stamler. Following the conclusion of the reading,
we will observe a moment of silence, and I’ll ask at this time if you have
your little candles to light them up. And yes. Thank you very much. [ Foreign Language Spoken ] HANNAH STAMLER: These are the first
lines of the revolutionary anthem, “L’Internationale” or “The International.” It calls on the people to rise up
against oppression and tyranny. I hardly even knew these few lines
of the French original accurately, but I have known the song
since I was a schoolboy. It is like an old acquaintance. Perhaps there is no better song
that resonates with the unjust oppressive
nature of my incarceration. This song’s simple melody and
powerful lyrics are most uplifting for me in such a depressing situation. At the beginning of my arrest,
as I awaited trial, I was held in section 209
of Evin Prison in Tehran. Every week we prisoners were taken from our
windowless cell to a section of the rooftop yard for [foreign language spoken] or, quote,
“eating air,” as they say in Persian. At this time I would walk fast around the
high walls of the yard singing the lyrics of “The International” in French
and Chinese, and humming the rest of its melody, letting the sound carry me away. “The International” was composed
shortly after the Paris Commune in 1871, and sung by the revolutionaries on the left. When the Bolsheviks gained power in Russia,
the song was adopted as the national anthem for Soviet Russia, and persisted
through the early years of the USSR. There is perhaps no other song that has
made greater impact throughout human history than “The International.” In China, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I belonged to the last generation
familiar with this song. I remember learning the Chinese version in
school as part of my political education. Then my uncle taught me how
to sing it in French. During the cultural revolution
of the ’60s and ’70s, when anything foreign
was considered corrupting, my uncle’s middle school taught
students French haphazardly. While today my uncle remembers no more French
than bonjour or au revoir, he kept as a souvenir from his years a French textbook prepared by his
teacher in black ink on yellowing graph paper. It felt like a piece of history
that had its own story to tell. Its front cover was missing,
a corner bent and creased. The lyrics of “The International”
are printed on the last two pages. My uncle could still sing “The International”
well, and would ask me to follow him in tune. I felt thrilled, as if I were
going back into history. This way I inherited a few lines
of the song from him in French. In the mid-’90s a Chinese rock and
roll band adopted “The International,” giving it new significance, symbolically
connecting the old era to a new one. My friends and I used to play the rock
International after school at maximum volume on the stereo newly equipped by the school. We would sing along in unison,
and the effect was electrifying. All of us striving together
for a promising future. I was not committed to the
communist revolutionary ideal, but I could understand the
power of the song nonetheless. CASEY EILBERT: In section 209, before it was time for
[foreign language spoken] the prisoners would swarm to the door, each of us putting on
a pair of slippers and a blindfold, leaving just enough space below
the eyes to see our footsteps. We stood facing the corridor wall
until everyone came out of the cell. Guards took us out one level
up through the stairs. As the door to the rooftop clanked open, we
were led in to the yard one after another. Immediately I would snatch off my
blindfold and crumble it in to my pocket. For a few seconds, I had to
squint in to the bright sunlight. Relaxing my eyes, the yard came in to view. It is square in shape, half the
size of a backyard swimming pool. There is a steel structure atop
the walls covered by steel mesh. At the center of the mesh is an opening
through which one can see the sky. Two surveillance cameras are
installed in opposite corners. Beyond the wall, on one side, is
the façade of an office building. Its windows are forever closed. Nobody has ever seen through them. On the opposite side I could see
the pleasant green treetops afar. If I stood on my toes, they
would further slip away. Leaning against the wall,
the most prominent thing that can be seen is a very large imposing
national flag of Iran flying in the breeze in the far end of the Evin
Prison compound 100 meters away. The yard reminded me of when I
was working as an interpreter in the International Red Cross in Afghanistan. Due to the volatile security situation,
we expats were confined in our compound, surrounded by high walls, and
forbidden from going out in to the — out of the compound for non-work purposes. We all complained that we were living
and working in a virtual prison. Visiting real prisons to protect prisoners’
rights was a major part of the job. I was often horrified by the
conditions of the Afghan prisoners. I knew that many people spent a
long time in the Afghan prisons not because they’d done any crime, but simply
because they were suspected to be members or sympathizers of the armed
opposition groups like the Taliban. Some prisoners were locked up for years,
and not able to phone their families. They were left completely alone,
languishing in jail without any resources, suffering from malnutrition as well as
abuse from authorities and fellow inmates. I wish I would never be back in jail like these
poor Afghan prisoners, but in an ironic twist of fate, I now find myself languishing
in prison as if forsaken by God. And, just like those poor Afghan
prisoners, I don’t know what I’m in for. This time it is my human rights that are
being abused, and in need of protection. HANNAH STAMLER: I love this country. Greater Iran, in a cultural sense
for the Persian cultural sphere, was a geographical center
of the Eurasian continent, that is the known old world, linking
Oriental and Occidental civilizations. I had long been inspired to learn Persian
and to study this part of the world, to unveil its historical mysteries. Indeed I learned Persian well, and came to
Iran to do research with sincere goodwill. I obtained permission and arrived
just after the Iran deal was signed, what was meant to be the beginning of a new
relationship between Iran and the United States. Yet I was arrested, forced into confession,
unjustly convicted, and imprisoned as a spy. In her many efforts to rescue me,
and not offend the powers that be, my wife describes what has happened to me
as a, quote, “terrible misunderstanding.” My situation is, in fact,
anything but a misunderstanding. I’m incarcerated here because, and
only because, I came to this country on a navy blue passport with
a bald eagle emblem. For the Iranian authorities,
I don’t matter in my story. I have no agency. My nationality is what counts, and I
feel disillusioned, betrayed and angry. Surely this is what many
communist revolutionaries felt in the closing decades of the 20th century. They believed in the promise of communism,
but saw that it brought endless suffering for hundreds of millions across the world. This is what “The International”
too ended up embodying. A beautiful ideal turned
into a terrible disillusionment. Even still, the tune lingers in my head. CASEY EILBERT: Two years since I have
seen the rooftop yard of section 209. I am still incarcerated in Evin Prison. The only difference is that I was
transferred, and have spent most of the last two years in the general prison. It has been easier, and I’ve been able to
establish a simple routine of daily activities. Calling. Studying. Cooking. Exercising. Napping. More studying. What has changed a little now compared to
then is the difficulty for me to grapple with the sheer day to day
reality of living in prison, being deprived of everything I long for in life. A convicted criminal in name,
but a hostage in fact. Gradually I have learned to adapt
and compartmentalize things. To keep the unpleasant at bay, I focus
on songs like “The International” that evoke an ambivalent
yet intense feeling. Lately I’ve started picking
up my French again just to make the prison life
a bit more productive. One day on one of my limited phone
calls with a French-speaking friend, I asked her to indulge me by
singing a French pop song. She was happy to oblige, but told me she
couldn’t remember the lyrics of pop songs, and offered to sing me something else instead. She began singing “The International” in French. I was in shock. Shocked that this song came to the mind of a young French-speaking American
woman, and shocked by my reaction. Listening to her sing the
song was like rewinding and playing back everything I felt
when singing it in section 209. The nostalgia. The disillusionment. And the indignation. Also the hopes dashed, and since gained
during the last three years in prison. In Persian, the expression for to feel
nostalgic is sad or to meet someone or something is [speaking foreign language] or
literally, for one’s heart to feel tightened. As she sang “The International,”
my heart was tightened.