Coming to Terms with the Past

    Iranian Literature – Coming to Terms with the Past Since the Iranian Revolution

    Given the absence of press freedom in Iran, both in the country itself and among Iranian exiles it is literature that is acting as a vehicle for discussion: about the path towards modernisation, about national identity, about the legacy that should be preserved on the one hand and the burdens to be got rid of on the other.

    Literature has dared to tackle recent Iranian history. In doing so it has repeatedly posed the questions ‘Who are we?’, and ‘Where do we come from?’, the prerequisites for ‘Where are we going?’. Insofar as it can be said that people are attempting to come to terms with the past in Iran, it is through literature that they are doing it.

    Because of its significance for the development of modern Persian literature, we should start by mentioning the work of two authors that was published prior to the era on which this article focuses. Up until then, almost all Iranian writers were orientating their countrymen towards the West. The turning point came in 1962 with a samizdat publication of an essay entitled ‘Ġarbzadegi’ [‘Euromania’]. The author, Ğalāl āl-e Aḥmad (1923-1969) was born into a family of clerics, but he later broke with them and joined the Communist Party, only to leave it again four years later. In the aforementioned essay he expounded his theory that adherents of a Western model of society had infested the country like pests, eroding it from the inside and leaving nothing but a husk. Islam, he said, was the only authentic characteristic of Iranian culture, and the clerics the most important representatives of national identity. On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 the overwhelming majority of intellectuals would have agreed with āl-e Aḥmad’s analysis.

    āl-e Aḥmad was also a teller of stories, in that he wrote – sometimes ironically, sometimes with great sympathy – about resistance among the religiously-socialised element of the population to the modernisation imposed on the people by Reżā Shah. One example is the story ‘Ğašn-e farḫonde’ [‘The Time of Celebration’], published in the magazine āraš in 1961. In this he describes from a child’s point of view how oppressive Reżā Shah’s dress regulations of 1936 were for the people: women, forbidden to wear the veil, are so ashamed that they scarcely dare to go out into the street any more; a boy is torn between the official requirement to wear short trousers in school and the contempt in which these are held within society. His uncle is forced to endure having his traditional clothing torn to shreds in public by the police. Children play at being policemen by grabbing banned felt caps off workers’ heads. This kind of literature enables us to understand a situation in which modernisation is experienced not as liberation but as repression, and why, in 1979, a majority of Iranians voted in favour of an Islamic Republic.

    The drama of mourning

    In 1969, the year of Ğalāl āl-e Aḥmad’s death, his wife, Simin Dānešvar (1921–2012) published her most famous work: Savušun [Savushun: The Drama of Mourning], a novel that has run to sixteen editions in Iran and sold more than half a million copies. It constitutes a milestone in Iranian literary fiction. Not only is it the first Persian novel written by a woman, the main character is also a woman. She loses her husband during the Second World War at the time of the rebellion by the Qašqāʾi nomads against the central government and the British occupiers, and the pressure of events prompts her to transcend the barriers of her traditional role. Dānešvar describes how the governor exploits the people, and the widespread hunger that comes about because the big landowners would rather sell their corn to the English troops – who pay well – than to their own poorer countrymen. She tells of collaboration between the local elite and the occupiers, but also of solidarity and resistance. She examines not only the contrasts between the local population and the semi-colonial power but also between town and country, settled citizens and nomads, modernisers and traditionalists. In doing so the author portrays the birth pangs of the modern era as societal upheaval. Not only is she a very keen observer whose presentation of events is not ideologically blinkered, she also criticises opportunism, cowardice and stupidity, regardless of national or religious allegiance or social position. At the same time she also makes a decisive contribution towards strengthening the self-awareness and emancipation of women, who, despite all legal obstacles, have fought for and succeeded in attaining a status in the Islamic Republic that is little short of astonishing.

    More and more women authors had already started to come onto the scene towards the end of the rule of the Shah, but paradoxically this tendency has actually increased in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, the islamification of further education colleges and universities has contributed to the fact that many women now number among the educated elite. Previously, conservative religious families often refused to send their daughters to state educational facilities because they feared that these would have a bad influence on their morals. Since this has ceased to be a concern, huge numbers of young women have been applying to go to university. The natural consequence is that in recent years the voices of many female writers have started to be heard. They look at different aspects of life as a woman in Iran, and write not just about oppression by men in a patriarchal society, but also about the contribution of women themselves.

    In a story in the anthology Kanizu [Kanizu] by Moniru Ravānipur (b. 1954), published in 1989, the author paints a portrait of a young woman who, after completing her studies in medicine, returns to her village to help her fellow women but is brutally rejected by them because she broke the village’s code of honour by leaving to go to the city.

    A look at history

    The novel Tubā va maʿnā-ye šab [Tuba] by šahrnuš Pārsipur (b. 1946), published in the same year, looks at history from a different point of view. It was written in 1983 in a prison in the Islamic Republic. However, the author, a woman, is less interested in political history than she is in the cultural changes that have taken place in Iran since the beginning of the twentieth century. She therefore describes this period from the point of view of a woman from a religious background whose desire is to go on a mystical quest for God, but who then bows to convention and marries a prince from the Qajar dynasty. The main character pays particular attention to changes in customs and moral values. She sees the decline of the traditional monarchy as a period not only of economic impoverishment but above all of moral decadence, and the Reżā Shah years as an era of modernisation, during which the creation of asphalted roads and the suppression of highway robbery make it easier for her to go on pilgrimages, but her son-in-law goes in prison because his thirst for education leads him to study forbidden texts, arousing suspicion that he is a Bolshevik. Following the abdication of Reżā Shah and the occupation of Tehran in World War Two, the streets are filled with American, English and Soviet troops. Everywhere is in upheaval and her daughter, who, like her, is drawn to Sufism, suddenly feels like a foreigner in her own country. Yet some women have now started to wear the chador again. Thus the reader is able to follow the development of Tehran into a modern metropolis through the eyes of the central character. Although the author was an opponent of the Shah’s regime, and the book is anything but anti-Islamic, she nonetheless felt compelled to go into exile and now lives in the United States.

    Modern narrative technique, classical themes

    The novel Samfoni-ye mordegān [Symphony of the Dead] by ʿAbbās Maʾrufi (b. 1957) was also published in 1989. The book is impressive as much for its modern narrative technique as for the successful integration of both Iran’s traditional culture and its more recent history. The author takes the Koranic version of the story of Cain and Abel as a prologue, introducing his story of two brothers who are enemies. The story is told alternately from the perspectives of ‘Cain’ and ‘Abel’. The historical background is the Soviet occupation of northern Iran during the Second World War. Maʾrufi gives an impressive portrayal of the invasion of Ardabil by Russian parachutists, as experienced by the population; and he takes as his subject matter, among other things, the relationship between Christian Armenians and the Muslim inhabitants of Iranian Azerbaijan. This author too now lives in exile, in Berlin.

    1991 saw the publication in New York of the novel King of the Benighted by Manuchehr Irani. This is the English translation of the Persian novel šāh-e Siyāhpušān [The King of the Black-Clad People]. The author behind the pseudonym was Hušang Golširi (1938 – 2000), who achieved international fame with his novella šāhzde Eḥteğāb [Prince Ehtejab] about the fall of the Qajar dynasty, which was filmed in 1969, and whose collections of stories, such as Mes̱l-e hamiše [As Always], published in 1968, and Nime-ye tārik-e māh [The Dark Side of the Moon] in 1972 repeatedly resulted in his imprisonment, because the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, considered them to be too critical. In his novel, Golširi writes about an Iranian author who is arrested and tortured in 1982, during the Iran-Iraq War. While he is in jail he recites poems to his fellow prisoners, both his own and others from classical Persian literature. The character quotes from Haft peykar [The Seven Pictures], an epic work by Neẓāmi that plays an important part in the story. The author takes up this motif of the story within a story and deploys it in his own way, artistically interweaving the fate of the imprisoned writer – who didn’t have a black suit to wear to a funeral although at that time, during the war, there were, God knows, plenty of occasions for wearing mourning – with the fate of the king from the story of the Indian princess in the Black Pavilion. The king returns to the ‘City of the Benighted’ from a journey to China, clad entirely in black. This is an allusion both to the mystical topos of the journey into oneself, and to the cult surrounding the colour black, which is especially favoured in the Islamic Republic. This novel can therefore, like the poetry of the Sufis, be read at several different levels. Yet the story is not an esoteric one; it is a reckoning with the Iranian monarchy, the (Communist) Tude Party, and the Islamic Republic. Despite the depressing theme it is not without irony or humorous characteristics, and can be regarded as an outstanding example of a reappraisal of the recent Iranian past.

    Iranian authors in other languages

    Reading Lolita in Tehran by āzar Nafisi (b. 1947?) can be seen as a form of coming to terms with the Iranian present. Nafisi is a professor of Persian Literature at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. In this non-fiction account, the author writes about her experience of the University of Tehran after its islamification, and the literature course she subsequently organised privately at home with female Iranian students. Her book gives the reader an insight into the intellectual climate in Iran around 1995.

    In 2005 the novel Het huis van de moskee [The House by the Mosque] was published in Amsterdam, in Dutch, under the pseudonym Kader Abdolah (b. 1957). The political situation in the Iranian author’s motherland not only resulted in his going into exile, it also prompted him to adopt a different language. This was the only way he felt able to write about the suffering of his country. He focuses on the years under Moḥammad Reżā Shah Pahlavi, as well as the initial years of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and writes about the fate of the inhabitants of a house adjacent to a mosque in a fictional town. The author takes a number of creative liberties, but his extremely critical portrayal is inspired by historical facts. He convincingly describes how SAVAK lays a trap for a cleric in order to coerce him into collaborating. Later he even has Khomeini appear, as well as the ‘Hanging Judge’ Khalkhali, whose name he changes only slightly. He also addresses the terrorist activities of the Mujahedin-e Khalq and leftist underground organisations; but he involves them in events that did not specifically take place as described. For example, he has them, in Kabul, kill the man who (in the novel) styles himself ‘God’s judge’, whereas his historical model in fact succumbed to cancer. The criticism of this author is especially interesting as he frequently cites the Koran in making it.

    Coming to terms with the Iran-Iraq War

    The war between Iraq and Iran has of course also left its mark on Persian literature. Two novels that present a stark contrast to the official patriotic line are especially worthy of mention. In 2007 Ḥoseyn Morteżāʾiyān ābkenār (b. 1966) published his book Aqrab. Ru-ye pelle-hā-ye rāh āhan-e Andimešk yā az in qaṭār ḫun mi- čeke qorbān (The Scorpion – a German translation is due to be published in 2013). In this novel he shows us the suffering of Iranian soldiers – not so much from enemy violence, but primarily from the inhumanity of their own military police.

    The other example, published in 2008, is the epistolary novel Digar esmat rā aważ na-kon [Don’t Change Your Name Any More] by Mağid Qeyṣari (b. 1966), another author who refrains from polemicising against the foreign enemy. Instead he has an Iraqi officer – whose mother is Iranian, and who can therefore speak Persian, albeit imperfectly – correspond with an Iranian soldier via a dead letter box.

    Dealing with censorship

    The novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story by šahriyār Mandanipur (b. 1957) is a real find. Published in English in 2009, it was translated in collaboration with the author and is actually more of a new version than a translation. The author pulls off the feat of turning his description of the oppressive present-day atmosphere of his homeland into an enjoyable read by lacing it with subtle humour. The novel is printed in three different text formats. The love story is printed in bold. The crossed-out sections constitute the second level of text, which the reader is able to read but which the author has deleted in his over-zealous self-censorship. He is afraid of Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate in Dostoyevsky’s famous novel Crime and Punishment who solves the murders committed by the main character, Raskolnikov. This is the name Mandanipur gives to the Iranian censors, who will, after all, have to develop similarly impressive powers of intuition if they are to protect the youth from immoral writings. In normal type – the third text format – the author defends his story in conversations with the censor, and in doing so tells amusing tales about Iranian culture. He also invites the reader to look over his shoulder and observe his creative process. Mandanipur is another author who lives in exile, in the United States.

    The same year saw the publication in German of the novel Zavāl-e Kolonel [The Colonel] by Maḥmud Doulatābādi (b. 1940), which caused a sensation. The novel cannot currently be published in Iran. It was written about twenty-five years ago, in the mid-1980s, when enthusiasm for the Islamic Revolution had given way to general disappointment, anger or resignation. It tells the story of an officer and his five children under the Shah. This officer, his three sons and two daughters represent the various different political positions in twentieth-century Iran: the father stands for the secular model imposed on society by Reżā Shah, the children for various feuding opposition groups. The action of the novel is limited to a twenty-four-hour period during the Iran-Iraq war. The author jumps between third-person narrative, internal monologues in the first person, and direct speech. This calls for attentive reading, but allows the reader to participate intensively in the protagonists’ feelings, as well as in their failure. The book’s particular appeal lies in the tension between the individually constructed, psychologically accurate personal portraits and the historical, social panorama. This is another work that can be seen as a model literary reappraisal of twentieth-century Iranian history.

    Critical examination of admiration of Mossadegh

    The novella Doktor Nun zaneš-rā bištar az Moṣaddeq dust dārad [Dr. N. Loves His Wife More than Mossadegh] by šahrām Raḥimiyān (b. 1959 – the author now lives in Hamburg), published in German translation in 2011, is a heart-rending, devastating, but also macabre love story set in the period after the coup d’état that toppled Iran’s only democratically-elected prime minister. It is a story about how a man is crushed by the fate of his country, by his own betrayal under torture, and ultimately by his love. After his arrest, SAVAK tricked him into believing that his wife was being raped and tortured. He thought he could hear her screams, and her begging him to give in to the insurgents and denounce Mossadegh in a radio interview as a traitor to his fatherland in order to buy her freedom. He later discovers the deception and cannot forgive himself for his failure. The self-hatred he feels in consequence drives him insane. The novel is structured as a complex, eventful, moving, confusing mosaic of fragments of memory.

    Between 2009 and 2012 a trilogy of novels dedicated to the Iranian capital Tehran by Amir Ḥasan čeheltan (b. 1956) was published in German. This trilogy is also an intensive examination of recent Iranian history. Two of the novels, namely Aḫlāq-e mardom-e ḫiābân-e enqelâb [Tehran, Revolution Street] and āmrikāʾi košti dar Tehrān [American Killing in Tehran] were first published in German. The third, Tehrān, šahr-e bi-āsmān [Tehran, Skyless City] had already been published in Iran in 2002, but in a version greatly abbreviated on account of the censorship.

    The trilogy is interesting not least for its diversity. The individual books differ greatly from one another. In the first novel to be published in German, Tehran, Revolution Street, the author delivers a vivid, exciting and many-faceted portrait of Tehran after the revolution. In the second novel he portrays excerpts from the history of twentieth-century Tehran and the relationship with the ‘Great Satan’, the United States, in ‘six episodes about hatred’. Here, he places his fictional characters alongside actual historical figures at the scene of events that he has obviously painstakingly researched. In the third novel, the protagonist is again a supporter of the Revolution. Kerâmat flees a remote village as a child and manages to make his way to Tehran. Once there he experiences a period of misery and humiliation before he is introduced to a ‘reform school’ in the Tehran underworld. The novel tells the story of the last twenty-four hours in this man’s life. He has gone from being an active supporter of the last Shah to one of the leading officials in the notorious Evin prison, in which political opponents of Iran’s Islamic Revolution are imprisoned, tortured and murdered. The author tells the story on three levels. The first takes place in the present and relates the current events in Kerâmat’s life, the second presents his inner life in the form of a stream of consciousness, and the third is the historical background seen from the author’s own point of view.

    Although political conditions in Iran mean that, at present, there cannot be an official re-evaluation of the past, Iranian literature is already engaged in the process and is guiding Iranian society towards the future.
    Kurt Scharf
    works for the Goethe-Institut. Before the revolution he was, among other things, head of the Goethe-Institut in Tehran. He now works as a literary critic and translator.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to
    Mail Symbolkulturzeitschriften@goethe.de

      Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

      Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

      Read Fikrun issue 98 “Coming to Terms with the Past” on your smart phone, BlackBerry or e-reader! Go to download...

      Order now

      Application form

      Institutions or people in Islamic countries who are employed in the journalism or culture sectors have the option to obtain a free subscription.
      To the application form ...

      Qantara.de – Dialogue with the Islamic World

      Politics, culture, social affairs: Information and discussions in German, Arabic and English

      Zenith Online

      Covering the Muslim world with a critical, resourceful, and balanced view