Gems under Debris—Repression, Revolution, and Reading in Modern Iran
by Amir Ahmadi Arian
If one is to mark a symbolic turning point, a year that launched the modern era in Iran, 1921 is a compelling choice. This is the year Nima Yushij published his long poem Afsaneh, in which he opened Persian poetry to the contemporary world and bravely brought "unpoetic" language into his art. Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh’s short story collection Once Upon a Time appeared the same year. In the introduction to this book, Jamalzadeh scorned nineteenth-century writers, especially those close to the court of the Qajar kings, for their cumbersome language and dead literary styles, and advocated for “Literary Democracy” – new approaches to storytelling that would make literature available to all Persian speakers.
The publication of these two texts coincided with a political coup that led to the rise of Reza Shah. In 1925, this archetypal "strongman" toppled the last shah of Qajar and initiated a new dynasty. Reza Shah's rise brought about improvements in personal safety, infrastructure, and the economy, but also one of the darkest periods for freedom of speech in contemporary Iran.
When the Second World War broke out, Iran’s official position was neutral, but Reza Shah tacitly supported Hitler. This was intolerable to the British and the Russians. In 1941, they invaded Iran, dethroned the Shah, and banished him to South Africa, where he died a lonesome, miserable death.
The Shah's removal ushered in one of the most dynamic periods in the literary culture of Iran. All the intellectual energy suppressed during Reza Shah’s reign burst onto the public stage. The publishing industry thrived, dozens of new voices cranked out books and treatises, and a wealth of fresh, progressive ideas spread and gained popularity.
But this period came to an end as abruptly as it had begun. After the then-prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Musadeq, nationalized the oil industry in March 1951, the CIA and MI6 orchestrated an infamous 1953 coup d’état to overthrow him and crown Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza, the new ruler.
Upon his return to the throne, the paranoid young Shah set up SAVAK, a highly feared intelligence and police institution. He controlled the media with an iron fist and increased censorship, dashing the hopes and prospects of writers and intellectuals. Some writers left to live in exile, and some lay low and adjusted to the new regime. Others gave up, embittered.
The next period of opening up began in the 1960s and continued until the 1979 revolution. In this era, the Iranian economy boomed, and the middle class grew, wafting fresh air into the literary culture. This happened despite the heavy censorship of the time, which drove authors towards symbolism and allegory. Poets, especially, resorted to the indirection of sophisticated metaphors, making their work obscure enough to avoid government scrutiny. Authors grappled with many questions, ranging from existential matters to daily politics. Ahmad Shamlou*, one of the most important poets from the generation that published poetry after Neema, looked to the past for answers. He carefully studied the historiography of the eleventh-century historian Abu Al-Hassan Bayhaqi and the poetry of Hafez**, the fourteenth-century poet whose collection of ghazals has gained the status of a holy book in Iran . (You will also find references to Hafez in Ghazal Mosadeq's contemporary short story about an Iranian immigrant in Paris, "Ney Boulevard.") Shamlou’s attempts at forging a new poetical language by realizing the dormant potential of classical literature began in his collection The Fresh Air, from which the poem “The Fish” is translated here.
Also, for the first time, significant numbers of women writers began to appear on the literary landscape. Simin Daneshvar and Goli Taraghi published their first books of fiction, featuring much-needed female protagonists, complex and fleshed-out, who had been absent from much of the previous literature. From Goli Taraghi’s later work, two stories are included in this collection, "The Neighbor" and "Encounter."
However, the poetry scene continued to be dominated by men, with the outstanding exception of Forugh Farrokhzad. In her short life, Farrokhzad published five collections and introduced the strongest female voice in Persian poetry in the twentieth century. The poem “Connection,” included in this collection, contains the major elements that characterize her work. In her love poems like this one, she had a way of engaging all senses with words, creating an intense, sensuous experience that sometimes bypassed the mind and talked straight to her reader’s body. Her death in a car accident at thirty-two was traumatic for the literary community of Iran, and elicited a welter of eulogies and memorials. Ahmad Shamlou’s “Elegy" on the death of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated in this collection, is one of them.
In this period of artistic ferment, literary magazines mushroomed across the country and found a substantial readership. Magazines like Ferdowsi and Arash were published frequently and read widely, each quickly becoming an institution. Editing magazines such as Ketab-e Hafteh and Khousheh, the poet Ahmadi Shamlou was single-handedly responsible for a considerable part of this cultural environment. Given all these developments, the 1960s and 1970s were probably the richest, most productive years on all fronts in the history of modern Iranian literature.
They were followed by the greatest disruption of all.
The 1979 revolution transformed Iranian society on almost every level. Practically overnight, people found themselves living in a new world in which many of their beliefs and routines were upended. That transformation generated a massive curiosity, and people began to read voraciously to satisfy it. Their thirst was evident especially during the first few years after the revolution, when vendors sold books on every sidewalk in downtown Tehran, and bookstores and universities hosted heated, critical debates about the coordinates of this new world. Soon, however, the Islamic Republic party consolidated power and cracked down on this lively public conversation.
Before Iranians had managed to digest the colossal transformations of the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war began. In 1980, Saddam Hussein decided to take advantage of the post-revolutionary chaos in Iran and launched a military campaign to annex the strategic, oil-rich state of Khuzestan. It turned out to be much harder than he had imagined. Hussein's attack led to an eight-year war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and burned out large swaths of land on both sides of the border.
The war left a large mark on the Iranian psyche and became a major literary theme. In this collection, several pieces address the war and its traumatic effects. Goli Taraghi’s stories “The Neighbor” and “Encounter” both take place in the shadow of the war. In “Neighbor,” a family undergoes an abrupt migration to Paris because the war put their lives at risk. In “Encounter,” Taraghi portrays how the elimination of dissident voices during the war gave free rein to the most extreme elements of society to interfere with people’s lives and humiliate them in their private spaces. Two other writers in this collection address the war more directly. In “Rahman’s Story,” Hossein Abkenar takes up a thorny subject in war literature: how to appreciate the dignity of the soldier on the other side. Through the conceit of a frame narrative, he writes about the war from the point of view of an Iraqi soldier. In “Like a Body Turned Inside Out,” Yaghoub Yadali depicts the disruptive effect of the war on the pastoral existence of a village that is destroyed as it loses its best youth to the war. Like the bullet-riddled canteen that the young soldiers from the village try and fail to fill with water, the narrative itself is riddled with metafictional questions and doubts, suggesting the impossibility of neatly encompassing a loss of such magnitude within a single narrative.
While the war was being fought, even as the country experienced mass shortages of basic commodities, thousands of copies of thick books kept coming out, and a large readership helped the embattled publishing industry flourish. The canonical, multi-volume novels of contemporary literature in Iran were mostly written in this period, notably Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Kleidar, the story of a legendary rebel in the northeast of Iran who rises against the local land-owners; Ahmad Mahmoud’s The Zero Degree Latitude, a saga with numerous characters about the life of the city of Ahvaz from the 1970s through the revolution; and Reza Baraheni’s The Mysteries of My Homeland, another novel about the events leading up to the 1979 revolution, set in Tabriz.
However, writers were also beginning to leave Iran. The postrevolutionary upheaval, the crackdown on expression, and the war-inflicted hardship instigated a large wave of migration. The revolution had reshuffled the existing order, and many people who had previously enjoyed a high degree of security and safety, including writers and other intellectuals, were now facing the possibility of persecution, military conscription, or imprisonment for activities ranging from writing articles criticizing the regime to listening to forbidden records.
Since that first wave, migration from Iran has never really slowed. Over the last forty years, more than five million Iranians have migrated to all corners of the world. Many of these immigrant Iranians are voracious readers and active writers. They are writing and publishing Farsi-language literature, setting up new bookstores and publishing houses, and finding each other across borders and continents. Over time, so many Iranian books were published in the Diaspora that scholars and journalists recognized a new literary genre: “Migration Literature.”
This collection includes several examples of this literature, spanning eras and generations of migrants. Salar Abdoh’s “Hunger” is a memoir of his arrival in the U.S. as a teenager, without his parents, and his struggle to survive in Los Angeles and New York City. Goli Taraghi’s “The Neighbor,” discussed earlier in this essay, depicts how an Iranian family, having left the country for the safety of Paris, struggles to find its way in the city.
After 1986, censorship in Iran deepened. Mustafa Mirsalim took over the Ministry of Cultural Guidance, or government censorship office, and pursued a zero-tolerance policy towards books. His office gutted manuscripts, removing every passage and sentence it deemed remotely sexual or unkind to the powers-that-be. Now, censors had implicit permission to mutilate texts on almost any grounds. This approach prevails in Iran to this day. Any writer who has published anything over the last three decades, including most of the authors in this unit, has had to deal at some point with the maddening strictness and fuzziness of censorship laws.
After the dark years of Mirsalim, a few years of relative openness began when the reformist Mohammad Khatami won the 1997 presidential elections. This was the start of the so-called “Press Spring,” with the simultaneous emergence of a dozen reformist newspapers that attracted a nationwide readership and immediately began pushing the conventional boundaries of censorship and freedom of speech in Iran. The publishing industry was resurgent. However, like previous openings, this one was short-lived. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s controversial film Love’s Turn, the script of which is included in this collection, is a case in point. As artists and writers, taking note of dramatic changes in censorship policies, began to push the envelope, other parts of society, including people with tremendous power, resorted to extreme means to try to turn back the tide.
In 2006, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. Under his direction, the Ministry of Cultural Guidance soon reversed the relatively tolerant policies of the Khatami years and put in place a brutal censorship regime. Once again, a generation of writers, those who had come up under Khatami, simply stopped writing or migrated elsewhere. However, by this point, thanks to the reformist movement, censorship rules had been irreversibly eased. Despite the heightened risk under Ahmadinejad, cartoonists and humorists returned to the press after a long absence and boldly took on politicians as well as the values of Iranian society, making themselves vulnerable to public outrage or persecution. Mana Neyestani’s “An Iranian Metamorphosis,” in this collection, is an extreme example of how this increased room for maneuvering put the artists’ and journalists’ lives at risk.
We are still in the post-Ahmadinejad period. In 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the second time declared himself the winner of the presidential elections, ignoring deep suspicions about the counting of ballots and the fairness of the elections, millions of people poured into the streets and launched what came to be called The Green Movement. Those months in summer and fall 2009 shook up the political scene in Iran, but the movement didn’t fully achieve what it pursued. Ahmadinejad continued to run the country, which, for writers, meant four more dark years of heavy censorship.
In 2012, Hassan Rouhani successfully ran a Presidential campaign based on cultural tolerance, but he never cared much about culture and arts, and the relaxing of the state stranglehold on censorship and social control has remained mostly cosmetic. Habibe Jafarian’s essay, “How to Be a Woman in Iran,” accurately details the absurdity of working as a female journalist in this environment, and all the obstacles a deeply patriarchal society puts in the way of a woman who wants to do her job.
The preceding pages are a very brief summary of a century of dramatic vicissitudes: brief openings followed by tragic disruptions, displacement, and homelessness, self-destruction at home or getting lost abroad. In those periods marked by the arrival of a new dictator who crushes everything to feel safe in his role, members of the literary community gave up or migrated or hid, waiting for the next opening, waiting to take up their pens and start all over again, knowing full well that these moments of freedom would be brief. This history has denied Iranian authors the opportunity to evolve naturally, to take their time in finding their own voice and style, their own way of producing literature. Over the last century, every generation of writers underwent dramatic ups and downs, which jeopardized their literary production.
However, this historical context has led to a discernible quality of anxiety, a sense of limited opportunity and impending loss. This anxiety manifests itself in so many stories and poems created in Iran, and it is embodied in this collection. Here we read about disrupted lives: the simple people of a village lose their young men to the war; men and women abandon everything and travel overnight to Australia; confused, lost people burn bridges behind them without managing to build new ones ahead.
This collection also represents the nature of creating literature in Iran – not a steady, orderly evolution of themes and voices and traditions, but bursts and flashes of insight here and there, little gems buried under incessant political suppression and the debris of wars.
© 2019 by Amir Amadi Arian. All rights reserved.
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** For more on the poet Hafez (sometimes also called "Hafiz" in English), see: a five-minute radio story about Hafez's lasting appeal: "In Iran, A Poet's 700-Year-Old Verses Still Set Hearts Aflame"; the Hafez poem "For years my heart inquired of me"; a selection of five poems from Hafez on Poets.org. For more on the ghazal, a poetic form, see Poets.org.