World

Jasmin Darznik recommends the best books on

Modern Iran

Everyday life in Iran is often mischaracterised, says the Iranian author and academic – especially when it comes to the struggles of its women. She recommends five books that give us a window on Iranian history and family life

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    1

    Shah of Shahs
    by Ryszard Kapuściński

  • 0312427336.01.LZ_

    2

    Mirrors of the Unseen
    by Jason Elliot

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    3

    Sin: Selected Poems
    by Forugh Farrokhzad (translated by Sholeh Wolpe)

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    4

    Women Without Men
    by Shahrnush Parsipur

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    5

    My Uncle Napoleon
    by Iraj Pezeshkzad

Jasmin Darznik

Jasmin Darznik was born in Tehran and studied at Princeton University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She is a professor of English and creative writing at Washington and Lee University, and has also taught Iranian literature at the University of Virginia. She has won honours from Zoetrope: All-Story, The Iowa Review, and The San Francisco Foundation. Her first book, The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life, was a New York Times bestseller

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Jasmin Darznik

Jasmin Darznik was born in Tehran and studied at Princeton University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She is a professor of English and creative writing at Washington and Lee University, and has also taught Iranian literature at the University of Virginia. She has won honours from Zoetrope: All-Story, The Iowa Review, and The San Francisco Foundation. Her first book, The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life, was a New York Times bestseller

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People have strong images of Iran as a totalitarian country where women can still be stoned for

adultery

. What are some of the most common misconceptions about Iran?

There is an overwhelming preoccupation with Islam – or more particularly with Islamic fundamentalism – in Western media coverage of Iran. Islam is portrayed as the single defining feature of life there. Of course the Islamic regime constitutes a dominant framework for people’s lives, but they manage nonetheless to lead fully complex lives within that framework. Moreover, many of the problems average Iranians face relate less to Islam than to the economy. A succession of occupations, wars and, more recently, economic sanctions, have crippled Iran and made life quite hard for people there. These financial realities and so much else about the country do not get translated to a western audience.

We will be exploring those realities with your book choices. But before we start, what kind of images spring to mind when you think about your country?

The condition of women comes to mind at once. But the images you mentioned earlier of women being stoned are very extreme and rare incidents. When I think of Iran, I think of the grittiness and the vitality of its women. They endure what are sometimes horrific circumstances, and yet I feel that the intelligence and strength of Iranian women is so much more representative of their lives.

Your first book, Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is about the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran.

Kapuscinski is widely regarded as the greatest travel writer of the 20th century. Polish by birth, he witnessed some 40 revolutions and wars during his time as a journalist. He had already built a long and illustrious career when he found his way to Iran on the eve of the 1979 revolution. At that moment it was still a populist revolution rather than an Islamic one – the contours of the revolution were as yet undefined. So it is an interesting moment for him to have found himself on the streets of Tehran.
Like so many of his books, Shah of Shahs completely defies journalistic standards and generic classifications. Rather, it presents an impressionistic portrait of the country at those critical moments before the revolution gelled. With poetic virtuosity, Kapuscinski captures the confusion, the despair and also the flashes of hope that gripped Iran at that moment.
Accounts by so-called outsiders can, I think, sometimes be particularly rich and revealing. Kapuscinski had seen chaos in endless guises, and he offered up uncanny insights into the machinations of tyranny – and not just in the Iranian context. In Shah of Shahs, as in his many other books, he writes of how tyranny seeps into the psyche of a people. And yet there is a purposeful distance he cultivates about his subject. The Iranian characters in the book are held almost at a remove. I believe that that remove signals a concession to the limits of what he can know from his vantage point as an outsider looking in on the revolution.

Your next book is also a travel book written by an outsider – Mirrors of the Unseen by Jason Elliot.

Given the history between the countries, it may be a bit of a travesty that I have picked an Englishman to tell us about Iran! The word “orientalist” has such unsavoury connotations these days. But I think of Elliot as an orientalist in the best sense of the word – an outsider guided by a deep curiosity about the Middle East, and devoted to understanding it better. He has also written an account about Afghanistan, An Unexpected Light. Mirrors of the Unseen finds him travelling through Iran over a period of three years.

What did he discover?

Ordinary Iranian lives set against a richly detailed history. As I mentioned earlier, an overwhelming number of books published about Iran tend to focus on the revolution and the Islamic Republic. Most of them offer scant insight into what brought the country to those moments. There is likewise little written about how people actually live under the regime. What I admire about Elliot is that he sets his timely journalistic dispatches on a broader canvas of Iranian history. He also inserts himself, minimally, into the stories he tells. There is just enough of him there to make a good companion for the reader, yet his story doesn’t overwhelm the greater story he is telling.
Elliot has also studied Iran carefully, and is particularly adept at writing about its poetic, architectural and mystical traditions. The book is beautifully written. He manages to transmit his knowledge in an engaging, seemingly effortless manner. Elliot also moves his book away from Tehran, the capital, and writes to us from such places as Isfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis – sites rich with history. So for me the book offers a tremendous sense of immediacy, but also a far greater historical sweep than we ordinarily see in accounts about Iran.

Your third choice is a book of poems, Forugh Farrokhzad’s Sin: Selected Poems.

Farrokhzad wrote five poetry books, and a sixth book of hers was published posthumously. There have been other translations into English, but this one by the Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpe is the best I have encountered. The translations are precise, but also fluid and quite beautiful. She pulls poems from all of Forugh’s work. The volume is a fantastic introduction to her work for a non-Iranian reader.

Forugh is an iconic figure in Iranian culture.

Absolutely. I would say she is probably the ultimate icon for Iranian women in the 20th century. In her poems, women’s experiences of love, sensuality and sexuality are explored with daring and with beauty. Notorious in her lifetime, when she died at the age of 32 in a car accident she became a legend. Many people of her generation saw her as a symbol for all the possibilities and limitations under the Pahlavi dynasty, and she’s remained a singularly inspirational figure for successive generations of Iranians. And not just for women, but for many Iranian men too.

There was a lot of disapproval towards her as well. She even had her child taken away from her.

Yes. Even as some idolised her, a good many others derided and ostracised her. I have been thinking about her a lot recently, because my own mother’s story embodies some of the same challenges and tragedies. I think, in particular, about how they were both forced to surrender their children when they divorced. Forugh was married quite young, at 15, and she divorced just a few years later. In those days a divorcee was regarded as no better than a prostitute. Even though Forugh created an independent life for herself after her divorce, she never fully recovered from giving up her child. And that is a story I’ve come to know well when writing my own book, The Good Daughter.

What happened to your mother?

My mother also married young. She was 13, younger even than Forugh, who was her contemporary. Her marriage was an abusive one, and her father would only petition for a divorce on her behalf on the condition that she never see her child again. And so she gave up her daughter. This was, sadly, a common story for women seeking divorce. In those days – the 1950s – just 2% of marriages ended in divorce. When couples divorced, the children almost always went to the father. In my mother’s circumstances, as in Forugh’s, she was not only forced to surrender her child but also urged to completely forget her.

Which is an impossible thing to ask a mother to do.

I think so, and yet my mother felt she had no alternative.

Is that kind of situation changing in Iran?

Well, there are resemblances between the attitudes and legal procedures of my mother’s time and those in contemporary Iran. Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi [the last shah] there was a period of time, the so-called White Revolution, when laws concerning divorce and custody were completely overhauled. For example, women were granted the right to divorce and to retain custody of their children upon divorce. Many of these laws were repealed in the 1980s. Although the laws are not as extreme as they were in my mother’s era, there were certainly similarities to the present system in Iran. I daresay the cultural attitudes toward divorced women have survived to some degree as well.

Next is

Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur.

This novel is the story of five women who escape their varied torments and convene in a garden outside Tehran. The events may or may not be the 1950s – the historical references are somewhat obscure. Parsipur had been imprisoned in 1974 under the shah, but this is the novel that landed her in jail many more times, led to the banning of all her books, and ultimately forced her to seek refugee status in the US. The most “offensive” material in the book concerns a scene in which two women discuss virginity. The novel also treats other taboo subjects like rape, honour killings and prostitution. But I wouldn’t call it a polemical text.
The brutality of the women’s circumstances is not muted at all, yet there is a way in which Parsipur untethers her characters and subjects from any easily identifiable historical moment. Time collapses in this novel. One can read this as a book about Iranian women’s lives at any point in the 20th century. What is also so extraordinary about the novel is its meditative, almost mystical quality. Women Without Men is often referred to as a work of magical realism, yet Parsipur plays her magic against a blunt, sharp wit. The contrast between those two modes feels very fresh and Iranian to me.

Your final book is My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad, which is a real epic and was made into a very popular TV series.

The book vies, curiously enough, with Sadegh Hedayat’s dark, brooding, existential novel The Blind Owl as the most significant book in 20th century Iran. That the two contenders for greatest Iranian novel of the 20th century should be so radically different may give you a sense of the complexity of the Iranian psyche. My Uncle Napoleon’s humour runs very much to slapstick and farce.

Is that an Iranian trait as well?

It is. It is not something that they are well known for outside of Iran, but Iranians have a very highly defined sense of the absurd. Perhaps having endured so many wars, revolutions and occupations has given them a gift for making farce out of tragedy.
The cast of characters is massive, the plot absolutely unwieldy. The novel takes place within a large family compound in 1940s Tehran, and you can imagine all the jealousy and gossiping that goes on there. The reason it translated so well into a television series is because it has a soap opera feel. Certainly every Iranian of my parents’ generation knows the book, and even 30 or 40 years later they can still recount to you in loving detail their favourite scene from it or from the television series it inspired.
The story is so messy and the humour can be really heavy-handed, yet Pezeshkzad makes such great fun of certain Iranian attitudes and traits. For example their predilection for flattery, hero worship and conspiracy theories. The main character, Uncle Napoleon, is so named because he is a great admirer of the Emperor Napoleon. He’s also completely delusional and thinks himself a hero of epic proportions. Fixated with the British, Uncle Napoleon believes that at any moment they will ambush him. So the book is all about Iran making fun of itself for its own kneejerk reaction to blame anything that goes wrong on foreigners. It’s also quite a funny send-up of the more universal, daily farce of family life.

September 20, 2011

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