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The best books on Iran

recommended by Pooneh Ghoddoosi

From the 14th century poetry of Hafez to the 21st century's Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian BBC journalist Pooneh Ghoddoosi discusses books that give an insight into the culture, society, and politics of Iran

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The first book you chose, My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad, is one of the most beloved Iranian novels of the 20th century and it has been hailed as a masterpiece of Persian literature. Could you tell me a bit more about it?

To be honest, when I first heard about it I was really young. I hadn’t read the book but I had seen the TV adaptation, which was a series like “Friends”, though in a very different kind of way. It was very political and satirical, though not obviously so. I was too young to understand the very sensitive social commentary that was hidden in the day-to-day lives of the characters, but I still loved it.

But after reading the book in my teens I discovered the depth of its explanations of the culture, mentalities, stereotypes and clichés of Iranian society. It showed the various mindsets – like the modern, the religious, and the Westernised.

You know how in any TV series or book, each character is a prototype of a personality in the world? Well this book is the best example of that. It explains the whole society of Iran using a handful of people in the most understandable way, especially if you are not familiar with the culture. I have lent this book to friends, if only so as to make them understand what goes on in the Iranian mindset.

It is such a clever satire and it is also a social, religious, and political commentary on the history of the Iranian people. It is much more truthful, perhaps, than an important scholarly or academic analysis.

That’s interesting. Would you say it’s subversive?

One thing it mocks is the idea that whatever happens inside Iran is due to the influence of the British or the West generally. There is a character who is becoming old, senile and paranoid, and he had been in the war, perhaps it was the First World War. He has now forgotten the real memories and turned them into a fantasised version. And he keeps retelling those memories in a way that is completely different from what happened.

This character believes that a big part of whatever happened during his time in the military was influenced by the Brits, who didn’t want Iranians to have power, or for the Iranian government to be independent. He believes they sent spies and agents to control the events in Iran.

This book was written decades ago, and yet you can still see that the idea is as rife as ever. Today the demonstrations in Iran are blamed on the British influence and the protestors are being accused of being agents of Britain or the US. BBC Persian broadcasting is accused of inciting people to cause disruptions on the streets.

And yet the BBC maintains a clear policy of neutrality.

I hope neutrality is something the BBC is famous for worldwide.

Was the old man you described “Uncle Napoleon”?

Yes. The old man’s favourite historical character is Napoleon. He quotes him all the time and thinks he was a great hero and warrior, mostly because he was an enemy of the British. So his younger relatives mockingly call him Napoleon behind his back. Even in his own family interactions, say when someone catches pneumonia, or a young cousin falls in love with his daughter and he doesn’t approve, he thinks everything is to do with the British.

He has a very faithful gardener, who is exactly like Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, who approves of what he says and retells the same stories that never happened. Because there is some idiot applauding him he keeps on going. There is also a cousin who is foreign educated, speaks English and works for the foreign ministry. He thinks it’s such a joke that this old man has these ideas in his head. And there all sorts of other characters.It’s just really beautiful.

It sounds as though it’s still very relevant.

One of the first programmes when BBC Persia was launched was “The Brits are Behind It”, although I can’t remember the exact translation in English, but it was also shown on English BBC. It was made by a British journalist who had married an Iranian woman and he interviewed one of the TV writers about how relevant it is that people still blame Britain, fifty years later.

Why is the graphic novel and film adaptation, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, on your recommended list?

I read the book and it was great, but more people saw the film because it was nominated for an Academy Award. And after seeing the movie, so many people I knew came up to me and told me that they thought it was exactly the story of my life. And not just me, but most of my Iranian friends had the same feeling of “Oh God, that could have been me, I could have written that book – it could have been the story of my life and my family, and that’s exactly how I felt in high school.”

I think it was so powerful in the most simple and honest kind of way. It’s almost like a children’s story, which makes it even more powerful. I know so many people who have been hugely moved by it. And I love the person who wrote it, and I know her, but I also hate her because I wish I had written that book! If I had a book in me it would be something almost identical to Persepolis. I think she has done an absolutely fantastic job.

And the comic style graphics are a great juxtaposition for a film that is very powerful film and sometimes very sad.

That’s true. The best thing is that the story is so powerful that she realised she didn’t have to exaggerate it – not in the drawing or the telling. It already had enough juice and it didn’t need any extra flavouring.

It comes across as very sincere.

Sometimes, when I know the truth behind a particular story because I know the author or have had a similar experience, I’ve felt disappointed when it’s exaggerated to get sympathy or present a political point of view. There are times when you don’t need to add any spice to make it interesting to non-Iranians.

It’s wonderful that Marjane Satrapi has told that story for so many people.

She did a very interesting interview on a US TV show, at a time when Iran was being talked about as ‘the axis of evil’. The host asked her why she wrote it, and her reply was she wanted Western people to realise that Iranians are not just a bunch of fanatic Muslims. She said something like: “We are ordinary people like you, who like to go to the cinema, listen to Michael Jackson, eat ice-cream and hang out with friends.”

And the host very cleverly said in a mock-serious way: “Don’t you realise what a terrible thing you are doing? We Americans don’t want to know that you are human too. Right now we can comfortably preach about what is going to happen to your country, and our government can carry out its policies the way it wants to.”

She was telling inconvenient truths. Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is the story of a teacher who held book club meetings in her home with female students. This book was translated into 33 different languages and sold millions of copies in the West, but it was never very popular in Iran and it also received a lot of criticism. Why do you think this is?

There is a difference of opinion amongst some professors, especially the Iranian expats. Many felt that it was not representative of Iranians. Incidentally, I was one Azar Nafasi’s literature students. Maybe this is why the book was more exciting and interesting to me. Years later I called her from London and interviewed her for the BBC. We both got really emotional.

This is not to say that I necessarily agree with her views, but I believe that authors have every right to express their point of view. If you don’t agree with it you are free to write your own book. People who write a novel or autobiography are not bound by the duty to be unbiased. They are free to make emotional comments, and I think this is the most important difference between a journalist and an author.

Was Azar Nafasi holding book club meetings when you were a student of hers?

Yes she was.

Did you go to one?

I knew about the meetings but I didn’t go. I was already fluent in English and I had read most of the books they discussed. It was mostly for girls who had not lived abroad or had the exposure to English novels or lifestyles. She handpicked a bunch of people that she thought really needed to have their eyes opened more. She tried to give those people a different set of possibilities and I think it was an absolutely beautiful thing to do.

The Persian Puzzle is quite a different type of book altogether. It’s non-fiction and it was written by the former CIA intelligence officer, Kenneth Pollack. I’m curious as to why you chose it?

This book explains so much about the relationship between America and Iran. It’s more understandable than anything else I have read or seen firsthand, even though I have lived in Iran. And it’s good to see the way the ‘other team’ sees things rather than just the way the Islamic Republic does. It was very interesting and very helpful to me.

It goes right back to the beginning of the relationship between Iran and Britain, and it explains it in an unbiased and clever way. The problems and obstacles in these relationships are probably the biggest question in Iran and it’s definitely one of the biggest news stories.

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And I came across a quote of an article I myself had written many years ago. It was quite funny. But that is not the reason I like the book!

I was quite surprised that Pollack studied Iran for 14 years and yet he never learnt Persian or visited Iran. I would have thought the curiosity would kill him?

But that’s exactly why I liked the book. Sometimes people go to Iran for a week or two and then they say: “I know those people so well and I can tell you all about what is happening in that country.” Pollack studied Iran because it was part of his job description and not a personal interest. He only became interested later on. Which in a way makes this book more trustworthy.

Some people get really passionate the minute they go there and make some friends, who take them to some parties and offer them nice food… Maybe such things would influence judgement.

I think I am personally guilty of having done just that. You’re final book, The Poems of Hafez, goes right back to the 14th century.

Yes. Hafez is my favourite poet. I grew up reading his poetry and trying to understand what it meant. My parents are also huge fans so it has an important place in my life. The way people might feel about the Bible, Torah or Koran, or any spiritual book, is how I feel about his poetry.

I would put the volume of his poetry on the table during a traditional celebration. It covers so many different aspects of human life, personality and the after-life. What he really emphasises, and this is my favourite point, is that it doesn’t matter if you are religious, whether you cover yourself with Islamic hijab, or you are in the highest ranks of religious education, what really matters is whether you are a good person.

He shows the hypocrisy of people in the top positions who claim to be the best Muslim, the best Christian, the best politician, or the best of people, and yet they don’t really behave how they should. He believes that it doesn’t matter if you are a drunk or if you simply have the façade right, what matters is what goes on inside your head and your heart. Being a good person is more important than being obviously religious.

He was a visionary wasn’t he?

Yes.  There is also a lot of poetry about love, wine and seizing the day.

You know how some people refer to a glossy magazine to check their daily horoscope? Many Iranians refer to his volume of poetry when they have a problem or frustration, or if they have fallen in love, or if they want to know whether they will pass a test or get a job interview. They open the book on a random page and they read the poetry, and in most cases they find a verse that is relevant.

That’s amazing.

I am not being superstitious, I am just saying that the beauty of the poetry is such that you can interpret it in a very helpful way to your own problems -even in such modern times, hundreds of years later.

I have heard a saying that in every house in Iran there are always two books – one is the Koran and the other is Hafez.

These days some people believe more in Hafez than they do in the Koran.

Have you been to Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz?

Yes – many, many times. I used to be a tour operator and I explained the stories to groups of foreign tourists.  There is an old man there whose job is to do a bit of fortune telling and read the poems. It’s pretty sweet.

Lovers also gather at the shrine around midnight to make wishes that they will be able to get married. Or if there has been a fight or a break-up a person might go to wish that they will get back together. This is the superstitious side of it, but what I am trying to say is that the influence of Hafez in peoples’ minds is really huge.

During the winter equinox there is a ceremony when families get together to eat special things for dinner, like pomegranates, nuts and watermelon. Then after midnight they take turns reading the poetry through the longest part of the night. They sit until dawn, reading and discussing their fortunes. It’s something that brings people together.

It sounds amazing.

It’s beautiful.

July 26, 2009

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Pooneh Ghoddoosi

Pooneh Ghoddoosi

Pooneh Ghoddoosi is a journalist and broadcaster. She is one of the BBC's select group of multilingual presenters. During her two decades with the organization, she has edited, produced, and presented a variety of programs on BBC World News, BBC Persian Television, and BBC World Service Radio. She presented the award-winning Interactive program, "Nowbat-e-Shoma" (Your Turn) on BBC Persian Television for four years. Pooneh has also worked as a Senior Media Trainer with the BBC Academy's College of Journalism.

Pooneh Ghoddoosi

Pooneh Ghoddoosi

Pooneh Ghoddoosi is a journalist and broadcaster. She is one of the BBC's select group of multilingual presenters. During her two decades with the organization, she has edited, produced, and presented a variety of programs on BBC World News, BBC Persian Television, and BBC World Service Radio. She presented the award-winning Interactive program, "Nowbat-e-Shoma" (Your Turn) on BBC Persian Television for four years. Pooneh has also worked as a Senior Media Trainer with the BBC Academy's College of Journalism.