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New Texts Out Now: Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, Literary Subterfuge and Contemporary Persian Fiction: Who Writes Iran?

[Cover of Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, [Cover of Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, "Literary Subterfuge and Contemporary Persian Fiction: Who Writes Iran?"]

Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, Literary Subterfuge and Contemporary Persian Fiction: Who Writes Iran? London and New York: Routledge, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami (MMK): In the summer of 1997, the Ministry of Information of the Islamic Republic of Iran planned the murder of a number of major Iranian writers. Under the guise of an Iran-Armenia literary exchange conference, it was decided to send more than twenty writers from Iran to Armenia. A bus carrying the Iranian writers was driven by someone who was later determined to have been an agent of the Ministry of Information. During the trip, the driver tried to steer the bus towards a precipice while he jumped clear. It was sheer luck that the bus did not fall and the writers managed to save themselves. Interestingly enough, moments after the failed attempt by the driver, members of the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Information arrived and saved the driver, while they blatantly continued their verbal threats against the writers. This event has been documented by a number of writers who were in the bus.

Of course, before that event there were other systemic efforts by the government to eradicate non-conformist intellectuals, especially literary figures; the ensemble of these efforts became known as The Project of Serial Murders. The exact number of intellectuals who were assassinated both inside and outside Iran remains unclear. When such treatment—which existed before the 1979 Revolution as well, though less intensely—concerns literary figures who specifically and openly oppose the ruling apparatus and its discourses, it is at least explainable. But the fact is that the majority of the writers and poets who were targeted were not directly confronting the government and were not necessarily shouting, “Death to the Islamic Republic.” This fact crystalizes the fundamental point that there is a series of (literary) narratives and discourses which, for a variety of “reasons,” are identified as part of counter/non-(official) discursivity without providing any textual reason or intention to justify this categorization. Indeed, because of the lack of interest in official and dominant discourses and in non-literary intentions, such projects, whose presence is confronted by officialdom, represent the most important components of contemporary Persian fiction. So I would say that in the general context of my main field of research—modern Persian fiction—those events and the literary voices they aimed to silence or marginalize were perhaps the most important motivational sparks that encouraged me to study the process of formation of a significant aspect of Persian modernist writing.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MMK: The main focus of this book is to identify the major directions of Persian modernist fiction and their formation processes. The theoretical approach of the project requires, before anything else, a re-visitation of historiography in the Persian literary tradition, because the fact is that, other than a few exceptions, the majority of studies on the history of Persian literature have not addressed this issue sufficiently. This is especially true in Western academia, where on most occasions the classical period of Persian literature and its major figures such as Ferdowsi, Sa’di, and Rumi represent the whole. If and when modern periods are discussed, it seems that it has become inevitable that modern works have to be discussed in terms of their socio-political commitment and/or their function against a “modernity imposed by colonizing powers.” Works like mine, which are not rare but are mostly written in Persian, tend to focus primarily on the functions of the forms, style, rhetorical devices, and aesthetics of modern works, as well as their historical evolution.

Also, the macro categories of literary historiography and the general directions of Persian literary modernism lead naturally to the topic of identifying the main components of this modernism. In my book I have relied heavily on close readings of genres and subgenres such as prison literature, non-committed literature, and non-discursive literature—all of which are extremely rich in Persian modernist writings—to address the conceptual requirements of these three categories. In a very general sense, my hope is that this study reinforces this underexplored idea that one can, and indeed must, also appreciate Persian modernist literature for its literariness, in its traditional Formalist sense.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

MMK: I consider this project a natural continuation of my previous research and translation projects in the sense that in the past fifteen or so years I have concentrated my efforts on arguing that like other major literary traditions, we should allow for a certain autonomy for Persian literature in terms of its dynamics. My previous monograph, Modern Reflections of Classical Traditions in Persian Fiction, which was published in Persian as well under the title Naqd va Esteqlal-e Adabi (Literary Criticism and Independence), underlines very clearly this preoccupation. These efforts are informed by concepts and categories such as literariness, literary historiography, the relationship between literature and language, and consequently, the elements that define the uniqueness of various literary traditions—and of course in the case of my work, the Persian one in particular. In other words, and from another perspective, the main kinship of this book with my previous projects is that here, too, I have tried first to identify those particular literary dynamisms that function independently, and then to examine their effects on the evolution of literary forms and devices.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MMK: To write this book I used a relatively simple prose, for a variety of reasons:

a) To demonstrate and emphasize that Persian literature should not be used by reductionist theoreticians only as a tool to “learn about Iranian society and Iranians.” Works of this literary tradition could be appreciated from different angles and I have tried to make my version of Persian literary appreciation as accessible as possible.

b) In addition to the audience that is located in the space between the two spheres of academic and non-academic, I have also paid close attention to the new generation of scholars of Persian literature. As discussed in the Introduction of the book, from a very practical perspective, conducting research on contemporary topics of Persian literature is a daunting task that requires innovative approaches. Once again, I am hoping that this book and other similar ones could provide a model for venturing on such untraveled paths.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MMK: The working title of my new project is “Sensorial Readings of Modern Persian Fiction.” This project too begins with the assumption that the overuse of non-literary discourses in dealing with Persian literature has led to the ignoring of many significant works of Persian literature; this is particularly true in the case of contemporary and modernist works. In this project I will attempt to develop models and concepts based on which alternative readings of both forgotten and popular works could be constructed. This project, which is not even two years old, relies on the works of many anthropologists who have conducted research in the field of Sensory Studies. Currently, I am focused on the process of the verbalization of senses in literary works, as well as their function in the univers romanesque of Persian modernist fiction.

J: Could you talk a bit about the subtitle of the book: how does the question of “who writes Iran?” inform your analysis in this book?

MMK: I should like to start the answer to this question with a few questions: Why is it that, as a famous Friday prayer leader said, “the youth in Iran are distancing themselves from religion in general and Islam in particular” while in many other societies, religion is looked at as a system or ideology or a tool for resistance? Why is it that before the 1979 Revolution there existed in Iran a very palpable penchant toward Communism while at the very same time in, for example, Eastern European countries many people looked at this ideology with disdain? Even simpler questions: Why is it that for long periods of time in modern Iran, the general atmosphere has been identified with dissatisfaction and unhappiness? One cannot answer these questions and many similar ones by using grand narratives that only take into account the economic situation, the function of the government, the interpretation of different ideologies, etc.

While these generalities could explain certain things, I believe some of the major writers of these atmospheres, the ensemble of which is the story of Iran, are those who in their artistic works, whether it is literature, music, films—and I am not talking about “festival films”—popular songs, and so on capture individualistic and personal experiences that fundamentally reject these pre-packaged approaches and ultimately, through interactions with individuals, define the mood of the society. This mood, which is in fact the context of the individuals’ life, is, in my opinion, the main story of the society. I have tried to introduce some of the major voices who have contributed to the writing of this story.

Excerpts Literary Subterfuge and Contemporary Persian Fiction: Who Writes Iran?

From the Introduction

The Unconventional Difficulties of Doing Research on Contemporary Persian Literature

While working on this study, I have followed the macro policies of the Islamic Republic in regard to the controlling of the processes of literary and, in general, cultural production and distribution. I am currently working on a short piece emphasizing the goals these policies are trying to achieve. The working title of this paper, I believe, summarizes these goals while referring to the predictable confrontation of competing discourses: “What kind of bastards are these people? They have let loose the dogs and made fast the stones.” This is a line from a story in Sa’di’s Golestan (Rose Garden). Here is the story:

A poet went to the Amir of a group of robbers and recited a panegyric for him. The Amir ordered that he be stripped of his robe and sent out of the village. The poor man was walking naked when he was attacked by dogs. He tried to pick up a stone and defend himself, but the stones were frozen to the ground and he was helpless. He cried out: “What kind of bastards are these people? They have let loose the dogs and made fast the stones.”[1]

[. . .]

Today in Iran, the most avant-garde, the newest, and I dare to say the most interesting literary events are taking place in half-covert, sometime completely covert margins and locations of the society.[2] To relate and connect with these circles, personal networks are indispensable as are the physical experience of being present at those sites. This is the only way to acquire the required insights. One might go even further and say that this is also a necessary prerequisite for the researcher to collect the required literary information. This is not easy, particularly for those who reside abroad. Throughout its life, with various levels of intensity during different periods, the Islamic Republic has made this presence conditional on what it calls respecting the red lines, which often simply means avoiding certain areas and topics of study. For example, the examination of macro policies governing the censorship in post-revolutionary Iran, which has to begin with a series of speeches by Ruhollah Khomeini’s in 1358 (1979) with statements such as: “Corrupt pens should not be free”, or “[People] should know poisoned pens. They should know those who use the pen against Islam, against clergy, against the nation. They should go and find out about their background…”[3] will clearly prevent the examiner from experiencing the site of research. Writing, again from a critical point of view, about the directives such as “One cannot leave the book market free because harmful books will enter the society”[4] issued by the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and subsequent instructions by ministers of Culture and Islamic guidance, many of whom have honed their skills by having served in the Revolutionary Guards Corps, inevitably problematizes the presence of the researcher in the site of research.

One very unfortunate yet predictable outcome of such policies is that many researchers end up accepting, albeit implicitly, the sacred and profane categories defined by the government, and simply avoid working on certain topics. More unfortunate is the fact that many students who are being trained in the field of Persian literature and are, in fact, the future generation of scholars of Persian literature, are also struggling with this predicament. I have been asked variations of this question by many students: “Will writing about this topic prevent me from going to Iran?” or “Isn’t it better to remove this paragraph just to make sure that my next trip to Iran will not be intertwined with fear or at least with unpleasant complications?” One logical continuation of this process is that self-censorship becomes internalized. After a while we realize that the penchant for innocuous topics and methodologies gains strength in the scholarship of the field. This is still the less dangerous outcome. The catastrophe emerges when some scholars inadvertently or deliberately end up creating concepts which theorize the ignoring of certain topics and themes, and use every conceivable verbal sophistication to justify this penchant.

[. . .]

The Islamic Republic’s claim that they should represent the divine on Earth, in all areas of human activity and that simultaneously they are duty-bound to stop the ungodly has reached ridiculous levels. For example, even books which have been published many times before are being censored when they are reprinted. Who would have thought that, in addition to training our students in using appropriate methods of research, we should also remind them that for example, if they are planning to work on Sadeq Hedayat, they should look for old editions because parts of his texts—and these are the texts which have received permission to be reprinted—are now judged to be un-Islamic and harmful by an employee of the censorship bureau and are thus removed from new editions. In many cases detective work is required to find that some words, or segments, have been eliminated. The following is a short segment from the original version of one famous poem by Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967) published in her last collection:

The end of all forces is union, union
with the sun’s luminous essence
flowing into the intellect of light.
It is only natural
for wooden windmills to fall apart,
why should I stop?
I will hold a sheaf of unripe wheat
Under my breasts
And nurse it.[5]

About fifteen years after the Revolution, the same poem was published in a study of Farrokhzad’s poetry by one of the greatest experts in the field, Mohammad Hoquqi, and this poem was published as a good example of the poet’s later works. This time, however, it was published with an ellipsis replacing the word “breasts”:

Why should I stop?
I will hold a sheaf of unripe wheat
Under . . .
And nurse it.[6]

One of my students who wrote her MA thesis on Farrokhzad was specifically using this poem. I vividly remember that her initial plan was to allocate a significant space to possible interpretations of the ellipsis in this passage!

[. . .]

While these efforts to remove the Other are being carried out, millions of dollars are spent on the promotion of the “good literature,” sometimes called “committed literature” or “values literature.” The literary arm of the Islamic Republic does not shy away from rewriting the history of Persian literature and along the way defining new genres and sub-genres such as “literature of blasphemy,” “literature of the Sacred Defense” (referring to the Iran-Iraq War), “literature of the Ahl-e Beyt” (referring to works praising the life and works of Mohammad, the prophet of Islam and his family members). And of course there are governmental literary prizes, most of which are designed with these innovative literary categorizations in mind. In addition, the task of presenting a particular image of Persian literature both inside and outside Iran is carried out by promoting and fully supporting writings and translations which could help to achieve this goal. The idea behind “What kind of bastards are these people? They have let loose the dogs and made fast the stones” is now clearer.


From Chapter Three: Individualistic Literary Spaces: Non-Discursive Situations

Proponents of this trend [Baraheni-type works] want to solve tangible social problems through literature. In these works, rewriting history is done to capture and portray the most fundamental social, political, and cultural characteristics of Iran’s contemporary society and to offer suggestions to create fundamental change, or at least to improve the social conditions. Such vast and ambitious goals are not seen in Najdi-type works. To begin with, in these works, there are very few signs which would indicate the narrator’s concern about a particular geography. There is also no sign of political and/or ideological aspirations. There is no effort to capture and present the cultural essence of a particular time and place, and obviously there is no attempt to suggest solutions either. In fact, elements which could clearly describe the agreement with or opposition to different discourses have not been developed at all. All these are reflected in the literary characteristics of the work. The processes of characterization and character development are largely non-existent. The story has a reasonable progression, but clearly there is no linear logic which would lead to a defined ending. The movement/progression of the story is produced mostly through the reader’s experiencing different spaces; spaces which effectively ignore dominant discourses even if some of their components are informed by discursive confrontations. This fact directs readings of Najdi-type works towards—and based on—experiencing almost independent environments in which the relationships between their components are not following any collectively-accepted logic. These relationships take shape based on the individual and extra-ordinary outlook of the author/narrator to his objective and subjective surroundings.

[. . .]

The presence of [autonomous] environments [in modernist Persian literature] is reminiscent of one of the most important features of Persian classical poetry, especially as it is reflected in the ghazals of Hafez. In his ghazals, too, the reader experiences autonomous spaces which are almost never connected to each other through a progressing narrative. In many of his ghazals, the autonomy, and even independence, of these spaces and their fluid, unstable position in the context of the ghazal’s narrative reaches a point that one could easily rearrange the order of verses without necessarily harming the poem. There is another often-cited point about Hafez’s poetry which could be useful in reading Najdi’s stories. Perhaps the most important reason for which Hafez is considered the unquestionable master of the Persian ghazal is that he was fortunate enough to come at the end of an evolutionary process in Persian classical poetry which had made significant progress, both technical and conceptual, during different stages of its evolution. His poems are written and indeed must be read with close attention to this background. As a matter of fact, it is practically impossible to relate to Hafez without familiarity with preceding literary scenes, techniques, narratives, and discourses. In the case of Najdi’s works, and many other non-discursive works, lack of familiarity with the trajectory of modern Persian fiction has resulted mostly in ignoring the achievements of the modernist trend in Persian fiction. Najdi’s literary spaces must be read with close attention to a background which is defined through the evolution of modern discourses, narratives, counter-discourses, and counter-narratives of Persian literature.

[. . .]

Najdi takes advantage of all these facts, not to be counter-discursive but to erect new architectures and spaces which are not built based on the specifications or the needs of the discourse in power. The narrator of Najdi’s stories, like those of Mandanipur, Julai, Fadainia, Bahar, and many others, is building a real world to live in. In this statement the word “real” is not to imply the old idea of using literature to escape reality. Spaces built in these works are real; meaning they occupy a substantial area of the narrator’s, and perhaps the readers’, inner and outer life. Using new codes and signs different from the codes and signs which belong to semantic systems of dominant discourses, or employing the old ones in a novel way, these spaces take shape differently and are defined differently. The ensemble created from these signs, codes, spaces, and from interactions among them, is in fact a story of what is happening in Iran; a story which is told in many unique, personal, and individualized languages.


[1] Sa’di, Golestan, Chapter 4, Story 10. Throughout the book, all translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

[2] An excellent example of this situation in relation to music has been partially documented in Bahman Qobadi’s film, Kasi az Gorbehha-ye Irani Khabar Nadarad (No One Knows About Persian Cats).

[3] Ruhollah Khomeini, Adabiyyat-e Dastani, no. 70, 2003, P. 30.

[4] Accessed August 7, 2011. During his reign as the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei has issued many such statements and edicts. I will refer to some of them throughout the book.

[5] Bargozideh-ye Ash’ar-e Forugh Farrokhzad (A Selection from Forugh Farrokhzad Poems), sixth edition, Tehran: Morvarid, 1357/1978. The translation of this poem is taken from: Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad (British Columbia, 1997), pp. 89-91.

[6] This censored version of the poem was published in Mohammad Hoquqi’s She’r-e Zamān-e mā (4): Forugh Farrokhzad (The Poetry of Our Time (4): Forugh Farrokhzad), Tehran: Negah, 1372/1993.

[Excerpted from Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, Literary Subterfuge and Contemporary Persian Fiction: Who Writes Iran? by permission of the author. © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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