Contemporary Literature and Culture in Iran

Published on site

(As seen through the work of Sadeq Hedayat, Nahal Tajadod , Daryush Shayegan and Simon F. Oliai)

Today, after the bombing of the Shiite Mosque in Saudi Arabia by Al Qaida–the questions of meaning and belonging and faith become ever more pertinent in the Islamic world. Its most cultured and versatile representatives, the Persians, have endured the changes of their civilizations, religions and cultures for more than 3000 years, as attested to in the literary work of their giant, Sadeq Hedayat, contemporary of Joyce and André Breton. Not less interesting is the literary and anthropological, sociological work of a writer, Daryush Shayegan, who after 30 years of absence returns to Tehran and asks  again and again the legitimate question,  “What is a religious revolution?” which he also explores in his books, “Light comes from the West, “ “Mixed consciousness” and “Hinduism and Sufism.” The philosophical aspect of this quest is pursued by Simon F. Oliai, Iranian philosopher and specialist in Heidegger studies, living in the U.S., whose book “Challenging the Absolute” sheds light on new readings of Heidegger, Nietzsche and the coordination of the world’s struggle against Fundamentalism in Europe and elsewhere . A secular, literary version of this problematics presented by Oliai is found in the literary fiction and biography of a young Iranian woman-writer who has been living in Paris most of her lifetime; she is also interested in the issues of what it means to be a woman, a Moslem woman of Persian background living in the West. Her interests are shared by her compatriots, the visual artists and filmmakers Shirin Neshat and Marjane Satrapi.  My work here attempts to clarify some relevant aspects of the Persian contemporary cultural heritage.

Contemporary Literature and   Culture in Iran

 (As seen through the work of Sadeq Hedayat, Nahal Tajadod , Daryush Shayegan and Simon Farid  Oliai)

It seems that the real story of the modern and contemporary culture (arts and letters) in Iran starts somewhere in the second decade of the 20th century, more precisely in 1925 when Reza Khan took over the royal throne from the ancient Ahmad Shah of the Kadjar dynasty. The Kadjars previously ruled the lands of Iran for more than 400 years, and the newly established Pahlavi dynasty remained in power for only 50 years, until April 1, 1979 when, by the revolutionary movement, the Islamic Republic took over. In these turbulent times not only the Pahlavi dynasty’s last Shah, Mohamad Reza, was forced to flee the country, but also many interesting writers, artists and scientists felt compelled to face exile. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s profoundly religious regime was not going to encourage the development of the modernist arts and culture which started flourishing under the Pahlavis, but perhaps too soon for the traditional mentality of the Persians—as the sociologist of culture Daryush  Shayegan  tells us[i]. The Pahlavis insisted on the rapid modernization of Iranian culture (Reza Pahlavi’s insistence on independence from the USSR and Great Britain led to the formation of the independent states of Kurdistan and Azerbaidjan controlled by the Russians; the civil code was established, as well as the rapid changes in education, justice and the ministry of health; women were officially forbidden to wear veils and chadors, etc.);however this modernization did not sit well with the sentiments of the more traditional people.

In her novel  “She Plays,”[ii] contemporary woman writer Nahal Tajadod explains why and how such a rapidly modernized society was likely to take a step back and return to the old traditional Muslim religious practice.

Shayegan for his part explains how this rapid “westernization” of the country led to the “ankylose of the national identity,” which produced a sort of cultural schizophrenia for  the Persians “who were at the same time buying the sub-products of the West while trying to remain loyal, in the privacy of their home, to their ancient cultural heritage.”[iii]

By the way, all these authors mentioned here were not waiting along with Salman Rushdi  for  the imminent day of fatwa to fall upon them–they fled the country long before the course of the Revolution took its stride.

However, cultural figures like Nahal Tajadod  and  Daryush Shayegan were not the first ones to flee the country facing the Islamic Revolution; long before their time, -there were creative people (writers such as Sadeq Hedayat who lived in Paris in the 1930s;  and a philosopher and writer, a descendant from the Kadjar dynasty, Simon Farid Oliai who lived in Paris in 1990s). These intellectuals, each in his time,  also doubted the political sincerity of the Pahlavis (we often hear that Shah Mohamad Reza operated with the CIA’s helping hands); thus they preferred exile to the really quick modernization of the industries of Iran which the Pahlavis pursued, combining it with economic inflation.

Sadeq Hedayat was exiled in Paris in 1930s where he was welcomed by André Breton and Henry Miller as the exceptional author who wrote a short masterpiece “The Blind Owl”.  In the editor’s preface to his posthumous collection of short stories entitled “The man who killed his desire”[iv] we hear the editor’s regret that the work of this great Iranian writer, compared in its dark beauty and depth to Kafka and Edgar Poe, is still unknown to the general public. This dark figure of the Persian letters, who would point out the taboos of the Iranian society of his times, was also a supreme ethnographer of the ancient Persian customs and a satirist worthy of the meditations of Omar Khayyam, and who suffered in exile to the point of committing suicide in 1951. This profound reader of Dostoyevsky has always claimed in his stories that our life is just an encounter of a human with a big misunderstanding and, that,  as humans, we constantly live in our inner jails which can also serve us as a space of infinite personal freedom. In his texts he constantly turns allegorically and virtually to the Persian past–to the Zoroastrian heritage of light and fire (“The Admirer of Fire”) or to the era of the Barmecides who strategically ruled Baghdad under the first Arab caliphate (“The Last Smile”). Hedayat constantly reminds us that the past is there just to explain the Vacuity of the present moment and perhaps the only means of bringing us the (im)possibility of the Future. In his story about the Zoroastrians, “The Admirer of Fire”, Hedayat remembers with a certain nostalgia the ancient cradle of the civilizations, Persepolis, now an archeological site in ruins which famous archeologists visit to decipher history. The Iranian specialist, Flandin arrives at an altar in a graveyard site of Naqsh-e Rostam, where the image of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian principal God of fire, is represented at the very entrance of the cave where the ancient Iranian royalty were buried. The newly arrived Zoroastrian pilgrims who returned to this site after work, according to the archeologist, completely resembled  the faces engraved on the stones surrounding the cave. In the free air there, they were prostrating in front of the ancient sanctuary paying homage to fire. And then, in the words of the French archeologist Hedayat says it all –the whole history of Iran from its beginnings through the Arab and Moghul conquests:

“I was so shocked to see, that after so many years the incredible efforts made by the Muslims could not erase the adepts of this ancient religion; they were still coming to this site secretly to prostrate and pay homage to the God of fire.” The man who kills his desire is, in fact, a Buddhist. And in his entire writing Hedayat brings us back to the path of the “calm one” who masters not only his desire but the society as such and reigns over this world wisely for the benefit of all human beings. This type of the society was visible in Iran during the Sassanid empire, but with the Arab conquest and the establishment of the first caliphate, the traces of Buddhism and its offshoot, Zoroastrism, have vanished in Iran. However, some of it still remained in the 8th century, notably with the Barmecide family and its illustrious representative, Rouzbehan Barmaki, who ruled Khorassan in the disguise of a Muslem ruler, but who, in fact, was the keeper of the biggest Iranian Buddhist temple, Nowbahar. At that time, the caliph Haroun al Rachid, who grew up with a Barmecide and gave this noble Buddhist family almost open hands to rule his Muslim kingdom, had slowly started understanding that he was being finely manipulated by the Barmecide veizirs. Thus he decides to liquidate the Barmecides and also all other sects including the Manicheans, the Zoroastrians and the Mazdaists. Thus Hedayad’s story, “The Last Smile,” speaks exactly about the massacre which followed the caliphe’s decision. Rouzbehan, the mayor of Khorassan and a keeper of the Buddhist gate, lives in a palace which is a living Buddhist temple and where he meditates every night contemplating the essence, or rather, absence, of every desire. He is warned about the caliph’s decision to massacre them all, but he is peacefully waiting for the caliph’s army to enter his city, meditating and keeping his “last smile” on his face; he holds a letter in his hand–a written order by his peer, Mohammad Barmecide who had written an order similar to Haroun’s: they were to execute a massacre, but in favor of the Barmecides against the Muslim oppressors. He, Rouzbehan, was supposed to attack the Muslim population and liberate regions such as Khorassan, Bactria and Bamiyan from the Muslim rule–but he could not attack them, as Buddhism forbid him to kill any living being, man or animal. So he waits in his palace, with the last (Buddha’s) smile on his face;  he dies in meditation, and with a letter in his hands- commanding him to kill his Muslim brothers which he couldn’t do, so finally he reaches his Buddhahood in an impossible situation.

The sacred ancient sites are part of the Iranian heritage which every Persian holds dear to his heart. The same worry and quest for Bactria and Bamiyan was expressed by philosopher Simon Oliai, at the moment when the Muslim Fundamentalists were demolishing the Bamiyan Buddhas. These monuments appeared almost as dear to the heart of this distinguished author as the destiny of his own children–he created numerous conferences at UNESCO in Paris, in Teheran and in the U.S., an exceptional sign of respect and the appreciation of his cultural heritage which was being demolished since the times of Haroun al Rachid and the Barmecides up to the present day.  According to sociologist-cum-cultural anthropologist Daryush Shayegan, the fundamentalists were trying to gain terrain subsequently abandoned by the secular population and  the ancient metaphysicists; instead it led to a certain  ideologisation of their tradition as the Islamic Republic launched the religion into the domain of modernity where it  “fell” into the trap imposed by human reason, as Hegel would have it. Ignorant of the rules of the modern times Revolutionary shiism allowed its followers to accept the revolutionary ideas floating in the air like a diffused ideology or, better, as a vulgar Marxism which changed its cloak into Stalinism and stayed with it.

While many modern and postmodern Iranian writers might not have attained Sadeq Hedayat’s elegant style and talent for portraying characters and their milieu, all of them inherited and shared his love for extended metaphor and allegoric thinking. All of them share a vast vision of a great civilization, once lost and gone but which left to its children some material and immaterial monuments they could be proud of. All the Iranian artists, authors, and thinkers–feel in unison that they are the bearers of the sacred fire and that their creative work is a prolonged mission that their homeland obliged them to undertake. The awareness of their abundant past, forlorn and perhaps swayed in the wrong direction, is reflected in the words of Geshvad, one of Hedayat’s characters: “All of this comes as our fault because it was we who taught Arabs the art of governing, we corrected the grammar of their own language, we elaborated the concepts of their doctrines, we offered them, open-handed, our spirit and our mind, we offered to them our thoughts and our children, our industry and our music, our science and our literature, hoping that all this will ennoble their savage and rebellious mind! Hellas! Their mentality and race are so different from ours! But so much the better! They should remain the way they are, their thoughts born out of their piss and excrements–yes, that is what these are.”

The similar bearer of the words on mission, is Hedayat’s much younger colleague , a woman Nahal Tajadod. Born in 1960 in Teheran, Tajadod arrives in Paris in 1977 and studies the political relations of Iran and China. Hedayat has given his people the translation of Kafka, but Tajadod has given the French one of the most complete monographies of the poet Rumi,[v] as well as the translation of  Mowlam– Hundred Songs of Chams from Tabriz.[vi] In her complex, multifaceted novel “She Plays,” Tajadod gives the picture of the life and times of the denizens of contemporary Iran or rather the living conditions of artists, people of certain sensibility,  recounted by an actress and musician, Sheyda who grew up in the times of Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in 1990. The picture of the repressive religious regime is still valid to the present day in the country where music and theater were forbidden to be publically performed until recently–thus the heroine’s major challenge to the society and the legal codex presents the very act of performing her arts, the “rebellious” title of the novel “She Plays.” The narrative, in fact, gives us the portrait of yet another Iranian heroine–one could say the very portrait of the author herself, or any woman, especially a Persian woman who has spent her life in exile and hasn’t felt any place as her real home. These two women meet finally in Paris, and exchange their experiences about the primary conditions of life in exile which eventually propels this novel to the height of a profoundly philosophical text or treatise on exile.

“We are both in France now, one of us arrived three years ago and another one ten times three years ago. During all this time I had lived in several houses, but in none of those I felt at home… Neither Sheyda has a house. Impossible for her to find one. She is a homeless nomad-” And she adds with irony and sarcasm: “If everything goes wrong, I will relocate to India: better be a vagabond in India than a homeless in Paris, isn’t it?” A descendant of an ancient civilization, Sheyda, as well as the author Tajadod herself in exile, have to learn a number of useless, insignificant, little things which, however, make up a country’s identity and civilization: “She is just at the beginning of a long exile, she was not prepared to live in France. She has to learn the language which she had already studied–but there is always another layer of it which you learn -on the spot”,

“the meaning of truffles (for the French) which she should learn how to appreciate the way they learn how to like saint-émilion, roquefort, De Gaulle’s speech at the liberation of Paris, Arletty, Gabin and their replicas…Tour de France, May 68, the New Wave…names of film directors, writers–don’t forget Proust, above all, Proust, –sportsmen.., restaurants, hotels, political seasons…holidays–Oh, what a holy chunk of work for you, who don’t even know who Dominique Strauss-Kahn is! But also, what a lucky chance for you.” (p.47)

Tajadod makes a comparison between two worlds: the Iran of her day where she grew up and which she then left behind, where the first Iranian woman writer, Tahereh, took off her veil before a group of men-, so long ago, -in 1845; and the world imposed by the fundamentalist religious regime of Khomeini which, according to Simon Oliai: “turned the clock 400 years back into the past, all in year 2000.”

In the beginning of her long exile, the younger heroine, Sheyda, was aware of the fact that if she took off her veil in public and in New York, the way her idol, poet Tahereh did, that the same anathema and fatwa would follow her. She had heard the words of the mullahs cursing liberated women: “Shame on those who dare take off hedjab in public. They will merit prison in this world, and Hell in the other one.” Descendant of an old bahaïs family, who could not adopt Islam, Sheyda had lived through the interrogations by SAVAK (Iranian secret police) and through the “embargo” and the “Mirage” air force of Iran’s war with Iraq–which lasted more than ten years.

“She knows today that these mirages, called  “Mirage F1”, were fabricated in France and sold to Saddam Hussein in order to bomb Iran.” Sheyda will also learn and understand how the Ayatollah won the hearts of the Iranians and established the Islamic Republic instead of the “Republic of Progress” of the West; who, in their view, was predestined to colonize his people.

The issues of cultural progress and cultural diversity have been the constant horizons of attention for the humanist and multifaceted thinker, Daryush Shayegan, author of several illustrious books on intercultural changes, such as “Light Comes from the West”, “Mixed Consciousness” and “What is a Religious Revolution?” For his multicultural analysis, Shayegan starts with the significance of the worldly terms culture and cultural assimilation. So-called “globalization” has also turned the clock back or has returned us to the notion of singular validity or ethnocentricity of a single culture. When there is a “home” and the sentiment of ethnicity for one cultural tribe (dar al-Islam or land of Islam), there is also, according to Shayegan, the foreign land where Islam failed to find tolerance, thus called dar al-harb or Land of War. What was for a man from Dar al-Islam a holy Big Other, was for a European or a Chinaman Big Other ,a being from Dar al-Islam. Shayegan further claims that if a man lives solely and only for his own cultural tradition, his cultural identity becomes a sort of sclerotic personality, so intensely present and imminent in his own living experience that it prevents him from observing any important and valuable distinctions which are crucially important in our projection of the objective visions of the world. Shayegan claims that there was a healthy period in 1970s when different cultures were still able to dialogue with one another, when “Senghor launched the concept of negritude and when Unesco organized conferences related to important cultural subjects, or when the Iranian intellectuals, encouraged by the side-effects of the American counter-culture, had criticized the negative effects of the Western cultural influence while advocating the return of their original cultural identity.”

Shayegan is careful when he discusses the elements of so called cultural diversity. On a number of occasions in all his books he underlines  the fact that each culture should avoid a major trap, to promote its own exclusivity and, at the same time, hatred of other cultures within its civilization, which is otherwise open and where democratic rules are respected. In such a civilization, the relationships–between people and the cultures who inhabit it–are not distinguished  by a monologue, but are rather dialogic in nature, creating something which Gadamer calls the “horizon of the mix,” (as we attest to in all ancient and traditional civilizations) Here Shayegan shifts his critique to the newly established “cultural terrain” which he calls the phenomenon of the Renaissance of Religions. He explains both the primary and the secondary effects following the establishment of Islam as the official religion of the Islamic State in Iran. These effects have taken several forms, but the most visible results of such cultural shift(s) are reflected in the following  phenomena :

  1. Mythologization of Time which is nothing else but a misplacement of eschatology to the category of historicity (whereas Koran in itself is not interested in historicity but in the verticality of the revelatory experience).
  2. Self-effacement of the collective memory of the Muslims who shifted the cultural paradigm of the civilization of Islam to the literal sense of the times celebrating salaf, the imaginary model of the idealized city of the Prophet–which in effect impoverishes the culture and history of Islam as it marches towards barbarism and sterility.
  3. Reduction of the spiritual and ideal man in Islam, reduced here to the caricature of the radical revolutionary, somewhat resembling the Russian anarchists from Dostoyevsky’s novels, who kills people left and right.

4.Sanctification  of violence—here Shayegan quotes Al-Ashmawy who in his book “Islamism against Islam” says himself that in 7000 verses in Koran, less than 700 refer to any legal or didactic matters and out of those… barely 80 would indicate any ‘legal prescriptions’ as of ‘what to do’ or what a believer should do in any given legal situation.

But here Shayegan remarks pertinently:

If Fundamentalism is a somber aspect of the new renaissance of the Religions in general, the new polytheism which appears in the West and bears one common name of “New -Age” practices is equal to Neopaganism, a playful aspect of the new metamorphosis of religious forms where ancient ideas and religious archetypes flow from one context into another. And what is the reason for the creation of such multiple crossroads of new sects and religious communities? Shayegan thinks, and we are likely to join him, together with the research-legacy of  Vladimir Zivancevic, a professor of comparative religions, that great religions of the past are not able to satisfy different needs of contemporary Anthropocene beings. As the result of the multicultural approach to the “mixed cultural zones of the hybridation,”-all cultures on our planet push their inhabitants into a specific horizontal encounter with one another where the main and global vision of things takes on a kaleidoscopic vision which fractures simultaneously myriad of particles of light while our major road through life remains still dark, unlit and impoverished.

One of the candle-bearers on the darkly lit road to knowledge and self-examination in life is the figure of the philosopher Simon Farid Oliai, who was born in Tehran but grew up and was educated in the West (University of Leuven).

Following Hegel’s steps in his search for the “Absolute Master” of universal history, Oliai wrote a very profound study of the intellectuals, artists, scientists and other creative social actors in different cultural contexts and entitled it “Challenging the Absolute”[1]. Analyzing, or rather leaning against the thought of his predecessors and contemporaries such as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and more closely -relating to the thinking of Gianni Vattimo and John Sallis, Oliai challenges what he calls “the essence” of fundamentalism or the fundamentalist fear and/or approach to things. In thinking about the profound meaning of our living, or simply being on Earth–which we find in the crucial writings of such classics of Modern European thought as Nietzsche and Heidegger, Oliai draws constantly on the insights of these thinkers to whom he is clearly indebted.

However, he does not neglect the decisive role of so-called “Eastern philosophy” which has undeniably enriched his reflections on the metaphysical roots of all contemporary dogmatism.  In his book, whose subtitle is “Nietzsche, Heidegger and Europe’s Struggle against Fundamentalism,”- Oliai explores the continent of writers and thinkers–Sobrawardi, Avicenna, Hafez and Rumi among them–who, along with Heidegger, had addressed the problem of “God”. “The Question ‘who is God’ is too hard for human beings,“ Heidegger[2] once said, and Oliai makes a significant contribution to re-examining the question of knowing  “What is God?” from the perspective of a serious “European” philosopher. He takes Shayegan’s statement, “the Light (enlightenment) comes from the West,”–and pushes it a bit further by asking the essential question, mainly ontological (would it be the relic of Manichean thought?) and that is –if there is Light altogether, and if it were to approach us either from the West or East—what would we, humans, do in order to keep it with(in) us?

It is interesting to notice that all of the Iranian writers mentioned here have not been able to pursue their intellectual research in their own homeland–they  travel back and forth from the countries where they presently reside to Iran, and keep their torch, their inherited light within.

Nina Zivancevic

French version on

[1] « Challenging the Absolute », Oliai,F. S., University Press of America,  MD, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[i] See Daryush Shayegan « La conscience métisse », Albin Michel, Paris, 2012.

[ii]Nahal Tajadod, « Elle joue », Albin Michel, Paris, 2012

[iii]  Shayegan, Ibid. , p.105

[iv] Sadegh Hedayat, « L’homme qui tua son désir », Editions Phebus, Paris, 1998

[v] Tajadod,N. « Roumi le brule », Paris, J-C Lattès, 2004

[vi] Tajadod, Nahal, Mowlana, Le Livre de Chams de Tabriz, annotated by Jean Claude Carrière, Gallimard,1993.

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