Growing up in the diaspora, I have often attended obligatory dinner parties where family friends prove their “Iranianness” through poetry recitation, outdated political debate, and recollections of the good old days — as if to prove that three decades of life abroad has not damaged their natural Iranian sensibilities. Several of these self-declared savants often lament over the death of Persian literature, stating that the Islamic Republic’s suffocating cultural environment naturally drains the literary originality of our compatriots and heavy censorship prevents any real works of merit from being published. They claim that political circumstances have halted the development of any potential Hedayats, Chubaks, and Golshiris. However, these statements are problematic on three points: they seemingly have forgotten that the Pahlavi-era was not a censorship-free utopia; their assumption concerning the death of literature insults brilliant contemporary writers working after the 1979 Revolution; and they ignore the fact that writers react to contemporary socio-political issues and produce works that respond to the restrictive worlds they live in.
Post-Revolutionary Persian fiction is often successful because it challenges the official discourse propagated by the Islamic Republic. After the 1979 Revolution, the IRI produced narratives which were intended to re-appropriate the past and to shape current history; the project hoped to define significant social, cultural, and political events of the 20th century– such as the Constitutional Revolution, the 1953 Coup, The 1979 Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq War– within an Islamic image of the new discourse in power. This historiographical revisionism attempted to unify and mobilize the Iranian masses behind a particular ideology and agenda represented as a single divine truth. In addition to the creation of a grand narrative, the Islamic Republic eradicated alternative voices and historical narratives, whether it came from outspoken political dissidents, writers, artists, or filmmakers.
Though facing censorship and sometimes exile, many Iranian writers seek to undermine dominant discourse by incorporating alternative and individual perspectives into their stories. These narratives refer to events familiar to official discourse (such the 1979 Revolution and Iran-Iraq War) but offer alternative interpretations and conclusions. Farkhondeh Hajizadeh (b. 1953), a prominent Iranian contemporary writer, classified these alternative narratives as a subgenre called Gozaresh-Qesseh (Report-Story). The individualistic nature of narration is meant to use literature to subtly combat the Islamic Republic’s constructed historiography.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) has been one of the most prolific events discussed in both official and counter discourses. Referred to by the Iranian government as the Defa’-e Moqadas or “Holy Defense,” the war entered the public imagination through various visual and literary media. The IRI official narrative sought to turn the conflict into a religious struggle, antagonizing the Iraqi as an enemy of Islam as well as encouraging Iranian youth to sacrifice their lives on the battlefield. However, counter discourses such as Shahriar Mandanipour’s (b. 1957) “Rang-e Atash-e Nimruzi” (The Color of Fire at Mid-day) used a personalized perspective in the style of a Gozaresh-Qesseh to question the moral juxtaposition of good and evil combatants and to focus on the miserable survivors of war as opposed to the martyred.
In the story, a middle aged Khan entertains a group of men around a fire. The narrator, seemingly disoriented and frustrated begins the narrative by stating “…darkness… Ahh, darkness… It is so mysterious, darkness. A man would wonder what to do. But it is clear that man is one species and leopard is another. If they are in each other’s vicinity, like it or not, they will confront each other.” He soon begins an account of a memory which included himself and an old friend named Captain Mina and their efforts to find and kill a leopard responsible for the death of Mina’s only daughter. The first half of the short story concerns Mina’s visit to the narrator’s rural home. The captain, physically and psychologically weary from the long war, is forced to take sick leave from the front. Throughout the story, the Khan explains to his guests the Captain’s vivid violent war stories, which include memories of bodies torn apart by mortar rounds and midnight raids resulting in the gruesome decapitation of Iraqi troops. The mental and bodily trauma of the captain is unfamiliar to the grand narrative, which concerns the glorification of martyrs as opposed to the plight of the war injured.
After the death of Mina’s daughter, the role of the enemy shifts from memories of Iraqi soldiers to the leopard. However, characterizing the beast as the enemy is not as easy as it seems. Ambiguity sets in at the conclusion of the story as Captain Mina struggles to shoot the creature responsible for the death of his child. Mina’s personal dilemma also affects the narrator, who cannot come to terms with the Captain’s final decision. For him, the world must be categorized purely into binaries with no indeterminacy, similar to the official war discourse of the IRI: “Maybe darkness is not the right choice of words. I don’t know. Things that are not clear and straightforward for me I call darkness. I don’t like them. Affairs of the world should be obvious. Everyone should know what the answer to different things is. Inhale exhale, thirst satiation, friendship friendship, enmity enmity.”
Mandanipour’s “Rang-e Atash-e Nimruzi” tops the list as one of my favorite works of post-revolutionary Persian fiction because it utilizes an individualized perspective to portray the vagueness of war and the difficulty of antagonizing the Other. This Gozaresh-Qesseh directly challenges the moral segregation between opposing forces and brings to light the suffering of war veterans, two elements excluded from the grand historiographical narrative of the Islamic Republic. In my opinion, counter discourses like “The Color of Fire at Mid-day” have pushed the limits of Persian literature by critically analyzing and questioning the constructed mythos of contemporary Iranian society.
For more info, check out:
The End of THE History, the Beginning of Histories: ‘Sohrab’s Wars’
Sohrab’s Wars: Counter-Discourses of Contemporary Persian Fiction