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The Outcasts of Iran

In a recent essay entitled, “Confronting Cultural Suicide,”1 published while in exile in Paris, the Iranian novelist and playwright Gholam-Hosain Saedi argues that the regime in Iran seems intent on doing more than snuffing out the lives and liberties of its citizens. In view of its demonstrated hostility to literature, art, and music, and its treatment of the intellectual community, the Islamic Republic, he asserts, appears determined to annihilate Iranian culture itself. To drive his point home, he draws on the symbolism of the firing squad, before which thousands have passed since the monarchy was overthrown five years ago. An identical executioner’s mentality, Saedi writes, shapes the government’s policies toward both political dissidents and culture:

There is no difference between a death sentence passed on an individual and a death sentence passed on the culture of a nation. One execution is like another. The government gives the order. The judges hand down the sentence. The death squads, with a variety of weapons, get to work…. It is as simple to kill and bury a culture as they kill a human being and bury him in a hole in the ground.

Silence in the face of this threat, according to the author, would be tantamount to participation in self-annihilation (hence the “suicide” of the title of his essay). Saedi urges his colleagues to resist by “writing, making poetry, crying out, shaking the world up.”

Saedi’s essay is noteworthy because it reflects a pervasive fear among Iran’s intelligentsia2 that under the regime of the clerics the very survival of the country’s great literary and cultural heritage, and with it Iranian identity, is at stake. A similar theme is sounded in a short story, “A Very Ordinary Sort of Plant,” published two years after the revolution.3 The story tells of a scholar who enters his library one evening to discover that a vine has come up from the garden and through the window to rest on his bookshelf. Delight at this bit of greenery in his study turns to horror as the vine grows, uncontrollably. The next morning he finds that the plant “had negotiated the poetry collections, run the gamut of the history books and was busy conquering political geography.” The vine continues to spread and to strangle his books and manuscripts, all precious literary treasures. The plant is partly green, the distinguishing color of the clerics who claim descent from the household of the Prophet. “I welcomed you to the house,” the scholar mutters at the vine, “as a bit of decoration, not as a destroyer.”

He runs downstairs and finds the neighbors gathered in the courtyard. Their homes too are being taken over by the vine. Reports arrive of the plant springing up all over the country, even in some of the neighboring Islamic states. When the story ends, it is not clear whether the people will succeed in destroying the vine before it smothers the country.

Since the early months following the victory of the revolution, Iran’s intellectuals have felt beleaguered, fighting a rear-guard action against the clerical forces that have swept the country. In the struggle against the monarchy in 1978, many of the intellectuals, along with members of the secular political movements of the center and left, had supported Khomeini. Some, it is true, viewed the clerics as “a bit of decoration” for the revolutionary movement, certain that leadership would pass to them once the shah was overthrown. Others welcomed the marriage of religion and revolution, saw Islam as a liberating force, and persuaded themselves that they and the clerics shared the same goals.

After the revolution, however, the intelligentsia increasingly found themselves at loggerheads with the clerical regime. Khomeini was from the beginning deeply suspicious of the secular, Westernized culture favored by the intellectuals. He once described the universities as “the springs of all our misfortunes.” The clerical authorities banned newspapers, shut down the universities, and sent their club-wielding gangs of hezbollahis, “the partisans of the party of God,” to smash bookstores. They imposed a quasi theocracy on the country against the wishes of the secular parties.

Moreover, as ideology became a central issue in the new state, the struggle for political supremacy inevitably also became a struggle over the definition of cultural and literary values, over history and the interpretation of the past. Positions grew increasingly, and unreasonably, polarized. Literature became a battle-ground; classical authors became symbols for different ideological positions, championed by one party and denigrated by the other.

The intelligentsia looked to the “humanistic” values articulated by Iran’s classical poets as the truest expression of the national genius and identity. The clerics and their allies looked to the “Islamic” values articulated in the works of the jurists and interpreters of the Koran. If there were values the two traditions shared, as there surely were, they were conveniently ignored, particularly by the Islamic party. The intellectuals lionized Ferdowsi, the tenth-century poet of the national epic, the Book of Kings, even as the clerics sought to extirpate from the schoolbooks selections from the work of this celebrant of Iran’s semi-mythical, pre-Islamic past.

The two groups fought over the interpretation of recent history, because posession of the past implied authority to determine the future. The intellectuals viewed themselves as patriots, heirs to the liberal-nationalist tradition represented by the late prime minister, Mohammad Mossaddeq, and saw the revolution as a triumph of this liberal tradition. The clerics treated patriotism as “nationworship,” and thus a form of idolatry.4 They saw the revolution as a triumph of a long struggle against tyranny, waged by the Islamic forces and repeatedly undermined and betrayed by the hostility of the nationalists to Islam.

The overthrow of Abol Hasan Bani-Sadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, in June 1981, and the savage repression that followed, threw the opposition parties into disarray and left the intellectuals stunned, at a loss to understand how a period that began with such high hopes could end, for them, so catastrophically. During the spring of 1979, poets and writers had celebrated what they believed was the dawn of a new era. Today the poet Fereydoun Tavallali sees only:

Night everywhere. Night everywhere.
Everywhere, dust and pain.

Many writers in Iran have retreated into silence and a form of internal exile. Others have taken up a forced or self-imposed exile abroad. The largest community of exile writers is now in Paris. In addition to Saedi, the poet Nader Naderpour lives there, as well as the literary critic Shahrokh Meskoub and the political essayist, Ali-Asghar Hajj Seyyed Javadi, to name only a few of the most prominent. Here, and in other cities where exile writers and intellectuals have come together, significant new writing, in Persian and on the subject of Iran, is being published.

In Paris, Saedi has revived Alefba, the leading avant-garde literary journal before the revolution, which was later suppressed by the revolutionary government. Paris is also a center for many independently published books. In London, Hadi Khorsandi puts out the satirical political weekly, Asghar Agha. In this country, a group of writers publish in the weekly newspaper, Iranshahr, a paper founded by the poet Ahmad Shamlu. After an acrimonious parting of ways, it is now published without his collaboration. A group of more traditional academics publish in the new, Washington-based quarterly, Iran Nameh.

In subject matter and quality, this literature of the exile is highly varied. But three themes stand out. Writers wish to use literature to continue the struggle against the tyranny at home. By publishing new work they hope to keep alive a threatened literary tradition; they see this as an integral part of the struggle. Finally, still bewildered by what they regard as a revolution gone awry, they write in search of answers and in order to define their own positions toward the revolution, Islam, and recent history. They are breathing new life into old ideological controversies and they are arguing over historical events of thirteen centuries ago as if they had the utmost relevance for understanding the turbulent present.

The conflicting emotions and attitudes inherent in such an undertaking are well reflected in Bani-Sadr’s memoirs, L’Espérance trahie, also published in exile.5 Bani-Sadr was a champion of Khomeini of revolution, and of the alliance of the intellectuals and clerics in the revolution. He has been reconsidering these commitments.

He appears to have lost none of his enthusiasm. He describes the Iranian revolution as “one of the most beautiful and most perfect revolutions in the contemporary era.” This is revolution in the abstract. He even refers to the Iranian upheaval as a work of art. Explaining his failure to resign as president, despite what he considers to be the unconstitutionality of the government and the betrayal of the principles of the revolution, he writes: “Those who love art know that above all one must save the work of art.” And again, “The artist is the one who gives up everything so that the work of art achieves perfection and immortality.”

The revolution Bani-Sadr still loves is that of the very early days following the overthrow of the monarchy, when the people appeared united and the conflicts that splintered the revolutionary coalition had not emerged. It was a period of

spontaneity, popular effervescence through which the divisions of class disappeared, society found hope in unanimity, union and unity, and spontaneously and gently directed itself towards new frontiers of development.

This vision of the revolution has continued to dazzle Bani-Sadr. All the rest has seemed merely an aberration.

Bani-Sadr was an early convert to the cause of Khomeini. He came to regard himself as Khomeini’s disciple, and Khomeini as his spiritual father. He worked assiduously to bring Khomeini to power. Following the revolution, and until the eve of Bani-Sadr’s fall from power, Khomeini reciprocated by showering his protégé with offices and power. Even after Khomeini turned against Bani-Sadr in June 1981 and began to denounce him in public, Bani-Sadr found the formal break immensely difficult. “My body went one way, and my soul another,” he writes.

Yet Bani-Sadr’s attitude toward this religious mentor who for years held him in thrall is curiously equivocal. Khomeini, he says, was a tyrant by nature. He regarded the people as sheep, to be deceived by slogans. He was “a fair, a cheat and an opportunist.” He acted on a morality “based on force, lies, gratuitous accusation.” He was uneducated, ignorant, and weak; he lacked even the art of governing.

How then does Bani-Sadr justify having championed the cause of such a man? His implausible explanation is that during the three months he spent in Paris before the revolutionary seizure of power, Khomeini underwent a complete transformation, was converted to Bani-Sadr’s ideas, and accepted the concept of an Islam based on the will of the people. Only later did he revert to his autocratic nature:

  1. 1

    Gholam-Hosain Saedi, “Ru dar Ru’i ba Khodkoshi-ye Farhangi,” Alefba, 3 (Summer 1983), pp. 1–7. All selections from Persian sources in this article were translated by the reviewer.

  2. 2

    The Persian term for a member of the intelligentsia, rowshanfekr (literally, “one who is enlightened”) has generally referred to those with new (i.e., secular or Western) learning. It is used in this sense in this article.

  3. 3

    J. Majabi, “Giyahi ast Kamelan Aadi,” in Cheragh (Fall 1981), pp. 53–61. This journal has since ceased publication.

  4. 4

    Patriotism was translated into Persian, probably from the French, early in this century, as vatan-parasti, literally, “worship of country.” This inadvertent choice of words in the translation of a new concept made it easier for the clerics to attack the nationalists as practicing a form of idolatry. Secular writers now prefer the term, mihan-dusti, “love of country.”

  5. 5

    Paris, 1982.

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