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…

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