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:

In my view, Khomeini was a man who, because of his authoritarian and despotic ideology, remained more or less what he had always been until the final months before the revolution. Then, during the following months [in Paris], he became Bani-Sadr. Then, with the victory of the revolution…he became the Shah.

Bani-Sadr attributes this backsliding by Khomeini to the ayatollah’s own despotic nature and to a tradition of “religious despotism” that is “rooted in the very depths of our consciousness.” But this tradition, he says, is not innate to Islam and represents the “hellenic” or “Aristotelian” elements that still color the thinking of many Muslim clerics.

Bani-Sadr therefore remains committed to an alliance between the clerics and the intelligentsia. By his own account, he spent the two decades preceding the revolution working for such an alliance. He attributes to it the initial success of the revolution, and he desires to make it the foundation of a new government based on the Islamic traditions of liberty, mass participation, and social justice.

In this, Bani-Sadr, like the late Ali Shariati, a secular ideologue of Islam, who was highly popular with the young, advances the doctrine of “two Islams.” Shariati argued in his book Shi’a-ye Safavi, Shi’a-ye Alavi (Safavid Shi’ism, Alid Shi’ism) that a Shi’ite Islam founded on the principles of social concern and social justice was distorted by the religious establishment and by successive governments. So, too, does Bani-Sadr.

A recent anthology of anticlerical Persian poetry and prose reminds us that an equivocal attitude toward Islam, and particularly toward its clerical custodians, has a long history in Iranian literature. The anthology, compiled by Shoja ad-Din Shafa, a translator of Dante and, before the revolution, undersecretary for cultural affairs to the imperial court, has a polemical purpose, as is amply evident from its title, The War Against Evil: The Thousand Year Struggle of Iranian Culture Against the School of the Shopkeepers of Religion. 6

In this anthology Shafa attempts to enlist the poets of the past to fight the political conflicts of the present. He too depicts a culture under seige. He also appears to subscribe to the “two Islams” thesis. The “shopkeepers of religion” of his title is a contemptuous reference to those clerics who, in the past and in his own day, distorted the “true” Islam and turned it against art, literature, and good sense. A slapdash introduction notwithstanding, Shafa has little difficulty in showing that over the centuries Iran’s leading poets have frequently written against what they viewed as the hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, ignorance, greed, and self-importance of sundry generations of clerics; that such poetry became widespread with the constitutional revolution of 1906, another period of political upheaval and conflict; and that the Islamic revolution has produced a new outpouring of such verse.

The recent verse, of which Shafa provides a generous selection under the heading “The Literature of Resistance,” is not unlike the poetry produced in earlier periods. Much of it is the work of amateurs, culled from newspapers and rhetoric pamphleteering. Ask an Iranian to declare on a subject and he will turn to poetry. But the country’s leading contemporary poets are also represented, trying through verse to deal with their present dilemma.

This is to a large extent a poetry of exile; and nowhere is the anguish of exile more poignantly expressed than in the verse of the middle-aged poet Naderpour. His longing for Iran, his discomfort in foreign lands under “this cold Western sun,” is everywhere palpable. His poetry and that of others is unabashedly patriotic. But it is a patriotism with a political intent, patriotism flung in the face of clerics who allegedly have no love for Iran. Similarly, another poet, in a long series of couplets, declares his love for all things Iranian—landscapes, cities, poets, myths. But in celebrating the qualities of the ideal religious leader, he turns to Zoroaster, the founder of Iran’s pre-Islamic religion, and pointedly adds: “He never killed nor ordered anyone else to kill.”7

This is also a poetry of protest. The younger Ahmad Shamlu writes:

In this crooked dead-end of cold
They burn poetry and song
To keep the fires aflame.
He who pounds on the door at night
Has come to kill the light.
The butchers, with bloody clubs and cleavers,
Stand at the crossroads.
They carve out the smile from lips
And song from the tongue.
Satan, drunk with victory,
Sits at the banquet of our funeral.8

If Bani-Sadr advances the concept of “two Islams,” Babak Bamdadan takes an almost diametrically opposite view in a long essay, “Barriers to Thought in Religious Culture,” which has been appearing in installments over several issues of Alefba.9 Bamdadan argues that all the monotheistic religions are obscurantist, hostile to rational thought, and therefore barriers to science and human progress. He describes the Iranians as particularly vulnerable to the fascination of religion and prone to abandon their own judgment to blindly follow prophets. As a result, the Iranian “has been struck dumb; he no longer sees.”

This is by way of background to permit Bamdadan to deal with what he regards as the relationship between Iran and Islam. The general line of his argument has more claims to attention than its historical accuracy. When the Arabs, under the banner of Islam, invaded Iran in the seventh century, he writes, they were a people lacking a culture, history, or national identity. The Iranians, on the other hand, were a nation with an ancient civilization and history.

The imposition of Islam on the country was therefore a “ruinous and stupefying” catastrophe. The Iranians “sold their soul” to Islam and acquired a “fraudulent identity.” With Islamization, “we Iranians-become-Muslims lost everything” and “the ancient Iranian culture died forever.” These results, Bamdadan claims, were only to be expected. Islam was by nature aggressive. With its emphasis on the universal umma, or community, it had little tolerance for national identity and language, and destroyed these wherever it came across them. It sought the complete physical and spiritual surrender of the individual. If the present rulers of Iran execute dissenters for “making war on God and his Prophet,” they are only carrying out the dictates of Islam.

But Iranians, he continues, refuse to recognize that the calamities of history that “bound the chains of Islam more closely about our body” are the true expression of this religious temperament. They fear to accept what they themselves have become, Bamdadan says. They describe the Islamic invasion and the Islamic invasion of the seventh century as an Arab invasion and the Islamic revolution of 1979 as “the second Arab invasion.” In this, they blame the messenger rather than the message: “We want to visit on the Arabs the revenge we can no longer take on our Islamized selves.”

Bamdadan thus implicitly rejects the doctrine of “two Islams.” He is saying that the Islamic Republic is not an aberration but the entire show. While Bani-Sadr hopes for an alliance between the intellectuals and certain elements in the clerical class, between what he regards as the best of both a secular and an Islamic tradition, Bamdadan chooses total rejection.

The relationship between Iran and Islam is, obliquely, also the subject of a new book, Nationality and Language, by Shahrokh Meskoub.10 The book examines the contribution made by different groups—the religious classes, the court bureaucracy, the men of letters, and the mystics—to the development and enrichment of the Persian language; but it has implications for what is happening today in Khomeini’s republic.

Meskoub begins his account with the Arab invasion of Iran. He finds that, despite immense physical destruction, the humiliation of defeat, and the imposition of new masters and a new religion, what eventually took place was a cross-fertilization of Iranian and Islamic cultures. The process of integration is partly the subject of his book.

At the same time, Meskoub sees the early centuries following the Arab invasion as the history of a struggle by the Iranians to retain a distinct Iranian cultural and national identity, notwithstanding Islam and the Arab invader. His book can be read as an account of the triumph of this Iranian endeavor. The Iranians, he writes, accepted Arab government, but remained “Iranians in Arab dress.” They adopted Islam, but they “became Muslims and remained Iranians.”

In this triumph, language is central. Language is the instrument through which the Iranians assert their distinct identity, revive their history, forge a new literature, preserve their myths, create a new Iranian consciousness. The Persian language was “a sanctuary and a fortress.” By this account, then, devotion to the Persian becomes a kind of litmus test of devotion to Iran, Iranian culture, and Iranian national identity.

Meskoub finds that it was the men of letters who were indispensable to the revival of the Persian language. They developed its possibilities, wrote new histories, kept the memory of the past alive, made possible the integration of the past into the new culture, and turned Persian into a superb vehicle of literary expression. They have continued to do so. During the period of the 1906 Constitutional revolution, it was the men of letters who used language to arouse the national conscience and fight absolutism.

By comparison, Meskoub argues, the court bureaucracy contributed little to the development of language. As for the religious classes, they were mainly concerned with Arabic and cared little for Persian. Arabic was the sacred language, the language of the Koran, of learned discourse, and of the seminaries. It was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the Safavids, when Shi’ism became the state religion and the religious establishment was closely identified with the state, that the religious classes began to use Persian more widely.

But this, he writes, was a “common, ugly and sometimes incorrect” Persian. It was “pulpit Persian,” full of “sermonizing and bombast.” It was riddled with Arabic. This remained true of religious texts in later centuries. Of a typical religious text, he writes, “The structure of the language, the syntax of the sentences, the vast majority of the words, and some of the grammatical constructions are Arabic, as if the book had been written in Arabic and translated into bad Persian.”

Meskoub argues that the members of the religious community traditionally have cared little for Persian. In view of the importance he attaches to language and to literature, and the close connection he sees between these and the very survival of Iran as a nation, his claims amount to a powerful indictment.

Many of the writers now in exile (as well as those in Iran) seem to share a conviction that writing is itself a form of struggle. Saedi remarks in his essay “Cultural Suicide” that Iranians cannot rid themselves of a regime “whose only tenet is killing” with machine guns alone: “To overthrow the Islamic Republic, the cultural weapon is highly efficient. This weapon must not be ignored.” At the same time, these writers appear to believe that by preserving a tradition of humane letters abroad, they make possible the eventual return to civility at home. A poem by Naderpour begins with lines that suggest despair.11

In my land,
In this dawn of blood
There is no sign of the sun.

But the poet returns toward the end of the poem to the vision of an Iran rising again,

One day, suddenly,
When I glimpse the sky through my window,
I will see your sun before me.

Thus, Naderpour and his colleagues write, wait, and hope.

This Issue

May 10, 1984