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Last Updated: October, 2009

Asrar Ganj Dareh Jeny (The Secret of the Haunted Valley)

اسرار گنج دره جنی  ابراهیم گلستان

    Summary of discussions: June 2009

    In an interview with Massoud Behnood in 2007, Ebrahim Golestan talked about this book and said that he wanted to show Iran as he saw it. He said he was not able to show everything he wanted in the movie he made earlier, therefore, he wrote the book afterwards to make himself clear. Some of us thought that the book was a caricature of what was happening in Iran. I personally thought that he was one sided and only saw the worst. All characters with the exception of the teacher were nameless and represented stereotypes and groups rather than individuals. He did mention in the interview that this is what he had in mind. The fact that the teacher had a name and changed it also indicated insecurity and identity crisis. I though this was because teachers in modern Iran are a new class or a new addition in our culture compared to the other traditional characters, others disagreed.

    I was concerned with his portrayal of women, again caricatures and stereotypes rather than real characters. They were reduced to shallow, dysfunctional, money grabbing, pretentious, made up dolls with no virtues and only instincts and lust. I have nothing against having the freedom and the choice to create such characters in a novel, but if this is how he saw women at the time, then I certainly object to portraying women in this manner. I think this is exactly the same way the clergy saw modern women of Iran at the time. Looking at ourselves as women I think the system did incredibly well to produce our generation of women. Not to mention the fact that such stereotyping comes from a man who had his mistress (Frough Farokhzad) living in the same house as his wife. It is suggested by Hilman that Frough did suffer a lot because of Golestan. It is obvious that people’s private lives are their own and we have no right to judge any of them, especially since they all were adults. However, when they stereotype and portray women in the manner he has done in this book as a picture of all women in Iran, one can only think of one word “hypocrisy”.

    It was suggested that the painter-artist was the voice of the writer, intelligentsia and God, although he briefly appeared in the book, he obviously was quite complicated to be seen in such diverse manners.

    His use of symbolism and metaphors is suggested by some critiques to be superb in this book.  I for one, think that his choice of treasure as a metaphor for all the hidden wealth, culture, history and past glories was excellent. However, his peasant (mard dahati) was not very clear and if he represented high officials that was really oversimplified. From his interview it is clear that the peasant was not the Shah.

    On the whole the book was well written but his view of the country and what was happening was distorted. Nevertheless, the power structure did crumble as he suggested it would. We also discussed the role of intellectuals in providing the nation, particularly the younger generation with biased, superficial and distorted accounts of Iranian history and politics. Like the leaders in charge of the nation the intellectuals; secular and Muslim, had very little understanding of Iranian culture and the dynamics of change during the last century. It is no surprise that they failed, as indeed did the leaders.

    Interview with Golestan


Her Eyes

چشم هایش، بزرگ علوی

    Discussion; September 2009

    We thought that the book was obviously an important one with respect to the evolution of novels in 20th century Iran. The language is simple and familiar and yet sophisticated and sharp. The main female character, Nargess is heard very well and indeed sounds like a woman, even though the writer is a man. The image making, like when the nazem describes the atmosphere in the school and the paintings is mature and grabbing. One can actually visualize the paintings or the rooms and the events. The story is exciting enough for the reader to continue and techniques and elements of modern story writing are known by the writer and used.

    The book is loaded with political commentaries and all the important issues of the time; dictatorship, suffocation, women, class divisions and revolutionary ideas based on socialism and communism. While describing the above, the book follows the standard clichés seen in the works of almost all the important writers of the period. A proud and brilliant artist who refuses to sell his art for position and material gain and feels he has a destiny to fulfill and is fighting on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged. Despite, all his strength, the only time he crumbles is when a seductive woman is involved! The life described by the main female character is the same, affluence means; being shallow, living empty lives, no purpose, doll like, ignorant etc. How easily our writers forgot that all the early movements towards democracy in Iran were initiated by the affluent who could afford leisure time, education and going to Europe, including the writer himself.

    The dictatorship described is also cliché and in tune with the writings of the period. I have often discussed the writings of this period with people who actually lived through it. I have asked many times, was it really as suffocating as that? Any one who was part of the leftist movement in Iran at the time answers “yes” and every one else says either “no” or “not that bad”, or “the intellectuals distorted the facts”.

    For our group, the first obvious question, after reading this book was the simplest one. Why any woman having the life Nargess had, should be sorry and apologetic about her past? She constantly apologizes when talking about herself and is guilt ridden.  Being rich, extremely beautiful, adored by numerous men and having fun in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, are not a recipe for sorrow. At least as women we do not think it is. So the question again is why did the intellectual males of the 20th century Iran saw women the way they did or better to say “why they knew so little about women”?

    We thought that the answer lays in the history of male/female “relationships” in Iran or to be precise the lack of it. For 1400 years, since the arrival of Islam, urban men and women were segregated, lived different lives and only knew each other within the family unit. They did not share public spaces and therefore never learned to interact outside the family unit. The compulsory emancipation of 1936 by Reza Shah shattered the expected norms and the two sexes were thrown at each other at once. It is not surprising that they were confused about how to act and interact and did not know each other at all. Worst, their perception of each other was founded on archaic, chauvinistic and patriarchal outdated presumptions based on Islamic morality and codes of behavior. The modern generation that lived through emancipation had to learn about relationships and start from the beginning. That is one reason why we have such distortions of female characters by male writes and sentimental and stereotyped depictions of men by female writers of the period.


Mirza Fath-ali Akhondzadeh (1812 – 1878)

میرزا فتحعلی‌ اخوندزده

    July 2009

    Our July book club revolved around Akhondzadeh and pre & post Constitutional Revolution literature. Born in Azerbaijan in Iran and raised in Azerbaijan in Russia, Akhondzadeh is known as the father of modern play writing in Middle East. He was educated in Georgia and became familiar with Russian and European literature and worked for the Russian government all his life. His most important literary works were six satirical comedies, written in Azerbaijani Turkish (Azeri) and translated into Persian.  We looked at mard khasis and briefly discussed maktobat.

    It was clear that in his writings he intends to discredit the traditional classes such as the clergy, judges, corrupt administrators and courtiers, fortune tellers, astrologers and military etc. He also attacks their beliefs and intends to propagate a positivist and secular modern worldview. We found his portrayal of women very interesting. Common imagery of women in classical Persian literature provides a minimalistic, one dimensional and abstract picture of women reduced to long hair, almost no waist line and lips shaped like flower buds (lab ghoncheh) with no character and no function other than a side kick for seducing men. In mard khasis the girl who wants and insists on runing away with her fiancé has a well developed character and defies traditional imagery.

    Akhondzadeh’s works were very popular in Iran before the Constitutional Revolution (1907 – 1909), they were translated, printed and also copied by hand and his plays were performed by actors who emerged after the Dar al-Fonoun created a drama school in the mid - 19th century. Such plays were mostly performed for a crowd in open spaces with patriotic songs and poetry by people like Aref Ghazvini and Mirzadeh Eshghi.

    Then we looked at two prominent and very important news papers from the Constitutional Revolution period; Ghanoon (the law) and Sour Esraphil. The first was printed by Mirza Malcolm Khan in London, was smuggled into Iran and introduced and promoted modern law and the advantages of Constitution. The second was published in Tehran. Both papers follow the same pattern as Akhondzadeh’s works and are critical of the situation in Iran and promote modernity. We read a letter by a woman member of the Anjouman Mokhadarat Vatan (The Society of Patriotic Women), that was published in Sour Esraphil. This was an underground women’s society supporting change, modernity and constitution. The letter was critical of reactionary groups including Sheikh Fazollah Nouri who opposed the constitution (there is a highway in his name now in Tehran). We also read about a concert for daughters of Ghochan; in a raid by nomads from across the border several girls from Ghochan were kidnapped and taken away by the nomads. They would normally sell them as slaves or kept them as concubines. Although such raids were common happenings over the centuries, this incident became a national event and a song was composed that was performed by choirs in major cities.

    Last but not the least; we looked at the first feminist booklet published in Iran in 1894. Maayeb al-Rejal (Shortcoming’s of Men) was written by Bibi Khanoom Estar-abadi in response to a derogatory book about women called Taddeb Nesvan (Educating Women). We found the language modern, sharp and the content, a head on collision with the masculine worldview with no compromises. We read a section on homosexuality (a-mard Bazi) with full description of the act with no censorship. This chapter was about how husbands deceive women/wife while seek pleasure with men. The booklet has several chapters each describing the hypocrisy and misogynist nature of the Iranian culture of the time (and indeed today).

    On the whole we found it interesting and heartbreaking that everything our intellectuals have been demanding over the last 150 years, we are still demanding today. A modern progressive society based on modern laws, equality for all and separation of state and religion. This kind of literature is still relevant after 150 years especially following the recent events in June 2009 following the elections in Iran.


Taj Saltaneh Memoirs

خاطرات تاج السلطنه نوشته دكتر منصوره اتحادیه نظام مافی

    Discussion Group, August 2009

    Our August discussion revolved around Taj Saltaneh (1884 - 1936); Nasir al-Din Shah’s beautiful and favorite daughter. Her memoir is the first of such accounts by a woman in Iran and has no parallel in Iranian literature. She writes fluently, is extremely well read, is familiar with European literature, philosophy and history and expresses herself without holding back. Not only she describes her early childhood, life in the royal court and the harem, but she also criticizes her father and his administration, the archaic situation in Iran, religion, deplorable condition of women and veiling. She also criticizes Mozafar al-Din Shah; her brother who became the king after her father’s assassination (1896). She also provides psychological, philosophical and social analysis of her associates and the surroundings. More so, she openly discusses her love affairs with other men at a time when she was married. Extremely brave for a woman who lived in the early part of the 20th century and died just about when emancipation of women was taking place in 1936. In short she lifted her own veil before the state (and Reza Shah) did.

    Her mother was Nasir al-Din Shah’s cousin and was a wedded wife and not a concubine and obviously very high ranking as the wedded royal wives normally were. She dose criticize her mother and remarks about her ignorance, extreme religiosity and lack of education and parenting skills and attributes all these to the lack of opportunities for women especially with respect to education and veiling and the existing patriarchy. She contributes all her misfortunes to her arranged marriage and severely criticizes this institution that she calls “against reason”. She was married at age eight, but had the actual wedding at thirteen and moved into her husband’s house at this early age.

    Her husband, also a young boy belonged to an aristocratic family, who abused her by misappropriating her substantial yearly income for their own benefit. Her womanizing husband eventually led her to do the same by having affairs of her own that she openly describes without mentioning names. Her memoir ends just before the grant of the constitution in 1906 by Mozafar al-Din Shah, which is unfortunate because she would have shed light on this extremely important event and its impact inside the royal court. She divorced her husband, joined political groups and visited Europe that she dreamed about in her youth. An accomplished musician, she played piano and tar masterfully and her house was always a centre for artists and intellectuals of the time, many in love with her and writing poetry and songs for her and admired her beauty and courage. Aref Ghazvini is amongst the people that are rumored she had an affair with.

    Taj Saltaneh belongs to the first group of modern women who existed by the end of the 19th century. This was caused by almost fifty years of struggle by the women’s’ activists in Iran that started in the 1840s.  The beginning of the women’s movement in Iran was another subject that we discussed. The Babi movement that eventually led to the formation of the Baha’i faith was the start of the women’s movement in Iran. The revolutionary and charismatic female Babi leader; Tahireh, given the title “Gurrat al-Ain” (solace of the eye) by Seyyed Mohammad Bab was a well educated and progressive woman who along with the other Babi women propagated human and women’s rights. They organized meetings, travelled around the country, discussed affairs of the country and even fought when they were eventually attacked and irradiated. Gurrat al-Ain was an accomplished poet, a charismatic speaker and is the first woman who removed her veil publically in a meeting of the Babi leaders that led to divisions inside the Babi sect. She was executed with other Babi leaders in 1852.

    We read a short passage from Janet Afary’s “Women’s semi-Secret Societies during the Constitutional Revolution and looked briefly at a book by Boshri Delrish on women in Qajar period.  Afary is a professor of Women’s Studies at the Santa Barbara University and is an expert on the Constitutional Movement in Iran. Her latest book is “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran”. Dr. Boshri Delrish is a female historian/activist who lives in Iran and has also written on slaves (gholams) in Iran in the early Islamic period.

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