Persian prose

The Globe and Mail, Canada
July 24 2004

Persian prose

Iran is far from the Islamic monolith it appears to be, REZA BARAHENI
says, when it is seen through the eyes of three very different


The Russian literary theorist Michael Bakhtin once said that all
great narratives had come into existence on the borders of two
neighbouring countries. In fact, for him it was “dialogical
imagination,” the fruit of many years or even centuries of cultural,
social and linguistic barter across the borders of identities that
moulded the form and content of both historical and literary
narrative. The writer of such a narrative was branded by the burning
rod of hybridity — a kind of psychological, social or historical
schizophrenia — and a vision that required more than one pair of
eyes, surveying the universe in a multilayered mirror designed for
simultaneous reflections of both identity and difference.

The three books chosen for reflection on Iran here were born, each in
its own way, under the sign of hybridity, and as such reflect not
one, but numerous aspects of the reality and mentality, not only of
their own times, but also of the past and future of many others who
came after them. The three are: The Histories of Herodotus, The
Thousand and One Nights, as narrated to the woman-killer Shahriyar by
Scheherazade, and The Blind Owl , by Sadegh Hedayat. They were
written in different historical periods, but new associations link
them together within the semantic context of our contemporary world.

Herodotus (c. 485-425 BC) was a Persian subject in Iran’s Greek
colonies in Asia Minor for almost half of his life. He was originally
Greek, and although he travelled a great deal in the ancient world,
it is not precisely known whether he travelled into the heart of
ancient Persia itself. However, he speaks of all the events
concerning the history and geography and people of the ancient
kingdom with such plausibility that, in spite of many obvious flaws,
one seldom doubts that he knew the country first hand. He made Greece
his home after all these trips, and wrote his history in nine books,
with hundreds of pages dealing with the origins of ancient Persia.

Although the main concentration of The Histories is on the wars
between the Greeks and Persians, in the dawn of the history of both
nations, his work provides perhaps the clearest image existing of
ancient Persia in the eyes of the Western world. Many commentators
have noted that Herodotus used only travellers as his informants on
ancient Iran, and many Iranian historians have provided their own
versions of the beginnings of their history. Recent books written in
Iran on the origins of Persians and other ethnic groups and their
languages in Iran contradict many entries by Herodotus. But
Herodotus’s book should be studied only within the context of the
hybridity of historical images and narration; as such, The Histories
holds a fundamental place in the writing of history.

There are many editions of The Thousand and One Nights, the most
famous of which is the 1850 translation by Richard Burton. This is a
completely different genre from Herodotus’s work. At the heart of the
book lies the patriarchal history of people from India to Greece.
Shahriyar, the king, kills his unfaithful wife, and then each night
kills the girl he has taken to bed that night, until Scheherazade
arrives with her great stories and saves a thousand and one women by
telling stories to the king every night.

Who was Scheherazade? It is important to know the roots of the two
words that combine to make the name. The first part of the name has
its roots in sheher, or chaitre, meaning carving, engraving, which is
also the root of the word character in Greek, meaning engraving, or
what is written inside. Azade means free or original or liberated. So
Scheherazade, a Persian name, means “a free or original character.”

Four women are supposed to have been at the heart of the telling of
the stories. The first is Scheherazade herself; the second is Esther,
who told stories to King Darius to save the lives of Jews in the
king’s court; the third is Shirin, of Armenian origin, who supposedly
became the wife of the Persian king Khosrow-Parviz to save the lives
of her own people; and the fourth is Zobeideh, wife of the Arab
Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid. We see the same kind of hybridity at the
root of the name, which extends itself to the telling of the stories
not only of the Indo-Europeans in India and Iran, but also the
stories of the Arabs and the Jews. The book is not only the stories
of these tribes and nations, but also stories from China, Greece and
Africa. It is a woman with four heads, telling stories to a man to
stop the killing of women, including her. Hybridity lies at the heart
of this book, too.

The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat, is a modern, even a postmodern,
novel of about 150 pages, written in 1935 and first circulated in
mimeographed form in the author’s own handwriting. It was published
after the Second World War, first in Persian, in Iran, then in French
and, years later, in English (translated by D. P. Costello, Grove
Press, 1957) and other languages. Hedayat studied in France and was
influenced by Western literature, but wrote the book in self-imposed
exile in India. Fifteen years later, he killed himself in Paris.

Schizophrenic hybridity led him to write the book in two sections,
the first dealing with the narrator’s encounter with an angelic,
ethereal woman, and second in his encounter with a beautiful but
unfaithful woman. Hedayat, split between the absurdity of life in the
20th century and love of the ancient ways of life, takes a deep dive
into the archaic, pre-Herodotian world of Iran, and when he emerges,
the archaic and the modern hold hands. The narrator of this short
novel of fragmentation dismembers both the ideal woman and the bitch.
This is the prince killing both Scheherazade and the unfaithful wife
within the framework of modernism and postmodernism. One can see the
endurance of the patriarchal vision of the world and its cruelty
toward women in this novel, which only a technique or a vision of
hybridity could have produced.

In Herodotus, the Greeks were the neighbours; in The Thousand and One
Nights, it was the Indians, the Turks, the Chinese, the Arabs and the
Jews; in The Blind Owl, it was the entire West in the name of
modernity with the fragmented world of contemporary Iran. We see in
these books, which present both past and present Iranian worlds, the
Iranian Self through the Other, and the Other through the Self.

Reza Baraheni is an exiled Iranian-Canadian writer, poet and human
rights activist.