‘These are strange times, my dear’: Iran through literature

The literature of, and on, post-1979 Iran provides the signposts essential to understanding the country

Published - February 16, 2019 04:00 pm IST

Long live:  Students wave Iranian flags to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution in Tehran in 2009.

Long live: Students wave Iranian flags to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution in Tehran in 2009.

The past, they say, never goes away — but it’s perhaps truer of Iran than it is of anywhere else. As Iranians — led by the regime — finish celebrating 40 years of the Islamic revolution, an Iran reading list yields the sense that there are some dates before and after that remain as vivid in the Iranian memory. Today, as a new generation of Iranians and a hostile administration in the U.S. alter the mix of challenges to the regime in Tehran, it’s tempting to mark out two points from which to launch an understanding of Iran: 1953, when the British and American-backed coup overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, and restored the Shah to power; and 2009, when an election result seen to have been stolen from the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi brought thousands of Iranians to the streets in protest in what came to be called the Green Movement, a popular mobilisation that was quietened forcefully that summer but whose last impact is still uncertain.

Did the 2009 protests chasten the Ayatollahs to be more mindful henceforth of heeding the demands from the street for incremental reform, for instance, or does the Green Movement still carry the seeds for a future republican challenge to the power structures that draw their legitimacy from the revolution?

A few books from the capacious, and high-quality, shelf of writing on Iran help flesh out the importance of these two dates in understanding Iran 40 years after the revolution.

The 1979 purge

A rainbow coalition of democratic forces had stood behind Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that February 11 in 1979 when the revolution was won, less than a month after the despotic, and by then ailing, Shah of Iran had fled to Egypt, and just 10 days after Khomeini had made a triumphant return to Tehran from exile on a plane carrying his supporters and the media. Khomeini took little time to consolidate power.

In Iran: A Modern History , a thousand-page sweep of 500 years of Iranian history that brings the reader up to 2009, the Yale University historian, Abbas Amanat, vividly details how effectively and quickly Khomeini isolated and cracked down on leftist, “moderate clerical and secular voices and purged, jailed or executed real or imagined supporters of the old regime”.

How deeply the political has been personal, especially for women, in post-1979 Iran has been clear in the number of excellent memoirs that have come to readers around the world in translation. The publication of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in the early 2000s was a landmark event for the graphic novel globally, but this account of growing up after the revolution also explained, disarmingly, how an understanding of the 1979 revolution had to be placed in the context of Anglo-American machinations in Iran’s politics and how a critique of the regime had to be embedded in an appreciation of Iranian pride and cultural confidence. In Persepolis , even the child’s eye could see that after 1953, Western powers just could not ever hope to successfully play honest brokers in the domestics affairs of Iran.

Remembering Mossadegh

The 1953 overhang comes across in the very narrative structure of Iran Awakening , Shirin Ebadi’s 2006 memoir. The first woman president of the Tehran city court (in 1975) who’d find her career shattered in the aftermath of that Khomeini homecoming and whose legal work to fight the regime’s human rights excesses would win her the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2003, Ebadi

A panel from Persepolis.

A panel from Persepolis.

subsequently went into exile. She begins her story in the year 1953, “the year before I started grade school”: “My indulgent grandmother, who never spoke to us children in anything but honeyed tones of endearment, snapped at us for the first time on August 19, 1953.” Or: the day that Mossadegh was deposed in the coup d’etat.

Two years previously, the enormously popular Mossadegh had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) as a reaction to what Iranians saw as an unfavourable revenue-sharing arrangement, and his downfall continues to be dished up as a cautionary tale by loyalists and opponents alike of the power elite in Tehran. In his biography, Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup , Christopher de Bellaigue, a British writer who has spent years in Iran, describes his subject as “the first and only Iranian statesman to command all nationalist strains”. He writes: “The 1953 coup was a catastrophe that slammed him [Mossadegh] to the floor, and from which Iran never fully recovered.”

Green was the colour

De Bellaigue, author also of the excellent In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran , researched for the biography in the summer of 2009, and the events of 2009 are, in turn, placed in their potentially pivotal context by Michael Axworthy in his 2013 book, Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic . Green was the colour of the presidential campaign that year of Mir-Hossein Mousavi; and when the official result gave the election, against all anecdotal readings, to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, green became the colour of resistance as the authorities struggled for a while to even anticipate where the next protest would materialise.

In time the authorities gained full control of the streets. But it was telling how resonant the spirit of 2009 remained during the presidential campaign of 2017. Cries of “Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein” (harking back to the election campaign of Mousavi, who continued to be under detention) would ring through the reformist incumbent Hassan Rouhani’s rallies.

Rouhani was re-elected emphatically — but as has been the case since 1979, it remains impossible at any given time to determine where decisive power resides amidst Iran’s complex web of security, political, clerical and administrative structures. Yet the 2017 result validates Axworthy’s main point: that Iran must be understood on its own terms, and that the struggle for greater democratic freedoms will be led and fought by Iranians themselves.

Literary postscript

No understanding of Iran of the past 40 years can be complete without reading its fiction and poetry, and Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature , edited by Nahid Mozaffari and Ahmad Karimi Hakkak, provides a valuable sampling in English translation of the richness of post-1979 literature, in which time writers have worked against the constraints and risks posed by censorship and repression. The poem ‘In This Blind Alley’, from which the title of the collection is taken, is haunting: “They smell your breath/ lest you have said: I love you,/ They smell your heart: These are strange times, my dear.”

And then: “In this crooked blind alley, as the chill descends,/ they feed fires/ with logs of songs and poetry./ Hazard not a thought:/ These are strange times, my dear.” Its author, Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000), who was a political prisoner under the Shah and then lived under pressure from the post-1979 regime, is considered among Iran’s greatest literary figures.


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