The Modern Literature of Iran

Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak

Throughout the nineteenth century, Iran's increasing contacts with the Western world resuted in a series of radical changes in Iranian society, culture and literature. For centuries, Persian literature consisting of a vast body of predominately poetic works, had remained essentially poems called qasidahs, verse stories and romances, and a variety of animal fables often with explicit moral lessons. There were also the Shahnameh, a monumental national epic in verse that enshrined Persian mythology and mythical history, the Spiritual Couplets, a great number of prose Histories all of which were considered literature because of their formal and stylistic characteristics. This great body of literary works had been produced for the most part under royal patronage, and as read by princes, philosophers and other members of the elite. The tradition dictated a rather rigid set of rules governing the forms and genres of this literature as well as its production and communication in high circles.

Gradually, Iran’s exposure to Western cultures changed all that. Many nineteenth-century intellectuals and social critics began to question the stringent rules and regulations to which literature had been subjected. They also questioned the propriety and relevance of the themes and topics of the classical canon to what they sensed to be a new and very different age. All the talk of medieval lyrics about doe-eyed beloveds and desperate lovers, they argued, was defunct; as was the kind of morality taught through the animal fables of olden times. The Persian epic called The Shahnameh (Book of Kings), on the other hand, was thought to be a good and useful book because it made Iranians aware of their national identity and proud of their ancient glory. Just as the system of government had to be changed in order to provide for people’s population in the affairs of their country, Iran’s literature also had to be changed in a way that would make it understandable and enjoyable to the masses of people rather than to kings and courtiers. In order to be effective, they concluded, literary works must be simple in form, direct in language and thematically relevant to people’s lives. After the Constitutional Movement of 1906, many writers and poets began to experiment with the ideas that the previous generation had expressed. Instead of celebrating the actions of kings and princes, they wrote qasidahs that commemorated those who had lost their lives for the revolution. Rather than composing ghazals that would describe the indescribable beauty of the beloved, they wrote ghazals that would instill the love of the motherland in the reader’s heart. Through their animal fables and parables they advocated greater civil and religious freedoms rather than upholding old virtues of justice on the part of rulers and obedience on the part of their subjects. In prose, a great number of socially oriented writings, thinly disguised as travel accounts, historical novels, and epistolary debates between religious conservatives and secular reformers began to appear, and satire became the dominant mode of social criticism.

In content, the body of Iranian literature written in the first two decades of twentieth century is marked by a desire to make literature socially relevant and emulate the literatures of the West. In language and form, however, this lliterature has an ambivalent character. While its differences with those of classical literature, it remains within the traditional formal and generic categories. Whereas is demonstrates ever bolder departures in subject matter, it still remains grounded in age-old narrative techniques and characterization.

In 1922, Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh (b. 1898?) published a little book in Berlin entitled Once Upon a Time. With this book, the short story as it is known in Western literatures found its way into Iranian culture. In his preface, Jamalzadeh set forth his innovative ideas concerning “literary democracy” and his view of Persian literature as a “mirror of Iranian society.” Literature, he said, must be more accessible to the masses of the people and more reflective of their lives. Around the same time, the young poet known as Nima Yushij (1887-1960) was beginning to express his views about a new kind of poetry in his critical writings and through the example of his on poems. Together with Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951), Jamalzadeh and Nima are today considered founders of modern Persian prose literature and poetry respectively.

The stories of Once Upon a Time provide a good sample of the main themes of modern Persian fiction. The first story, entitled “Persian is Sweet,” is about the language problem in modern Iran. Its characters, consisting of a Westernized Iranian, a traditional clergyman, and a local servant boy, fail to communicate even though they all speak Persian. The message is obvious; in order to foster the sense of a single national identity, Iranians must find a way to overcome the speech varieties that prevail in various geographical regions and among different social groups. Another story in this collection, entitled “With Friends Like This,” laments the degenerate state of the country’s government and army, which seem incapable of resisting foreign aggression and the resultant atrocities to which innocent and kind-hearted Iranians are subjected. Hedeyat is particularly important and enigmatic literary figure. His famous book, The Blind Owl, written in 1948, has attracted world wide attention for innovative narrative technique and the depth of its message. Besides this haunting novella, Hedayat has written a large number of novels, short stories, and other literary works which often preset a realistic, if not always happy picture of life in Iran in the first half of the twentieth century. Influenced by such Westerners as Freud, Proust, and Kafka, Hedayat often paints a dark and dreary picture of a society that has broken away from its traditional way of life without being able to establish its place firmly in the modern world. He remains the single most important influence on the following generations of Iranian writers. In poetry, it is Nima Yushij who is regarded as the father and the founder of the modern outlook in Iran. During a very productive poetic career of almost forty years, Nima diligently wrote poetry and single-handedly explained his critical views about it. Often misunderstood and ridiculed, Nima’s poetry was different from anything that Iranians had been trained to recognize as poetry. As a result, for a long time, the phrase she’r-e now (New Poetry) meant nonsensical poetry. Nevertheless, Nima finally succeeded in converting enough poets to his point of view to perpetuate the writing of poetry in the new way. This new way meant essentially three things. First, the poet was expected to be true to his observations, describing things as they are in nature not as they had been expressed by the old system of poetic expression. It should not matter that in classical poetry the beloved’s hair is described in variably as pitch-black, her cheeks as rose- petal, or her stature is always compared to a cypress. Poets should be allowed to describe their beloved exactly as she appears to them. Secondly, Nima argued that the old idea off meter and rhyme was mechanical and therefore unnatural. He simplified and expanded the metrics of Persian poetry, and changed the use of rhyme from predetermined sound at the end of the line to one that would follow and highlight the meaning of the poem. Most importantly, however, he changed the conventional classification of poetry into genres such as ghazals, qasidahs or Masnavis. Poets would now make their poems as long or as short as they wished and would simply call their compositions poems rather than a specific kind of poem which dedicated formal and structural restrictions.

Following these pioneering authors, a large number of Iranian writers and poets have contributed to the gradual emergence of a modern literary tradition that is rich, diverse and far more accessible to modern readers- especially unfamiliar with the Persian language- than the classical canon. In poetry, it has attained to heights that are already comparable in aesthetic quality to the best examples to classical Persian poetry, far surpassing it in social significance. In fiction, the significance of the modern tradition a a record of life in contemporary Iran, especially where it concerns the life of the poor and the downtrodden, cannot be overemphasized. Although it is extremely difficult to ill such a vast body of literature through as small a sampling as is possible in a brief introductory writing, the following poems and prose passages may help give an idea of the range of concerns covered by contemporary Iranian poets and fiction writers.

Jamalzadeh’s Persian is Sweet: Here is a passage from Jamalzadeh’s “Persian is Sweet”. It desribes a young westernized Iranian and a Muslim clergyman as they appear to the narrator in the half dark atmosphere of a make-shift prison cell:

I was so dismayed at first that I could barely see, but, as I gradually got used to the darkness, I sensed that I wasn’t the only guest in the cell. I first noticed one of those notorious “Western-oriented gentlemen” who will serve as monuments to coddling, idiocy, and illiteracy in Iran, and who will surely keep audiences rolling in the aisles of local theaters (I hope the Devil is not listening) for another century. My Wog* companion was perched in an arched alcove wearing a collar as tall as a samovar chimney and from the black smoke of some Caucasus diesel train as sooty. Pinched by the collar, which propped up his neck like a pillory, he was immersed in a French novel, reading in the light and shadow of the cell. I was going to step forward and, with a stock “Bonjour, Monsieur,” show him that I was also one of the cognoscenti, when I heard a hissing sound coming from one of the corners of the jail. I looked in that direction and something that I first took for a shiny white cat curled up sleeping on a sack of charcoal caught my eye. It was actually a sheikh who had wrapped himself from ear to ear in his cloak and was sitting seminary-style: cross-legged, his arms hugging his knees. The shiny white cat was his rumpled turban, part of which had come loose under his chin and assumed the shape of a cat’s tail. The hissing sounds I heard turned out to be the salutations in his prayers. (Jamalzadeh, p. 34) *Note: Here the term Wog is supposed to be an acronym for “western-oriented gentleman.”

Yushij poem Makhola: In this poem by Nima Yushij the description of a flowing river running toward it manifest destination gradually merges with the expression of the poet’s feeling about his mission as a poet who carries a familiar message to his readers.


Makhola, the figure of the tall river

Goes heedlessly

Roars ceaselessly

Thrusts its body from rock to rock

As a refugee

Shunning the beaten path

Rushes to the depths

Rises to the heights

Flows restlessly

Together with the dark

One lunatic accompany another.

It’s long it treads its way

Joining many a stream

No one, it’s long, has heeded it

And there it goes chanting its mute song

Fallen from all eyes

In this desert’s lap.

In the mute murmuring of its waters

Makhola carries a familiar message

And the world of a manifest destination

Yet it flows

Over what lies in its way

A stranger trampling another.

Goes heedlessly

Roars ceaselessly

To what home unknown

A homeless vagrant tramping on its way.

(Karimi-Hakkak, p. 32)

Farrohhzad poem "The Bird was Only a Bird": This poem by Forugh Farrokhzad, the most important woman poet in the entire history of Persian literature, contrats the condition of a bird with that of human beings:

The Bird was Only a Bird

The bird said: "What smells what sunshine, ah spring has come

And I will go searching for my mate."

The bird flew away from the portico's edge

Like a message it flew off and disappeared.

The bird was small

The bird did not think

The bird did not read the paper

The bird was not in debt

The bird did not know people.

The bird flew through the air above the red lights

At the height of oblivion

And experienced madly

Blue moments.

The bird, ah, was only a bird.

(From Karimi-Hakkak, p. 147)