The Persian Version

Under the caked muck of theocracy in today’s Iran, ancient and lovely literary springs still bubble

In The Captive Mind, his brilliantly lucid reflection on totalitarianism and its temptations, Czeslaw Milosz devoted most of his essays to the problem of communism and the intellectuals. In one chapter, however, he turned aside to view another manifestation of tyranny, and also to examine the verbal and literary means by which it could be thwarted.

The essay is called “Ketman.” The term was first introduced to the West by Arthur de Gobineau, a rather sinister ethnologist who in the mid-nineteenth century served two tours as a French diplomat in Tehran. It means the art and science of dissimulation, particularly in matters of religion. The ferocious orthodoxy of the Shia mullahs of Iran, Gobineau wrote, could be circumvented by, say, a heretical disciple of Avicenna, as long as the man was careful to make every outward show of conformity. With this done, he could begin to introduce all manner of subversive philosophy into his sermons and addresses:

Ketman fills the man who practices it with pride. Thanks to it, a believer raises himself to a permanent state of superiority over the man he deceives, be he a minister of state or a powerful king: to him who uses ketman, the other is a miserable blind man whom one shuts off from the true path whose existence he does not suspect; while you, tattered and dying of hunger, trembling externally at the feet of duped force, your eyes are filled with light, you walk in brightness before your enemies. It is an unintelligent being that you make sport of; it is a dangerous beast that you disarm. What a wealth of pleasures!

Milosz immediately saw the application of this to the double life that was being lived by so many writers and intellectuals under Stalin’s imperium. The Soviet regime to some extent “needed” culture, but also needed to contain it. Milosz was not to foresee that this state of affairs—deemed “Absurdistan” by one Czech author—would one day satirize itself out of existence.

Today’s Iran is also an Absurdistan in one sense, though the term should not be misused so as to mask the tragic element of the comic: under the reign of the shah, the country emulated almost everything Western except democracy; under the rule of the imams, it rejects almost every aspect of modernity except nuclearism. That this fate should have befallen such a sophisticated and energetic people is a catastrophe piled upon a disaster. Yet the clerics now ruling the country have fallen into the very error that their communist enemies used to commit. They claim to legislate for every aspect of life, and they claim the right to scrutinize everything that is said and even thought. In this they attempt the impossible. If they emulated the Taliban and simply forbade all forms of music and film and all forms of writing except the Koranic, they would fail. Instead, they try to permit these things while also controlling them. That will eventually fail even more miserably. This is because before there was any Iran or any Islam, there was a Persian civilization and a Persian language, neither of which the Turbaned Ones dare disown. Iranians may have been conquered and Islamized by Arabs, but they are proud of retaining their ancient tongue and their literary and cultural memories. And Persia was known for love poetry, for the anti-clerical satires of Omar Khayyam, for polo and for chess and for the wine of Shiraz. These ancient and lovely springs continue to bubble under the caked grime and muck of theocracy. Every March great numbers of Iranians laughingly celebrate the nowruz, or New Year holiday—a fire ceremony with dances long pre-dating Islam. The mullahs do not like the festival but do not feel strong enough to prohibit anything so old and so popular.

Milosz subdivided ketman under communism into various types—“professional,” “aesthetic,” “skeptical,” and “ethical.” During a very enlightening visit to Iran last year, I found it was possible to distinguish some other individual forms of it. These range from the low to the sublime. An example of the low would be alcoholic ketman, whereby even those Iranians who do not touch the bottle make sure to have wine or liquor, often homebrewed, in their houses, for the benefit of guests—a small etiquette of defiance by the abstemious. More elevated is fashion ketman. The ayatollahs’ law demands that all females in public must wear a hijab to cover the hair, and a long jacket to cover the area between the upper chest and the mid-thigh. (It’s always useful to know what the pious are really thinking about.) In practice, there are not enough religious police to enforce this strictly. A woman without a hijab would certainly be beaten (and perhaps blinded or maimed with acid), but it is impressive to see the huge number who manage to conform to the letter of the law by sporting a colorful scarf, well back on the head and held in place by hair spray, as well as a coat so deftly cut as to make the very most of what it is intended to de-emphasize.

But Iranian culture and vivacity is kept going most of all by the country’s writers and filmmakers (who are sometimes, like the director-poet Abbas Kiarostami, the same people). A continuous pressure leads to invention—to finding the cracks and gaps in the system, to testing its limits and transcending them. Once again, it must be remembered that when the Calibans of theocracy see their own faces in the glass, which they do not like to do, they are not always able to recognize their own features. (One thinks of the mirthless Bourbons when they first saw the faultless way that Goya had rendered them.) They dimly know that they are supposed to have a movie industry, publishing houses, newspapers, and such. An excerpt of a short story by Ghazi Rabihavi gives an account of what it’s like to have to deal, after a thirteen-month wait, with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance:

Unfortunately, your book has some small problems which cannot be corrected. I am certain you will agree with me. Take these first few sentences … nowhere in our noble culture will you find any woman who would allow herself to stand waiting for her husband to bring her a cup of coffee. OK? Well, the next problem is the image of the wind sliding over the naked arms, which is provocative and has sexual overtones. Finally, nowhere in any noble culture will you find a sunrise that is like a sunset. Maybe it is a misprint. Here you are then. Here is your book. I hope you will write another book soon. We support you. Support you.

This extract is taken from the recent Strange Times, My Dear, an admirable PEN anthology of Iranian fiction and poetry released in paperback this spring. (The title echoes the refrain with which Ahmad Shamlu ends every stanza of “In This Blind Alley,” his famous poem about the revolution.) Anyone wanting to sample the range and depth of the country’s contemporary writing would do well to begin here. The authors not only deal with every “transgressive” subject, from booze to sex, but also illustrate something that is often overlooked in the monochrome presentation of their country in the West: the diversity of Armenians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Azeris that helps characterize Iranian society. (The collection is rather silent on the Kurds, a minority from whom we can expect to be hearing more, but it does contain a contribution from Roya Hakakian, whose molten yet tender memoir of growing up Jewish in the years of revolution, Journey from the Land of No, is itself one of the jewels of the exile literary renaissance.)

Some older readers of this essay will remember Reza Baraheni, whose 1977 book, The Crowned Cannibals, did much to alert the West to the sheer exorbitance and cruelty of the Pahlavi pseudo-dynasty. Baraheni is a Turkish speaker from Tabriz, and his poems, which lay a heavy emphasis on the material and the earthy, contain allusions to Ezra Pound, Walter Benjamin, and Charles Baudelaire. In one of the book’s poems, “In The New Place, or Exile, A Simple Matter,” he reminds us that Napoleon thought of mud as a fifth element. Baraheni’s life experience is not unrepresentative: prison under the shah, participation in the revolution of 1979, swift disillusionment with the rise of Khomeini’s despotism, horror at the terrifying war subsequently unleashed by Saddam Hussein, a further spell in prison under the clerics, and then exile. A great number of Iran’s best minds and voices are compelled to live at least partly in diaspora in Europe and North America, and although this is greatly to our benefit and pleasure (vide the work of Azar Nafisi on her Tehran Nabokoviennes), we cannot forget what a price it exacts from Iran itself. Meanwhile, for those who bear the heat and burden of the day in the country itself, we can guess the weight of the atmosphere from another line of Ahmad Shamlu’s poem: “They smell your breath lest you have said: I love you.”

Mention of Napoleon brings me to the work of Iraj Pezeshkzad. How is one to convey the extraordinary charm and power of this author? A little preface is needed. Iranian intellectuals are nostalgic (I do not think this use of the term is improper) for two moments in their nation’s agonized history. The first is the 1906 constitutional revolution, when the liberal and cosmopolitan elements of the society, though eventually suppressed by Russian imperial gunnery, managed to establish a precedent for a modern and outward-looking system. The second is the atrocity of August 19, 1953, when the elected nationalist government of Mohammed Mossadegh was forcibly removed by an Anglo-American intrigue that instated the shah as a dictator and returned the country’s main natural resource to foreign control. These two external interventions gravely stultified Iran’s development and had a retarding effect on the national psyche. It became almost customary and automatic, in a land that is so naturally internationalist, to attribute literally everything to the machinations of designing outsiders. (The Khomeinist regime, needless to add, exploits this plebeian tendency to this day. It also avails itself of the antique Shia concept of taqqiya, or the religious permission to dissemble in dealings with infidels. One might call this the top-down version of ketman.) As an Englishman I found it almost flattering to encounter the number of people in Tehran who—culturally rather despising Americans—believed that the British government determined absolutely all matters. Why, had they not even installed the mullahs in 1979 as a revenge for the way that the United States had taken the lion’s share of oil after 1953? The British ambassador, whose official dominion includes two especially nice walled garden estates in upper and lower Tehran, confessed to me that he sometimes found this paranoia useful, since it meant that nobody would decline to meet him.

In 1973, Pezeshkzad published My Uncle Napoleon, a cheerful satire of this very mentality, and it became the best-loved work of fiction in Iran before it was banned by the clerics during the revolution. Likewise set in an enclosed garden house that contains several branches of an extended family, it could be summarized as a love story enfolded in a bildungsroman and wrapped in a conspiracy theory. Except that it cannot be summarized. Not even Azar Nafisi, who contributes a sparkling introduction to the new American edition, can accomplish that. Uncle Napoleon, the micro-megalomaniac who dominates the little world of the family, is convinced that the British imperialists really care about him and mean to get him by fair means or foul. A beautiful counterpoint to his fantastic solipsism is the appalling verbosity of his manservant, Mash Qasem. Some have claimed to see a Bertie-and-Jeeves duo in the setup; I think this is misleading, except with respect to the amazingly complex and farcical love affairs that form the subtext. Rabelais and Cervantes are in there somewhere as well. To return to my Caliban metaphor, we might remember that it was Swift who defined satire as a looking glass in which people discerned every face but their own. In the vanity and stupidity of Uncle Napoleon, the religious thugs of Qum must have glimpsed at least something, but the joke is on them, because in today’s widespread Iranian samizdat the book—and a now-banned television series that was once made of it—is a blockbuster.

Pezeshkzad also makes a contribution to Strange Times, My Dear, in the form of a gem-like story titled “Delayed Consequences of the Revolution.” Now an exile himself, he makes gentle but deadly fun of those émigrés who forgather, like the White Russians of old, in a café society devoted to toasting the ancien régime. In this context—sometimes to be found in today’s Los Angeles—old men forget, as well as remember, or remember “with advantages,” what deeds they did. In what I like to think of as a homage to ketman, Pezeshkzad illuminates the private codes and allusions in which the participants convey discrepant meanings to one another, and also perpetuate the mythology of foreign conspiracy. (“If you want to explain something to your compatriot in your own language, you can use five or six words and get the meaning across, but to explain the same thing to a foreigner in another language, you’ll need to employ at least fifty or sixty words.” This is offered as an account of the difficulty of elucidating simple property deals in the days of “His Highness the Shah.”)

Half of Iran’s citizens are regarded by the state as chattel, so it is not startling to find so many women writers in the most exposed positions of dissent. Azadeh Moaveni’s memoir, Lipstick Jihad, (a perfect title for the practice of fashion ketman and the struggle for femininity, as well as feminism) was a salient effort in this regard, and it is good to see her helping to co-author Iran Awakening, the autobiography of Shirin Ebadi, the country’s most recent Nobel laureate. Ebadi was the first woman to be appointed a judge in Iran, in the waning days of the shah, and she lost that job almost as soon as the revolution (which she supported) had taken place. She opens her book with a commonplace and uninteresting testimony to her enduring religious faith, the sincerity of which is impossible to gauge. If this is ketman—the apparent sharing of a belief with those who despise and oppress her—it is the price of her ticket. Without such protestations of faith she would almost certainly be dead. As it is, she was on a death-squad list drawn up by allegedly “rogue” elements in the Ministry of Intelligence, which debated only on the propriety of assassinating her before the end of the month of Ramadan. Her extraordinary fortitude in pressing on with her legal inquiry into the murders that had already taken place is not only a testimony in itself but also a window into the almost unrivaled sordidness and cynicism of the Islamic Republic. Here is a state that holds that a father cannot be convicted for murdering his own daughter; a state in which teenage girls are hanged in public for immorality, and virgins raped before execution because the Koran forbids the execution of virgins.

In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi views matters from still another perspective: the special ketman of ironic cartooning. In smart and confident strokes she draws a history of the Khomeini revolution as seen by a girl who was nine when the old fanatic returned from exile. The whole chaotic world of parents and other adults, faced with crises that are wholly new and frightening to them, is affectionately and ironically caught by a girl who has a real talent for overhearing. Marxist relatives keep up false hopes that the people have not been fooled; Saddam Hussein’s planes disgorge bombs over the city; veils are imposed on small children; the Jewish neighbors get into a spot of bother; and, yes, a young friend is legally raped by a Revolutionary Guard before being shot. Most stark are the growing girl’s encounters with the komiteh, the brutish and depraved louts who are employed as the enforcers of morality and who take a special pleasure in the taunting and bullying of women. But there is low farce as well: the bastards who come looking for the homemade wine are actually seeking only a bribe, which becomes clear only after the precious fluid has been hastily poured away for nothing. The solidarity of the little family and its friends turns out to be less fragile than it looks. Yes, the bearded sadists do stop women in the street and harshly smell their breath for telltale traces of love, but, as in the resolution of Uncle Napoleon’s madly hermetic domestic despotism, amor vincit omnia.

May it be so. The PEN anthology, as well as the work of Shirin Ebadi, was for a time treated as mere matter that could not be viewed by Americans. Reflecting a level of stupidity that would not disgrace the dumbest authoritarian state, the U.S. Treasury Department believed that unless Ebadi applied for a special license, the book’s publication in this country would amount to trading with the enemy. A possible penalty of up to a million dollars or ten years imprisonment was mentioned. Prompt litigation held off the official notion that the words of Iranian writers can be forfeit as a “foreign asset.” American readers have a special duty, in view of the distraught history between our two countries, to take an interest in this “asset.” Whatever the outcome of the current confrontation, we have the right and the duty of engagement with a people and a culture very much imbricated with our own. How agreeable to be able to report that this is also a tremendous pleasure.