Identity in Iranian Film and Literature
Remember the flight
The bird is mortal
Familiar and Foreign
At a time when the Iranian government figures prominently in mainstream media for its foreign policy and nuclear program and when a diversity of voices and perspectives is lacking in the West, it seems pertinent to engage with artistic and literary works that offer more nuanced depictions of Iranian society than are generally available. In the face of predominantly simplistic and monolithic representations of Iran as a repressive, profoundly patriarchal, and politically intractable nation full of religious fanatics imbued with a hatred of the West and prone to terrorism, Iranian artists reveal a very different society, one whose cultural traditions are rooted in a lengthy and complex history that sometimes sit uneasily with the demands of modernity. The artists under consideration in this volume engage with Iranian culture and Western responses to Iran in two ways: their works question the strategies—and in some cases, the ideology—that have been imposed internally on Iranian society, and they challenge the new Orientalist discourse that defines the character of Western conceptions. The essentialist approach of Western media, governments, and even financial institutions that underlies their responses to an Islamic government demonizes Iranians in Iran who have no say in the dealings of the government, as well as Iranians in diaspora with no ties to or interest in political matters.
The artists represented in this collection tackle a range of issues in response to internal and external constructions of Iranian identity, or hoviyyat.1 The question of identity is at the heart of Persian literature and was central to classical Persian poetry, which is essentially spiritual in nature. In the poems of Attar, Jami, Rumi, and Hafiz, to name just a few, the central theme is a spiritual quest, the goal of which is to gain proximity to the Beloved. The first requirement for the individual on a spiritual quest is to “annihilate his ego (nafs) and become selfless. . . . It is only after he has divorced himself from his material needs and the worries of his own existence and the world that the seeker can approach the Divine” (Mannani 162). The annihilation of nafs, as well as the ongoing Manichaean tensions between the demands of “heart and mind” and “body and mind” that are the defining characteristics of the not-yet-unified Self in Sufi poetry, prefigure modern conceptions of the fragmented Self. In classical poetry, the spiritual quest ultimately culminates in a unified Self, while the modern Self remains divided and insecure.
Spirituality, once the defining characteristic of Persian poetry (which was, until recently, the pre-eminent genre of Persian literature), has partially given way to more secular preoccupations in modern Iranian literature. As Ramin Jahanbegloo argues, “the conflict between traditional and modern understandings of the relationship among religion, state, and society” has dominated the Iranian intellectual agenda particularly during the past decades (15). Tradition and Eurocentric modernity collided following both the Constitutional Revolution (1906–11) and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in particular and distinct ways, as each encounter was inflected by the specifics of its historical moment. The Constitutional Revolution introduced Western modalities of thought, and this political change was subsequently reflected in social and cultural narratives.2 Subsequently, the anti-imperialist Islamic Revolution vehemently opposed all Western values and thoughts. Over the past three decades, the Iranian government has been adamantly, but unsuccessfully, pursuing its anti-Western principles and imposing strict conformity to religion. The widespread embracing of a Western lifestyle among most Iranians, especially the younger generation, and the 2009 Green Movement illustrate the failed attempts to excise Western influence. This apparent infatuation with Western culture exists in juxtaposition with a nostalgic pride in Persian tradition. Perhaps no critic has identified this duality and the arising complications better than Dariush Shayegan, who, in Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West, delineates the underlying contradictions in Iranian society and the way in which Iranians are caught between the desire to be “modern and archaic, democratic and authoritarian, profane and religious, ahead of the time and behind it” (22). In his 2011 monograph, Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran, Kamran Talattof takes the issue to a higher level and explicates the reasons behind Iran’s failure to achieve modernity in its Western denomination. He proposes the use of a different “approach,” which he calls “modernoid, or resembling modernity,” to clarify why “its culture has become unstable, changing constantly in a chaotic fashion” and consistently lacking “a modern conceptualization of sexuality” (9).
Within Iranian discourse, modernity remains a fluid term. Although there is no consensus among scholars of Iranian studies about the precise implications of modernity, it is still important to be aware of the distinctions that have been made among its various derivatives. Talattof has identified various definitions of the concept: “‘modernity’ proper as an epochal or historical category; ‘modernité’ as a state of mind and being or a human experience; ‘modernisation’ as material development, industrialisation, or development in technology and economic relationships; and ‘modernism’ as a realm of cultural and aesthetic values and practices” (22). Babak Rahimi, too, has described “modernization” as a “restrictive set of socioeconomic and state policies for ‘modernizing’ a perceived ‘backward’ society, in contrast to ‘modernity’ as a broad interpretative and institutional field of contention with multiple historical trajectories on a global scale” (451). Abbas Milani has added his voice to the debate. Modernism, Milani argues,
refers to a moment of aesthetic renovation—where form was content. Modernization is an attempt to buy piecemeal into the modern age (and is usually concurrent with the attempt to maintain some form of authoritarianism). Modernity, on the other hand, is an organically inter-related series of changes in the economic, political, spiritual, epistemological and aesthetic domains. It begets secularism and democracy, rationalism and individualized aesthetic and spiritual realms. It expands the private domain and catapults politics to the public domain. (“Said Amir Arjomand” 578–79)
Moreover, Abbas Milani contends that “rationalism and the rule of law,” ideas considered “modern” today, and the quest for “human ideals like democracy and freedom,” as primarily secular notions, have occupied the minds of Persians for more than a thousand years, and certainly “long before the Renaissance in Europe” (Lost Wisdom 9). Milani, à la Sohrab Sepehri, speaks of the importance of “washing the eyes” and “removing the dust of custom and old beliefs” from them in thinking that modernity is essentially a Western, Eurocentric concept.3 In the face of the demonization of Iran in Western media, Milani reminds us of the opulent and wide-ranging cultural legacy of a country that has had a decisive role in shaping Western consciousness. His comprehensive overview starts with the Bible—specifically, the book of Ezra, which is “replete with profuse praise for Persia and its kings,” primarily Cyrus (Lost Wisdom 11–12).4 Milani then carries on with a detailed discussion of the dominance and influence of Persian progressive thoughts and beliefs on Western consciousness until the long and complicated encounter between Iran and the West in the nineteenth century. He discusses the impact of Zoroastrian, Mithraic, and Manichaean concepts on Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian thought systems; on the natural and human sciences, including philosophy, geography, mapping, medicine, historiography, mathematics, architecture, and linguistics; and on some prominent figures of the Western tradition such as St. Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare (12–20).
Concurring with Hans Blumenberg, who defines modernity as “a secular form of critical cultural Gnosticism,” Milani lists a wide range of important Persian texts, such as Rumi’s Mathnawi and Beyhaqi’s historical narratives, as “a rich repository of the very ideas that have been assumed ‘Western’ since the nineteenth century” (18). “Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries,” Milani argues, “many of the ideas we now consider the quintessence of modernity—rationalism, secularism, individualism, urbanism, limited government—began to evolve in Iran and helped shape a naïve ‘Renaissance’” (18). He specifically mentions three Western philosophers and critics—Hegel, Nietzsche, and Harold Bloom—who have noted the importance of Persian and Zoroastrian thought on Western consciousness. For instance, in The Philosophy of History, Hegel states:
Persians are the first Historic people. . . . In Persia first arises that light which shines itself and illuminates what is around; for Zoroaster’s ‘Light’ belongs to the World of Consciousness—to Spirit as a relation to something distinct from itself. We see in the Persian World a pure exalted Unity, as the essence which leaves the special existences that inhere in it, free; —as the Light, which only manifests what bodies are in themselves; —a Unity which governs individuals only to excite them to become powerful for themselves—to develop and assert their individuality. Light makes no distinctions: the Sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, on high and low, and confers on all the same benefit and prosperity. . . . The principle of development begins with the history of Persia. This therefore constitutes strictly the beginning of World-History (173).
While recognizing the precedence of notions such as “democracy” in Persian culture, Milani takes note of the universal nature of these concepts and warns of any misapplication of these discussions by supremacist, nationalist, and religious zealots (20–21).
In a similar vein, many historians and gender theorists have indicated that the causes of modern transformations within Iranian society cannot be limited to external factors. In probing the history of interactions between Europe and Iran, especially as it concerns cultural relations, Afsaneh Najmabadi asserts that these exchanges, which date back to at least the sixteenth century, played a profound role in transforming sexuality and gender in nineteenth-century Iranian society, although she insists that the “internal causes” cannot be ignored either (5). Najmabadi highlights the importance of remembering the “innumerable contingent events and concepts that transformed genders and sexualities” and the difficulty in making “a separation between internal and external developments” as they are progressively “intermeshed” at the turn of the century (5). In Najmabadi’s estimation, “much cultural hybridization was . . . mediated through the increasing interactions between Iran and the Indian subcontinent and the Ottoman Empire,” and “on the cultural level, more so than on the economic, administrative, and military levels, the interactions were a two-way street” (5). Inspired by the research of Mendus and Randall and that of Bleys, Najmabadi concludes that “just as this cultural traffic transformed Iranian gender and sexual sensibilities, European gender and sexual mores were also changed through interactions with other societies that Europe ‘discovered.’ . . . Neither Iranians nor Europeans invented themselves out of whole cloth” (5).5
Sexuality and gender inequality have been major components of the discourse on Iranian modernity and identity. In this predominantly patriarchal culture, some Persian women have played decisive roles in shaping the history of the country (Taghi 165–201; Kohl, Witt, and Welles 198). It is equally important to note that the patronizing view of most Iranian men toward women has an uneven and fluctuating precedence according to many historical accounts, including Herodotus’s Histories. Milani recounts history from the viewpoint of Herodotus, who, despite his estimation of the Persians as “barbarians” and “the other,” notes that Persian men took the seizure of their young women by foreign armies much more lightly than did their Greek counterparts, for whom their women were key constituents of their Greek “honor” (Lost Wisdom 14). The subtle differentiation that Milani is expressing here is the nonpatronizing attitude toward women at that time in Persian history, an attitude in explicit contradiction to that of the Greeks. Of course, throughout different historical periods and as the result of various sociopolitical upheavals, Iranian women have gained, lost, and, in certain cases, regained some of their basic rights.
In Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, a study of the role of gender relations and politics in modern Iranian life, Janet Afary lays bare the persisting patriarchal norms in contemporary Iran, drawing upon Michel Foucault’s theories about societal controls exercised upon individual bodies (Foucault 103–11). In the same study, Afary invokes Erich Fromm, who delineates how the freedom from social hierarchies and the changes in social orders that came with the abrogation of the rigid class system in Western societies resulted in feelings of displacement, disconnectedness, and trauma by individual members of society (Fromm 123–29). Afary claims that the shift from a primarily agrarian to an urban lifestyle amplified similar feelings of displacement and insecurity, which Iranians were already feeling in the face of modernity (201). These factors all led to the embracing of Islamic values, which further perpetuated the patriarchal and patrimonial principles within Iranian society (201). Iranian women, who had made much progress following the Constitutional Revolution in claiming equal status and rights, saw many of these advances revoked after the Islamic government came to power.
Closely related to Afary’s study of gender politics in Iran are Nayereh Tohidi’s views. Tohidi approaches the issue from a sociopsychological perspective by outlining how Iranian men responded to modern forces. According to Tohidi, Iranian men alleviated the insecurity, anxiety, and helplessness they were feeling in the face of modernity by exercising even more power over their families, and especially over the female members of their families—that is, their wives, daughters, and sisters. These feelings of inferiority—in conjunction with the deeply embedded notions of gheyrat and namus, which define a man’s sense of honour in protecting the purity and integrity of his female kinship—compound the societal pressures experienced by Iranian women. These constructions and performances of gender circumscribe both women and men.6
The tradition-modernity dialectic, which is central to modern Iranian identity, is encountered in the chapters in Familiar and Foreign and is embodied in a number of recurring motifs, such as alienation, exile, memory and history, geographic and linguistic displacement, liminality, loss and longing, gender and sexuality, and generational disparities.7 In addition to these motifs, the choice of genre, from confessional poetry to the graphic novel to film, deliberately reflects the collision of and resulting dialogue between past and present.
Iranians felt the bind between tradition and modernity acutely after 1979. The political situation, economic factors, and the increasing lack of opportunity for women, artists, and political dissidents to exercise their rights and express their views and opinions led many Iranians to leave the country, and many remain in diaspora. Diasporic identity is characterized by experiences of exile, displacement, and dispossession. As Gina Wisker writes, “For people silenced and dispossessed, writing back against that silence often involves the crucial need to explore and express history, and most importantly, the self.” She adds that “semi-fictionalized autobiography and life writing” have become “particular favorites of many women writers in response to the double experience of silencing” (164). Illustrating this trend, the past two decades have seen a sharp rise in the publication of many Iranian autobiographies that “write back against the silence” as a form of resistance. Among recent publications, the works of three Iranian women—Marjane Satrapi, Azar Nafisi, and Fatemeh Keshavarz—have drawn critical attention and are the subject of examination in several chapters in this collection. These narratives deal with a complex array of issues, the most important of which is the representation of women under the Islamic, post-imperialist regime. The memoirs have received a wide range of responses from both within and outside Iran, but most notably, from Iranian academics abroad who have questioned the legitimacy of exposing the internal weaknesses of the Islamic regime vis-à-vis the West through the sharing of personal stories and experiences. Abedinifard, Goldin, and Mannani attend to the nuances of self-writing, where confrontation with the Self is inevitable. In his article on Iranian autobiography, Abedinifard argues that Satrapi, in her two Persepolis volumes, “unveils the self” as a way of pushing back against the repressive measures, particularly as they apply to women, during the formation years of the Islamic Republic. In contrast, Mannani discusses how Keshavarz, in her response to Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, reveals her internalization of the regimentation and censorship of the post-1979 state in her own self-regulated and self-censored memoir, in which an idealized Self is constructed. Similarly, Goldin, by examining the misogynistic use of selective hybrid words and idioms, maintains that Arabic has negatively impacted the Persian language and provides a comprehensive overview of Persian as “linguistically egalitarian” before the advent of Islam. Goldin’s evaluation of language extends to what she believes is an inherent discursive control of Iranian women’s life-writing.
The construction of Self is also problematized in the essays in this volume that focus on fiction. The common motif in these narratives is alienation, regardless of whether the setting encompasses Iran or Europe or, in Goli Taraqqi’s case, both. The essays provide analyses of illustrations of an alienation that is twofold: the exilic alienation experienced as a result of geographic and linguistic displacement and what might be called “domestic alienation” within the realm of the home and family in Iran. Zoya Pirzad, as shown by Madeleine Voegeli, illustrates the complexities of establishing selfhood in a culture in which patriarchy is institutionalized. As Voegeli argues, the rigidly prescribed gender roles in Pirzad’s fiction strip both women and men of individual identity, leaving them estranged and empty within their familial milieu. Blake Atwood, too, probes gender roles, but his discussion concentrates on homoeroticism and homosexuality and on how the difference between the two within the Iranian context is informed by Eve Sedgwick’s notion of “homosexual panic,” which functions as a different way of “coming out of the closet.” What Atwood describes as the “failed emotional passage” of male characters into adulthood in the fiction of Alizadeh and Taraqqi and those writers’ reliance on two female characters (the two sides of the mother figure) explain the suspension of male characters’ “ascendance” to heterosexuality.
The exploration of exilic alienation is the subject of Babak Elahi’s chapter on Kader Abdolah’s My Father’s Notebook, where the motifs of spatial and linguistic dislocation figure prominently. As Elahi observes, Abdolah’s “novel is a metafictional account of a son’s attempt to translate his father’s notebooks from an unknown language into Dutch.” The essay analyzes how the cultural displacement of diaspora is mediated through the interplay between the language of the host country and a universal sign language—Abdolah’s father is both deaf and mute—and how “migration involves a transformation of self” through the narrator’s inability to use his Persian mother tongue to write. The use of sign language in the narrative is a communicative catalyst when the “home and host” languages are incompatible.
Laetitia Nanquette’s essay, too, explores exile as theme, style, and genre in Goli Taraqqi’s short stories. According to Nanquette, identity is redefined in the state of exile, where confrontation with the Other is mandatory. She uses Peyman Vahabzadeh’s theory that exile and immigration are not dichotomous in Persian literature to argue, in her analysis of the stories, that emigrants and exiles “have come to terms with their permanent conditions of alterity and foreignness” (Vahabzadeh 496). In the narratives that Nanquette studies, the protagonists embody varied stages of exilic experience, from the liminality of the newly exiled to the hybrid Self that incorporates both Western and Iranian values. Nanquette does note Taraqqi’s repeated use of the term Farang—the subject of Goulia Ghardashkhani’s essay, which also examines Taraqqi’s short fiction. Farang, as Ghardashkhani explains, derives etymologically from the word France; however, over the years, the term has come to refer to “the West and Westerners” and “more specifically to the lands and peoples of Europe and North America” (Ghanoonparvar 2–3). In Ghardashkhani’s problematization of the concept, the signification of the word farang becomes dependent on the geographical location and psychological condition of the narrating subject. In other words, the meaning is multiple and spatially determined.
The motifs of history and memory are dealt with most fully in the articles on film. Khatereh Sheibani, in her analysis, explores how Bahram Beizai deconstructs and reformats “formal history” and “national identity.” After Sheibani’s acknowledgement of the mellat-ommat dichotomy, she dismantles these concepts to challenge the construction of history as a “monological, cultural explanation” in both its Iranian and Islamic accounts.8 She shows how Beizai’s films undermine the rigid lining up of historical events. Anselmi and Wilson return to Satrapi’s Persepolis, albeit the film adaptation by Paronnaud and Satrapi, and compare it to Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. They argue that both films “resist and subvert the history that is visually offered to us” in an effort to “reclaim different social memories . . . and reformulate individual identity paradigms in relationship to conceptions of national histories.” In foregrounding the complex relationship between film and television, Anselmi and Wilson demonstrate how both movies emphasize the fragmented Self.
It is important to note that only one essay in the collection deals with poetry despite the prominence of the genre in classical Persian literature and its ongoing importance. The small space that poetry occupies in this volume explains the positioning of Mohaghegh Neyshabouri’s chapter, which opens the book and elucidates the tradition-modernity collision that underscores the entire collection. This ongoing discord between past and present is reinforced by the subject of her chapter, which deals with the confessional work of Forugh Farrokhzad. As Mohaghegh Neyshabouri argues, Farrokhzad’s poetry demonstrates the struggle for Self “in the lives of progressive women artists of her generation.” In her poems, Farrokhzad expresses an individualized female Self defined against societal norms and expectations by presenting intimate details of female experience, a trend that remains nascent even four decades after her tragic death and, at the same time, reinforces our critical stance that tradition still exerts a powerful grasp on Iranian minds.
The essays presented here engage with the complex imbrication of the discourses of religion, patriarchy, and politics within the overarching paradigm of tradition and modernity. The various and diverse depictions of Self presented by the artists examined in these essays indicate the ongoing construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of identity. These fictive narratives problematize the one-dimensional and shallow representations of Iranians that circulate unexamined in the West. Moreover, these films and literary texts not only challenge the neo-colonialist stereotypes but also reveal the limitations of collective identity as figured within and outside of Iran. Iranian identity as reflected in art, be it classical or modern, is informed by duality. A duality that was once metaphysical in nature has given way to a more politicized schism as a result of the country’s long, complex, and revolutionary history. The ongoing quest for equality for all members of Iranian society and the fight for personal and political expression remain among the many legitimate aspirations of the Iranian nation.9
1 We have adopted the system of transliteration used by the journal Iranian Studies for Persian words and names, except in the case of proper names (such as those of cities) for which a familiar English spelling exists.
2 For more information on the Constitutional Revolution, see Afary, Iranian Constitutional Revolution.
3 Within the Iranian intellectual milieu, Milani believes, three separate groups of ideologues have fostered this essentially colonialist view: whereas enchanted Iranian secular intellectuals and most Iranian Marxists embraced Eurocentric and Western liberating and modern ideas, the religious forces that constituted the third group rejected them on the basis of their origin (Lost Wisdom 10–11).
4 “Cyrus, King of Persia . . . is often referred to as God’s ‘anointed’ and the ‘chosen’ ruler,” notes Milani, adding, “Cyrus was in fact the first ruler to issue a declaration of human rights . . . and the first ruler to create a truly multi-cultural empire by affording his conquered peoples the liberty to maintain their own linguistic, religious, and cultural autonomy” (Lost Wisdom 11–12).
5 Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, too, contends that “in the interplay of looks between Asians and Europeans, there was no steady position of spectatorship, no objective observer. . . . The field of vision and the making of meaning were perspectival, contestatory, and theatrical” (Refashioning Iran 36).
6 It is important to recognize that although today women are discriminated against by laws that govern institutions such as marriage, child custody, inheritance, and court testimony, they do have equal access to education (Mongabay). The World Bank reports that, in Iran, “[t]he female-to-male ratio in primary school is the world’s highest, with 1.2 girls enrolled for every boy. The number of women in secondary school as a percentage of the eligible age group more than doubled from 30 percent to 81 percent, and in 2009, more than half of all Iranian university students, 68 percent of the students in science, and 28 percent in engineering were women” (60).
7 None of the works in this collection subscribes strictly to postmodernism proper. However, postmodernism resonates intensely with Iranian intellectuals because its irrationality evokes the same absence of rationality that is, in this traditional culture, deeply rooted in mysticism (Haghighi 10–12). Afshin Matin-Asgari suggests that as an “‘intellectual style,’ postmodernism arguably has occupied the leading place that Marxism enjoyed in Iran a generation ago” (113). Nietzsche and Foucault, considered by many Iranians as pioneers of postmodern thought, were popular because of the former’s seminal work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the latter’s work on the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This popularity has extended to Heidegger, Lyotard, and Derrida, among others, whose “fashionable philosophical jargon” Iranian intellectuals like Babak Ahmadi use loosely without having a thorough understanding of the concepts behind it (Haghighi 276). Haghighi takes issue with writers like Ahmadi who argue that “all interpretations of the truth are equal. . . . They have the same degree of credibility and are equally problematic” (279). In the words of Matin-Asgari, it is precisely this thesis that Haghighi opposes—seeing postmodernism as “a confused crossover between postmodern rhetoric and irrational tendencies of Iranian intellectual ‘tradition’” (114).
8 Mellat-ommat refers to a dichotomy between Iranians who share language and culture and Iranians for whom their shared religion of Islam takes precedence over nationality. Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi argues that, in order to recover from historical and cultural amnesia, Iranians reinvented a pre-Islamic past, one in which Iran became “a lost Utopia with . . . Mazdak as a theoretician and practitioner of freedom and equality, Kavah-’i Ahangar as the originator of ‘national will’ (himmat-i mellii), and Anushirvan as a paradigmatic just-constitutional monarch.” In what Tavakoli-Targhi describes as “a conscious effort to dissociate Iran from Islam and the Arabs,”
[i]t was argued that the veiling of women and polygamy were non-Iranian customs promulgated by the Arabs after the conquest of Iran. These “historical facts” were used rhetorically in the Constitutionalist discourse in order to project Iran’s “decadence” on to Arabs and Islam and introject the desirable attributes of Europeans on the pre-Islamic Self. This double process of projection and introjection provided mechanisms for the recasting of the millat and articulating a secular nationalist discourse and identity. The modernist dissociation of Iran from Islam intensified the Islamist desire to essentialize Islam in the constitution of Iranian identity. In the political struggle between Islamists and secularists in the twentieth century, the allegorical meanings of ancient history figured into the competing rhetorics of cultural authenticity. (“Contested Memories” 175; see also “Refashioning Iran” 77)
9 The editors would like to acknowledge Leila Pazargadi’s assistance in formulating the first call for papers that led to this publication.
Afary, Janet. Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906–1911. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
———. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.
Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Trans. Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1983.
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Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. 1941. New York: Discus Books, 1965.
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Haghighi, Shahrokh. Gozar az moderniteh? Nicheh, Fuko, Lyotar, Derida [Beyond Modernity? Nietzsche, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida]. Tehran: Agah, 2001.
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Milani, Abbas. Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran. Washington, DC: Mage, 2004.
———. “Said Amir Arjomand, After Khoemini: Iran Under His Successor.” Iranian Studies 45.4 (2012): 577–81.
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The Development of the Artistic Female Self in the Poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad
Between the views of those critics who value the literary merit of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry and those who consider it mere erotic verse, there is a significant interface: they all agree that her poetry drastically changed the path of self-expression in Iranian women’s literature. Farrokhzad daringly expressed herself on taboo topics, and the rebellious quality of her work undermines the patriarchal rules of Iranian culture. She presented her intimate experiences, and by doing so created the image of a lonely genius in a patriarchal world too indifferent to a woman’s sufferings. To some readers, she has become an accessible idol whose personal experiences of nervous breakdowns and divorce, along with her tragic sudden death in 1967 at the age of only thirty-two, define the value of her poetry. As American critic Jasmin Darznik writes: “During her own lifetime, critics tended to conflate Farrokhzad’s poetry with the poetic persona of her verses, and when Forugh Farrokhzad is remembered today, it is still most often as a confessional poet, one who drew directly from her life to her art or, more pointedly, from her sex life to her erotic verses” (104).
The similarities between Farrokhzad and the persona she created have made her life story a point of reference in interpreting her work. The same can be said of the importance of Farrokhzad’s life story in the feminist movement of Iran. Her struggle both in life and in art to balance socially accepted roles for women with their personal aspirations and inner desires has made her the symbol of resistance to patriarchal power. While I concede that her life experiences made her the epitome of the progressive Iranian woman at the turn of the twenty-first century, I believe that she moved beyond this struggle into a realm of universal human experience. In trying to express her femininity, Farrokhzad found, defined, and constantly redefined her artistic self. The incorporation of personal experiences into art demonstrates this struggle in the lives of progressive women artists of her generation and places Farrokhzad among the poets of the confessional school.
The term “confessional poetry” was first used by critic M. L. Rosenthal, in a review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies published in 1959 (154). The broad acceptance of the term resulted in some critics giving more weight to the candour of the poems than to their artistic qualities. Robert Phillips insists that “a true confessional poet places few barriers, if any, between his self and direct expression of that self, however painful that expression may prove,” arguing that confessional poetry “dispenses with a symbol or formula for an emotion and gives the naked emotion direct, personally rather than impersonally” (8). He suggests that the more directly the poet exposes her inner feelings and desires, the greater the artistic value of her work. However, Bruce Bawer expresses a completely contrasting view, writing that “the best of confessional poetry is marked by balance, control, a sense of form and rhythm, and even a degree of detachment” (8). Bawer’s position is that confessional poetry should be more than simply an emotional outpouring that reflects the poet’s personal life and experiences. Nonetheless, as the poetry of the personal “I,” confessional poetry often reveals private experiences and feelings about a great range of issues, including death, depression, and love. The “I” of Farrokhzad’s poetry invites the reader to bear witness to the sufferings of the persona and to join her as she goes through distressing experiences. Through the use of personal material, she ventures into areas of female consciousness and feeling that had rarely been touched on by other forms of Persian poetry produced by women. To make her voice heard, Farrokhzad needed to break through the limitations and challenge societal expectations of her as a woman and as an artist.
In the course of discussing the poetry of another female confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, with whom Farrokhzad has been compared many times, Sandra Gilbert also explores the work of Charlotte Brontë, referring to her novel Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman. She states that Brontë “couldn’t write the serious, straightforward, neo-Miltonic account of the ‘growth of the poet’s mind’ that Wordsworth produced.” Primarily for psychosocial reasons, “[w]omen as a rule, even sophisticated women writers, haven’t until quite recently been brought to think of themselves as conscious subjects in the world. Deprived of education, votes, jobs, and property rights, they have also, even more significantly, been deprived of their own selfhood” (“A Fine, White Flying Myth” 249). In an earlier study of confessional poets, Gilbert aptly observes the difference between male and female confessional poetry:
The male confessional poet—Lowell, Berryman, Yeats—writes in the certainty that he is the inheritor of major traditions, the grandson of history, whose very anxieties, as Harold Bloom has noted, are defined by the ambiguities of the past that has shaped him as it shaped his fathers. The female poet, however, even when she is not consciously confessional like Plath or Saxton, writes in the hope of discovering or defining a self, a certainty, a tradition. (“My Name Is Darkness” 448)
Gilbert does not use the term Bildungsroman for the work of the female confessional poets but states that “[c]onsidering and discarding different metaphors, different propositions of identity,” the female confessional poet “seem[s] to be straining to formulate an ontology of selfhood, some irreducible and essential truth about her own nature” (448). However, Farzaneh Milani considers “[t]he whole canon of Farrokhzad’s poetry . . . as a kind of Bildungsroman.” Milani believes that the term “best embodies Farrokhzad’s emergence from cultural conditioning and her struggle to come to self-realization, warranting its adaptation to her journey and to her awakening” (136). Although Bildungsroman is a genre of novel and has most often been associated with the development of a male protagonist’s mind and character, the concept—or rather its subtype, Künstlerroman—can be used to study the development of the persona in the poetry of Farrokhzad. In what follows, I trace the formation of the female self in samples of Farrokhzad’s poetry. I begin by introducing the forces that shape the selfhood of the artistic female self; this is followed by a discussion of whether and how the persona goes through rebirth and recreation of her artistic self.
Autocratic political systems and cultural obstacles have prevented the freedom of expression in different periods of Iranian history and have resulted in the formation of a complex system of metaphors and layers of meaning in Persian poetry. A cursory look at the history of Persian literature reveals how poetry has helped many in expressing their most radical criticism of cultural, social, religious, and political matters without facing any serious consequences. However, this situation has been the privilege of male poets, and the female experience has been glaringly absent from Persian poetry. In the mid-twentieth century, with certain cultural developments and the creation of more opportunities for women to participate in society, a new tradition of women’s poetry came into being that was highly self-reflective and self-revelatory. It was a new school of poetry by women, in which they openly expressed their feelings and emotions, braving stigmatization by the patriarchal and religious society. In what appeared as a sudden change in Iranian society’s cultural spirit, female poets shed their veils and raised their voices. Up to this point in the history of Persian poetry, there is almost no trace of female experience, but, as Farzaneh Milani describes this new generation of women poets, “with body unveiled and pen in hand, they led the reader behind walls and veils to the domain of the private” (127). Unlike the obedient traditional woman who, as the Persian proverb says, “suffered and suppressed [besuz va besaz],” the women of this generation broke their silence and shared their complaints, emotions, and most intimate experiences with others.
Women who claimed their right to express themselves publicly challenged the patriarchal values of the Iranian society. The presence of these new voices was even hard for many enlightened male thinkers to accept (Milani 128–30). Religious institutions, which greatly influenced public opinion, equated female emancipation to women being physically exposed. Modernism was associated with technology, education, and progress, on one hand, and unrestrained sexual expression of women, on the other. Many artists and thinkers of the time reflected in their work the dual ideals of having roots in traditional values yet aspiring for change. Even fifty years after her death, the literary life of Forugh Farrokhzad exemplifies this state of cultural uncertainty in the Iranian mind.
Farrokhzad worked with two different conflicts, personal and sociocultural, that grew from the same root. As Kamran Talattof argues, while the general consensus among scholars is that her work can be divided into two distinct categories (the unrefined personal poetry of her early work and the valuable social poetry of her last two collections), elements of personal and social conflict can be observed in both her early and later poems. Also, according to Talattof, the structural and philosophical changes in her later poetry reveal “the natural flourishing of a sensitive mind” (89). I believe that it was through this constant shuttling between the old values and the new, the personal conflicts and the social restrictions, that Farrokhzad’s artistic voice emerged and developed.
Farrokhzad’s first three collections—The Captive (Asir 1952), The Wall (Divar 1956), and Rebellion (Esyan 1957)—were, and still are, interpreted primarily in sexual terms (Milani 132). Their erotic nature prevented many early readers and critics from observing in them the evolving voice of a female artist. The publication of The Captive was a breath of fresh air and introduced new possibilities to women artists in Iran. As Michael Hillmann rightfully notes, the open expression of a woman’s emotion in The Captive was unprecedented in the Persian literary tradition (3–6). In a culture where women were expected to be silent and invisible, Farrokhzad’s outspokenness became controversial. Her search for autonomy and freedom and her harsh criticism of cultural and social ills begin here. The persona in the poems of The Captive is a young woman frustrated by limitations and haunted by feelings of loss and guilt. In the title poem, the woman is held motionless by her expected roles of mother and wife. The home—or to be more specific, the “house”—is a place of confinement and silence:
I think about it and yet I know
I do not have the strength to leave this cage
Even if the prisoner would let me go
I am short of breath to fly away.
From behind the bars, each bright morning
A smiling child looks at me
As I start to sing the happy song
His kissing lips near mine.
Oh endless sky if one day I choose to fly
Away from this silent prison
How will I answer the child’s crying eyes?
Let me be for I’m a captive bird.1 (“The Captive” 13–24)
The image of a “captive bird,” which represents the persona’s aversion to the forced immobility within her home, recurs in Farrokhzad’s first three collections. Also, although the portrayal of men changes through the course of Farrokhzad’s poetic career, they are depicted in her early poetry as emotionally unavailable. They objectify women, reducing them to a commodity:
He asks for winey kisses
What should I say to my hopeful heart?
He thinks about pleasure and ignorant of how
I think about that everlasting bliss. (“Stranger” 13–16)
While Farrokhzad constantly rejects this objectification, I agree with Simidchieva’s observation that there are “instances in which the dramatis persona looks at herself exclusively through the prism of paradigmatic patriarchal mores, which lay upon women the entire responsibility for sexual misconduct” (23). She is the one whose “fiery eyes” invite the man to a sinful pleasure (“Bitter Tale” 30). Despite this association with temptation, her role falls within the other stereotypical presentation of the female, that of the “angel in the house”: the caring mother and patient wife/beloved who suffers but keeps silent to avoid disturbing her man and her child. In accordance with this image, it is the man who is an active agent:
There is a city beside that river
Where my heart is held captive, in a proud man’s fist
. . .
On the sandy shore, and under palm trees
He has stolen kisses, from my eyes and lips (“Remembering the Past” 3–8)
As Shimidchieva argues, the persona in these poems is “a beguiling recipient of the man’s caresses, rather than his partner in passion” (26). Like Shahrzad (Scheherazade) of One Thousand and One Nights, her role is that of a caregiver and domesticator, but she lacks the legendary character’s determination and courage. Nonetheless, we should give credit to Farrokhzad because the description of intimate moments and the blunt expression of a woman’s feelings were textually rebellious moves in Persian literature. Had the young Farrokhzad taken The Captive to a publication house in an earlier time, it would have been rejected, but at a time of great cultural change, the daring and explicit content of her poetry justified its circulation.2
Farrokhzad’s defiant declaration of independence through the expression of sexual freedom continues through her second collection, The Wall (Divar), which starts with the infamous “Sin.” The breathless metre of the poem, its passionate tone, and the fact that it describes a sexual encounter from a woman’s perspective have made it taboo. But in addition to challenging the limits of sexual description, Farrokhzad pushes the textual boundaries by questioning the representation of women/the beloved in Persian literature. Symbolized in the character of “Leili,” the quintessential sweetheart is portrayed in Islamic-Persian literature as a disinterested, aloof beloved for whom the lover has to go through extremes. She is mysterious, cunning, and merciless. But in Farrokhzad’s “On Leyli’s Grave,” the beloved/poetic persona is no longer perplexing and unapproachable. If “in Leyli’s surreptitious eyes [. . .] night had blossomed” (9) and her feelings were unclear, in the eyes of the beloved in this poem, “the fiery flower of love has bloomed” (10). The speaker does not understand why Leyli’s disinterest in love is counted as a virtue; she asks: “Who was Leili? What’s the tale of her dark eyes?” (6). Unlike Leyli, the persona is active in love: she is not just a beloved; she is also a lover who meets her beloved in honesty and calls herself “the bride of lasting thoughts and imaginations” (18). Her candour results in her infamy among the crowd of people who do not accept a woman’s outspokenness. The walls function as a synecdoche for the house that imprisons her and, by extension, a metonym for the society that restrains her. It is with this perception of society that the persona looks at art as a realm of infinite freedom.
“The Wall,” which also lends its title to the collection, reflects the liberation inherent in artistic creation. On the surface, the poem is a feminist objection to the cultural limitations placed on women’s freedom of movement, but at a deeper level, it criticizes the patriarchal view of women:
In the hasty passing of cold moments
Your wild eyes in their silence
Build walls around me.
From you I run to untrodden paths. (1–4)
It is not what Farrokhzad does or says but how she is perceived that brings about her limitation. To bypass these obstacles, she turns to a way left rather untried by her predecessors: that of poetic creation.
The critique of the male gaze and the liberating force of artistic creation introduced by Farrokhzad in her earlier poems continue in her third collection, Rebellion. Furthermore, in John Zubizarreta’s words, this collection moves “from an acknowledged captivity to a self-conscious awareness of the nature of the particular barriers and then to a rebellious, complex struggle with wide-ranging issues of human value and human identity” (423). In other words, Farrokhzad’s concern with women’s freedom and her search for a female identity—formed in spite of social norms—turns into a lament about the human condition and a poetic rebellion against it. “Servitude Mutiny,” “Godly Mutiny,” and “God’s Rebellion” are direct objections to the human condition and to the God who, detached from human experiences, maintains his power by casting fear on people and reminding them of the punishments of the day of justice. She calls herself “the child of one pleasure-filled night” (37) and the result of “a body entwined around another body” (39) that had no choice in coming into being. In “Godly Mutiny,” she sees God as the “insidious laughter of death” (85) who does not understand human misery. A woman’s quest for personal identity and freedom expands and becomes more inclusive: she addresses both the human condition and human identity.
It is in Another Birth, her fourth collection, that Farrokhzad enters a new phase of her artistic creativity and depicts the birth of a liberated and autonomous self. “Rebirth,” which is a reflection on life and being, starts with this line: “My entire being is a dark chant” (1). Ayeh, translated here as “chant,” refers to the lines of the Quran. The religious connotation of ayeh indicates the persona’s view of herself as sacred and divine. She has built a sacred self through the projection of life in art:
Know a sad little fairy
Who takes abode in an ocean
And who ever so softly
Plays her heart into a wooden flute;
A sad little fairy
Who dies with a single kiss every night
And is born every morn with another. (62–69)
The persona’s identity is constantly reformed through art. To use Foucauldian terminology, it is in the free space provided by art that she is able to nourish her agency and try different modes of being a self: to die and be reborn. There is also a change in the tone of the poems that address sociocultural issues. In Farrokhzad’s first three collections, the poems have a predominantly personal tone. In Another Birth, even in the poems that specifically address women’s issues, like “Windup Doll,” the tone is no longer admonishing or defiant. Rather, it is descriptive of a situation in which a woman’s agency can play an important role. As mentioned earlier, in “On Leyli’s Grave” (from The Wall), Farrokhzad challenges the age-old representation of the woman as beloved; in “My Beloved” (from Another Birth), she goes further and both switches and surpasses the man/woman, lover/beloved dichotomies.
In the first three collections, both men and women are depicted as caught in their stereotypical gender roles, but the man in “My Beloved” is beyond masculine clichés. As Milani observes, “[a]fter centuries of posing as the lover, man finally becomes the beloved” (141). He is not a fragment of an imagination or an emotionally unavailable man too concerned with his image. He is personable and simple:
He is wildly free
Like a healthy instinct
In the heart of an inhabited island.
With the strips torn from Majnun’s tent,
The street’s dust
From his shoes. (23–28)
Just as she questions Leyli’s portrait in an earlier poem, in “My Beloved,” Farrokhzad criticizes the image of Majnun as a lover whose unrequited love has made him miserable. Not only are the man’s feelings reciprocated, but he also grows in this love and, in an unprecedented turn in Persian literature, he becomes the beloved as well as the lover. “He is a simple man” who “loves purely” the simple little joys of life, “a tree / a dish of ice-cream” (50–53), and it is with this man that the persona conquers the garden of life. “The Conquest of the Garden” describes an Edenic place in which, confident about her choices and way of life, the speaker discards her doubts. Empowered by love, she has put aside all conventions:
Everyone is afraid
Everyone is afraid, but you and I
Joined the lamp, water and mirror
And we were not afraid. (12–15)
This Edenic garden is also a place of equality in which the lovers have “picked the apple / from that distant playful branch” (10–11), a place where they were not lured into picking it but chose to do so. The speaker is no longer feeling unsure or guilty. Her feelings and her intellect are in harmony with each other. Even the spear-like cry of the crow (a bird that represents an ill omen and a spreader of gossip) that flew over them and took the news of their unconventional union to the city (lines 1–5) cannot affect her. She is no longer confined within the invisible walls of tradition and norms. Her partnership and equality with the man in the matter of love, the most natural and basic relationship between the sexes, demonstrate her freedom from social and personal restrictions.
The persona’s voice in the personal and social arenas is best reflected in Farrokhzad’s last collection, Let Us Believe in the Dawning of the Cold Season, which was published posthumously. In the personal arena, the voice is that of a strong and defiant artist no longer in need of a muse; it is the voice of a woman who does not even need the security of a simple man’s love and who is completely reliant on her own strength and aspirations. She asks:
Why should I stop, why?
The birds have flown in search of a blue dimension.
The horizon is vertical
The horizon is vertical and motion: fountained. (“It Is Only the Voice That Remains” 1–4)
She celebrates life, motion, and artistic creativity. The persona comes to the understanding that it is only her voice, her artistic creation, that remains and brings about her boundless freedom; accordingly, she refuses to be silenced and stopped. In “Remember the Flight,” the persona presents a wholesome and formed identity. She is no longer concerned with physical limitations or engaged in the numerous aspects of her newly found freedom. She has established her identity independently:
Will introduce me to the sun
No one will introduce me to the sparrows’ feast.
Remember the flight,
The bird is mortal. (7–11)
Outside the confining veils and borders, in the realm of artistic creation, she has constructed a personal autonomous self.
In this collection, Farrokhzad also ventures into the social arena. In the poem “I Grieve for the Garden,” she combines her accessible and simple diction with allegory and symbolism and a prophetic yet innocent tone to create an urgent voice. In this poem, the garden represents the Iran of the time when the Shah, rather than expressing concern about the country’s needs, was engaged in justifying his autocracy by celebrating the history of the monarchy:
“It’s past my time
It’s past my time
I’ve carried my load
And I’ve done my job”
And in his room from dawn to dusk,
He reads Shahnameh
Or Nasekh-al-tavarikh.3 (20–27)
While “Father” represents the monarchy, “Mother” stands for another important institution of power in society: religion. Mother thinks that praying and observing religious doctrines can solve all the nation’s problems. To her, the garden’s infection is a punishment from God for the sins and disbelief of the people—the sins that are the result of Iran’s modernization and introduction to Western culture:
Mother always looks at the bottom of things
She seeks the signs of some transgression
And thinks the garden is infected
By the blasphemy of a plant. (37–40)
The brother represents the elite group of people who criticize the way modernization is imposed on the society yet remain apathetic and impractical:
My brother calls the garden “a graveyard”
He laughs at the confusion of herbs
The number of
Dead fish rotting
Under the sick surface of water. (49–54)
The sister stands in opposition to the brother, as she is mesmerized by superficial modernization and takes pleasure and pride in material affluence:
She lives on the other side of the city
Inside her fake home
With her fake goldfish
Under the loving protection of her fake husband
And under the branches of a fake apple tree
She sings fake songs
And makes natural children. (74–80)
The brother and sister represent the young generation, drowned in a modernization that is taking place on a superficial and materialistic level. But the persona, the artist woman, thinks there is a chance to save the garden that is slowly decaying:
I think the garden can be taken to the hospital
I think . . .
I think . . .
I think . . .
And the heart of the garden is swollen under the sun
And the mind of the garden is very slowly draining
Of green memories. (111–17)
The garden is left unplowed. The speaker is the only one who has confidence in the forgotten potential of the garden. The hope that the persona displays in Farrokhzad’s later poetry is far from the disappointments of the speaker of her earlier poems, who had surrendered to society’s expectations.
Farrokhzad’s journey toward an autonomous poetic self can be traced from her early collections to her later ones. The limited and confined “I” moves toward the free, expanded, and universal “self.” The representation of this free woman affected Forugh Farrokhzad’s own reputation and continues to influence the reading of her poetry today. In Goli Taraqqi’s words: “[T]ired of being a captive in the prison of traditions of a society which condemns her true identity and her womanhood, Farrokhzad breaks traditional and moral rules and finds her freedom in what others call ‘disgrace’ and ‘stigma’” (54). She continues to be criticized for her nonconformity to traditional poetic forms and themes and is stigmatized for her choices in personal life. Like the persona in her poetry, Farrokhzad was excessive and restless. She had an internal urge for a life filled with pure and unprecedented moments and with experiences beyond the daily engagements and cautious uncertainty and dismay.
Through poetry, Farrokhzad recorded the progress of an artistic female self. She celebrated the experience of motherhood and, in her early works, attempted to create a balance between the outer/social role of mother and wife and the inner, personal desire to be an artist. The poems document the struggles between her inner and outer selves, her traditional responsibilities and artistic desires.