It’s impossible not to make this personal. While I am sitting here at my computer, my wife is at her sister’s house on Long Island helping to take care of her father, whose life cancer will soon cut far too short. No one knows, or wants to predict, how soon soon will be, but as much of the family as is able has gathered around him: his cousins, who live not far from the my sister-in-law (they are also my wife’s uncles), and their wives and children; my other sister-in-law from Canada and her daughter; my father-in-law’s brother, who flew in just a couple of days ago from Germany with his wife. The only one who should be here but isn’t, because he can’t, is my brother-in-law, my wife’s youngest sibling, who still lives in Iran and who, we were told when we called the State Department to inquire, would probably not be granted an emergency visa to see his dying father even if he passed with flying colors the six-month mandatory background check he would have to go through.
Fortunately, my father-in-law got to see his son earlier this year, when my in-laws traveled back to Iran so they could help arrange their youngest child’s engagement. Nonetheless, the fact that he can’t be here now speaks volumes about the political divide across which Iran and the United States currently face each other. This divide, of course, is not new; it dates most obviously to 1979 and what we here in the United States called then, and still call now, “The Hostage Crisis.” To be fair, though, the anger that motivated the 1979 occupation of the US embassy in Tehran dates back to at least 1953, when the United States and British governments engineered a coup that removed from power the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq and restored Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the throne.
This history is important to me now, however, not because of the insight it might provide into the current political situation between Iran and the US, but because my father-in-law lived it. He joined the Shah’s army as a young man and then, in 1965, when an attempt on the Shah’s life necessitated a rethinking of the royal family’s security arrangements, my wife’s father was made a member of the Shah’s Imperial Guard where, by the time of the revolution, he had achieved the rank of colonel. Serendipitously, when the revolution happened, on my father-in-law’s desk was the file of one of the palace guards who had deserted his post during the 1965 assassination attempt (the guards were unarmed; the assassin, of course, had a gun). That guard had been arrested, charged with desertion and sentenced to death. It would have been up to my father-in-law to decide whether or not the man should be pardoned. The revolution made that decision unnecessary.
My father-in-law’s life after the revolution, as you might imagine, was not easy, and the fact that he survived at all—most of his friends, acquaintances and colleagues were killed—is, as I understand it, in large measure a reflection of what, in my own culture, we would call his menschlichkeit, a Yiddish word that connotes a person’s inherent decency and ability to treat others with a real and heartfelt dignity. My wife has told me stories about how, when he was called before the revolutionary courts, her father’s former subordinates always testified on his behalf, testimony without which he would almost certainly have been put to death.
When he came to New York the year I married his daughter, my then father-in-law-to-be brought for her as a gift a series of absolutely gorgeous broadsides with scenes and passages from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, about which you will read two essays in this issue of ArteNews. One tells the story of how a literature instructor in California made the Shahnameh relevant to a group of American college students, while the other suggests that the heroes of the Shahnameh might offer better models of the kinds of heroes we need today than those found in the epics of western literature, such as The Odyssey. You will also read my own translation of the story of Kayumars and his grandson Hushang, the first two kings whose stories the Shahnameh tells.
Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh in the 10th century CE because he was commissioned to do so, but he fulfilled his commission in a way that was profoundly subversive, using almost no Arabic loan words in a poem of between 50,000 and 60,000 couplets at a time when Arabic had already been for 300 years the official legal and literary language of the Persian Empire. As importantly, Ferdowsi used the Shahnameh as an occasion to celebrate Iran’s pre-Islamic culture, ending the poem not in his own time, after Islam had long been established as the empire’s dominant religious and cultural tradition—Ferdowsi was himself a Muslim—but with the Islamic conquest in the 8th century. Ferdowsi, in other words, wrote the Shahnameh as a conscious act of reclamation, asserting Iranian identity in Iranian terms, while at the same time demonstrating that Persian could function as a literary language, which laid the foundation for the great poets of Persian literature—Sa’di, Khayyam, Rumi and Hafez are four whose names are pretty well known in the West—who would emerge a few centuries later.
Ironically, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen the emergence of an Iranian literature as concerned in its own way with questions of identity as Ferdowsi was when he wrote the Shahnameh. This literature, however, extends well beyond the borders of Iran. In the United States and elsewhere, people who left Iran as children, as well as the children of those who emigrated from Iran after the revolution, are starting to write and publish work that wrestles with what their Iranian heritage means to them. In addition, those writers who left Iran after 1979 have continued to write, most often in Persian, raising the question of what a Persian-language literature is when it is written and published in a country where Persian is neither the dominant nor even a major language; and there is also a growing interest in translations of Iranian literature, classical and contemporary, whether it was written in Iran or not.
In other words, if the Islamic Revolution had not taken place, I would not have been able to ask the controlling question I used to frame the call for submissions for this issue in the way that I asked it:
The usage(s) of and relationship(s) between the terms “Persian” and “Iranian” in current discourse—literary, cultural, political and otherwise—is a complex one, with each term simultaneously concealing and revealing highly contested and politicized positions re-garding the nature of cultural, national and personal identities. The literature produced within the space(s) defined by these positions dates back to at least the 10th century, when Ferdowsi composed the Shahnameh using almost no Arabic loan words, an act of literary subversion that almost single-handedly resurrected Persian as a literary language in the face of what had been Arabic’s dominance. Today, the literature being produced within this “Iranian/Persian space” is written in (or translated into) many languages other than Persian, in countries far beyond the borders of the ancient Persian Empire, and by people whose connections to whatever is defined by the terms “Persian” and/or “Iranian” are anything but monolithic. Is it fair, then, to call this literature a world literature? What are the implications of doing so? What are the implications of choosing not to do so?
I will not pretend that the poems, essays and stories gathered here represent anything other than the relatively small number of people who sent them to me or from whom I solicited them. Nonetheless, I do think they begin to sketch the outlines of the landscape my question was intended to uncover and begin to explore. Among the writers represented here are two women from Iran, one a young poet of 24, the other with an established career as a writer and editor, each of whom write poetry in English; there is an award-winning Iranian-American poet; a poet born in the year of the revolution who now writes, in Persian and Swedish, in Sweden; another poet published here in translation has been barred from entering Iran for more than two decades. There is a fiction writer from the United States who has made her career out of writing the Iranian immigrant experience. You will find translations of classical Persian literature, a fictionalized memoir by an academic from the United Kingdom and a short story by a man who is now a well-known Iranian director, but who began his career as a fiction writer deeply sympathetic to the Islamic Republic.
I have divided these contributions to ArteNews into three sections, corresponding to where the piece was written, or the original piece, if what is being published here is a translation: From Inside Iran, From Outside Iran, From The Academy. My purpose in making these distinctions is not to suggest that they have any absolute value in and of themselves, but to indicate, rather, one kind of organizing principle out of which a meaningful picture of Iranian/Persian literature, as it is being written and written about throughout the world, might emerge. How that picture fails to do justice to what it is supposed to represent—being as tentative and partial as it is, it cannot help but fail—is something I will leave to other, more qualified individuals to decide. I am not a scholar of Persian Studies and my command of the Persian language, while it is good enough, as we joke in my family, that my wife’s relatives can no longer talk with impunity about me in front of me, falls far below what I would require if I wanted to pretend to any kind of authority on the subject.
Nonetheless, I have presumed to gather these works together and to place them before you, and I do feel comfortable saying this: Whether you call the literature Iranian or Persian, it deserves and should command your attention, not only because the current political situation between the US and its allies and Iran makes it imperative that people throughout the world (though perhaps especially in the US) understand Iran and Iranians as much as possible, but because it is a worthy literature in its own right, confronting in important and complex ways, from at least the 10th century onward, the questions of identity and meaning that we all wrestle with, no matter what language we speak, where we live now or where we were born
If you have comments, questions or criticisms to share, I would love to hear them. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Jeffrey Newman, a poet, essayist and translator, is the author of The Silence Of Men (CavanKerry Press, 2006), a book of his own poetry, and two books of translations from classical Persian literature, Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan and Selections from Saadi’s Bustan (both from Global Scholarly Publications, 2004 and 2006 respectively). He has been publishing his work since 1988, when the essay “His Sexuality; Her Reproductive Rights” appeared in Changing Men magazine. Since then, his essays and poems have appeared in Salon.com, The American Voice, The Pedestal, Circumference, Prairie Schooner, ACM, Birmingham Poetry Review and other literary journals. His work has been anthologized in Access Literature (Thomson Wadsworth, 2005) and his poetry has been translated into Dutch. Currently, he is translating selections from the Shahnameh, the Persian national epic, which will also be published by Global Scholarly Publications; and he has collaborated with Professor John Moyne on a new Rumi anthology, A Bird in the Garden of Angels, which is forthcoming from Mazda Publishers. Richard Jeffrey Newman, Literary Arts Director for Persian Arts Festival, sits on the advisory board of The Translation Project, is listed as a speaker with the New York Council for the Humanities. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York, where he coordinates the Creative Writing Project. To learn more, please visit his website, www.richardjnewman.com.
The Persian Arts Festival is a not-for-profit, arts and cultural organization whose mission is to highlight the magnificence and diversity of Persian art and culture within the community at large. Our goal is to support and showcase emerging and established artists, voices and visionaries of today while honoring ancient Persian traditions & holidays like Norooz, the Persian New Year, which corresponds to the Spring Equinox. With the growing population of Persians in the United States, Persian culture is very much alive and makes a valuable contribution to US society overall. PAF provides a unique opportunity to gather and explore one of the world’s most ancient and rich civilizations, as well as presenting a platform for interaction, progressive communication and perspective through art. Please visit our website, www.persianartsfestival.org.