Before leaving for a trip to Iran, Quentin asked for some books or movie suggestions. I was for 2-3 weeks in Iran in 1993, during a long trip through Asia. This was possibly the country that I preferred during that journey. The splendid cities, the rich culture and the way people welcomed us was in such stark contrast with the negative image prevalent in international politics and in the media. I will try to avoid those stereotypes in this overview. Nevertheless, the Islamic Revolution and the way people reacted to it plays a pivotal role in most of the current production from Iran. I will start by a book that covers the pre-Islamic period. “The Gardens of Light (Les Jardins de Lumière)” by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf tells the story of Mani, the philosopher who lived in Persia in the 3rd century. His name inspired the words “Manichean” and “Manicheism”, but Maalouf shows us how his life and teachings were very far from a simplistic opposition between good and evil.
I also remember reading « Avicenne ou la Route d’Ispahan » by Gilbert Sinoué a great novel about Avicenna (Ibn Sina)’s life, a doctor and philosopher, born in Bukhara who died in Isfahan and who lived about one thousand years ago. It seems the book is not available in English. This is unfortunate as I liked very much this deep dive in 11th century Persia where the culture was brilliant and blooming, in a period when Medieval Europe appeared lagging.
The city with the turquoise mosques seems to have inspired many writers. I also read “The Siege of Isfahan (Sauver Ispahan)” by Jean-Christophe Rufin. It is a sequel to “The Abyssinian” which launched the literary career of this “doctor without borders” who became a member of the Académie Française. The book offers a discovery of 18th century Persia as seen by Jean-Baptise and Alix, a French couple who retired in Isfahan after their Ethiopian adventures. I liked the book almost as much as the “The Abyssinian”. The French critique is very positive, the English reception was more mixed.
It’s now time to leave history and to look at Iranian authors. I recently read « Reading Lolita in Tehran » by Azar Nafisi which is excellent. It is the story of an English literature professor who reads classics (Nabokov, James, Fitzgerald) with her students at the University of Teheran during the Islamic Revolution. She continues with a group of girls once she is expelled from the University. This book club then becomes an opportunity to discuss, beyond and with the help of the books, their lives, loves, marriages and choices to emigrate or stay in a country where Islamic censorship becomes more oppressive by the day.
I very much liked « The Septembers of Shiraz » by Dalia Sofer. It is the story of a Jewish Iranian family in the tumult of the Islamic Revolution. The oldest brother, Parviz, studies architecture in Brooklyn. Isaac, the father, a high end jeweler under the Shah, is suddenly imprisoned, tortured and then robbed of his lifelong work. Farnaz, the mother needs to confront this drama and the hatred and discrimination of the country’s new masters. And this all seems seen from the eyes of Shirin, the eleven years old daughter who understands steps by steps the stakes before the family crosses the border clandestinely. The book is written very elegantly and in a very subtle way.
“The Colonel” is a novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. In my list, this is the only book written by an author who is still living in Iran. The other Iranian authors which I discussed have emigrated. Dowlatabadi was seen as subversive both by the Shah and Islamists’ police. « The Colonel » has only been published outside of Iran and is not available in Farsi. This is a rough but impressive book. In this allegory of the Iranian people, a nationalist colonel from the Shah’s army see his five children take different paths during the Revolution: one is communist, the other fights against Iraq, others become victims or collaborators of the new Islamic regime. They will end up martyrs, tortured or condemned. And it will be the colonel’s duty to pick their bodies at the mortuary and dig their graves under the rain.
The graphic novel « Persepolis » by Marjane Satrapi has been a best-seller. It is a very nice autobiography which covers the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the author’s exile in Austria and her return to Iran. The drawings in black and white are simple but moving and the first person story humanizes the country and the succession of historic events. My kids are reading this book, first published in French but then widely translated, for their English literature class in high school.
I take advantage of Persepolis to transition from books to movies. There is a great tradition of excellent Iranian movies. One of the most famous is “The Taste of Cherry” by Abbas Kiarostami which got the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. This reflection about suicide and the meaning of life is a minimalist movie, with long sequences shot from inside a car. I would lie if I told you that the suspense is breathtaking…But the majority of the critics consider it a masterpiece.
Another very good Iranian movie that I liked is « A Separation » by Asghar Farhadi. A couple gets an opportunity to leave Iran. The wife wants to go, the husband doesn’t want to abandon his dad who suffers from Alzheimer. A movie about marriage, father-son relationships and social differences. Far from the clichés about Islamism. Here is the trailer:
It is with another movie by Ashgar Farhadi, « About Elly » that I end up my Iranian overview. Several friends go for a week-end on the Caspian Sea. Elly is new in that band and only known by Sepideh who invited her so that she could meet one of the bachelors in the group. But she disappears as she was flying a kite along the beach with the children. A film full of suspense, tensions and surprises.