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Modern Iranian Literature: Between Politics and Traditions

Iran- Omar khayyam
From Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat. Photo Flickr

In Iran, poets are celebrities. Classical Persian poetry is part of everyday life. The poetry of Hafiz, who died in 1390, is recited in daily conversations by people from all walks of life. Young or old, rich or poor, farmers or urban elites use poetry to convey their meaning. Even illiterates are likely to know some verses by heart. Often, poetry is used as a medium of political expression. In a country that has a long history of authoritarianism, people express themselves through poetry that was written hundreds of years ago to shield themselves from persecution.

Although Persian literature had an influence in various parts of the Muslim world, it was little known in the West before around the 18th century. However, gradually some important works were translated into various European languages. (1048-1123) was perhaps the most popular Persian poet of the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe. Edward Fitzgerald translated Rubaiyat into English in 1859. It went on to become one of the most quoted poetry books in English.

The poet and mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273) attracted a large international following in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Millions of copies of his poetry collections have been sold in recent years, and he is considered the best-selling poet in the United States.

Although Iran has a long poetry tradition, modern Iranian literature emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was shaped by the socio-political transitions Iran was going through at that time. One of the most important events was the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, which was sparked by dissatisfaction with economic stagnation, the influence of Western power and the results of the Russian revolution of 1905. In this period, the socio-political elite regarded modernization as a solution for the profound challenges facing the country. This quest for modernization not only targeted political institutions, it also had an impact on Iranian literary life.

Pioneers such as Akhundzadeh, Kermani and Malkom Khan, Dehkhoda and Bahar argued that poetry should reflect the realities of a society in transition. They challenged the traditional system of Persian poetry and its preoccupation with lexico-semantics and structure. Most of these modernizers were heavily inspired by the evolution of European literature. Around the same time, the first Iranian graduates from European universities brought back new ideas and translations of important Western literature and philosophy. These new perspectives and the desire for change paved the way for a drastic transformation of Iranian literature.

Nima Yushij (1897-1960) is regarded as the father of modern Persian poetry, breaking many boundaries and introducing novel styles and techniques. An iconoclastic poet, he liberated Persian poetry from the shackles of prosody. He is perhaps best known for allowing the length of the line to be determined by the complexity of the thought instead of the traditional length of a verse. So-called Nimaic poetry was a gateway to a new tradition that was championed by many subsequent poets, including Sohrab Sepehri, Ahmad Shamlu and Forough Farrokhzad, who went on to develop modern poetry further. Farrokhzad (1934-1967), who has been described as Iran’s Sylvia Plath, looked critically at the patriarchal limits of Iranian society and challenged the position of women within it.

Yet no discussion of modern Iranian literature would be complete without a mention of Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951), widely considered the father of modern Persian fiction. He was intensely drawn to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He was the first person to translate the works of Kafka and Chekhov into Persian, and he wrote an extensive introduction to the Persian edition of Kafka’s stories. He was a prominent figure in Tehran’s intellectual circles and belonged to the anti-monarchical, anti-Islamic literary group known as the Four.

Hedayat’s pessimistic and Kafkaesque The Blind Owl (1937) was the first modern novel in Persian. The book was a response to a repressive socio-political climate that had been unable to realize the ideals of the Constitutional Revolution. He also wrote a number of important short stories that were highly critical of the prevailing structures in Iranian society. A deeply melancholy man, Hedayat began to withdraw from his friends and seek solace in drugs and alcohol. He eventually moved to Paris, where he took his own life.

The Second World War, which resulted in the occupation of Iran by the Allied Forces, was another turning point for modern Iranian literature. The arrival of foreign troops significantly weakened the Iranian government’s ability to enforce its usual censorship, and both political activism and independent publications flourished. Between 1941 and 1947, around 500 newspapers and journals were founded. The reinvigorated intellectual climate also paved the way for the establishment of the First Congress of Iranian Writers in 1946. Some of the most important Iranian writers such as Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Ebrahim Golestan and Sadeq Chubak emerged during this period.

Most of the fiction that was written at this time reflected on the socio-political challenges of Iranian society. Authors such as Chubak criticized religious superstitions and began writing about the lives of the poorer segments of society. Bozorg Alavi (1904-1997) was an influential political writer and a founding member of the communist Tudeh Party in the 1940s. Following the coup that overthrew the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, Alavi went into exile in Germany. Although he briefly returned to Iran after the downfall of the shah in 1979, the hostile post-revolutionary political climate forced him to return to Germany, where he lived until his death. Chashm’hā’yash (‘her eyes’), which was published in 1952 and immediately banned by the authorities, is considered Alavi’s best novel.

The revolution was another turning point for Iranian literature. In the years that followed, there was a brief period of freedom that boosted both independent publications and other intellectual activities. However, this energizing and optimistic climate did not last long. The 1980s would become one of the worst decades for Iranian literature. Islamist repression, a war with Iraq and the pressing economic problems, among others, undermined the writers who did not opt for exile. It was not until the reformist Muhammad Khatami came to power in 1997 that the scene changed again.

The political opening paved the way for the emergence of a new generation of young writers. Writers such as Zoya Pirzad and Hossein Sanapour gained critical acclaim and a large audience. In this period, many reformist papers emerged that attracted a mass readership. The literary pages were popular, and a number of non-governmental literary prizes were established. Around half of the prizes were awarded to women, and half of these women were first-time writers. Although this ‘reform era’ was considered a good phase for Iranian literature, the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005 to 2013 once again enforced a regime of strict censorship. After Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, the situation improved, but both the socio-political and economic climate remain largely inhospitable for writers.

Although some other art forms such as cinema have found a way to survive and thrive since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian literature has been more exposed to the socio-political dynamics of the country. And while the passion for classical literature and the love of poetry have not changed, modern Iranian literature is facing yet another difficult phase.