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Writer

A plea
Who is this Homo Persus? Who is this Homo Midio-Oriental?

By Mammad Aidani
November 3, 2003
The Iranian

This paper was presented at the International Writers Festival in Melbourne, Australia, in September 2003.

Prior to the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, and last year's Bali tragedy, as someone from the Middle East, and an Iranian-born resident here, I had always felt that people in Australia treated, observed, scrutinised, examined, included, questioned, marginalised and excluded me as an odd thing from a mysterious place called Iran.

I had been seen as an exotic, enigmatic, inarticulate, eccentric and out-of-place person with strange idiosyncrasies and unconventional ways of speaking this language, English. I was seen as confused and sometimes a lost cause. I'll let you guess what I have gone through in feeling the stigma that has been attached to me.

However, since those two tragic events, I have found myself in a very different and more depressing predicament. That is, I have been classified as a potentially fanatical Muslim in disguise and a potential hater of the West. Therefore I'm generally regarded as a distrustful member of this civilised society.

These feelings started to develop during the Tampa crisis, in response to comments such as 'they' cannot cope with the concept of democracy, or 'they don't love their children' during the last election, or that all Muslims or others from those parts of the world are potential enemies of the West.

I have to admit that the feeling of being mistrusted in public, at some formal gatherings, and by big parts of the media has had a huge impact on me.

I have been wondering why my suffering, displacement, tragedies, stories, memories, my learning, and my contributions, little as they may sound, have become irrelevant in the eyes of many in this society? Why does all I have left behind at my birthplace, as well as my vulnerabilities, fears, uncertainties, strengths, resilience, thirst for peace, knolwdge and constant struggle to integrate into this environment, no longer matter?

I feel that I'm perceived as far more fragile and odd now than ever before. I have been asking myself more than ever, 'Where do I belong?' And I don't have an answer. If it had not been for a few generous souls who have accepted me as I am, this place could have become worse than Dante's inferno.

I think Australia has to look into itself very closely. I'm sure it has learnt some lessons from its past discrimination against the indigenous peoples and other minorities. But many people have somehow lost their decent perspectives towards others thanks to the paranoia that the government, politicians, media, educators, institutions of power, and some intellectuals have been perpetually feeding into the society.

What are they going to gain by labelling others as barbarians, uncivilized, underdeveloped, uneducated, untrustworthy and uncultured in their private and personal discussions, as well as in their public statements? What is this obsession with creating negative images, of creating stereotypes toward others for the sake of winning?

This obsession with creating binary oppositions has caused pain and suffering for millions of people who have come from the Middle East and have then lived in the body of Western societies. I hear the voice of Marlow from the Heart of Darkness echoing in my ears, stronger than it was one hundred years ago when Joseph Conrad wrote this now canonised book.

We know that this is an era in which intellectuals, cultural experts, writers and academics have called postcolonial and postmodern. One wonders what has happened to all this new enlightenment and to the Western mind?

I have shared these lines with you because I do not subscribe to any kind of dogma in any society and culture. But I cannot help myself; I'm from an ancient Persian and Islamic cultural background, and I'm proud of it. History has always been full of tragedies and paradoxes for us. The ancient Greeks had considered us, as Herodotus put it in around 440BC, 'the most informed barbarians'. Four centuries later, still in antiquity, a Roman thinker called Starbo in around 63BC mentioned us by saying that 'the Persians are the most illustrious of the barbarian in the eyes of the Greeks'. Nothing seems to have changed since then.

Now more than ever, for the sake of dialogue between the East and the West we need tolerance, eagerness and great will to seek mutual understanding. We all know labelling has been futile.

Sadegh Hedayat
As I was thinking to put these thoughts together, I recalled a quote I referred to in my recent lecture entitled 'What did Nietzsche learn from Zarathustra?' I was thinking of our Persian prophet and philosopher, the historical Zarathustra. I thought it would be relevant to share it with you here in order to imply that my contribution tonight is embedded in my personal experience as an individual and as an artist.

Nietzsche, in Human all Too Human, says, "Life as the product of life, however far man/woman may extend themselves with their knowledge, however objective they may be to themselves. Ultimately they reap nothing but their own biography."

In his Rubaiyat eleven centuries ago, Omar Khayyam, the great Iranian poet philosopher, declared:

The ocean of being has come from the Obscure,
no one has pierced this jewel of reality;
each has spoken according to his humour,
no one can define the face of things.

When I look at the fragmentary Persian notes I have entered into my journals throughout many years observing the world, I usually feel distressed. But I know they are there and from time to time I pay homage to them by reading them. I often ask myself whether I have to destroy or keep them. I have to admit that if they have any creative validity I make an attempt to translate them into my cryptic version of English and, if not, I just let them rot.

Recently, when I was approached by Jane (the convenor of the forum) to say something about writing in Iran or my own writing at this festival, I suggested that I would write something about how I met the writings of Sadegh Hedayat. You see I have this habit of collecting notes about the minds that have been nourishing mine for a very long time.

So, when I think of my initiation to the serious reading of literature, I usually go back to my memories of when I was a teenager in the city of my birth, 'khorrammsher'. I try my best to reflect on what I have inherited from that place and the people who had lived in it. Frankly the only inheritance I can think of is my familiarity with my history there, memories, my deep interest in observing things, people and the bleak and obscure future I had ahead of me living under a brutal dictatorship and how my youth along side millions of others in that society was vested.

***

The first time I came across Hedayat's name was in 1971. It happened by accident, thanks to a very hot summer day and the newly built public library in our town. Tragically this library was bombed by Saddam's invading army in the early eighties and consequently destroyed.

In summer, the southwest of Iran is extremely hot and sometimes the temperature rises to fifty degrees (more than 120 F.). I recall that I needed some freshness in my exhausted young body that day. I could not just wander aimlessly in the city under the heat. And the most logical thing to do in that situation was to go to the library. It was the only place I could go and sit in order to enjoy the cool air of air conditioners.

When I entered I noticed that there were only a few people there. Some were reading and the rest were just sitting and enjoying the coolness of the place. Books were scattered around the tables. I sat next to a man who looked old, and he was reading a book, which he had brought very close to his eyes. The interesting title caught my attention. 'Buf-e-kur' (The Blind Owl). What a title, I thought. The man read for a while and when he left the library, he left the book on the table. I looked at it; the title was still grabbing my attention. I leaned over and picked it up, then started to read.

'There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of cancer. It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony, which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation in or in writing is considered in light of current beliefs, the individual's personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision. The reason for this incomprehension is that mankind has not yet discovered a cure for this disease. Relief from it is to be found only in the oblivion brought about by wine and in the artificial sleep induced by opium and similar narcotics. Alas, the effects of such medicines are only temporary. After a certain point, instead of alleviating the pain, they only intensify it.'

I put the book down. I was blown away. What was this? My god, who was this man? It was scary but also so familiar. Considering the poverty I, and millions of people like me, were forced to experience in our day-to-day lives during the Shah, I suddenly thought it made so much sense. That was my reading of my cancer and my pain. It also reminded me of the laughter I used to provoke in other kidsby when talking about our poverty. Hedayat was the one who understood this cancer. Was I right to read him that way or not? I did not care. I identified for the first time with my own language and in it this character and writer. I was only 15.

Baudelaire stressed that, if you are looking for beauty you must recognise the elements of melancholy. In his Le Salone de 1846, he emphasises that 'beauty must have the substance of strangeness'. As the poet/critic who gave modernist poetry to French literature, Baudelaire immersed himself in challenging the old traditions and advocated for modernity in art as well as poetry. He was the first critic who held the controversial artist Eugene Delacroix as the 'hero of modern art and the true artist'. In one of his essays he went so far to praise Delacroix as 'Le Peintre de la vie Moderne', or 'the painter of modern life'.

As a reader he loved authors who were writing new things and distancing themselves from the traditional ways of thinking, like Chateaubriand, Balzac and Stendahl. And of course he was deeply influenced by the great American poet Edgar Allan Poe. So much that he, as we know, translated much of his works into French.

It was in this climate, where French writers and major thinkers were coming to terms with modern views and embraced the fundamental changes that were taking place. that Hedayat went to Paris in the mid-1920s to study as one of Iran's elite students.

***

Sadegh Hedayat, the reclusive but rather controversial Iranian writer, was born in a highly respected and cultured aristocratic Iranian family in 1903 in Tehran. He spent most of his life after gaining his secondary degree from a French high school, Lycee St. Luis, in that city. He was the great son of poet and historian Reza-Qoli Khan (1800–71) who was the teacher of Shah Mozaffar al Din who reigned 1896–1907. This was the Shah who signed the treaty of oil concession in 1901 to the British after oil was found in Iran. This treaty gave the British total monopoly over Iran's oil for more than fifty years, before the Americans toppled Dr Mossadgh's government in 1953.

In 1925 Hedayat was amongst those distinguished Iranian students who travelled to continue their studies in France where he was granted a scholarship to study dentistry. After arriving in France he did not show any interest in medicine and began to live in Paris and Besancon and took up painting. After four years of creative explorations, in 1930 he returned to Iran and immersed himself in the writings of the Persian poet/philosopher Omar Khayyam. He focused his attention on Khayyam's authentic and direct attitude against the pretensions and polite classical or romantic traditions.

After his return form Europe, Hedayat decided to study literature. At this stage of life he was closely influenced by the works of writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Edgar Allan Poe (who we know was greatly fascinated by another classical Persian poet Hafiz), Goethe and Kafka. He was also improving his knowledge by reading Zarathustra and the thoughts of Buddha. It is rightly suggested that Hedayat's thoughts included these three elements:

-- His keen observations and research into Iran's past history and culture.
-- Reading Buddhist principles.
-- Close study of works of Western authors for inspiration and self-improvement.

***

His short novella The Blind Owl, which he published in India in 1937, is a deep and critical creative text narrated by a melancholiac and solitary figure. He could not publish it inside Iran until 1941. In his works he deeply examines his keen observations and methodical attitudes of Iranian folklore with unique insight. His assessment of the psychology of Iranian people both before and after the arrival of Islam in Iran in the seventh century, despite some problems, is an important asset for future examinations and critical analyses. Hedayat also studied the ancient Iranian language and wrote essays on it.

It is well established that Hedayat brought his country's language and literature into the mainstream to make sense of his importance to Iranian modern thinking and culture. It is worthwhile to emphasise that he was writing during the dictatorship of the Reza Shah Pahalavi who came to power by military force in 1921 and was ousted in 1940. This was an important element in his growth as one of Iran's greatest writers, as the father of modern Iranian prose, and as a major critic of Iranian social and political life during his time.

Hedayat's deep interest made constant reference to the Persian history of culture and thought. This, as critic Iraj Bashiri suggests, was his way to understand the 'contemporary problems in Iran' but, more importantly, he was also committed to understand the impact of the works of Zarathustra on the Iranian mind. He argued that Iranian culture produced nothing of substance except a group of fanatical either nationalist or religious zealot thinkers without anything to enrich the cultural and social life of the Iranians.

Hedayat saw Iran as a land and people who had been occupied for centuries by kings and fanatics. Evidence of these feelings are clearly emphasised in his letters through comments such as: 'A suffocating atmosphere', 'of shortness of breath', of the existence of 'a rift such that we can no longer understand each other's language'.

***

Hedayat's unique sensitivity and understanding of these destructive forces in Iran forced him to feel extremely lonely and alienated in his native city Tehran. He constantly criticised those who pretended to be progressive but did not do anything with their opportunistic and mediocre attitude towards these forces. Particularly, he criticised intellectual opportunism during this time. As Homa Katouzian writes, 'Hedayat was opposed to all intellectual constraints, and it did not matter to him in whose name and under what banner or ideology they applied. He was therefore in opposition within the opposition, an internal émigré, a stranger in his own homeland.'

His return to Iran and facing the corrupt social, political and intellectual environment, fear and the state of terror caused him a great deal of anxiety. These forces, consequently, led him into a deep depression and solitude. As the situation in Iran aggravated he felt the sense of isolation too deep and tried to take his life in 1927. He did not succeed.

It has been argued that he was obsessed with the concept of death after that. He was so disenchanted by life that he once wrote ' what a sensational and frightening word "death" is! Even meeting it rends the heart, rubs smiles and cuts joy to the pick, it brings a dullness and depression and drives all kinds of troubled thoughts to the mind'. It is clear in his writing that Hedayet struggled against any kind of flattery and hypocrisy. It is also tragic that, after his attempt to suicide, many of his contemporaries accused him of being imbalanced, and therefore accused his writings as the fruit of his personality and his pessimism towards life.

Hedayat mostly felt alienated by everyone around him. His last published work 'The message to Kafka' demonstrates this by bringing melancholy, depression and a sense of doom experienced only by those subjected to discrimination, repression and ongoing rejection. As a committed writer he felt the socio- political condition of his time very acutely. Hedayat started attacking the two major causes of Iran's dominations, the monarch and the fanatical clergy, and through his stories he tried to capture the deafness and blindness of the nation to the abuse of these forces.

***

His works The Blind Owl, short stories Gerdab (Whirlpool), Ghangal (The Claw), Seh qatreh Khun (Three Drops of Blood), Tupe Morvari (The Pearly Cannon, 1947), and Zendeh beh Gur (Buried Alive), Vagh Vagh Sahab (Mr Bow Wow), and Alviye Khanom (Madame Alviye, 1933), are examples of how he criticised behavioural, social and political problems of his society. The 1930s and 1940s were his most productive years but from then on the harsh criticism of his work by conservatives and traditionally minded critics led him into deep depression, as he could not produce the work such as his The Blind Owl and others.

After a deep period of isolation and a creatively unproductive time, he decided to leave Iran and went back to Paris in December 1950. All alone with great memories of his experience there in 1920s he found Paris of post-war a different place and unwelcoming to his kind. In this time he also became increasingly fearful of his life. He developed an intense feeling that agents of Iranian government were after him and this further aggravated his situations when he realised that he could not find trace of his old friends.

His views and misfortunes were embedded in the rise of another dictator, this time Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi whose coming to power was the real reason to force him to leave Iran fearing persecution. This made his position even more critical and unstable. It has been said that the assassination of his brother-in-law Ali Razmara who was a Prime Minister at the time on 7 March 1951 was the last attack on his sensitive personality. He committed suicide in Paris on 9 April 1951. Hedayat is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in that city.

Paradoxically, there is a story to this tragic figure's life narrated by Mostafa Farzaneh his close friend that Hedayat was keen to visit his old fried Shahid Nurai when he arrived in Paris. But when he asked for him Mostafa said that he was very ill and was residing in Cachan, outside Paris. This is where Hedayat had lived in his mid-twenties, during his student days. This immediately of course excited him to visit the place and his friend. However as they arrived to the place to his horror Hedayat found that the place was turned into an insane asylum and his good friend was one of its residents.

Hedayat's critical views are written in his rather surrealistic and symbolic style, and they are satirical and tragic insights into the Iranian psyche and manners. His honest, sharp and uncompromising views about almost everything brought him many enemies from all corners of Iranian society. He could not comprehend this, simply because he believed that his role was to say what he honestly thought and felt without any ulterior motives. His view was that, 'He was acting with the honesty and integrity of a free soul.'

Of course reading Hedayat and some of his views can be problematic as he sometimes pushes the boundaries of his romantic view of pre-Islamic Iran too far in order to idealise past Persian culture and people. However, it is important that we as readers and critics of his works reflect and look into this sensitive Iranian writer's life. It is important to look at the contribution he has made for us to study and criticise from within the landscape he paints of the Iranians he knows, as well as their unique idiosyncrasies.

As the critic Hillmann suggests, in Hedayat stories 'the Iranian landscape is peopled with characters who embody this vision of helplessness and hopeless. Their fates verify the author's pessimism. None of Hedayat's works so dramatically portrays fatalistic alienation, frustration, and misery as his most famous and most discussed work, the controversial short novel The Blind Owl, whose title character and protagonist has been interpreted by some as a fictionalised version of Hedayat himself.'

To sum this up, despite anything else it must be said that the as far as the advent of modern fiction in Iran is concerned it must be recognised that it owes its complexity and richness to Hedayat's unique style and approach to Iranian language, life and tradition and especially ordinary people. It is no exaggeration to hold him as 'Iran's most important twentieth century writer', as he has now been widely recognised either by his peers in Iran, and internationally.

I'd like to finish this paper by reminding all of you that 2003 is Hedayat's 100th anniversary and I'd like to use this opportunity to say happy birthday to him and his works in such a great occasion at this year's Melbourne International Writers Festival.

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