Who is this Homo Persus? Who is this Homo Midio-Oriental?
By Mammad Aidani
November 3, 2003
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
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
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.
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.
that the feeling of being mistrusted in public, at some formal
gatherings, and by big parts of the media has had a huge impact
I have been wondering why my suffering, displacement,
tragedies, stories, memories, my learning, and my contributions,
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?
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
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
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.
I was thinking to put these thoughts together, I recalled a quote
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
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
Recently, when I was approached by Jane (the convenor
of the forum) to say something about writing in Iran or my own
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
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
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
'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.
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
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
Baudelaire stressed that, if you are looking for
beauty you must recognise the elements of melancholy. In his
Le Salone de
he emphasises that 'beauty must have the substance of strangeness'.
poet/critic who gave modernist poetry to French literature, Baudelaire
immersed himself in challenging the old traditions and advocated
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
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
It was in this climate, where French writers and
major thinkers were coming to terms with modern views and embraced
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
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
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
His short novella The Blind Owl, which
he published in India in 1937, is a deep and critical creative
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
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
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.'
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.
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
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
repression and ongoing rejection. As a committed writer he felt the
socio- political condition of his time very acutely. Hedayat
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),
and Zendeh beh Gur (Buried Alive), Vagh Vagh Sahab (Mr
Bow Wow), and Alviye Khanom (Madame Alviye, 1933), are examples
and political problems of his society. The 1930s and 1940s were
his most productive years but from then on the harsh criticism
traditionally minded critics led him into deep depression, as he
could not produce the work such as his The Blind Owl and
After a deep period of isolation and a creatively
unproductive time, he decided to leave Iran and went back to
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
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
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
was keen to visit
his old fried Shahid Nurai when he arrived in Paris. But
when he asked for
said that he was very ill and was residing in Cachan, outside
Paris. This is where Hedayat had lived in his mid-twenties,
immediately of course excited him to visit the place and
his friend. However as they arrived to the place to his horror
that the place
was turned into an insane asylum and his good friend was
of its residents.
Hedayat's critical views are written in his rather
surrealistic and symbolic style, and they are satirical and tragic
and manners. His honest, sharp and uncompromising views
about almost everything brought him many enemies from all corners
society. He could
not comprehend this, simply because he believed that his
role was to say what
honestly thought and felt without any ulterior motives.
view was that, 'He was acting with the honesty and integrity
Of course reading Hedayat and some of his views
can be problematic as he sometimes pushes the boundaries of his
of pre-Islamic Iran
too far in order
to idealise past Persian culture and people. However,
is important that we as readers and critics of his works
into this sensitive
Iranian writer's life. It is important to look at the
has made for us to study and criticise from within the
landscape he paints of the Iranians he knows, as well
as their unique
As the critic Hillmann suggests, in Hedayat stories
'the Iranian landscape is peopled with characters who embody
and hopeless. Their fates verify the author's pessimism.
None of Hedayat's works so dramatically portrays fatalistic
frustration, and misery as his most famous and most
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
owes its complexity and richness to Hedayat's unique
style and approach to Iranian language, life 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
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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