Modernization through reforming the Persian language
By Kamran Talatoff
March 19, 2001
From Kamran Talattof's The
Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature,
(Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000).
Modern Persian literature emerged during the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries as a secular activity and has since demonstrated close affinity
to such diverse ideological paradigms as nationalism, Marxism, Islamism,
Each ideological paradigm has, in its own way, influenced the form,
characterization, and figurative language of literary texts. It has set
the criteria for indigenous literary criticism and has determined which
issues related to politics, religion, or culture are to be the focus of
literary journals. And these ideological features have changed in an episodic
fashion according to the prevailing social and political conditions. The
contact between literary and ideological paradigms has determined the politics
Persianism: A Literary Revolution
I venture the term Persianism to describe the earliest modern literary
movement, which has been referred to as "modernist" or "nationalist"
by other scholars. It emerged during the late nineteenth century and early
twentieth century when traditional forms of poetry came under attack by
a new wave of writers who, mostly through their contact with the West,
approached literature in a radically different way.
The constitutional movement (1906-1911) and later Reza Shah's project
to modernize Iran provided further encouragement for the development of
this movement. This literary episode was characterized by modernist ideas
such as the use of western literary forms, new styles, and the promotion
of non-traditional culture. Such ideas shaped the thematic and figurative
features of literary works in this period but the authors exceeded the
simple expression of these aspirations.
These authors sought, on the one hand, to modernize society through
the reform of the Persian language and, on the other, regarded traditional
culture of the Qajar period and religion as barriers to the evolution of
Persian literature. Persianism, therefore, refers to an ideology that not
only inspired authors to write in a new style with the hope of modernizing
literature but also made that ideology the theme of literary works.
Advocates of Persianism denounced the use of Arabic terminology; sought
to purify the Persian language; promoted a literary language closer to
common parlance over the formulaic and artificial style in vogue for centuries;
linked ancient Iran to the present time through diverse linguistic structures;
and finally, celebrated modernity through the development of new literary
Muhammad Ali Jamalzadih's Farsi Shikar Ast (Persian is Sugar), Sadiq
Hidayat's Buf-i Kur (Blind Owl), Jalal Al-i Ahmad's Seh Tar (Sitar), Khusraw
Shahani's "Murdih Kishi" (Pall Bearing), and Nima Yushij's "Manili"
all exemplify this literary episode in Iran whose discussion constitutes
Feminist Discourse in Postrevolutionary Women's Literature
Since the Revolution, the number of women writers has increased dramatically.
Their work, despite great diversity in literary value, commonly manifests
an awareness of women's issues and gender relations. This work shows concern
over problems of gender hierarchy and women's suffering and expresses it
in a figurative language that transcends male-dominated literary discourse.
Women's personal and private experiences become public. Women protest
against sexual oppression and struggle for identity. This body of work
contrasts sharply with the literary works produced by women in the decades
preceding the Revolution. Women's literary paradigms before and after the
Revolution represent different literary episodes, and the Iranian Revolution
of 1979 appears to be the decisive historical event responsible for the
In other words, what explains the increased significance of gender issues
in women's literary works after the Revolution is the state's structuring
role in social as well as literary movements and the attitudes of the left
toward women's issues. This new political influence on literature and a
"cultural revolution" that directly undermined women's freedom
brought about change in the themes, characters, and language used by women
writers. Ironically, the Islamization of the country caused the emergence
of unprecedented literary works by women
Kamran Talatoff is an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies
at the University of Arizona. He received his Master's degree in comparative
literature (1994) and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies, Persian language
and literature (1996) through a joint degree program from the University
of Michigan. His work focuses on Persian literature and Iranian culture.