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He is us
In defense of "Dardedel"

By Rob Levandoski
July 28, 2003
The Iranian

Over the past few days I've had the opportunity to ponder Fereshteh Davaran's review [Khoda Hafez Rumi] of Manoucher Parvin's new novel, Dardedel: Rumi, Hafez & Love in New York. And while reviewers -- and readers -- are certainly free to judge a book as they wish, and must be respected for their views, I do feel that a number of Ms Davaran's observationsare grossly unfair to Dr. Parvin and his important work.

Let me begin by confessing that I know Dr. Parvin. I had the pleasure of reading and discussing the chapters of his brave and beautiful novel as they were being written. You will see in his novel's acknowledgments that he thanked me for my friendship, just as I thanked him for his in the dedication of my second novel, Serendipity Green. Over the years Dr. Parvin and I have shared many wonderful dardedels together, that's for sure.

One of Ms Davaran's main assertions is that Dr. Parvin's protagonist, Professor Pirooz, does not show enough respect to the great Persian poets Rumi and Hafez when their reincarnated souls visit him in New York City. That assertion is simply absurd. Quoting from page 113 of Dardedel:

"By the time Rumi finishes (reading his poems) Hafez is already asleep.
So Pirooz pulls off the old poets shoes
And covers him with an afghan
And blows out the candle.
He offers Rumi his own bed and,
Taking a blanket and pillow for himself,
Curls up on the floor, at the master's feet.
Although the floor boards are hard,
Pirooz nevertheless sleeps soundly
As if in his boyhood home in Iran
On a soft bed of belongingness."

Additionallly, she criticizes Dr. Parvin for having Rumi and Hafez call Pirooz "professor" while he calls them "Rumi Jaan" and "Hafez Jaan." She clearly makes too much of this. Rumi and Hafez may be showing respect to their host, but they are not being forced by the author into some sort of literary subservience as Ms Davaran would have readers believe. In keeping with her argument, should Pirooz repeatedly address Rumi as "the great poet Rumi Jaan"? How silly would that sound?

In the novel, Rumi and Hafez have returned to life for two reasons: One is to learn first-hand about the modern world, and Pirooz does his best to show them the good, bad and ugly of our society. Their second reason for returning is to save the beleagured, alientated Pirooz from self-destruction. Through their wisdom and friendship--and the power of their poetry--they succeed. Given the enormous popularity of Rumi and Hafez today, I'd say they are helping to mend the broken souls of many modern Americans. Which is exactly what Dr, Parvin--in his love and reverence for Rumi and Hafez--is trying to say.

And believe me, Dr. Parvin does love and revere the poets of his homeland, both the old and the new. And he does want to share them with Americans of every ethnicity. I can't tell you how many volumes of Persian poetry he has given me!

Ms Davaran also claims falsely that "Dr. Parvin seems unconcerned with the authenticity of his characters." She quotes Henry James' critera that in order to be realistic, the author can only emply his or her narrator's inner voice. So James claims (and Ms Davaran confirms) that the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevski are therefore inauthentic. Wouldn't this same test of authenticity also have to be applied to the wonderful stories of Ferdowsi, Saadi, Rumi, Attar and Nezami? Who would stand for that?

James and apparently Davaran are unaware of modern psychological theories that suggest the authentic inner voice is not so authentic after all. The subconscious and unconscious are far more dominate factors than consciousness.Self deception and rationalizations rule human behavior and human thought. The concept of the "authentic inner voice" is fuzzy at best, untestable and dangerously deceptive. (Ironically, Dr. Parvin explores this very subject in Dardedel.)

Even the narratives in physics and the other experimental sciences lack absolute authenticity. What is the ultimate truth anyhow? Who is the ultimate judge? Even if we hold the truth in our hands in our hands we cannot be absolutely certain we are holding the truth, except of course in the most trivial cases. As a novelist, let me say that the art of fiction would die a quick death if academicians and books reviewers were allowed to set boundaries for it.

Let's look at how Dr. Parvin's Dardedel deals with authenticity:

In the first part of his novel, the words of Rumi and Hafez are virtually all from their poems. Later in the novel, when Rumi and Hafez magically materialize in New York City, their words are indeed fictional. Who can say what Rumi would say about electricity? Or what Hafez would make of an airplane? Still, I think Dr. Parvin comes close to having them ask the questions a reincarnated ancient would ask about the advantages and disadvantages of modernity.

Publisher's Weekly says this about the debates between Rumi, Hafez and Pirooz: "... the well-balanced chemistry between the three men carries the narrative. Parvin's dialogues are entertaining." Perhaps Ms Davran wishes Dr. Parvin to consult with the dead about who can say what.

In any event, she seems to have difficulty with the two great poets asking Pirooz questions about the modern world--as if it would be somehow beneath them to do so. Certainly one of Dr. Parvin's goals in writing Dardedel was to raise some important questions about modernity. By bringing Rumi and Hafez into the present he is able to raise these questions in a thoughtful yet magical way. Without apology he lets modernity butt its dizzy head against the beliefs, traditions, fears, superstitions, and yes, wisdom, of the past.

So, of course Dr. Parvin as the author has chosen which questions to address and what answers to give. But will anyone who reads this novel doubt that these questions are on the minds and lips of many people today? Both scholars quenching their intellectual thirsts and everyday people just trying to get by? The prestigious Kirkus Reviews calls Dardedel "A witty, insightful clash of cultural perspectives." And that it is.

Does Ms DAvaran believe that Rumi and Hafez were all-knowing gods? For examply, did they know about genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, the inflationary universe, modern philosophy, linguistics, modern poetry? Let us remember that today even the great Avicenna could learn a thing or two about medicine from a first-year medical student. Wouldn't all great thinkers from a great civilization, transported far into the future, bring with them the very thing that made both them and their times great, their unquenchable inquisitiveness? Of course they would.

Ms Davaran does offer Dr. Parvin a compliment. "His facility with scientific ideas and thoughts are quite impressive," she writes.Then she hides behind the deceased Ernest Hemingway, ordering Dr. Parvin to stick to what he knows. But notice it is not Hemingway who decides what Dr. Parvin knows, or does not know, but Ms Davaran herself! Yet she admits she has read none of his work--neither his scholarly nor literary works--escept for Dardedel. How is it then that she knows what Dr. Parvin knows or doesn;t know? What are her credentials for credibly judging his credentials?

Ms Davaran ridiculously suggests that poets should not be used as characters, that the reason playwrights and movie producers (and presumably novelists) don't "bring them to the stage" is because "they recognize the impossibility of capturing a poet's language. I have not had the time this week to check the world's libraries to see if this assertion is true, but it seems to me that historic figures whose fame is based on the power and beauty of their words have long been the successful grist for novels and plays and movies, and even poems. And even if her assertion is true, that no writer has previously dared to use a poet as a character, shouldn't Dr. Parvin deserve some credit for doing so now?

Ms Davaran further suggests that Dr. Parvin should have had Rumi and Hafez speak classical English like Shakespeare and Byron, and that "if God were to speak to the current generation, would he not do so through a voice with at least the same poetic power of Zoroaster, Solomon, or Muhammad?" Well, how unimaginative is that? When those five great historical figures were writing or speaking, weren't they doing so in the vernacular of their time? To excite and inspire the people of their time? To be understood? And who is Ms Davaran to say that "God, like Hafez and Rumi" wouldn't admire free verse? She seems oblivious to the fact that writers regularly cross the boundaries of tradition and convention. It is what keeps literature, and humanity, moving ahead. And I'm betting God approves.

Dr. Parvin writes brilliantly of the writer's mission in chapter ten (Slam at the Sad Ghazal) when one poet laments,

"We must navigate alone to inadmissible futures,
Without signs, guides, landmarks, or wisdom provided,
By our genes, or the gods, or the magic of our times."

Ms Davaran particularly makes disparaging remarks about Dr. Parvin's translations of Rumi and Hafez. She cites not one line for the reader to judge, suggests no improvement, nor presents any theory of translation to sunstantiate her assertion. I cannot make an evaluation of Dr. Parvin's translations myself, but I think it is important to point out that Professors Jerry Clinton of Princeton University, a noted expert on Ferdowsi, and Frank Lewis of Emory University, and expert on Rumi, were among those who reviewed Dardedel before its publication.

Dr. Parvin himself has stated in both print and ih his lectures that it is impossible to truly translate the works of any poet or writer. And from what i;ve read on the subject, I gather that Hafez is particularly difficult. But what are we readers and scholars to do? Stop translating? Let the words and ideas of foreign writers die? Or should we make a best attempt to get as close as we can to their thoughts and ideas and spirit? Wouldn't they want us to do do that?

In another mystifying criticism, Ms Davaran declares that Professor Pirooz is really Dr. Parvin himself in literary disguise! That is not much of a revelation. All writers put themselves into their characters. I have created dozens of fictional characters over the years, and all of them are me. Yet none of them are me. While Pirooz is clearly drawn from Dr. Parvin's own experiences, he is not Parvin. It is my honor to know both men well, and believe me, while I, too, see some similarities, I never get them mixed up.

Perhaps it is because she had the recent opportunity to meet Dr. Parvin in person that she sees him so indelibly as Pirooz. I would venture to say that if she were to meet me someday after reading my novels, she could easily see me as Will Randle in Going to Chicago or Hugh Harbinger in Serendipity Green or even the little girl Rhea in Fresh Eggs. When we writers put ourselves in someone else's shoes, for beter or worse we are still walking on our own feet!

As I said at the beginning, every reviewer and every reader has the right to judge a book as they wish, just as every writer has the right to write it as he or she wishes. Manoucher Parvin has written the novel he wanted to write. And it is a marvelous novel. It is provocative, serious, sensuous, magical, and at times very funny. It poses many important questions, and contrary to Ms Davaran's view, does not tell Rumi or Hafez, or anyone else what to think. The Professor Pirooz she so callously derides as as know-it-all, is in reality (fictional reality I should say) a sweet and humble soul. Yes, he rants and raves and tells you what he thinks, but then he easily admits his own shortcomings and hypocrisies. He is a lovable character. And he is us.

I so love Pirooz that when writing my second novel, Serendipity Green, I asked Dr. Parvin for permission to borrow him. I turned him into a playful psychiatrist who helps a whole commnity of modern Americans see their personal foibles. He was received so well in reviews, including the New York Times, that I brought him back in my current novel, Fresh Eggs, where, with the help of Attar's Conference of the Birds, he helps a troubled young girl find her way.

Dardedel is a heartfelt conversation between two great civilizations, between the past and the present. It is also, in my estimation, an important beacon to the future.

Author

Rob Levandoski is the author of three novels, Going to Chicago, Serendipity Green and Fresh Eggs. An expose of factory farming, Fresh Eggs was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a book reviewer, creative writing instructor, and a recipient of a prestigious Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council.

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