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Obituary: Houshang Golshiri

By Justin Huggler
The Independent (London)
June 7, 2000

HOUSHANG GOLSHIRI was a dissident all his life. He was a writer who eschewed the ivory towers and dared to challenge Iran's political leaders: as a result he was persecuted both under the Shah and under the Islamic Republic. Yet he never stopped insisting on the right to freedom of expression.

The Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi called Golshiri a "master of the short novel". His best-known works include The Story of Genies, The Fifth Innocent, My Small Prayer House and A Man with a Red Tie. His most famous book, Prince Ehtejab, published in 1986, brought him international acclaim yet much of his work is little known in his homeland, where most of his novels have been banned since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He continued to publish abroad, and his last work, The Ghost Letter, was published in Sweden.

The preoccupations of his work were in many ways the dilemmas of his own life. He wrote about the difficulties faced by Iran's large urban intellectual class in daily life under the Islamic Republic, and about the contradictions thrown up by their place in Islamic society.

But he was also a modernist who challenged Iranian traditions. Nothing was sacrosanct from his pen, and he wrote freely about the religious and cultural symbols of Iran. His work was at times sexually explicit in a way that could never have made it past the Islamic censors, but it was his insistence on writing freely about politics, and challenging the prevailing orthodoxy that made him an enemy of both the regimes that ruled Iran in his lifetime.

He will be remembered for his courage in challenging the Iranian establishment as well as for his writing. He was a leading member of a generation of Iranian intellectuals of extraordinary courage, who were prepared to sacrifice their comfortable position in society and risk everything to stand up for the basic freedoms they believed in. Twice jailed under the Shah, and often reviled by post -revolution Iran's Islamic hardliners, Golshiri lived much of his life in very real danger. Before the revolution, he was one of the founding members of Iran's independent Writers' Association, an organisation he would continue to serve for the remaining 30 years of his life, though it was driven underground under the Islamic Republic.

His appetite for challenging Iran's rulers was not blunted by his time in the Shah's prisons, where he was an inmate alongside many who were to become heroes of the revolution. Yet Golshiri, an iconoclast to the end, was as critical of the Islamic rulers who emerged after 1979 as he was of the Shah, and he became a leading opponent of the hardliners who dominated the Islamic Republic. They, in their turn, frequently attacked Golshiri, accusing him of links with anti-revolutionaries and hostile Western governments: accusations that put him in considerable danger.

Although most of his fictional work was banned after 1979, he was one of Iran's leading literary critics and continued to publish essays and articles in various Iranian literary journals, including the literary weekly Karnameh, of which Golshiri was editor-in-chief.

In 1994, he was one of 134 writers and intellectuals who signed an open letter demanding more freedom of thought and expression. In the last years of Golshiri's life, those freedoms finally began to emerge, under the reform movement of Mohamed Khatami, and, a little over a year ago, Golshiri was able to "resurrect" the officially defunct Writers' Association, winning it recognition from the state. He also began to publish his essays and criticism more freely.

But he continued to act with great moral and physical courage. In 1998, when three well-known writers were the first to be murdered in a string of "unsolved" killings that has been linked to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, and very senior hardline figures in Iran's establishment, Golshiri publicly condemned the murders in the strongest of terms.

It was an act of exceptional bravery, which put him directly in the hardliners' line of fire. In the end though, he succumbed not to his political persecutors, but to a brain infection. But the Writers' Association he helped to found insisted, "Death is not the end of Golshiri", and that his work would live on - both as a writer, and as a defender of freedom.

Houshang Golshiri, writer: born Isfahan, Iran 1936; married (one son, one daughter); died Tehran 5 June 2000.


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