Humanizing a nation by reading its literature
March 5, 2007
A review of Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature
Edited by Nahid Mozaffari and Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak
New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005
“Iran, a complex web of paradoxes, a vibrant mix of contradictions, a culture in transition, remains an abstraction - at worst a cliché, at best an enigma - in the American imagination today,” writes Farzaneh Milani, Professor of Persian Literature and Women’s Studies at the University of Virigina, in a February 18, 2007 column in the Charlottesville Daily Progress.
At a time when Iran appears in the daily headlines and tensions between the US and Iran are at an all-time high, it’s a good time to start compiling reading lists for your friends and family—both American and Iranian. One of the most compelling ways to understand a culture and its complexities are through its art and literature. Iran’s recent rich literary output offers a vehicle for understanding those contradictions and the changes Iran has undergone in the last decade and a half. Strange Times, My Dear provides an excellent sampling of literature that has been written and published since the revolution both inside and outside of Iran. The poets and writers included in the collection represent some of the established authors of modern Iranian literature—Simin Daneshvar, Ahmad Shamlu, Mehdi Akhvane-Sales as well as the emerging generation of writers who have been published in the post-revolutionary period.
One of the most important aspects of this collection is the lengths to which its principal editor, Nahid Mozaffari went to ensure the publication of this collection. Defying and challenging a ruling by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Treasury Department (OFAC) of the USA, which designated the commissioning, editing, or marketing of material written in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan, as “prohibited exports of services” to so-called “enemy nations” Mozaffari circumvented the ruling that prohibits the “collaborative interaction” between a U.S. publisher and a writer from Iran. Mozaffari joined with Arcade Publishing, PEN USA, The Association of American Publishers and the American Association of University Presses to file a lawsuit to change the regulations. In the end, Mozaffari was only somewhat successful, in that she had to apply for a “government license to carry on First Amendment-protected publishing activities or leave themselves open to criminal penalties.” 
The book’s thoughtful selections and the representation of a variety of both well-known and lesser- known writers whose work has not yet found its way to an English-speaking audiences, is its most valuable feature. The translations in Strange Times are excellent and suggest how important good, careful translation are in conveying the nuances and complexities of language, culture and historicity to a non-Iranian reader. Working with a large group of literary translators, Mozaffari and Karimi-Hakkak have created an anthology that will be immensely useful to readers who have as yet not been exposed to contemporary Iranian literature. Stories such as Hushang Gulshiri’s “The Victory Chronicle of the Magi” offer a complex picture of the common Iranian man and his sense of betrayal by the revolution. The work of exile writers like Esmail Fassih and Nassim Khaksar, who now lives in Holland, provide wonderful examples of the exilic sensibility that has been a benchmark for much of the past twenty-five years. Khaksar’s“The Grocer of Kharzeville” offers a simultaneously humorous and sad portrayal of Iranian life in exile:
“The world of an exile is a strange one. At first you think it’s just you and your backpack—your four shirts, two pairs of socks, a suit, two pieces of underclothes, a towel, and an electric shaver. Then for a while it’s about finding a place to live: you get a small room, a desk, a lamp, and notebook, then a few books—half in English, half in your native language. Little by little it starts. You see yourself, and realize that you have a whole history you’ve left behind.” 
Many of the stories convey the complexities of Iran’s post-revolutionary society including the very distasteful experiences and events which writers have written and only successfully published abroad. One such story is by Ghazi Rabihavi's story,which is about the execution of a homosexual in “White Rock.” Many of the more recent stories are suggestive of the trend of narrative experimentation that works to both evade censors and also to challenge the established literary forms that previously dominated in Iran. Among these are a number of works written by women who have dominated the fiction lists in the past several years. These include Farideh Kheradmand, Moniru Ravanipur, and exile writers such as Goli Taraghi; Strange Times also includes an excerpt from Shahrnush Parsipur’s acclaimed Women Without Men.
Karimi-Hakkak has overseen the editing of a selection of poetry that includes work by the giants of Persian contemporary poetry such as Shamlu, Simin Behbehani, Mohammad Ali Sepanlu, as well as Los Angeles-based exile poets, Majid Naficy, Partow Nuriala and Abbas Saffari. The poetry section includes many superior translations by a number of accomplished Iranian-American poets such as Zara Houshmand, Sholeh Wolpé, and Haleh Hatami. Strange Times, My Dear is a pleasure to read—offering some sense of where writers have taken the literature of post-revolutionary Iran. The editors of Strange Times, My Dear should be commended for compiling and editing such a fine collection and for working so hard to publish at a time when we desperately need more solid translations of Iranian literature in English. This is an excellent introduction to recent Iranian writing both inside and outside Iran and offers a window into understanding the “enigma of Iran” and a perspective that Americans desperately need at this time. Comment
Persis M. Karim edited "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press, 2006) . She teaches English literature at San Jose Satate University.
 From the Introduction to Strange Times, My Dear, p. xxv.
 From “The Grocer of Kharzeville,” p. 95.