Listen to the reed how it tells a tale

Paper submitted in a class taught by Abbas Milani last quarter at Stanford University called “Tradition and Modernity in Iranian
literature.” Dr. Milani is Director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and a visiting professor in the department of political science. He is also a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford's Hoover Institution. See another paper, Mahnoosh Nik-Ahd's “Catching the blind owl“.

Stanford University now has, thanks to Hamid and Tina Moghadam who have endowed a Chair, an Iranian Studies Program. As part of the curriculum I have been developing for the program, in the fall quarter, 2005, I taught a course called Tradition and Modernity in Iranian literature. We read a number of works (in translation) by Iranian writers, as well as theoretical works, explicating the fluid and multi-faceted nature of modernity, the ways and whys of transition, and the contested content of Iranian tradition. The Blind Owl, My Uncle Napoleon, and Women without Men were amongst the books we read. We talked of the dominant paradigm, promoted by a wide arrays of artists and thinkers — from Max Weber to Milan Kundera– that claims modernity to be, in essence, a Western phenomenon. And thus, according to this theory Iranians, from poets to politicians, must emulate the Western tropes and values of modernity, if they want to be modern. We also discussed the hypothesis I have offered in Lost Wisdom, where I have argued that the dominant paradigm needs to be reexamined. Early forays into such critical scrutiny has shown that there was, in Iran, between the tenth to twelfth century, the early signs of an indigenous modernity. From Beyhagi to Nezami, from Ibn Sina to Biruni, Iranian thinkers and writers were, according to this hypothesis, beginning to experiment with ideas we today called “modern” and “Western.”

The students were invited to write papers on any aspect of modernity that interested them. Two of the essays were, in my judgement, particularly brilliant and full of interesting insights. Aaron Bacca, an accomplished musician with intimate knowledge of Western musical theory and practice, tackled the issue of modernity in music. Over the last century, a fascinating debate, with luminaries like Colonel Vazir, and Saba at its center, has continued on the question of whether Persian music is capable of modernity, and if such transition is desired and needed, then what are the rudiments of musicial modernity for Iran. The second article, by Mahnoosh Nik-Ahd is a fascinating comparative discussion of two important works of twentieth century literature — Hedayat’s Blind Owl in Iran, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in the US. Mahnoosh has cleverly unpacked the many similarities between the two novels, particularly between their two central narrators — the alienated “underground” men of modernity. While for generations of Iranians, Blind Owl has been, in form and content, a work of seminal influence, Catcher in the Rye has been uniquely influential, particularly in the US. Her clever insights point to the rich harvest of ideas we can expect if we can interest the new generation of Iranian-American youth in the Iranian part of their hybrid legacy.

Soon after reading the papers, I contacted Mr. Javid, the tireless editor of

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