THIS is beauty
Far from “breaking my spirit”, Sadegh Hedayat's "Blind Owl" woke me up
I was robbed. Seven years ago, I traveled to Iran for the first time since having left it for California as an infant. I was immediately thrust into the social circle of cousins and cousin’s cousins and cousin’s neighbor’s friend’s uncle’s daughters and the like. They were all beautiful girls obsessed with memorizing and recreating the latest European fashion trends and this-for the developing thirteen-year-old I was-was exactly what I lived for.
I had one second cousin, Parisa, who did not join us in our throng to the pasaj where, on a side note, while looking ridiculous in our neon green head scarves and matching eye shadow applied so thick it weighed our eyelids down, we fit in perfectly with similar herds of girls. Parisa preferred to stay at home and read her philosophy books which caused me a great deal of worry as I was sure this girl had to have some sort of mild mental instability to give up a day at the pasaj with us for hours of voluntary isolation in her library. I did not interact much with her but I noticed the occasional concerned half smiles she threw my way as I was methodically applying my 343384th layer of face powder.
My last day in Iran, she shoved a thin paper package into my hand and whispered “read it. THIS is beauty” before she walked back to her library. I held the package close and while sitting in Tehran’s dingy airport staring at a group of unshaven, smarmy men hungrily grasping the eight-foot-tall modelesque blonde KLM flight attendants (a fundamentalist Iranian man’s wet dream) for photos they would probably eagerly flaunt for years, I opened it hoping to find an underground Euro fashion magazine, but instead pulled out a slim paperback entitled “The Blind Owl”. Damn. Now, THAT, was a letdown if there ever was one. I laughed at the strangeness of my cousin and threw the book to my mom asking her why the hell anyone would read a book about an owl, and a blind one at that.
A subsequent chorus of “Vayyyyyy!”’s and “AKH. POKH.TOKH”’s ensued followed by the ritualistic placing of her pointer finger into her mouth at which point she bites it hissing and shaking her head-I had seen this reaction many times and though I continue to witness it, I still am not quite sure what it means, other than the usually poised and classy woman who raised me is extremely unhappy about something. “Shadi, listen to me”, she commanded, “Do NOT read this. I’ve never read it, no one in his or her right mind has. ROOHIYATOH KHARAB MEEKONEH!”
I wasn’t quite sure what a roohiyeh was, but I damn well knew I didn’t want mine broken. Roohiyeheh kharab is what caused people to sink into the depths of mental illness, lose their battles with cancer, stop their studies prematurely to end up working at my Dayee Hossein’s Discount Euro-Automall- I was not about to mess with my roohiyeh. So, like the good harfgooshkon Persian girl I was, I tucked the book away into an obscure corner of my suitcase ... only, like the forever curious and rebellious Persian woman I was to become, to pull it and begin reading it the moment I noticed my mom drifting asleep on the obnoxious red KLM couches at our ten hour stopover in Amsterdam (a fitting city for my first act of rebellion, no?).
I began reading only with the purpose of skimming through for a few quick minutes to satiate my curiosity. I ended up feverishly drinking the pages to quench an intellectual thirst I did not know I held, that-fortunately-the past few years of falling into the trap of aspiring to emulate the plastic Persian-Barbie-doll role models around me had not dulled. I read Hedayat’s work in its entirety that day, only to realize, I had been lied to.
Buf-e-koor, far from “breaking my spirit” as every Iranian figure in my life had warned me it would, had woken me up. I was now energized and aware and for the first time, awake to a reality outside of myself. Themes of existence, femininity, and modernity clashing with tradition emerged and I was able to relate them to my own life, and for the first time, really understand the depth of my culture.
True- it was not an uplifting, feel-good book, and took longer than the fashion magazines to which I was accustomed to read, but it was the first moment in my life where I remember having truly felt touched and aware and hungry to learn and experience and grow and live. Parsia was right- I also, for the first time, in the vulnerability of Hedayat’s protagonist saw real beauty.
Years later, at a Stanford University Iranian literature course, I had the opportunity to critically read and analyze “The Blind Owl” and reexperience the passion and intellectual curiosity I felt the first time reading the novella. The first day of class, looking through the book list a classmate, an intelligent Iranian girl, turned to me and whispered, “’The Blind Owl’? I remember my mom telling me never to read this-she said it would depress me or something”.
I have since learned that many Iranian parents instruct their first generation children to stay away from anything written by Hedayat for the same reasons: “it is dark” or “it is depressing”, or “the author committed suicide”. However, I will forever remember Hedayat’s work as awakening in me an intellectual curiosity and passion on which I thrive. Iranian parents, in a vain attempt to shelter their children from a reality outside of perfectly sculpted noses and BMWs, are withholding arguably the best piece of modern fiction written by an Iranian author from their children.
It took me many years to realize that my culture was far greater than the two greasy Armani clad brothers singing pop songs on Persian television and occasional successful carpet dealer upheld as exemplars of successful Iranians. In working as an elementary school tutor, I see that children read the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which contains arguably comparable dark and serious themes, as early as fourth grade in American public school curriculum and are expected to understand it and critically analyze it. Their parents no fear that it will scar them, depress them, traumatize them; it is simply the work of an important literary figure that they are expected to have read and with which to be familiar as functioning participating members of English classes.
Each time I discover a pivotal work of Iranian literature to which I was not introduced as an adolescent, I do feel a little robbed. I wish my parents had given me a book of Foorogh Farokhzad poetry, a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, Milani’s “Lost Wisdom”, my own copy of “Savashun”, instead of the Shohreh and Shahram cds that were supposed to serve as my introduction to Iranian culture.
Last week, much to the horror of my mom and aunt, I arrived to my California-born cousin’s fifteenth birthday with a slim brown paper package in my hand, which I shoved in to hers, whispering, “read it. THIS is beauty”. Comment