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The new oral tradition
Part 14: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
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Sima Nahan
June 26, 2006

Underground and without paper to write on, the Iranian intellectual community has been forced into a new oral tradition. Private gatherings -- parties, dinners, and all-night sessions of poetry, music, discussion, or instruction -- are the medium for the realization of this tradition. It is typical that the most personal thoughts and the most rigorous learning are imparted by the same person and in the same sitting.

To describe these exchanges I can conjure up memories of steaming inside my Islamic uniform in the heat of a July afternoon in a bare classroom of one of the universities where I talked to a professor of Persian literature. He smiled at my nationalist sentiments as he respectfully nodded to his bearded or black-veiled students who eyed me with hostility and him with distrust. I remember the tall woman poet, always dressed in black, who said: Mard-e Irani zan ra bavar nadarad. Or I can recall a certain singer, in her prime, who sang for us at a dinner party with an uncommon serenity coming from her awareness that by the time female voice is allowed to be broadcast, commercially recorded, or heard in public, it will probably be too late for her career. I recall the long "Ode to the Future" of a poet not in the habit of composing qasidas, who sees the progress of Iran in the hands of its women and who trusts his new work only to his memory.

I could write of the hard-to-interpret sparkle deep inside the tired eyes of one of the last great old men of Persian Letters as he advised me to abandon my studies in literature: “Those interests belonged to a different time. This is a different world now.” Or I could write of a streak of violence in the soft words and quiet spectacle of an up-and-coming playwright. Or I may shuffle details of words and characters, and make up many, lest I jeopardize any individual. To give a sketch of a community in which no real-life individual can be traced, one inevitably slips into fiction.

The evenings I spent in Tehran are interwoven in my memory into one long, animated night. In spite of the constant threat of an ambush by the Pasdars of the local Komiteh, this is the time for life to surface from its daytime hiding places. In smaller apartment complexes -- the large ones are patrolled by resident hezbollahi families stationed there by the government -- little children are taught to be on the watch for approaching Komiteh vehicles. When these are sighted, the group of little children playing together instantly disperses in all directions. Doorbells are rung in alarm and guests frantically bustle about flushing alcoholic beverages down the toilet, hiding records and cassettes or musical instruments, and throwing on the hejab.

But the evening has a way of remaining concentrated and coherent with a different, desperate vitality brewing in every corner. One might overhear, for instance, an impromptu lecture at a busy dinner table:

“It is the business of revolutions to murder God. In 1793, for example, God was executed in the person of Louis XVI. But our situation was different. We had no representation of divinity. It was impossible to attribute farr-e izadi to the son of Reza Khan Mirpanj, the cossack mercenary installed on the throne by the British. In order for our revolution to claim its legitimacy, God had to be embodied and killed elsewhere -- in the person of each martyr perhaps. I don't believe that it is that key to heaven dangling from their necks that inspires these young men to sacrifice their lives. It must be the cry of ana-l haq that rings in their hearts: I am the Truth... Who would have thought that the legacy of Hallaj could have such political contemporary application?”

Or, I might be talking to a friend of a friend, reminiscing on where I was the winter of 1979 when the revolution triumphed:  "To think that we celebrated... that friends came over with champagne by the case and we went on our rampage of ecstatic long-distance phone calls, that nice, clear California night! I only wonder, how could it...? How could we...?" My conversation partner laughed. "How we could is simple," he says. "Since when does humankind look past the climax?"

Over a glass of tea, a laid-off composer might be relating a dream:   

"I dreamed that it rained a slow, steady rain. It started as a drizzle and we expected it to evaporate before reaching the ground. But it persisted, and, disbelievers as we have become, we walked around holding out our palms and looking up suspiciously at the sky. The rain would not stop and when it started pouring, we took shelter. We watched as it washed off the slogans scribbled on walls and windows. We watched it wash the Friday Prayer rulings off the streets around the university. We watched it crumble and wash away the hideous concrete overpasses of Tehran with all the dusty, unmaintained cars crawling on them. The rain spread and slowly undermined the foundations of the decrepit, once-luxury villas on the Caspian coast, and carried off the debris in a flood. It muffled and extinguished the flames covering the surface of the earth in Khuzistan. It washed off the tar. It washed off the blood." >>> Part 15
[Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17)]

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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