Iran: gender politics

I was tempted to choose Nasrin Alavi’s We are Iran as my Iranian book. Compiled from a series of blogs translated from Farsi, this book – or blook – caused a great deal of controversy when it burst on to the literary scene in 2005, purporting to provide Western readers with an unprecedented survey of contemporary Iranian thought. However, the book had had a fair bit of attention in the media and something about the way the texts in it had been curated for the Western eye made me hesitate – probably entirely unfairly, given that arguably every text in translation has been selected and prepared with English-language readers in mind.

Then I heard about Shahrnush Parsipur. Something of a trailblazer throughout her life, from being one of the first female students at the University of Tehran through to becoming one of Iran’s best-known and most innovative novelists, Parsipur captured my imagination. Her epic novel Touba and the Meaning of Night, which was published in 1989 just three years after Parsipur’s release from prison, caused controversy for its exploration of religion and gender power relations, as well as its departure from the literary style common before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It finally became available in English translation in 2006, the year after the much-vaunted We are Iran. I was going to have to take a look.

Spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novel presents an alternative reading of the history of Iran through the eyes of one woman, Touba, who grows up, marries, divorces, remarries and grows old during the course of it. As dynasties rise and fall and the world moves towards its bloodiest war, Touba embarks on a struggle for supremacy in her own life, finding herself drawn towards Sufism as a possible escape from the oppressive rules and judgments of a society that increasingly forces her to be a prisoner within the walls of her house.

Right from the opening passage, in which a scantily clad teenage Touba cleans the courtyard pool under the disapproving gaze of her tenant’s wives, Parsipur sets out the limitations imposed on women as a central theme in the book. Sometimes, as when Touba’s father reflects that bringing strange women into his home to work might be dangerous because ‘they might participate in some perverse activities with one another’, this is done with wry humour.

More usually, however, it has a much darker side. This initially reveals itself when 14-year-old Touba narrowly escapes a beating from her first husband for going out for a walk alone and later becomes painfully obvious in the story of the raped girl who, on revealing she is pregnant, is killed by her uncle Mirza Abuzar and buried under a tree in the garden. Touba’s reaction to the news is telling:

‘She was filled with the sense of guilt. She wanted to ask Mirza Abuzar why he had not discussed the matter with her. Then she thought, if he had mentioned it, would she have done anything? A living girl who has a bastard child in her is hateful and defiled. The same girl, however, if she is killed like this, will be chosen to be among the Pure Ones. She was realizing that she probably would have done nothing for the girl, or could have done nothing. She tried to put herself in Mirza Abuzar’s place. She truly felt sorry for him.’

Parsipur’s ability to think her way inside her characters like this means that the narrative is far from a one-sided polemic on the oppression of women. Even the most difficult of characters, such as the sinister Prince Gil and the sullen child Ismael who harbours murderous intentions towards Touba because of his anger at the loss of his parents, are presented as rounded and complex individuals with insight and thought processes that often surprise.

This multiplicity of perspectives and Parsipur’s use of elements of magic in her storytelling, give the narrative a sense of plurality that cuts across time and space. Often, in the embedded stories and mini-tales that Parsipur weaves into the novel, it seems as though the author is digging back into the past to gain the depth and distance that will allow her to tell contemporary truths.

The pacing is strange at times, partly due to the sheer scope of the story, which contains so many characters that the editors saw fit to list them all at the start of the book. As a result, the narrative moves in fits and starts, lingering over details only to jerk forward, sometimes skimming over incidents that seem to deserve more attention. This can be frustrating and leaves you glancing back over your shoulder now and then as a major character whizzes past into oblivion, like the stop you expected to get off at the moment you realise you’ve unintentionally caught the fast train.

On the whole, though, there can be no question that this is a towering achievement. Packed with insights, historical detail and rich compelling storytelling, the translation of this epic work opens up a world quite different from the one many English-readers will be used to. A rich addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Touba and the Meaning of Night (Tuba va ma’na-ye shab) by Shahrnush Parsipur, translated from the Persian by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2006)

Yemen: the past is another country

There isn’t much Yemeni prose for curious English-language readers to get their hands on. At first I assumed this was because of a lack of translation – and that is part of it – but after some time researching Yemeni writers and emailing addresses for bookshops and writers associations that, without exception, bounced my messages straight back at me, I realised that there might be a bit more to it.

In fact, the country’s political history, which saw the rigid regime of the Imams give way to decades of war and unrest in the latter half of the 20th century, means that fiction writing and publishing in the country has been pretty thin on the ground. Nevertheless, there have been some pioneers and of these Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, whose 1984 novel The Hostage was chosen as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union, has to be one of the most celebrated.

Set during the run up to a brief revolution in the 1940s, the book portrays the struggles of a young boy who is taken hostage because of his father’s political activities and is sent to work as a duwaydar [attendant] in the Governor’s palace. Required to service every whim and desire of the men and women of the household, the boy learns the meaning of powerlessness and subjection. Yet, as his political awareness grows and society outside the palace gates begins to stir, his experiences give him the insight he needs to begin to imagine another future.

Interlink Books, the company behind the Emerging Voices series in which this translation was published, were clearly worried that the historical and social context of the novel might be challenging for Western readers. Not only did they include a preface explaining the reasons for translating the book in this edition, but they also added two introductions and footnotes to the Arabic terms in the text.

They needn’t have been so diligent because Dammaj’s skill as a storyteller is more than equal to the task of carrying his readers over his narrative’s sometimes challenging terrain. Indeed, the sense that we are getting a glimpse into the closed, privileged and long-lost world of palace life under the Imams’ rule is one of the novel’s great strengths. This is helped by the protagonist’s position as an outsider, which means that we discover the world with him and watch as he compares the formal processes of power with the way things are done in his own largely illiterate home community.

However, perhaps the most startling arena of discovery is that of the palace’s sexual politics. Women in this closed world are extremely predatory towards the young pubescent boys serving them, as are the soldiers manning the gates, leaving the hero feeling ‘like a rare bird […] put in a golden cage for life’. During a drive back from a state visit, the women’s possessiveness even spills over into a physical fight, with the boy tossed between them like a doll:

‘Then suddenly, she got hold of me and threw me towards them, so that I lost my balance and fell in some of their laps.

‘”You’re simply jealous of me,” she said, “because he’s sitting next to me. Am I jealous of you because he’s in your beds every night?”‘

Humiliation doesn’t get much deeper than this. However for Dammaj’s hero, the extreme pressure of being possessed and passed around in this way is just the force he needs to sublimate his powerlessness into dignity and develop his own desire for self-determination.

This growth of the protagonist from a naive child into a humane and thoughtful young man is what transforms the narrative from an intriguing account of life in a particular period into a timeless, classic tale. Dummaj shows us the human heart beating beneath the strange clothes and outmoded customs. Powerful writing indeed.

The Hostage (Ar-Rahina) by Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, translated from the Arabic by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (Interlink Books, 1994)

Israel: war wounds

I have a confession to make: I suffer from World War II novel fatigue. There are so many heart-rending, moving and harrowing books set during the years 1939-45 (as well as plenty of not so heart-rending, moving and harrowing ones) that a story in this category has to promise something out of the ordinary to persuade me to pick it up.

So when I heard that the Israeli novel on the 2012 shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was a war novel, I was pretty uninspired. If it hadn’t been for some very enthusiastic comments by members of the judging panel at the London Book Fair, I wouldn’t have given it a second look.

However the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, which is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old Jewish boy who seeks refuge in a Ukrainian brothel and enters into a sexual relationship with the prostitute who hides him, sounded intriguing. And when it beat the other contenders to the prize, I decided I had to find out whether this book, written by a Holocaust survivor, had something new to say about the events that ultimately led to Israel’s independence.

This is a novel that jumps in and out of the future tense. Starting on the eve of the boy Hugo’s birthday as his mother anticipates their impending separation, the narrative carries a strong sense of foreboding. This works partly through the dramatic irony that comes from the reader’s knowledge of subsequent historical events. Significantly, however, Appelfeld’s descriptions are so subtle and fresh that, were it not for the novel’s marketing, the reader might not even realise that this is a novel set during the war until several chapters in.

This freshness sets the characters free from the accumulated literary baggage of decades of war literature, giving Appelfeld the leeway to present them as individuals first. He does this by foregrounding details in language that is often disarming in its simplicity – the scene where Hugo says goodbye to his mother while trying to keep her for another minute then another, for example, is very touching.

The power of plain language becomes something of a theme in the book, with the prostitute Mariana telling Hugo at one point that ‘a spare way of speaking can also be colourful’. It’s a shame that Appelfeld doesn’t adhere to this when it comes to Hugo’s letters to his mother, which, full of phrases such as ‘the place is feverish’ and ‘in my heart I know that most of the fears are groundless’, have an odd ring to them. Whether these expressions are attempts on Appelfeld’s part to capture the pomposity of intelligent youth or instances of awkward translation, they jar against the subtle immediacy of the rest of the text.

The setting of the novel is very simple too, with much of the action taking place in Mariana’s room and the small closet in which Hugo sleeps. It’s a tribute to Appelfeld’s skill that he is able to sustain an engaging narrative with such a small array of characters and locations. This makes the final section after Mariana and Hugo leave the brothel all the more powerful for its contrast with what has gone before.

Barring one or two slightly repetitious passages, the intensity of the story builds towards the final chapters as a growing awareness of Jewish identity emerges in Hugo’s mind. This is summed up by a woman he encounters helping displaced people towards the end of the book. Her words suggest something of the sense of shared experience and kinship in the face of adversity that would underpin the formation of the future Jewish state:

‘We have to leave together and watch over one another. Brothers don’t say, I’ve already given. Brothers give more, and we have, thank God, a lot to give. One gives a cup of coffee and the other helps a woman bandage her wounds. One gives a blanket, and the other raises the pillow of a person who’s having trouble breathing. We have a lot to give. We don’t know yet how much we have.’

Without doubt, this is a powerful and striking take on the events that shook the world 70 years ago. Even if it wasn’t the pick of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize judges, it is an accomplished and beautiful work.

Nevertheless, as the novel ended I found myself impatient to see how the story continued after the state of Israel declared its independence. I was curious about books set in the country in recent years and itched to read something like Sara Shilo’s The Falafel King is Dead or David Grossman’s To the End of Land to see how these narratives played out in light of all that has happened in the region since 1948. Ah well, maybe next year.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green (Alma Books, 2012)

Iraq: getting a perspective

There were quite a lot of contenders available in English for Iraq. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that the country has been in and out of Western headlines for more than the last 20 years. Still, it was good to know that the traumatic occurrences of recent decades had not disrupted storymaking in the region – or so I thought until I read this book.

The Madman of Freedom Square – the first commercially published short story collection by Hassan Blasim, co-editor of Arabic literary website Iraq Story – paints a brutal, yet layered picture of the effects of international events on individual lives in and around post-invasion Iraq. Often starting or ending with a mutilated corpse, the tales trace the connections that bind people to one another and reveal the psychological wounds that result when these ties are ripped apart. There are the refugees reduced to animal cruelty when the truck they are locked in is abandoned, the patriotic songwriter turned atheist who wanders the streets railing against God and existence only to meet a gruesome end, and the underground collective that roams Baghdad making art out of its murder victims.

More than anything, this is a book about the function of storytelling. From the very first tale, ‘The Reality and the Record’, in which a traumatised man tries to tell the right story to secure asylum at a refugee centre, the text interrogates the act of narrating, as though trying to identify its weak points and secret guilt.

Sometimes – as in ‘An Army Newspaper’, an account of an unscrupulous editor who gets trapped in his lies when the dead soldier whose work he has passed off as his own continues to submit reams of manuscripts – storytelling takes on monstrous, nightmarish proportions. At other points, as with the sensational anecdotes spread by gossipmongers in the wake of bomb blasts in ‘The Market of Stories’, it seems a low, self-indulgent exercise, a sort of ‘primitive tribal gibberish which tries to hide behind tasteless and gory laughter’.

That story, however, also holds something of a key to the text’s uneasy relationship with its own function. According to the narrator, it may have its roots in Iraq’s history:

‘Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic. […] They claim that the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the country, in the broad sense of the word. There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.’

It’s important to note, of course, that these are the narrator’s words rather than Blasim’s own. Nevertheless, the question of who narrates, who listens and the value of telling at all rankles throughout the book, inviting the reader to look beyond it to the man writing in Arabic in Finland – Blasim’s home since 2004 – and wonder who exactly these words are for.

Underpinning this unease are repeated comments on the world-altering properties of perspective, with many of Blasim’s narrators suffering from mental illness, trauma or profound emotions that render their accounts suspect. The most powerful example, however, comes in ‘The Virgin and the Soldier’, an account of two young lovers doomed to a horrific death when they are accidentally locked in at the sewing factory where they work at the start of a holiday:

‘In reality there was nothing in the factory but army uniforms, but the government’s aim was to make the UN inspectors suspect that the factory was used for prohibited military purposes. […]

On that morning the American satellite pictures could not of course detect the muffled screams on the second floor. The screaming was hardly audible, and desperate. From the end of a world that was dying it reached the sewing room, which was empty and looked like a dreary sunset over an abandoned city.’

Too much distance, Blasim seems to be suggesting, and we become unable to empathise with fellow human beings, like satellites monitoring the Earth from the exosphere. And yet, even as he writes this, the author draws us in to the heart of the events he describes, immersing us in their brutal, bloody and heartbreaking immediacy.

Some of the stories end less successfully than others and there are one or two twists that miss their marks, but overall this is a powerful and thought-provoking work that transports readers to the extremes of human experience – and a mental terrain most of us are lucky enough never to have to  travel through. If Blasim needed proof of the validity of storytelling, he has written it.

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Comma Press, 2011)