The Forgotten Charm of Iranian Storytelling

By Dina NayeriAugust 6, 2014

The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons by Goli Taraghi

IRANIAN WRITERS, especially women, have produced some extraordinary books in the last three decades: Of those written in (or translated to) English, the memoirs of Azar Nafisi, Roya Hakakian, and Marjane Satrapi come to mind, as does the fiction of Shahrnush Parsipur and Moniru Ravanipur. The memoirs I’ve mentioned are gritty, detailed books that capture a realistic, modern Iran, with all its taboos and eccentricities. The fiction, however, often veers toward something like magical realism. Parsipur’s famously banned novel Touba and the Meaning of Night blends mysticism with historical fact, and Ravanipur’s stories, which draw heavily on village life, use myth, superstition, and reality to create a vivid picture of southern Iran. Iran, like Latin America, has a long history of this kind of writing. The great Sadegh Hedayat, whose work was heavily influenced by Franz Kafka, has been called Iran’s foremost modern writer. His most widely read novel, The Blind Owl, is often compared to Kafka for its rich surrealistic imagery and maze-like narrative.

But there is another kind of Iranian storytelling, the likes of which I have not seen published in some time. I’m referring to stories that follow the rules of literary realism but still manage to feel farcical and melodramatic. They are realistic but not believable. They are modern but have a folktale-like charm. The characters are often one-dimensional; think bumbling mullahs, witches with hourly rates, and villainous sisters-in-law. These stories depict the daily lives of Iranians as they sit down to long teas, visit open markets, and contract marriages. Before the 1979 revolution, these kinds of stories appeared in magazines and local periodicals and were repeated in kitchens and sitting rooms — a story about the Rashti man, for example, whose wives killed each other while trying to poison him. Or the one about the woman in modern Tehran who used an old village curse to scare her sister and found that the spell might have actually worked. A Western reader would call such storytelling cheap: Where is the subtlety? Where is the character development? Recently I asked a friend, an artist and a fellow Iranian, why these stories, the ones that sound so distinctly Persian to my ear, are so hard to find nowadays. He gave me the usual arguments: most of today’s well-published Persian writers are Westernized, writing for American and European audiences, usually in English. “How else is a Persian writer supposed to make a name for herself in this world?” he reasoned. “Is she supposed to publish just in Iran?”

A fair point. There are no weighty literary outlets for audiences inside Iran, no tastemakers analyzing the movements of modern Iranian storytelling. Last year a respected Persian author came to visit the Iowa Writers Workshop through the International Writers Program. He had written several beautiful works, none translated, and had been jailed for his writings. Clearly, he did important work that reached far enough to draw attention. Still, he kept asking me the same question: how do I get into the English-language market? Until he did that, he felt that he had no voice.

Even in the underground artist communities of Tehran, Isfahan, and other big cities, young Iranians cling to Western media, and their voices are different from those of the generations that came before them. They are not interested in their parents’ storytelling style just as they’re not interested in their parents’ music: they are modern, hip, and they want the West to pay attention. (At the same time, they would rail at me for implying that older generations of stories or music are somehow more Iranian than theirs.) Still, one can’t deny how much we modern Iranians consider American opinion in presenting ourselves. Just look at our communities in California, where the desperation to impress has led to the garish, jeweled monstrosity that is Tehrangeles (a large, wealthy enclave of Iranian exiles located in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles). Just look at the videos of underground Iranians dancing to American music, wearing American brands, hoping American YouTube watchers will see.

The West is our audience now. When I first started writing, another Iranian author advised me, “Don’t write for Iranians. They don’t buy books.” Westerners buy books and what Westerners want from Iranian writing is socio-political memoirs, historical narratives, or the next Hedayat — not the folksy absurdities of the day-to-day.

I’m thinking of all this having just finished Goli Taraghi’s The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons, a lyrical, deeply sensory collection of stories that actually sound Iranian to me. Published by W. W. Norton & Company last October, this book gathers together 40 years of writing from a celebrated Iranian author whose work explores the many facets of modern Iran, from Mossadeq and the Tudeh Party, to the ordeals of post-revolutionary Tehran, to the strange lives of exiles in Paris.

Taraghi’s strength is in her vivid, memorable details, the way she portrays an entire life with striking images of the day-to-day: girls stuff their bellies with piroshkies before rushing off to dance class, bloated and smelling of garlic. A woman lies on a torture bed and smells the fearful sweat of the prisoner before her. One can feel the excitement of pre-revolutionary nights on Tajrish Bridge, peddlers selling roasted beets and potatoes while a guerilla fighter demonstrates how to use an Uzi.

Taraghi is a bestselling author in Iran and she has been awarded a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France, her home in exile. But her work is less known here in the States. Many of the stories in this collection, which were translated from Farsi by Sara Khalili, are being published in English for the first time. Reading this book, I was consumed by nostalgia. With sorrow and upheaval as her backdrop, Taraghi’s stories verge beautifully on the absurd without plunging too far into magical realism. The trivialities of everyday life are sharply rendered, and they serve as windows into a more crucial narrative connecting the everyday to the political and historical. Yet, there is such whimsy here.

In “Gentleman Thief,” simple sentences patter along at a fast clip, delivering quick action like a story recited aloud to children. Exclamation marks cover the page, as a grandmother attacks a Revolutionary Court server who comes to confiscate her house. Shortly before she produces a rifle, Taraghi describes, “Grandmother was ready to pounce on him. Mother was watching from a distance. Her eyes were half-closed. She looked like she was dreaming. I threw myself at Grandmother and covered her mouth with my hand. I was no match for her. She weighed ninety kilos.”

This is the storytelling of my grandmother’s kitchen, farcical, funny, tongue-in-cheek — it’s the voice of an Iranian woman who, in a career spanning four decades, has developed a thorough understanding of Iranians from a political, cultural, and historical perspective. Two stories (“The Great Lady of My Soul” and “In Another Place”) do feel like direct descendants of Hedayat. Both of these stories employ magic realism strategies. In the former, a man transports himself to a mystical garden to escape a hostile new Iran. In the latter, a man wakes up to find that he has no control over his arms and legs. He slaps and kicks his wife and friends without warning and ruins a large dinner party. But, for most of the book, Taraghi remains in the realm of realist fiction.

And this is where a Western reader would find flaws: Taraghi’s stories handle small moments of human farce with grace, but larger absurdities go unchecked. There are too many irredeemable villains, unlikely twists, and wild coincidences. In “Gentleman Thief,” a penitent robber returns decades later to become a servant to the ailing homeowner he once robbed. In “The Encounter,” a woman’s wicked nanny happens to be the very Revolutionary Guard who is assigned to give her 30 lashes decades later. And in “The Flowers of Shiraz,” a potentially complex story that might have explored a range of social conventions surrounding young love in 1950s Tehran, a leading character is killed off in such a surprising and abrupt way that it renders the story moot. Despite this, the voices of the narrators are precisely and skillfully crafted. “The Flowers of Shiraz,” for example, is written in the breathless, nostalgic language of adolescence. “[A]ll those books, all those words, all those ideas,” says the young narrator, “all those fleeting moments of happiness, they all stun and mesmerize us. We are restless, confused, and impatient. We are in a hurry to become adults.” Later she says, “Outside this house, there is war and gunfire, Mrs. Shokat’s daughter is getting married, and my cousin Sima has given birth to a girl […] There is the world of real people, living people.”

There is a lot of comeuppance in this book. In “The Neighbor,” a young Iranian mother is rendered immobile in her own home for fear of a tyrannical French neighbor who demands absolute quiet. This is a fascinating set up that might have led to a subtle revelation about either woman, or a moment of human connection and understanding, but instead it culminates in a theatrical telling-off. It may be the satisfying ending we long for in real life, but the outcome is too easy for serious fiction. People in the real world never behave so elegantly; when given the chance, they bungle it. They don’t reclaim their power or win the day. They wish they had, later, in their beds, when they’re stewing in the memory.

In Taraghi’s stories both tragic and comic coincidences abound, and, as a Western-educated reader, I am tempted to say that they are juvenile and uninteresting.

And yet …

I am moved because this is how we used to tell stories in Iran. These stories may not meet modern standards of raw realism, but they feel right in one respect: they are Iranian stories and they obey Iranian rules, and that is largely because none of them are all that believable. Persians love stories with big coincidences. They love villains and heroes, unlikely plot twists, and spectacular transformations. Iranian storytelling is, by its nature, melodramatic. It’s all about untimely deaths and desperate, broken lovers. Often monstrous outside forces make everything go wrong at the last minute. In a country where 35 years ago (and several times before that), an outside force derailed every promising narrative, Deus ex machina feels right and true to the way the universe works.

These stories have me thinking of the reaction of the academic community to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. In these circles, the book was called clumsy, its characters uncomplicated, and its ending farcical. Even in a glowing review by The New York Times, his choice of ending seemed hard to justify: “When Amir meets his old nemesis, now a powerful Taliban official, the book descends into some plot twists better suited to a folk tale than a modern novel.” I wonder now why Hosseini never defended his choices as distinctly Eastern methods of storytelling, those rooted mostly in oral traditions. He was, after all, weaving an Afghani tale for English-language audiences. Why was it so wrong to use the techniques of his homeland?

So now, in trying to decide which aesthetic standard to apply to The Pomegranate Lady, my instinct is to ignore the voices in my head talking about subtlety and to listen to the Iranian girl who wants a good story. My instinct is to say: I love this. It’s good because it follows an old tradition; and it’s authentic because this is the way Iranians have told stories for centuries and, like making a good herb stew, they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. In a country where daily indignities and human ugliness have been scaled up and dramatized in every international news outlet, storytelling there serves a different function — to amuse, to belittle, to throw the spotlight on something absurd, to go to extremes, to deliver twists and turns until you’ve reached a kind of narrative satisfaction that many Americans consider old-fashioned. Persians have a unique relationship with storytelling; it permeates every aspect of their life and is even encoded into a system of everyday truth and lies that people understand instinctively. In such an environment, coincidences and drama, clear-cut good and evil, and extra unlikely embellishments aren’t juvenile. They’re necessary.

In real life, Iranians have to exaggerate. They have to lie to survive. Yet, somehow they manage to know when to trust, when to suspend disbelief. How can they find pleasure in the sort of fare served up by today’s literary establishment? Where is the amusement in mild mannered tales of flawed and ordinary so-and-so’s, stories that start and end in the same place and travel in a big self-involved circle, like a snake eating itself? What Iranian grandmother would tolerate all the navel gazing and the small humiliations, the dreary self-discovery, stories without resolution, without villains or heroes, offering no moral, no righteous moving finger, and no comeuppance? My guess is that in my grandmother’s village, unlike in the sitting rooms of modern, Yankophile Iranians, the only use for highbrow literary magazines would be to wrap yesterday’s fish.

Taraghi is well aware of the complicated, sometimes misplaced, admiration Iranians have for Europe and the States. In “The Neighbor,” the timid young mother hides away, giving up her favorite pastimes to please her neighbor. She reasons that most likely the French don’t waste time with “casual folly.” Likely they never sit outside and have a drink, engaging instead in serious talk, perhaps politics or literature. “Coming from a country ruled by hardline, anti-West mullahs,” the woman explains, “we are in no position to argue.” In “Unfinished Game,” someone in a crowded airport says, “[Y]ou should be ashamed of yourselves, behaving like this in front of foreigners. It’s no surprise that they say we are a backward people.” As a people, we Iranians seem constantly to view ourselves through a Western lens.

We pretend — and maybe that’s the thread that connects us to the West, and to the rest of the world. “Perhaps this was how grownups behaved,” a young man thinks, as his eyes open to the duplicity of all people. “They had two faces, one for the day and one for the night […] Everything seemed unreal to him, like one shadow on top of another.”

These pretenses remind me of Philip Roth’s incisive 1963 essay “Writing About Jews,” in which Roth argues that trying to present a balanced view of the Jewish people is catering to white readers and, therefore, the worst kind of response to alienation and hatred. A rabbi says to Roth that his story would have been judged purely on literary merit if published in a Hebrew magazine or in Israel — and this argument is undoubtedly true of Taraghi’s work: in an Iranian magazine, it would be judged purely on her stunning images, the poetry of her words. But Roth shuts down the argument that he should adapt his writing or change his platform. He won’t seek literary acceptance in this way; “not by putting on a good face” and not by depriving his people of “honest attention.” Why must the Jewish or Persian narrative be cleaned up of its authenticity for the sake of a non-native readership?

Goli Taraghi has an authentically Iranian voice and her stories move and transport in an Iranian way. Sitting with her work for an afternoon doesn’t feel like reading. It feels like traveling to Iran, lingering in somebody’s dusty old café with a cup of hot chai, listening to the storytellers whisper in your ear, competing for attention with tantalizing surprises, obvious agendas, and a distinctly Iranian taste for the bizarre. 


Dina Nayeri is the author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead Books 2013).

LARB Contributor

Dina Nayeri was born in Iran during the revolution and emigrated to Oklahoma at the age of ten. She has a BA from Princeton, an MBA and M.Ed from Harvard, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop where she was a Truman Capote Fellow and a Teaching Writing Fellow. Her novel A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea was published by Riverhead Books in 2013.


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