Iran Under Pressure, Again: What a 50-Year-Old Persian Classic Tells Us About the Country’s Predicament Today




SEDUCED AND SLANDERED, then vindicated only to be unjustly murdered in exile, Siyâvash is unquestionably one of the most tragic figures in Iranian lore, if not the most tragic. Mentioned in Zoroastrian scripture, occupying a central place in Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), and ritually mourned by Iranians since the Sasanian era (224–651 AD), Siyâvash unsurprisingly also lies at the heart of a major work of modern Persian literature.

Published 50 years ago in 1969, Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun, the first modern Persian-language novel penned by a female author and still Iran’s best-selling work of fiction, tells of the trials of an idealistic patriot and his family during the Allied Occupation of Iran in the early 1940s. Reprinted more than 20 times in Iran and translated into numerous major languages, Savushun demands to be read today not only for its literary merit and insights about life in mid-20th-century Iran but also — perhaps most importantly — for what it says about the country today, particularly as tensions with the United States escalate amid the looming prospect of armed conflict.

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While the British and the Russians had all but colonized Iran during the greater part of the reign of the feckless and unscrupulous Qajars (r. 1785–1925), it wasn’t until 1941 that they formally occupied it. In siding with the Germans, Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925–1941) hadn’t allowed the British to make use of Iran’s railways, which they needed to supply Russia with much-needed resources. As such, the Allies deposed the imperious monarch and exiled him to South Africa, then placed Mohammad Reza, his inexperienced, Western-bred son, on the Peacock Throne to do their bidding.

The occupation — that is, the time between the deposal of the father and the appointment of the son — lasted only a few months, but the Allies maintained an all too palpable presence in the Land of Aryans until 1946, when the Russians finally left. “From 1941 to 1945,” writes Brian Spooner in his introduction to M. R. Ghanoonparvar’s 1990 English translation of Savushun, “Iran was reduced to the most abject state of dependence of its modern history.” Determined to win the war, the Allies forced Iran to provide them with natural resources (wheat and oil, in particular), starving Iranians in the process. “Existing extremes of poverty were exacerbated, disease rates increased, and typhus became a chronic problem,” Spooner notes.

Such is the bleak backdrop against which Savushun takes place (G. Braziller published an English translation by Roxane Zand in 1992 under the title A Persian Requiem). In the southern city of Shiraz, a former capital of Iran near the somber ruins of Persepolis, live Zari, her husband, Yusof, and their children. A foil to his brother, Abolqasem, a cynical defeatist who deems any resistance to the British futile and thinks only about winning a seat in Parliament in Tehran, Yusof is a dreamer fighting for a better Iran. Steadfast in his socialism-tinged beliefs and values, he riles the British officer Zinger by refusing to sell him his wheat “at a time when [a] single loaf [of bread] could make a whole family’s evening meal” and instead distributes it among the peasants in the nearby village where he owns land, saying, “I can’t be like everyone else. I can’t watch my peasants go hungry. A country can’t be completely without men.”

At the same time, Yusof is unsupportive of the Qashqai tribal leaders Malek Rostam and Malek Sohrab in their opposition to the Iranian government, which since Reza Shah’s time had been trying to put an end to nomadism for the sake of progress and security. With the resources he has at hand, Yusof tries to help the Qashqais settle with dignity and reap the benefits of modernity. Malek Sohrab complains, “[The government] built a few mud houses in places where there was no water and said, ‘Go live in them.’ Instead of books, teachers, doctors, medicine, and sympathy, they gave us bayonets, tanks, guns, and animosity.”

Zari shares her husband’s lofty values and is appalled by the way, as Yusof puts it, the British make all Iranians “their dealers, errand boys, and interpreters.” What she initially lacks, however, is his courage and resolve. When, for instance, the daughter of Shiraz’s subservient governor asks for Zari’s son Khosrow’s beloved colt, she — in Yusof’s absence, and with a heavy heart — eventually gives in. Abolqasem, who had been pressuring her, insists nothing could have been done about the situation and that it’s best to tell Khosrow the colt died. When Khosrow and Yusof finally uncover the truth, they echo the sentiments of Zari’s sister Fatemeh, who calls her a pushover. In her defense, Zari says to Khosrow, “Yes dear. In your opinion and that of your father and teacher, I am a coward, a weakling. I am always afraid that something might happen to one of you. I can’t bear the thought.”

Her fears prove justified when Yusof is killed by the British for not submitting to their demands for wheat. His death, however, marks a turning point for Zari. Fearing that Yusof’s funeral may turn into a riot, the government refuses to give Zari permission to carry his coffin through the city. Undaunted, she does so anyway, recalling the death of Siyâvash as she wends her way through a wave of mourners and protesters.

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The novel may unfold around Zari, but it’s Siyâvash who is its raison d’être, and even namesake. Savushun (also known as Suvashun) means “mourners of Siyâvash” and refers to an important ritual associated with the ancient Iranian hero. Known as the Sug-e Siyavash, it originated in Sasanian times. In his 2009 book, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, Iranologist Touraj Daryaee writes,

According to early Persian texts, in Khorasan on a specific day the Zoroastrian priests would mourn the death of the innocent hero, Siyavash, who was killed unjustly. […] The ceremonies […] are still carried on today in the province of Persis [the Greek name for Pars, or Fars, where Shiraz is situated].

In the Shahnameh, completed by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the early 11th century, Siyâvash, the Crown Prince of Iran, is seduced by his lusty stepmother, Sudabeh. Incensed by his rejection, Sudabeh concocts a story for the king, falsely claiming that Siyâvash tried to rape her. His word unaccepted, Siyâvash is subjected to a trial by fire from which he emerges unscathed. He clears his name before all and even prevents his father from killing Sudabeh, an act of mercy that is also strategic (her father is an important Iranian ally).

But Siyâvash later has a falling out with the king, who disapproves of a peace treaty made between a victorious Siyâvash and a vanquished Afrasiyab, the fiendish ruler of Turan, Iran’s archnemesis. Unable to break his word, Siyâvash leaves Iran and settles in Turan, but his popularity there evokes the jealousy of those around Afrasiyab. After once again being falsely accused — this time, of having designs on Afrasiyab’s kingdom — he loses his head to the enraged king.

In Savushun, Yusof takes Siyâvash’s place as a tragic hero cruelly wronged in spite of his innocence and virtue. As Siyâvash did with Sudabeh, Yusof rejects the offers of the British and their Iranian hirelings, opting to give his wheat to his starving countrymen. Like Siyâvash, he suffers for his integrity as he endures pressure from Zinger, his own brother, and close friends Malek Sohrab and Malek Rostam. Like Siyâvash, he is unjustly killed at the hands of a foreigner (although unlike Siyâvash, his death is a direct result of his high-mindedness). And like Siyâvash, he finds himself at odds even with those closest to him, most notably Abolqasem.

Daneshvar is explicit about the comparison, packing her novel with references to Siyâvash. Early on, Zari recalls seeing a depiction of Siyâvash’s decapitation in the tent of Malek Rostam and Malek Sohrab and mistaking the hero for Saint John the Baptist (she was educated at an English missionary school). After Yusof’s death, she remembers attending a Sug-e Siyavash that, unlike the sugs of ancient Iran, had a markedly Islamic flavor. In the village passion play Zari attended, Siyavash rejects offers of help from a variety of princes and declines a cup of rosewater from a dervish who tells him to drink it in memory of Imam Hossein. Proceeding alone on horseback, he is thrashed and killed by his enemies, and the village audience bewail the loss. Later, during Yusof’s funeral procession, Zari compares her late husband to the hero: “Someone invoked, ‘Ya [Hossein].’ And the crowd replied in a drawn-out chant, ‘Ya [Hossein]!’ Or suppose it is Savushun and we are mourning Siyavash, Zari thought bitterly.” A further link is made through Khosrow, which in the Shahnameh is the name of Siyâvash’s son, who also vows to avenge his father.

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Though published 50 years ago and set in the ’40s, Savushun is eerily relevant today. Iran isn’t under occupation, but it remains at the mercy of foreign powers nonetheless, the United States chief among them. President Trump has reneged on the historic 2015 JCPOA agreement and successfully pressured the European parties to the “bad deal,” as well as some of Iran’s longstanding trade partners, such as India, not to do business of any kind with the country.

As a result, Iran’s economy is in utter ruins, and ordinary Iranians are bearing the brunt. The value of the rial has plummeted, desperately needed medical supplies have become unavailable because of sanctions, and winding queues to obtain staple foods have developed. Many are living hand-to-mouth. As if this weren’t enough, Iran is being threatened almost daily with the prospect of military confrontation by a United States goaded on by figures such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “If Iran wants to fight,” tweeted the president in May, “that will be the official end of Iran.” More recently, the Trump administration and its allies have accused Iran of attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and spoken of deploying even more American troops to the Persian Gulf region, where the US military presence is already unsettling.

In the context of contemporary geopolitics, both Yusof and Siyâvash can be seen as metaphors for the Iranian government — at least as it is represented by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani. Ever since Trump announced his plans to withdraw from the Obama-era nuclear deal, Zarif has spoken at length about justice, honor, logic, and truth in trying to reason with the world at large and muster its support (unlike the lone rider in the passion play, who preferred to duke it out solo). He has been adamant that both the Iranian government and the Iranian people will not succumb to what he believes are unfair demands, and that Iran deserves respect, not taunts.

It seems Zarif’s pleas and remonstrances have fallen on deaf ears. Despite having continued to abide by the stipulations of the JCPOA — as repeatedly confirmed by the IAEA — and thus emerged from numerous “trials by fire” unscathed, Iran has only grown more isolated as the Trump administration’s rhetoric has intensified. Iran now plans to exceed its uranium stockpile limit as set out in the agreement, but it’s uncertain how much longer Zarif and company can continue to stand their ground, especially given the bolder, more assertive stance they’ve taken.

One need only cast a cursory glance at Iranian history to see what tends to befall idealists like Zarif and Yusof in the face of foreign aggression. The democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh (to name but one example) nationalized Iran’s oil industry and fought for his country’s independence and integrity. In 1953, the CIA and MI6 ousted him in a coup d’état, and he was later placed under house arrest until his death by their man in Tehran, the Shah.

Today, all that remains to complete the Yusof/Siyâvash-as-Iran metaphor is a (not-so-improbable) attack to “end” the country or at least, as per an oft-used phrase in Washington, to “send it back to the Stone Age” à la Iraq. What should Iran do to avert such a fate? As dignified as it may be to follow Yusof’s example and do what is right without regard for what may happen, the circumspect Zari’s tactic of avoiding further tension at all costs is equally tempting. Even the approach of the cynical sell-out Abolqasem has its merits. “Make fun of me and say that I am not a man,” he tells Zari. “But what can one do but submit and consent?” Zari, too, has her moments of utter hopelessness, asking herself, “Oh God, what kind of people are these men? They know it is useless, but to prove their existence, their manhood, and courage, and for their children not to later spit on their graves, with their own free hands, they dig … bite my tongue … God forbid.”

The cover of the 1990 English translation of Savushun describes Daneshvar’s book as “a novel about modern Iran.” It may not hold the answers to Iran’s current conundrum (those, it is said, are known to God and Hafez of Shiraz alone), but what it does have to say — for the worse, unfortunately — is that, 50 years on, the tragic story remains the same.

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Author Joobin Bekhrad’s award-winning writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Economist, Forbes, the Guardian, and many other publications. His book of stories about Iranian culture and history, With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes, is available via joobinbekhrad.com.


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