When a Revolution Tells Children’s Stories
By Mina KhanlarzadehOctober 15, 2022
I have a complex relationship with the children’s stories that were influenced, as I later learned, by the 1979 revolution. On the one hand, I had a desire to escape through such stories as a child; on the other hand, I’ve had the sense of remaining haunted by these stories’ imagery and affect for many years. There was a sense of familiarity with these stories as a child but also an undeniable exotic distance. The distance between you, the reader, and the text is where the past resides, hidden within a coded language. You didn’t need to know the facts about significant historical moments to develop a sense of the past as it inhabited these stories. At times, the most truthful narratives of the past appear to you in the form of affects. The young reader feels the history before translating it into narratives. Perhaps it was the tendency to turn the affects into narratives that turned the act of making sense of these texts into my life’s work.
Social upheavals influence the interpretations of literary pieces, be it by translators who write their interpretation of a text in a different language and release the story into a new social-historical setting, or by common readers whose interpretation becomes part of the life-story of the text. While the revolutionary social background can add new dimensions to the interpretation, it can also repress the less political elements and delimit the text to its possible revolutionary messages.
You can see these dynamics at work in two key children’s texts from Iran: Samad Behrangi’s story The Little Black Fish from 1968 and the popular translation of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in 1980. I learned about the Persian translation of “Jack and the Beanstalk” when my father brought the book home to me as a four-year-old. A year later, a cousin in high school introduced me to Behrangi’s Little Black Fish, along with his other short stories.
Immediately following the revolution, Fatemeh Abtahi translated “Jack and the Beanstalk” into Persian under the title Hassan-o Khanom Hana dar Loubia-ye Sehramiz (Hassan and Ms. Hana and the Magical Beanstalk). As Juliet Dusinberre has argued, when adults write stories for children during revolutions, some of their concerns and aspirations can seep into their stories. The translation of the global fairytale “Jack and the Beanstalk” into Persian right after the 1979 revolution offers one such example: its distinct narrative differences reveal the ethos of Iranian society at the time — its ideals, memories, and revolutionary dreams. The translation proved so popular in 1980s Iran that Hassan-o Khanom Hana dar Loubia-ye Sehramiz was published as an audiobook, performed as a puppet play by the Kurdish-Iranian director and designer Ardeshir Keshavarzi, and turned into a two-volume book of drawings by Vahed Khakdan. The producers of the audiobook incorporated classical Iranian instruments, including the ney, tar, setar, and tonbak, with the music composed and played by prominent Iranian musicians such as Jalal Zolfonoon and Farzaneh Navai. But what’s especially striking to me, all these years later, are the ways Abtahi’s translation differs from its contemporary versions.
For one, the titular cow, Khanom Hana (Ms. Hana), plays an equally important role as that of Hassan, the standard hero. Rather than a story of a cow sold for a handful of magic beans, “Jack and the Beanstalk” in Persian becomes a story of an abiding friendship between Hassan and his cow.
In the lead-up to the 1979 revolution, Iranian thinkers who were committed to social justice were imagining alternative ways of making communities outside of familial bonds. Samad Behrangi, the pioneer writer of modern children’s literature in Iran, for example, created interspecies friendships between child characters and outcast animals and objects in his 1960s stories. That tradition continues in Abtahi’s adaptation of “Jack and the Beanstalk” when Hassan teaches his cow to pretend she is sick. The night before they leave for the market, he covers her skin with turmeric, hoping she will look less desirable to potential buyers. The ruse fails, and Hassan — as in the English version — relinquishes the cow for a magic bean.
In the audio version, Ms. Hana’s tragic departure is accompanied by a solo ney, played by Mohammad Mousavi. Hassan sings melancholically in Gita Khakpour’s voice: “Ms. Hana […] our beautiful life / without you, has lost its color […] Ms. Hana / I wish you could come back / so that I tell you stories, we play, I tuck you in, and feed you / Ms. Hana / I am worried they have already killed you / where are you?” The first time I listened to the story as a child, the hozn — the sorrow — embedded in the song was so hard to bear that, bursting into tears, I pleaded with my father to stop the recording. My father, a lover of music and literature, had enthusiastically bought the book and audio version for me from Enqelab Square in Tehran. He assured me the next songs would be happy, but I insisted on stopping the tape.
Compared to its English versions, the Persian translation carries considerably more detail that describes the economic disadvantage of Hassan’s family. Upon learning that Hassan has only earned a single bean in return for selling Ms. Hana, Hassan’s mother laments that they have run out of food and unsuccessfully pleads with an equally poor neighbor to borrow some rice for dinner. One senses a broadly impoverished community here, not a singularly poor mother and her son. In the morning, the mother tells Hassan that he can no longer attend school and has to work in a grocery store instead. As such, the Persian version reflects the era’s expectations that children’s literature was supposed to raise the social consciousness of young readers to join adults in the total transformation of society, one that confronts poverty, hunger, and child labor.
In both the play and the illustrations, women are depicted wearing vests over their gowns, and men wear fabric belts with puffy pants, resembling the Kurdish style. The clothing, the Iranian names, and the sounds of the ney, tar, and setar played in the audio version by musicians such as Mousavi and Zolfonoon have often been interpreted as an obvious attempt to adapt the story to Iranian culture and society. But it can also be interpreted as this era’s artists embracing their cultural heritage, following 1960s and ’70s intellectuals such as Jalāl Āl-e-Ahmad and Ali Shariati who called for a rejection of a dogmatic adherence to Eurocentric aesthetics and standards. In the case of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” this tendency resulted in a translation that infused the “original” text and its global significations with the local histories, cultural specificities, and political aspirations of the time.
In the Persian version, the harp’s description of the giant creates an additional layer of sympathy with Hassan’s theft of the harp and his later killing of the giant. The harp speaks, calling the giant moseghi nashenas, “one who is incapable of appreciating music,” and the lullaby’s lyrics to which the giant falls asleep imply that she will soon be freed from the giant’s custody. The giant is a cannibal and has eaten Hassan’s father. He asks his wife to crush the bones of a human into flour to make bread and turn the hair into reshteh bereshteh, a crunchy noodle dessert. The giant oppresses his wife at home and doesn’t share food with her, but his wife is approachable, even feeding and hiding Hassan, which endears her to readers. As in most other versions, however, the story ends without learning what happens to her.
Unlike the English version, the magician who buys Ms. Hana tells Hassan that to win the return of his cow, he needs to free the magic harp and the golden egg hen. In other words, Hassan’s motivation for climbing up the beanstalk is to gain Ms. Hana’s freedom. As in Behrangi’s stories, the community expands as it fights collectively for the survival of the most precarious animals and toys, and eventually reaches an outlandish world of magic.
Like Jack, Hassan defeats the giant with the ax, chopping at the base of the stalk. The difference, however, is that in the Persian version all the other characters stand next to the beanstalk and participate in the giant’s overthrow by urging on Hassan’s act. Hassan’s triumph is the community’s victory, too. In the end, the townspeople gather over the fallen giant and sing a celebratory song: “Sadness is over now / happiness finally entered our home / always sing / never say you can’t do something / we got rid of the evil giant / we recorded the event in the books / always sing / never say you can’t do something.” These lyrics are reminiscent of the revolutionary sorouds (anthems) in which the giant (the former regime) is removed by the people’s will. Even more clear: the illustration of Hassan and the neighbors next to the giant on the ground is reminiscent of the 1979 revolutionaries standing over the toppled statue of the Shah.
In some English versions, Jack returns to town with his money to buy a pig, whereas in the Persian version, the magician reunites Ms. Hana with Hassan. The giant had created the conditions in which the life of Ms. Hana was endangered, her loving friendship with Hassan was tragically disrupted, and hunger and child labor were widespread. As such, the return of Ms. Hana is a harbinger of a new social order, one where the most expendable lives will not only be saved but will also flourish and, as the mother divides the golden eggs among her neighbors, food will be plentiful.
I eventually listened to the audiocassette of Hassan and Ms. Hana from start to finish over many road trips in my father's car. I was recently reminded of Hassan and Ms. Hana by my childhood friend, who recalled how she used to stand on a chair in the kitchen, gesturing with the soup ladle to mimic Ms. Giant. She mentioned the story after learning I was working on Behrangi’s children’s fiction. I was exploring the link between the dreams he had shared with young readers about an alternative, egalitarian world and the future that Behrangi and many others genuinely believed the revolution could actualize. When one generation’s dreams for a future utopia are somehow connected to the next generation’s present dystopia, the dreams expressed in the stories they told get lost in the midst of historical losses and tragedies. When remembering the past is accompanied with a profound sense of sorrow and regret, there comes a tendency to leave that past, including its stories about dreams of an egalitarian future, in dusty archives or forgotten bookshelves. On the other hand, when the past haunts both the musical archives of those you adore and the stories of fictional characters to whom you once related as friends, coming closer to that past is a way to avoid feeling like a stranger among them.
When my cousin first recited The Little Black Fish for me in the summer at noon, little did I know its reception history, that it was taken up by Marxist guerilla fighters of the prerevolutionary era. Peyman Vahabzadeh, scholar of social movements, has articulated the ways in which The Little Black Fish was turned into the manifesto of the underground militant Marxist party, Fadaiyan-e-Khalq. Many of its members joined the movement after reading The Little Black Fish in the 1970s. The protesting spirit it encouraged in children is still distinctly visible in the text. However, when I returned to the story several years ago, I was surprised less by its function as a political parable than by the possibility of striking allusions to classical Persian literature. But these literary connections have scarcely appeared in the interpretations of this text, haunted as it is by the history of the revolutionary struggle leading up to 1979.
The titular Little Black Fish, for those who don’t know the story, enters into a forbidden friendship with the snail, a social outcast. The rest of the community in the pond refuses to tolerate the snail’s expressions of discontent with their little home and with the snail’s quest to experience the world beyond. Soon, the Little Black Fish begins dreaming of the world outside her home, too. Although her quest is obstructed at first by her fear of rejection from her community and the outside world’s dangers, she finds her small world losing more of its meaning, and she yearns to get out. Despite the fierce objections of her community, the Little Black Fish leaves her little pond behind to see the ocean.
The dangers against her in life are real, but death is not opposite to life. As the Little Black Fish says:
Death could come upon me very easily now. But as long as I’m able to live, I shouldn’t go out to meet death. Of course, if someday I should be forced to face death — as I shall — it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the influence that my life or death will have on the lives of others …
In other words, a political gesture is judged based on the type of life and social values that it enables in the life and memory of the community. For the guerilla fighters resisting the Shah in the 1970s, this message resonated profoundly.
On her journey, the Little Black Fish sees other fish fellows who express interest in accompanying her on her voyage. Soon, however, they all get trapped in a pelican’s pouch. The other fish attempt to betray the Little Black Fish by blaming her for leading them astray. The pelican agrees to release the others, but only if they first strangle the Little Black Fish. Knowing the pelican is lying, the wise and wily Little Black Fish persuades her peers to let her pretend that she is dead; while the other fish get eaten up, she uses a dagger to free herself. The Little Black Fish relying on a dagger on her journey was interpreted as a metaphor of Behrangi’s defense of the necessity of armed struggle against the state in the 1970s..
To a reader familiar with classical Persian literature, playing dead to free oneself can be interpreted as an allusion to Rumi’s classic story “The Parrot and the Merchant,” which tells of a merchant leaving for India whose parrot asks him to let the other parrots in India know that she yearns to be with them, that she is imprisoned while they are free. Upon returning, the merchant tells the parrot that her story broke the hearts of her fellow parrots, even causing one of them to die from heartache. The parrot then decides to play dead in her cage. Full of remorse for having caused her death, the merchant opens the cage, whereupon the parrot immediately flies to an high tree branch. To the merchant below, the parrot explains that the parrots in India taught her that her voice is keeping her imprisoned; instead of remaining a caged singer, she had to die to find liberation.
Like the parrot, the Little Black Fish frees herself by pretending to be dead. These two performances of death bring the characters face-to-face with their mortality and use their dead bodies to prepare for rebirth and transfiguration, freeing them from their social constraints. Since the Little Black Fish does not join the other fish but instead continues on her own journey, The Little Black Fish has been critiqued on a few occasions in Persian for being individualistic as opposed to collectivist, ultimately advocating for a kind of adventurism instead of instigating a meaningful social transformation. But at the end, The Little Black Fish becomes a kind of legend whose story points to the other possibilities of life beyond the pond: she changes her community’s dreams and ideals.
The story of the Little Black Fish can also be compared with Conference of the Birds, written by Attar Neishabouri in 1177. The birds of the world, in this classic tale, start their journey under the leadership of the hoopoe to reach the top of Mount Qaf, which wraps around the world and where there lives a mysterious bird, the beloved Simorgh (meaning “30 birds” in Persian). The journey has seven valleys that the birds need to pass through in order to reach the beloved’s door. The journey purifies the heart, and the beloved Simorgh is reflected in the mirror of the heart. The 30 remaining birds come to understand that the beloved can be seen in the mirror like the sun, while the mirror shows themselves to them as well.
Like The Conference of the Birds from the 12th century, the truth of the Little Black Fish’s journey comes to fruition gradually over the course of her different experiences. The transformation of her soul ultimately leads to the transformation of society, and the world that expanded for her was one that also expanded for her fellow fish. In recent years, more interpretations of the Little Black Fish have appeared in Persian where the authors compare the story with classical literature such as Kelileh va demneh, Marzban-nameh, and The Conference of The Birds. As for myself, only in more recent readings of The Little Black Fish did I begin noticing possible interpretations outside the realm of the 1979 revolution. On the other hand, it took years for me to look at Hassan and his separation from his cow through the social discontent many Iranians felt about their political condition in the 1960s and ’70s, which is to say, it took me years to see the joyous reunification of a boy and his cow through the lens of Behrangi and Abtahi’s generations’ hope for an alternative society, a utopian future.
Although “Jack and The Beanstalk” is rarely contextualized within the history of the 1979 revolution, Behrangi’s 1968 children’s story Mahi-ye Siah-e Koochooloo (The Little Black Fish) is stamped by that historical moment.
These later interpretations of mine regarding Hassan’s story feel a lot like a sudden revolutionary anthem dubbed over a beloved cassette tape, and to see The Little Black Fish in relation to classical Persian literature is an attempt to retrieve the sound of the tar that had been eclipsed by the sound of the revolutionary anthem.
Mina Khanlarzadeh is a postdoctoral scholar at the Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy and a visiting scholar of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University.
Featured image: Maria Hannes Flach, [Abstract Shapes], ca. 1928–36. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program, Public Domain. Accessed October 7, 2022.
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