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New Texts Out Now: Amy Motlagh, Burying the Beloved: Marriage, Realism, and Reform in Modern Iran

[Cover of Amy Motlagh, [Cover of Amy Motlagh, "Burying the Beloved: Marriage, Realism, and Reform in Modern Iran"]

Amy Motlagh, Burying the Beloved: Marriage, Realism, and Reform in Modern Iran. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Amy Motlagh (AM): Part of the study of literature is obsessive re-reading. In this case, I became preoccupied with what I felt was a narrow translation of a word in the English edition of Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (which is perhaps the only Persian novel to achieve the status of a work of “world literature”), giving rise to an interpretation of the novel that seemed to conceal some of the complexities of how this could be read in the Persian. Although the preoccupation with that particular word didn’t ultimately find a place in the book, it made me re-think my way of understanding the novel, a prose form still new to Persian when Hedayat wrote The Blind Owl in 1937. It also helped me articulate the way in which the dominant readings of canonical texts from the Persian tradition seemed to systematically efface traces of sexual, class, and linguistic difference. This led me to look again at the purported genealogy of prose fiction in Iran, and to discover some surprising similarities in the development of the discourses that justified and argued for the adoption of civil law. One of the most profound connections that I found between prose fiction and civil law was the mutual use of marriage as a metaphor for understanding women’s status.

At the same time, I saw a semiotic shift taking place as these new prose forms began to use ideas from the existing literary discourse (dominated by poetry) to tell different kinds of stories. Part of that shift was the transformation of the ambiguously gendered beloved of pre-modern lyric poetry into the unambiguously female beloved (typically a wife) of the novel. The critical discourse treating the ambiguity of this beloved in the Iranian lyrical tradition is a vexed one, and it seems to me to characterize the difficulty with which critics and readers made a transition between and among literary forms and their symbolic systems. I argue in Burying the Beloved that the celebration of marriage and the ideal of the companionate wife in legal discourse and in fiction depended on the burial of this ambiguity, which is often literally symbolized in metaphors of dismemberment and burial. In other words, in order to become consonant with modernity, the beloved of classical poetry had to be translated into the wife of modern fictional realism.

J: What major issues does it address?

AM: Though much attention has been given to other aspects of elite and popular culture in twentieth-century Iran, the critical discourse on Persian literature has been comparatively limited. I wanted to offer an examination of literature that more directly addressed the question of how and why the novel and prose fiction came into being and persisted in the twentieth century, in spite of limited readership and the perception that prose fiction—especially the novel—was a non-indigenous and potentially corrupting form. As I mentioned above, I also wanted to put prose fiction into critical dialogue with another discourse that was developing at the same time—namely, civil law. I felt that this comparison would allow me to problematize what I thought of as the “invisibility” of realism in Iranian fiction (in other words, the assumption that literature accurately reflected social realities) and to question the assumption that the purpose of literary production in Iran was inherently reformist. Part of my reasoning was that because laws are more frequently recognized as instruments of social reform, and their claim to realism is questioned, reading literary production within the context of legal reform would allow me to make visible the common assumptions of these two discourses.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

AM: My previous publications have focused on Anglophone literature of the post-1979 Iranian diaspora, primarily the North American diaspora. I developed this interest in the diaspora as I was working on the dissertation that eventually grew into Burying the Beloved, even though it was an area of investigation that didn’t have an explicit connection to my dissertation research—basically, it was an attempt to intervene at a time when both the political situation and the scholarly discourse seemed to demand a critical response. The discussion within the Iranian Studies community about diaspora and diasporic cultural production has become more complex and interesting since that time, but when I first began writing on this topic, it was very much marginalized and seen as beyond the pale of appropriate scholarly focus. Yet in retrospect, I see that this research shares many of the concerns of Burying the Beloved: it is focused on the way in which genres shape discourses and are in turn further politicized, and what happens when we complicate the analysis of genre by introducing an investigation of gender. The conclusion of Burying the Beloved (“A Severed Head?”) may most explicitly connect these research interests, in that it turns its critical attention to the globalized nature of Iranian culture in the twenty-first century, and the role that diasporic intellectuals play in mediating and interpreting the new and globalized cultural forms like Iranian cinema, which have achieved extraordinarily wide circulation and appeal.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AM: I hope that Burying the Beloved opens up a space to revisit the major critical assumptions that characterized the study of modern Persian literature to date (both inside and outside of Iran), because I think that these are assumptions that have carried over into historiography and other areas of scholarly production. So I suppose the first targeted audience is scholars of modern Iran. I’d also love to see it adopted in both undergraduate and graduate courses that focus on world literature, Middle Eastern literatures, and, of course, the rare specialized course on modern Persian fiction. I hope it encourages readers to return to some of the canonical works it examines with different questions—for example, I’d like for people to put aside questions like “Was Sadeq Hedayat a misogynist?” and instead to ask questions about the way in which the indeterminacy of his text has inspired such profoundly different readings. A friend asked me at one point during this project, “Why Hedayat? Hasn’t enough been written on him already?” But for me the perception that he has been “over-read” is part of the reason we must continue to ask questions about his centrality to the modern Persian canon and the imagination of Hedayat as the father of Persian modernism. I’d like for people to think about how the idea of the canonized Hedayat is itself a ghost that haunts the analysis of Persian literature.  

J: What current projects are you working on?

AM: I’m working on two new projects, both of which find their origins in issues and questions that came up while doing the research for this book. One project is concerned with how literary modernity is conceived, and looks at friendship networks in Iran-identified populations living in places like Delhi and Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The idea is to try to complicate earlier work on exile and nationalism, as well as to problematize the widely accepted history of Iranian nationalism’s development in particular. This is a project of some scope and I expect it will be a long time in the making. The other project, which is an ongoing interest and also has a place in Burying the Beloved (for example, in chapter four, “Ain’t I a Woman?”), has to do with class relations and the history of domestic service and slavery in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Iran.

I think all of my research reveals an enduring interest in class relations, gender conception and reification, and the question of what constitutes “the real.” 

Excerpt from Burying the Beloved: Marriage, Realism, and Reform in Modern Iran

Reforming Codes

Though it is often called the foundational novel of Iranian literary modernism—and even the “first ‘real’ Persian novel”—The Blind Owl did not have immediate successors. Most of the fiction published in Iran up until the 1980s were interpretations of what is broadly referred to as “social realism”—and indeed, the majority of Hedayat’s own work published after The Blind Owl was in this vein, too. Most critics would agree that Bozorg Alavi, Hedayat’s friend and fellow novelist, falls firmly in the category of social realist—even socialist realist. An ardent socialist, and one of the “Fifty-Three” arrested because of their association with the Tudeh Party, Alavi cannot be characterized as Hedayat’s heir, from a stylistic view. Yet Alavi was intimately familiar with Hedayat’s oeuvre; in fact, in 1930 the two collaborated with Shirazpur “Shin” Partow on a collection of short prose pieces entitled Aniran (Non-Iranian; 1931). Later, from his self-imposed exile in Berlin, Alavi would write a history of Persian literature whose treatment of the novel closely attends to Hedayat’s place in the Persian canon, in particular with regard to The Blind Owl.

These writers were the heirs to a profound ambivalence in the Iranian context about the nature of prose fiction and its place in Persian literature. Both Hedayat and Alavi knew the reformist writer Mohammad Jamalzadeh personally, and both participated in the First Congress of Iranian Writers in 1946 (1325 HS). Like most of the writers who attended that now (in)famous meeting, Hedayat and Alavi both declared a commitment to the kind of literary reform Jamalzadeh called for, and both men, especially Hedayat, produced prose focused on the use of “Persian” words to tell “Persian” stories against a perception of an earlier contamination by Arab and Muslim influences. But the changes that Jamalzadeh sought in 1921 and reiterated at the congress could not be immediately effected. Writers had to rely on the known conventions of earlier genres to make meaning even as they experimented in fictional modes, and at the same time many prose stylists—including Hedayat and Alavi—remained admirers of lyric poetry. Indeed, many early novels feature elements of poetic style: they are episodic rather than linear, and oftentimes take a line or topos from a poem as their epigraph. In some cases—especially in works like Zayn al-Abedin Maraghehi’s Siyahatnameh-ye Ebrahim Bayg (The Travelogue of Ibrahim Bayg) or the Persian translation of Morier’s Hajji Baba Ispahani—such novels in fact feature extended portions written in verse.

This is perhaps not surprising in a culture where other genres, especially poetry, had been preferred for hundreds of years. The Persian tradition of poetry was highly elaborated and disseminated throughout the world of Persian cultural influence, and knowledge of it was considered a condition of erudition; at the same time, the verse of classical poets like Hafez and Rumi had long been a recognizable attribute of idiomatic Persian. Thus, poetry had the unusual quality of being, in a sense, a genre that had permeated both “high” and “low” registers of speech. Though poetry was itself at the moment of the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and for some decades before a tradition in flux as it sought to answer, first, the formal demands of the baz gasht (return) movement and later the demands to be socially and politically engaged, in its traditional forms it continued to have the upper hand over prose in commanding the attention of learned audiences.

Given these conditions, we may speak, therefore, of there existing a system of poetic topoi (or perhaps, in a semiological sense, “codes”) that would be well known to the reader of the classical Persian tradition as well as to the speaker of an idiomatic Persian. Among the best-known codes of this tradition was the beloved (ma`shuq), whose symbolic import has been understood in a multitude of ways. It has been variously argued that the beloved is a metaphor for the union of God sought by Sufis, demonstrating that the physical passion depicted in such poetry is part of the elaborate Sufi metaphorical system for union with God; that the beloved is a young male beloved, since homosexuality was an important aspect of Perso-Islamic elite culture in premodern Iran; or, alternatively, that the beloved is properly read as a female, and this body of poetry is therefore related to the courtly tradition of poetry in Europe, which finds its origins in the verse of the troubadours. Yet attempting to argue any one of these theories at the exclusion of the others seems to force a question where there may have not been one, or where ambiguity functioned as a feature of this literary trope. As visual art began to be produced to evoke or represent the major scenes of love between `asheq (lover) and ma`shuq (beloved), one might expect that the issue would be settled definitively. Yet, as Najmabadi observes, the gender attributes of both lover and beloved in the period directly preceding the rise of the novel suggests a society that valued beauty in both young males and females, and such portraiture, in celebrating beauty in this way, maintained the gender ambiguity of the trope.

The heterosexualization of the relationship between `asheq and ma`shuq, as much as the heterosocialization of public space entailed in the civil code reforms, becomes, therefore, a task of dismemberment and re-memberment. By deploying this neologism as an operative term, I want to evoke simultaneously the act of imaginative and collective remembering that was intrinsic to the nationalist project and which plays a key role in both novels, as well as the act of what we might call “memberment”’—in other words, that act which is, in these novels, the opposite of dismemberment: the figurative painting of the female beloveds. The complications of decoupling the relationship between `asheq and ma`shuq from its historical ambiguity and recoupling it to the program of a mandatory heterosexualization partnered with public heterosexuality that would allow the fraternal modernism of the nation-state to develop are elaborated in both novels. In Kristevan terms, this is a process of “transposition,” which, Kristeva suggests, “specifies that the passage from one signifying system to another demands a new articulation of the thetic—of enunciative and denotative positionality.” In other words, when a system of meaning is borrowed from one context (here, the classical tradition of Persian verse, both lyrical and narrative) and pasted onto another (here, the new genre of prose fiction), the transition is a fraught one. The tension involved in such a transposition is marked in the text itself by the repetition of the codes that both narrators use to signify the female beloved, which are caught up, too, in the language of unveiling—itself a borrowed discourse, or transposition, from contemporary political discourse.

[Excerpted from Burying the Beloved: Marriage, Realism, and Reform in Modern Iran by Amy Motlagh, by permission of Stanford University Press. © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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