Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, is an expert on contemporary Persian fiction. Sohrab's Wars: Counter-Discourses of Contemporary Persian Fiction (Mazda Publishers), which he selected and translated with Pari Shirazi, is an exciting collection of short stories and a film script originally written in Persian. Sohrab's Wars fills two important gaps: it addresses the relative dearth of Persian fiction in translation and sheds light on a largely overlooked body of work that deals with the discourse of war in Iran and Afghanistan. Khorrami's endeavor contributes to a deeper understanding of postwar societies at large while it also challenges the strict monopoly that state authorities attempt to exercise over the publication and interpretation of alternative narratives.
Sohrab's Wars highlights the power of storytelling as a social act that stands against the grand narrative of the state, which attempts to unify and mobilize the masses behind a particular ideology and agenda. The single divine truth promoted by the power discourse is decomposed into myriad truths -- each story conveys its own personal identity and in the eyes of the reader each perspective carries equal gravity. Thus the history is replaced with histories.
In the past three decades, efforts to overemphasize politicized religiosity while annihilating Iran's literary and cultural identity have not been limited to intellectual censorship. Even historic statues that evoke the figures and tales of Persian mythology have been vandalized or entirely destroyed. It is against this backdrop that the significance of Sohrab's Wars needs to be understood. The stories in this collection constantly evoke and reference classical Persian literature to reflect on Iran's modern history, in particular the tales of the Shahnameh, which have often been used as a means to challenge and reject the forced loss of identity.
Khorrami writes, "After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Republic, in addition to its efforts to eradicate voices of the Other, began producing narratives which were intended to define the past and the current history in the image of the new discourse in power." A new generation of Iranian writers, with a personalized definition of history, has connected past and present in their narratives. Using classical Persian tales that still resonate meaningfully with Iranians, they make sense of present events. The language of classical tales may not be entirely accessible to many Iranians today, but their sociocultural relevance, as demonstrated by these stories, is timeless.
One such example in which personal history confronts the state-authorized version is Marjan Riahi's "Eight-thirty in the Morning," featured here. In this short story about isolation and personal autonomy, the brevity of each sentence conveys a sense of disconnection from the world, a narrative in fragments, a life torn by war. Farzaneh, like thousands of other women during the interminable conflict with Iraq, anticipates the arrival of her fiancé. Unlike conventional war narratives, Riahi's brief tale does not delve into concepts of heroism and martyrdom. In Farzaneh's world, soldiers are not holy warriors; they are simply men in boots. War is not about victory and defeat determined on the fronts of right and wrong; it is a "red stain" on a letter.
The story does not concern itself with the portrayal of war by the state authority. The grand narrative is minimized to the radio program and televised footages. Farzaneh is increasingly isolated. She is imprisoned in her house, increasingly alien to the outside world. But out of this isolation, a personalized narrative is born, one that concerns itself with the grievances of Farzaneh, one that views war through her lens, through her experiences.
I was seventeen. I stood in the middle of the courtyard, on the edge of the small pool. My cousin came in. I had no time to reach for my chador. The sleeves of my flower-patterned dress were short. I blushed. He turned his face away. It was the first time he was returning from the war.1 Everybody was whispering behind our backs. My cousin had said, Engagement means mahramiat.2 He had said that he wanted to be able to sit somewhere with me and talk.
We sat in the park. It was early evening. He spoke to me: "Farzaneh!"
I said: "Hmm!"
He said: "Don't say, 'Hmm'; say something beautiful."
I said: "Hello."
He laughed. He recited a poem. He liked poetry. I didn't know any poems. He said, "What do you like"?
I said: "Eight-thirty in the morning."
He said: "Why?"
I said, "At this hour everything is alive." I said, "Every day, I ask the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom, but then I go to the courtyard, among the flowers. When the Vice Principal sees me, I say I've lost my keys."
He said: "How long will you tell lies?"
I said: "Forever."
He said: "Then what about the Vice Principal?"
I said: "Some days we look for the keys together."
I looked at him. The sun went down. Then he went back to war. Every day I went to school. I kept telling myself, "One of these days, school will end!" I said to myself, "To hell with school!"
He was at war, his footprints in the park and the trace of his eyes on the Si-o Seh Pol.3 I remembered every word he had said. Every day I repeated them so I wouldn't forget. Once he called. I said, "Hello", but we were cut off. Once he sent a letter. There was a red stain on the letter. Mother said: "It is blood; go clean your hand."
I kissed the letter.
I looked in the mirror; I was seventeen. The white dress was becoming to my skin. Mother was buying me my trousseau. Everything was ready, to be with him. He came back from the war. Unannounced. Suddenly. I came back from school. There was a pair of boots behind the hall door. He had left with two of his friends. He had come back alone. He looked out of it. At eight-thirty in the morning, near the Zayandeh Rud4 he seemed sharp. Coffins were passing over the bridge, and he was crying. His crying saddened me.
He told me: "I am sorry."
I said: "Why?"
He said: "I am making you sad."
I said: "No."
I was lying. His eyes were puffy. His beard was untrimmed and the collar of his shirt was perfectly clean.
He said: "How do I look?"
I said: "You look like eight-thirty in the morning."
He laughed. Then he went back to war. The radio was talking about the war. Whatever he said I accepted. But I wanted to tell him not to go to war. I was talking along the Zayandeh Rud and he was walking, perhaps, along the Karkheh.5 In the evening on television they showed footage of the war. I was looking for him. Everybody had a gun but nobody was him. Aunt said that last time she had boiled his clothes. Insects were everywhere inside them. I said, "Certainly he has stayed among the bullets for a long time."
Then everything collapses. I didn't go to school either. People were not in the city. We were in the basement at Aunt's. The ground was shaking. The windows were jingling. His letter was not coming. He didn't call either. Every time a missile hit, Mother fainted. Cousins screamed. I was afraid. But I was happy. Now I had something to tell him. In the mornings, at eight-thirty, Mother said, "Don't leave the basement." Aunt said, "Don't look at the garden from behind the glass." Cousin said, "If it breaks, it will fall in your eyes." I sighed.
We stayed in the basement for a few weeks. We were gradually forgetting there was a Zayandeh Rud outside. Then someone rang the doorbell. He said something. Mother sat down. Aunt sat down. Whoever was standing sat down. I stumbled. We waited for him. Many people were waiting. And they came, being carried on the shoulders. Nobody's shoulders were empty.
In the morning, at eight-thirty, they buried him.
2. Mahramiat (or, being mahram) is a religious term. According to a traditional interpretation of Islamic law, individuals of the opposite sex may see and interact with each other only when they are mahram. Other than members of one's immediate family, they may become mahram to each other only through marriage or after conducting specific religious ceremonies.
3. A historic bridge in Isfahan.
4. The river that runs through Isfahan.
5. A river in southern Iran.
Via Tehran Bureau