Now that the deal is done, and we have the US’s permission to think of Iran as not just a country on the axis of evil, what does one know about it? Sure, you have watched the films of Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami, and your library of Rumi quotes spilleth over. But in the beginning was Shahnameh, the 10th century Persian epic of 60,000 verses that records Iran’s history from the beginning of time to the 7th century Muslim conquest of Iran? Its collection of love stories and battle skirmishes is a part of the country’s race memory.
Written by the poet Abol Ghassem Mansor Ferdowsi, its tales of Rustom and Sohrab also travelled far — right up to our doors. One of the first novels in Persian was Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl and it was published in Bombay in 1937, where the modernist writer lived for a few years.
About an intellectual’s alienation in an oppressive culture, the novel was a critique of the country under Reza Shah’s rule. The first copies of a limited edition bore the stamp: “not for sale in Iran.” Those were some of the circumstances that led to the Iranian revolution and one of its most scholarly and readable accounts is The Mantle of the Prophet, which looks at a country’s transformation through the life of an Iranian cleric and his love-hate relationship with Islam.
There have been many accounts of life in the post-Shah republic. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope is a story of how she went from being a female judge to a woman devalued under an Islamic penal code. Autobiography is a form that lends itself to resistance, but nothing has surpassed the wicked joy with which Marjane Satrapi depicts her childhood in post-revolution Iran in her graphic novels Persepolis 1 and 2 — or the sex lives of middle-class Iranian women in Embroideries. This is art that illuminates the secret life of a nation.