An interview with the Iranian author and translator about the specifics of the pre-revolutionary “engaged” literature and about the post-revolutionary changes in Iranian literature
Fereydoun Majlessi is a former diplomat, who served in Washington DC and in Brussels in the European community before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Since then he has been a manager and an entrepreneur, as well as a writer and translator. He has translated Gore Vidal and Robert Graves into Persian.
Mr. Majlessi, during the pre-revolutionary times of monarchist Iran the Iranian dissident intellectuals opened themselves to the masses and created what some people call “engaged literature” (adabiat-e moteahed) and others “proletarian literature”. They write often on issues that deal with workers, social struggle, social justice, etc. How is the contribution of this literature seen from the vantage point of today’s times?
I agree with the mentioned fact that most of the Iranian intelligentsia before Islamic revolution in Iran were under a worldwide leftist nostalgia similar to the movements that showed off during May 1968 in France and appreciated so much within Iranian intelligentsia and the Iranian university students inside and outside Iran. They believed in the propagandas of justice and democratic slogans imported from the neighboring Soviet Union. They believed in a sort of socialist realism such as what was prescribed by Andrei Zhdanov, the infamous literature adviser of the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. They called their productions engaged or proletarian or intellectual literature. Most of the writers and poets were members or sympathizers of the Tudeh Communist Party, and falsified not only the liberal minded but also the non-leftist production and the creators. Being a leftist or pro-communism was considered as a prestige and so it was reflected in their cultural products. Today, and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, although most of the Iranian intelligentsia natural consider themselves as generally and mildly pro-left section of the social spectrum, they try to me free from ideological traps and feel free to write whatever they feel and they want. They don’t try to adopt themselves to what the social ideological pressures impose on them.
In Iran of the 80s and 90s changes took place and they are reflected in the literature. A sign of departure from engaged/proletarian literature seems to be the novel “The morning after” by Fattaneh Haj Seyed Javadi. What is the change that this novel represents regarding pre revolutionary times’ literature?
This novel is written by an intellectual and educated Iranian lady from a very cultivated family. She was not a bourgeoisie or a proletarian person! Her book was very well received by all kinds of book readers and different types of the social levels, because she discussed a very natural event of a nice young girl of a cultivated background getting in love with a young and handsome illiterate peasant apprentice from a far away village, without any cultural background and manner, who works at a carpentry shop where the young girl used to pass-by every day. They married by insisting against the will of her family… The story does not have a happy end. The marriage broke off after the girl was abused and also getting remorseful from the primitive and social manners of the boy and his non educated parents. When the book became the best-seller, critics began to tell the rival authors that they themselves had never been able to achieve such a success during their intellectual life! The book was mostly criticized as an anti-proletarian one, and a banal, simple book.
One of the highest literature figures of our time, comparing the content of the book with the actual Iranian condition, after the revolution of mostly peasantry backgrounds, told me that the book is very much like our own fate! Getting in love unknowingly with something promising for social justice and democracy, but we found out that there is a time when divorce is the solution! It had nothing to do with proletariat or bourgeoisie discourses.
Judging by literature and present social conditions, who is the progressive social class today – the workers, the middle class, the intellectuals (knowledge workers and creators included), etc?
I believe that today a new generation has been raised mostly from the same peasantry parents that once welcomed the Islamic revolution. This general is literate and present at the world level by smart phones at hands. They are also disappointed after 44 years living in a potentially very rich country. They want to have a better lifestyle at least comparing with the pre-revolution conditions.
Today also Iranian intellectuals think very much about social justice. They are mostly at the left side of the social spectrum. But they do not consider themselves obliged to follow the ideological prescriptions written in the past to cure the problems of now and the future.
To what extent the outbreak of the present protests in Iran has been prepared by feminist literature, which was popular in the post-revolutionary period, just as the Revolution of 1979 seems to be prepared by the engaged/proletarian literature of the pre revolutionary period?
I think the education and social achievements of the women in Iran has contributed greatly to their present protest. Even the engaged literature of before revolution had a very minimal share compared with the social changes that brought up the Islamic revolution on the front line. The intellectuals of the leftist generation exaggerate their share and influence.
Photo: Two leading Iranian prerevolutionary intellectuals and a family couple – Simin Daneshvar and Jalal Al-e Ahmad (source: YouTube)
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